Radical Acceptance (2003) explains how Buddhism and meditation can bring you greater contentment and happiness. Chock-full of easy mental exercises that reduce stress and self-criticism, it’ll give you the tools you need to lead a gentler, happier existence.
About the author
Tara Brach is a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, DC.
We are trapped in an inadequate trance, and Western society is to blame:
Have you ever had a dream in which you’re desperately attempting to achieve something – such as climb a hill or flee a pursuer – but you’re unable to move despite your efforts? You’re putting in as much effort as you can but getting nowhere.
Such dreams are supposed to represent a deep sense of inadequacy in the dreamer, as though she is doomed to fail eternally.
Understandably, we have these feelings. In truth, we frequently go about our daily lives in the same obsessed manner we do in these dreams – as flailing characters chasing a small goal that always seems to elude us. Consider how many of us spend our lives focused solely on our attempts to “go there” or “accomplish something.”
Even when we’re doing something nice, like conversing with friends or reading bedtime stories to our kids, we’re often rehearsing our worries and making plans for the future. Instead of being present in the moment, we’re preoccupied with where we need to “go” next. The “future,” like the tops of those inaccessible hills in dreamland, is a phantom destination. It will never arrive, and our search will have been fruitless.
Why are we so preoccupied with where we’re going? However, many of us feel inadequate due to Western culture, believing that what we’re doing today isn’t good enough.
Consider the core story of Western culture: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. With its theme of original sin, this myth tells us that individuals are intrinsically defective and that if they wish to return to paradise, they must constantly work to redeem themselves.
It’s no surprise, then, that we feel as if we’re falling short. We’re taught from a young age that who we are and where we come from isn’t enough.
Fortunately for us, this isn’t the only point of view available. Buddhism also teaches that people are born loving, knowledgeable, and compassionate rather than imperfect or sinful.
According to Buddhism, you’re probably fine just the way you are. We’ll learn about the Buddhist message and how we might apply it to our daily lives in the next blinks.
Self-judgment enslaves us, while radical acceptance sets us free:
Do you ever feel like you’ve gotten yourself into a rut? If that’s the case, you might have something in common with Mohini, a white tiger.
In the 1970s, Mohini lived at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. After spending many years in a cramped cage, Mohini was moved to an enclosure with acres of space, trees, and even a pond. Her zookeepers were confident that she would enjoy her new home.
They were, however, mistaken. Mohini spent the remainder of her life pacing a space the size of her previous cage until the grass wore away beneath her paws.
In other words, despite the “liberty”, she was offered, her mind kept her stuck in old habits.
Many of us, like Mohini, is stuck in our habits even though greater freedom is possible. But what is it that keeps us imprisoned? It’s self-judgment and thoughts of inadequacy, not iron and concrete.
For example, we frequently believe our inner critic, who tells us that we will never be good enough no matter what we do. This negativity, like Mohini’s cage, keeps us locked in small and narrow lives. This negative voice prevents us from performing all the things we want to do, such as unconditionally loving others.
Fortunately, unlike Mohini, we can break away.
Accepting everything about our inner and outer selves is the key to breaking free from the cage. To do so, we must be aware of what is going on in our bodies and minds at any given moment, without judging, controlling, or resisting the ideas, feelings, or sensations that arise.
You’ll be practicing radical acceptance if you cultivate this awareness and consider all of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations with an open and gentle heart.
Unwelcome thoughts have undoubtedly entered your mind. For example, perhaps you’ve disliked someone against your will. You may have now criticized yourself for feeling this way and felt terrible for having uncontrollable negative thoughts. However, there is no need for self-criticism when you have a radical acceptance mindset. You can acknowledge and move on from your thoughts.
Radical acceptance silences that critical inner voice, allowing for self-acceptance and more liberated life.
Take a breather instead of trying to control unpredictable things:
It’s difficult to deal with pain. Perhaps you’ve had to watch a loved one battle a terminal illness. Perhaps you were fired from your job. Regardless of the scenario, we typically strive to handle it, even if we know deep down that we can’t control it.
For example, if someone insults you, you may lash out or vow to remove them from your life entirely. This may appear to be a reasonable response, but it is more likely to make you feel worse rather than better.
Why? Because attempting to alter or escape certain experiences entails rejecting them. This is troublesome because our personal experiences contribute significantly to who we are. We reject a part of ourselves when we reject an experience, even if it is emotionally difficult. We convince ourselves that we aren’t good enough and that we need to change.
However, the more we strive to modify these uncontrolled circumstances, the more we reinforce our emotions of inadequacy.
There is, thankfully, a better way. When confronted with problematic events over which we have little control, the wisest course of action is to take a moment to halt. By pausing, you have the opportunity to recognize your emotional, inner experience.
