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Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness

Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/22/09 6:48 AM
All the tradition I came across value something usually called 'acceptance'. There is also a well established philosophical current coming to the same conclusion. There is for instance the philosophers of 'despair': the wise doesn't hope for anything because what he can act on, he acts and what he can't, ... well he just accept it.

On the other hand, psychologist have discovered what is called 'learned helplessness': when animals are put in a situation where they can't avoid some pain (electric shock), they adapt to that situation by inaction. they no longer try to avoid the pain and develop a lot of problems.

What I ask for is: can anybody in here try to explain how to practice the much praised "acceptance" without falling in the problems related to "learned helplessness".

salam (peace) to all (1rst post)

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/22/09 7:25 AM as a reply to Abdou Abed.
Hi Abdou,

I think the concept of Equanimity would address your question - it's not just fatalistically giving up in the face of problems or unpleasant sensations. Sinzen Young wrote "Equanimity involves non-interference with the natural flow of subjective sensation. Apathy implies indifference to the controllable outcome of objective events..." Here is a link to the article on his website:

Hope this helps,


RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/22/09 8:00 AM as a reply to John Finley.
John Finley:
Apathy implies indifference to the controllable outcome of objective events...".

Hope this helps,


Hi John and thanks for your quick reply,

I will definitely re-read some of S. Young stuff, as I didn't read (or listen) to him recently. I stumbled upon him years ago and was very impressed by his scientific approach.

Before that, what about the UNcontrollable outcome of objective events..."
I suppose, you just have to accept them ... Isn't that close to "learned helplessness"?

1. You know "this event has this outcome"
2. You know you can't do anything about it
3. You are desperate, helpless, and don't want to just accept. You want to do something, whatever ...
4. You look at that from all possible angles, and come back to the conclusion that well you can't do anything ... the undesirable outcome is inevitable...

What do you do to have a healthy acceptance and not fall in the "learned helplessness" or stated otherwise how to strengthen your equanimity in the face of Uncontrollable events?

I've been confused by this issue for some time now, I may need a shift of perspective, or something to see what might be obvious for others.

Young says:
"Intentionally creating equanimity in your mind: This means attempting to let go of negative judgments about what you are experiencing and replacing them with an attitude of loving acceptance and gentle matter-of-factness."

This is beautiful but some people may need further explanation, practical tips and tricks to do it. How to love undesirable outcomes, Practically!

Thanks again and Salam

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/22/09 2:11 PM as a reply to Abdou Abed.

This could be helpful, maybe not, but I think it is food for thought at least.

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/23/09 3:38 AM as a reply to Abdou Abed.
Let's look at this from a slightly broader point of view.

If we assume that out there is the world, that this central self must accept in some passive way, meaning some less active or reactive way, that is actually one reaction to it, one causal happening or way of the system working, dependent on conditions, such as teachings of passivity being somehow good all the time.

If we assume that the system is causal, and the world and you are part of the same system, then the world and the person are in a dynamic dance of communication, a causal interaction in which the world has effects on the person and the person creates effects in the world. If we accept this, this system approach, then the problem is not that the world does something to us and we must stand there like an idiot, the point is to accept the reactions also as part of the system, as neither is more us or not us from an ultimate perspective, and this is very important.

Now, some middle way must come into play here. If the system approach leads too much to one saying, "The world pissed me off, and I reacted causally by burning someone's house down," this is not generally the right application of this approach, but taking things to this extreme does highlight something of what it is about.

The system interacts, reactions occur, hopefully standard morality and wisdom of action is part of that, but this is different from passive acceptance, which is to say shutting down what appears to be this side of the system.

In short, use relative wisdom to craft some way of reacting to the world that seems skillful, neither taking the extreme of wanton reactivity nor of stupid passivity, but some creative, experimental, dynamic way of dealing with the difficulties of life, and from an ultimate point of view, realize that all the sensations that appear to make up both sides of the thing, the self and the world, are actually arising and vanishing, causally conditioned, empty, luminous, and that acceptance is the only reasonable reaction to these bare facts of the sensate world, as it happens on its own regardless.



RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/25/09 4:32 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Haven't been connected for the past two days; Thanks Mike and Daniel;

Interesting concepts to ruminate for a while.

