Written by meditation teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance is a book that offers wisdom and simple practices to help us unpack our hidden insecurities in order to nurture ourselves and help reclaim our wholeness.
Using stories from her life and those of her meditation students and therapeutic clients, the book is rich with insight, so I’m writing two posts on it here to pass on a little of the book’s magic—the first exploring the basic practice and a second going deeper into applying it in our lives.
Something is wrong with me
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
The book begins with an account of Tara’s life before she discovered meditation, in which her ‘inner judge’ left her constantly harassed, causing her to drive herself into achievement in a way that pushed aside her pain, but ultimately left her feeling hollow and alone.
She calls this the trance of unworthiness and notes how it goes hand in hand with feeling separate from others and from life.
So many of us grow up feeling separated from a sense of belonging in community and learn early in life that relationships require us to prove ourselves worthy, resulting in a culture obsessed with trying to be ‘better’ than we are.
As Tara points out, even the root story of our culture (Adam and Eve being exiled from the garden of Eden) tell us to see ourselves as flawed outcasts and demands that we strive to control our thoughts, emotions and behaviour to prove ourselves worthy of being loved.
Many of us get caught in endless efforts of self-improvement—chasing an imagined ideal and keeping ourselves so busy with tasks to achieve that we avoid leaving space for our fears or vulnerabilities to emerge.
When raw feelings occasionally do break through, we withdraw into either distraction or self-criticism—running away with thoughts and planning to give ourselves the illusion of self-control.
Critical thinking soon turns on others too, turning them into an enemy that is undermining us or holding us back, letting us mask our own vulnerability with anger, or by trying to ‘outdo’ them—further embedding the belief that we’re not good enough as we are.
All of these mental habits wreck our chances of living whole, happy and connected lives. To break them, we need to find a way of waking up.
Awaking from the trance
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
~ Carl Rogers
Tara’s method to break out of this is to accept absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with attention and care, our moment-to-moment experience.
For some, acceptance can be a threatening word, suggesting we accept that we are ‘simply not good enough’ and stay miserably that way.
But acceptance does not demand we define ourselves by our limitations, instead, it empowers us to experience our limitations without letting our fear-based thoughts and stories shut down our lives.
When we get in touch with our immediate mental and sensory experiences, we gain the chance to meet our bad habits with awareness and kindness allowing us to move towards wiser choices in a hopeful, willful way.
This practice involves both mindfulness—a dispassionate awareness of what is happening in each moment, and compassion—the desire to free oneself or another from suffering.
The two sides complement each other with compassion making mindfulness gentle enough to meet and heal our wounds and mindfulness keeping compassion balanced, not letting it get lost in stories of self-pity.
To practice this, we first need to learn how to create the space between our thoughts for our real feelings to emerge.
Learning to pause
“Enough. These few words are enough. If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here.” ~ David Whyte
The idea of pausing is alien to our achievement-obsessed culture, but there are actually many times throughout our day when it happens naturally, such as when we feel the water of the shower touch our skin, or take the first sip of morning tea.
We can learn to both expand those natural pauses, by bringing more attention to them as they happen, and also intentionally create new ones in response to particular feelings or events: ‘I’ll pause for a few breaths everytime I sit down’, ‘I’ll take a moment to pause when I notice I’m becoming anxious’.
Tara advises practising pausing by finding a time when you are involved in a goal-oriented activity—reading, cleaning, eating, working at a computer—and choosing to stop for a few breaths, noticing what is happening in your body and mind, and allowing each out-breath to soften your attachment to the thoughts and tensions that are pulling you away from your experience.
Though pausing can be challenging and we’ll never quite be able to do it fully, it is a skill that develops with practice to the point where it begins to happen naturally in our day-to-day experience—giving us the sense of perspective we need to live in an intentional, rather than habitual, way.
If you’d like to explore pausing more deeply I recommend this lecture from Tara on the Sacred Pause (58 min), which also includes a guided meditation on pausing in a challenging situation (6 min, 38.50-45.12):
Once we’ve opened up a space between our thoughts, we can tune in to our experience by noticing the felt sensations of our body.
Grounding in the body
“Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Whether we are aware of it or not our bodies are alive with sensation all the time, we’re just so caught up in the waterfall of mental and emotional reactivity that we miss the chance to feel it.
Especially when meeting experiences that feel unpleasant, such as the tense grip of fear or the aching fatigue of grief, we soon lose ourselves in a cascade of worrying or controlling thoughts that emerge to distract us from ‘feeling bad’.
While there may indeed be times when the experience of emotional or physical pain is simply too much to constructively bear, it is ultimately only through reconnecting with that trauma at a bodily-sensational level that healing can occur.
By gently and compassionately bringing our attention back to the place of suffering we have the opportunity to meet our sensations as the ever-changing stream of reactive thoughts and feelings they really are and see through the painful illusions we had feared and resisted.
To help develop this Tara recommends practising a body scan, where we direct our attention slowly and constantly to each part of our body, either during a meditation or throughout the day and relaxing our resistance to unpleasant sensations by meeting them with non-reactive awareness.
Here is a particularly lovely guided body scan from Tara (20 min):
And here is a meditation on meeting pain with acceptance (12 min):
When we reconnect in with bodies in this way, our feelings become messengers, alerting us to our true state and pointing the way towards wholeness, openness and renewal.
This practice of mindful, compassionate acceptance of our moment-to-moment experience, grounded in the body, requires us to take an attitude of unconditional friendliness towards ourselves.
As we inquire curiously into the nature of our experience, naming what we find there and allowing it the space it needs to fully express itself and flow on, we free ourselves from age-old patterns of thought and behaviour, passed on from imperfect parent to imperfect parent, and become instead radically willful, gentle and free.
That is the basic practice of Radical Acceptance.
In the next post, we’ll be going deeper into the practice to look at how we can stop ourselves being locked into fear and desire, bring more acceptance into our relationships ultimately deepen our experience of being connected to the world.