When confronted with your favorite cuisine, for example, you may feel out of control. So, the next time you’re staring at that forbidden chocolate bar and feeling powerless to stop yourself from devouring it, pause for a moment. Recognize your emotions at the time. Maybe they’re a mix of excitement, remorse, and self-doubt.
You may break down your thoughts and identify what goals and anxieties are motivating you by pausing for a minute or so. You’ll have a far greater chance of coming up with fresh strategies to respond to these feelings once you recognize them for what they are.
After that pause, whether you opt to eat the chocolate bar or go for a workout, you’ll undoubtedly make a more conscious decision.
Be a consistent and caring friend to yourself and your traumatic memories:
When confronted with a stressful scenario, we are prone to panic. If this sounds familiar, Jacob, one of the author’s coworkers, may be able to help.
Jacob was a seasoned meditation instructor who was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He found himself suddenly disoriented and unsure of where he was in front of a class of meditation students. Jacob, on the other hand, remained calm. Instead, he expressed his emotions to his students. He confessed to being terrified, perplexed, and disoriented.
Isn’t this the worst meditation class ever? On the contrary, in fact!
Even though it may appear to be a disaster for both the teacher and his students, the students later hailed him for one of the best meditation courses they’d ever experienced.
What made his meditation pupils so enamored of him? Rather than putting it away, Jacob had the guts to express his bad experience – his dread and perplexity.
Importantly, Jacob respected his painful experience by acknowledging his anxiety and bewilderment, rather than dismissing it as “bad” or unmentionable. He didn’t make an adversary out of the event; instead, he accepted it and made friends with it. Jacob’s reaction was a model of unwavering acceptance.
You’re practicing radical acceptance when you acknowledge your emotions at any given time and greet them with this unconditional warmth. You pay close attention to your sensations in this stage, enabling yourself to embrace them rather than turning them into an enemy from which you recoil.
This feature of radical acceptance is important because it aids in the development of self-compassion.
When we achieve, most of us are simply friendly to ourselves. We hurry to self-judge and reject our aspects that are less than flawless as soon as we fail at something. But think about it: if a good buddy failed at anything, would you treat them badly? Hopefully, this is not the case.
It may not be easy, but try to treat yourself with the same care and understanding you would like a dear friend.
Instead of losing contact with your body, concentrate on your physical experiences:
It’s easy to lose your cool when someone disappoints you. When the author learned that her kid had yet again failed to complete his schoolwork, her initial reaction was to confront him furiously. But then she decided to take a different route.
Surprisingly, she felt herself relax. Rather than focusing on her enraged emotions and rushing toward a confrontation with her son, she focused on how the anger made her body feel. She felt tenderness replace her fury as soon as she became aware of her own body.
Her whole body tightened as she realized her rage was making her chest feel like it was going to explode.
She became more aware of how she was feeling due to her increased awareness of how her son was experiencing. When she later talked with him, she used her empathy to help her find the correct words to say.
Remembering the link between the body and the mind will assist you in making better judgments. Unfortunately, most of us are so disconnected from our bodies that we live in a conceptual world.
Because we’re continually planning what we’ll do next, we don’t pay enough attention to our physical experiences from moment to moment. Have you ever estimated how long you should hug a close buddy before you pull away?
This is unfortunate because completely experiencing physical sensations, both good and painful, can provide a sense of being alive and linked to all aspects of life. If you focus on the sensation for long enough, even feeling the rain on your face can awaken your senses.
Self-judgment may keep you from experiencing pain, but it can also help you uncover your true self:
It cannot be easy to love yourself at times. Daniel was a meditation student who thought of himself as the world’s most critical person, and he directed the majority of his criticism inside. From his divorce to his back trouble, he constantly chastised himself for everything that went wrong in his life.
He couldn’t even meditate without worrying that he was doing anything wrong.
Do you recognize this harsh self-criticism? Many of us, unfortunately, are just as harsh on ourselves as Daniel.
We act in this way to shield ourselves from misery.
What is the mechanism behind this protection mechanism? Rather than allowing ourselves to experience feelings of vulnerability, envy, or anxiety, we cover them up with unwarranted self-judgment. We push them away because we are afraid that our sensitivity or jealousy may lead to other “evil” feelings like neediness or self-indulgence.
Regrettably, rejecting suffering in this manner is ineffective. We can only begin to repair the parts of ourselves that are hurting by learning to completely experience suffering rather than pushing it away and criticizing it. Furthermore, we can only realize our true nature by embracing and having compassion for our pain.
Buddhism has a positive approach to overcoming adversity. In fact, according to a key Buddhist belief, suffering is a doorway to compassion, and that by being compassionate, we are expressing our deepest selves.
By learning to embrace your sorrow, you, too, can cultivate compassionate compassion.