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/26/09 11:10 PM as a reply to Abdou Abed.
Not directly on-topic:

It might just shed some light on the difference between acceptance, equanimity and apathy.


RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/27/09 4:17 PM as a reply to ratanajothi -.
Learned helplessness is very closely connected with depression, whereas I think "acceptance" as used in contexts like this might be better termed "equanimity" or even "serenity." While both phenomena have some similarities, they also have many differences. For one, learned helplessness will produce misery as a result. I mean "misery" not in the "three characteristics" sense, but in the conventional sense of suffering other than the dukkha present in every sensation. Thoughts/beliefs involving acceptance should lead to serenity/equanimity, which depending upon whom you ask, is either completely neutral or actually a very subtle (and sublime) form of happiness, or both. Acceptance should not cause a feeling of being imprisoned by circumstance -- it should involve a sense of being free to feel good/okay regardless of circumstance.

Even though these two are related, you could actually consider acceptance (or serenity/equanimity) as an antidote to learned helplessness (or depression). I say that because Acceptance and Commitment therapy seems to show some good results for dealing with depression. While it's very difficult to test the effectiveness of specific types of psychotherapy because many depressed people will get better just from talking to someone once a week about anything for an hour (whether or not the person is a trained psychotherapist), it does seem that ACT (unlike, say, Freudian psychoanalysis) performs better than the already very effective "placebo therapy." Though I don't know if any of the studies on ACT are really unbiased.

On the subject of how to develop equanimity/serenity/acceptance, I think there are multiple methods. For those with a contemporary cognitive bent, something like ACT could do very well. A more traditionally Buddhist approach would be practice with the brahma viharas. I've heard somewhere that they are not really supposed to be worked on in random, arbitrary order, but they should be developed in the specific order Metta -> Karuna -> Mudita -> Upekkha. So, if you wanted to develop equanimity/serenity/acceptance through a meditative technique, you could work on that sequence of brahma viharas. Whether you decided to do it like spending months on metta until it's really strong, then months on karuna, etc. or if you wanted to just develop metta within one meditation session, then karuna, then mudita, and then upekkha in that same session, is up to you. I wouldn't be surprised if it worked both ways. But, it does seem to be true that the first three must be present to generate a strong, genuine upekkha unless you're in jhana. But the equanimity generated in jhana would just fade away with the afterglow of the meditation, and the way you've worded your post makes me think that you want to have more serenity/acceptance in your everyday life, not just in meditation.

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/28/09 5:22 AM as a reply to J Adam G.
Thanks Adam for pointing to ACT and the brahma viharas. This addresses quite directly my concerns which are about *practical* tips and tricks to develop healthy "acceptance" not only in meditation but also in daily life (as you rightly pointed out).

Do you, or anyone else in here, have any direct experience with theses (or other) methods to develop acceptance/Equanimity/Serenity and can you point to what you found helpful and any pitfalls to avoid?

It may be that at some level of spiritual development these concerns may just fade away, but while working on that and before one is done, it may be helpful to have some 'fixes' on the road.

Thanks again
Salam (Peace)

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
10/28/09 4:54 PM as a reply to Abdou Abed.
I had experience with developing serenity through releasing blame of other people several years back. It was with a group called Global Relationship Centers, and they taught weekend courses on healthy relationships, living a more joyful life, that kind of thing. The class I'm thinking about was called Loving Yourself and Others (LYO) and it involved an exercise called the Freedom Paragraph.

On Saturday morning, the instructors taught students about identifying their emotions that they weren't aware of by listening to their own tone of voice (and body language). The Freedom Paragraph itself was done in the afternoon and evening. It's basically a formal declaration that one is responsible for one's own problems, and that others don't directly cause one's emotions. The catch is that they're closely watching your body language and tone of voice, and they'll keep working with you until you genuinely feel and believe that this is true -- no mouthing of the words without truly believing them gets by.

A crucial part of the Freedom Paragraph is that it starts by replacing blame/disdain for another person's behaviors and thoughts with compassion and lovingkindness. Once the feeling is truly generated (as measured by tone of voice and body language) then the student is able to start accepting their own reality and situation as it is and a feeling of serenity will naturally develop at this point, with the compassion and faith in one's ability to generate positive emotions as its base. Even though I don't think any of the LYO instructors were Buddhist, they had a very clear appreciation of how the student had to successfully displace the blame, desire for revenge, or feeling of superiority with compassion before the serenity was accessible.

On Sunday, they did what's called the Empathy Exercise which requires you to get a list of complaints from a family member or close friend about yourself, and then you practice seeing the emotions and experiences that underlie their accusations. This exercise is, of course, accompanied by yet another increase in the student's serenity.

I'm not saying this to make a sales pitch that you should go do an LYO course -- I'm not even involved with Global anymore because there isn't a center in the state I live in. (Though if you want to do one, then go for it. Just be aware that it costs like $500 or something the first time you take a course, but then you can go back for free anywhere they have one again.) I'm telling you this to show the experience that when you practice replacing anger or blame for others with the first 3 brahma viharas (or at least the first 2), the serenity will come naturally.

As for practical tips to become more accepting and equanimous about circumstances that don't involve other people, like the weather, the advice is still similar. Remember that the type of serenity being discussed here has two bases -- one is strength of its fellow brahma viharas, and the other is faith in one's ability to create positive emotions and remedy negative ones. I'm not talking about just believing something because it sounds good when I say "faith;" what I'm talking about will come only with experience. Everybody believes that touching a hot stove hurts, but the belief of a person who has had the experience of touching a hot stove is much more forceful and motivating. It's the same thing for having experienced the willful generation of positive emotions and dissolution of negative ones. You get better at it with practice, and the knowledge that you can manage your own mind becomes a cause for serenity to arise.

Note that aside from the view on other peoples' behaviors, none of this really makes sense from an insight point of view. You know, sometimes Buddhism seems to require doublethink. Does that ever go away, experienced people, or do you eventually have to take on a view of compatibilism with regards to the free-will/determinism problem?

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
11/4/09 8:47 AM as a reply to Abdou Abed.
It looks like others have covered what I would say about this pretty well. And yet, I don't seem to be able to resist chiming in....

As a psychotherapist and (novice) Buddhist practitioner, I have two frames of reference for this issue, both of which point in the same direction I think. Your question reminds me of the concept of "near enemies,' particularly indifference as the "near enemy" of equanimity. In both cases there seems to be a relinquishing of efforts to control certain events. But the emotional orientation to that relinquishing is different. To perhaps over-simplify, the feeling associated with equanimity might be expressed as "things are as they are, which is exactly as they should be, even if it's sometimes painful" (no aversion to pain or attachment to pleasure) whereas the feeling associated with indifference might be "things are as they are, and it's awful sometimes, but I'll protect myself by going emotionally numb" (aversion and attachment intact, coping through shutting down).

From a more western psychotherapy-oriented point of view, I think it's important to remember that the concept of learned helplessness as it's usually applied relates to a mistaken belief about reality, or a persistence of a once-correct belief beyond its period of being relevant. For example, I wish I could defy gravity and fly. Over the years, I have learned that this never works (although I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping the Siddhis pay off haha), so I rarely try anymore. I wouldn't call that learned helplessness, just an accurate assessment of my situation regarding the laws of physics. On the other hand, if someone learned in their family of origin that it's pointless to ever try to get your emotional needs met, and they continue to act as though that's the case in their adult relationships, I would call that learned helplessness. So, aside from the emotional orientation towards relinquishing efforts to control, I think "acceptance" as recommended by the wise is also different than learned helplessness in that acceptance is meant to be based on a correct understanding of reality, while what we usually call learned helplessness is based on ignorance and/or error.

I think Daniel's answer is more complete, but (for now) it's often easier on this side to have some fairly conventional, relative way of relating to these issues. I.e., I don't always remember to ask myself "WWAD" (what would an Arhat do?).

RE: Acceptance Vs Learned helplessness
11/16/09 3:54 AM as a reply to Kevin E. Stanley.
Good stuff.

As an aside, my friend Kenneth defined this realm as the one in which he couldn't fly. Luckily it is only one of the realms. ;)