It doesn’t seem to matter how many books I read on mindfulness and self-healing, Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is the one I just keep coming back to.
The basic practice (covered in the last post) is deceptively simple – just pausing, kindly and attentively, to tune into the sensations of the physical and emotional body. Yet it is also very powerful, enabling us to break free from unhelpful patterns and return to a felt sense of being whole.
In this post we’ll cover the latter part of the book, where Tara looks at some of the more challenging areas of life – our fears, desires and relationships – and shows how bringing an accepting, awake mind to these can radically transform us and the situations we find ourselves in.
Breaking out of fear and desire
“Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft
My voice, so tender.” ~ Hafiz
In both obvious and subtle ways, fear and craving trap us and stop us living a full life.
Unfortunately our tendency to avoid these feelings doesn’t help much, as losing ourselves in comfort eating, achieving tasks on a to-do list or endless Tinder swiping only further numb our sensitivity, making us need even greater intensities of stimulation to stay distracted.
The route out of this pattern is to notice when we are reacting to, or avoiding, fear and craving and learn to pause long enough to feel in that moment the immediate sensations of the body.
A sense of pressure in the chest, heat on the skin, hairs up on end, can all help guide us towards the emotional truths lying beneath our wanting and fearful self.
Instead of getting caught in reactions and avoidance, we have this chance to pause and feel deeply into the space these feelings occupy in us; allowing wiser perspectives to open up and enlarging our freedom to choose how to be.
To help practice in the presence of challenging emotions Tara recommends the Tibetan practice of Tonglen – meaning ‘taking and sending out’ – to create a deeper, more flowing connection with suffering in ourselves and others:
- Begin by steadying yourself in a meditative state, by resting your attention in the breath for a short while
- Once you feel ready, bring to mind a situation that is causing some suffering in yourself or someone you care about (best not to pick anything too challenging, the easier the better to begin with)
- Breathing in, imagine this suffering as black smoke being sucked into an extremely hot bright fire at the centre of your heart, letting it fill you completely
- Breathing out, release the suffering with forgiveness, noticing how the fire of compassion inside you has transformed it bright light and cool clean air (for those less into visualising, you can also work this at a feeling level, breathing in hot, offering out cool, etc.)
Practicing in relationship
“In the Koran there are two pressed flowers, and a letter from my friend Abdullah.” ~ Idreis Shah
Our relationships can be a source of nourishment and deep joy, but they can also cause us pain.
Especially when hurt by those we are closest to, we trap ourselves in an armour of anger, frustration or resentment that makes others seem distant and unreal and leaves us unable to feel compassion in any direction.
For those on a spiritual path it might feel wisest to pull back from relationships and spend more time steadying ourselves in solitary meditation, but in so doing, we miss the opportunity to meet and learn from the disturbing, exciting and confusing emotions that are brought out in us by others.
The key to transforming the suffering of blame and anger into the chance to grow wiser and more connected is the practice of forgiveness.
Without denying or repressing anything at all, forgiveness empowers us to take hold of our own experience and opens our mind wide enough to see the whole person in front of us, instead of limiting them to the fact of their undesirable behaviour.
Though relationships can be nourishing or damaging, they all contain this opportunity to learn some truth of our interconnectedness, and offer us the chance to cultivate understanding, belonging and love.
Tara recommends we support our practice in relationships by actively meditating on forgiveness, loving-kindness (a Buddhist term that can also be thought of as simply goodwill or wishing well) and mindful communication.
She recommends we practice forgiveness in three stages:
- asking for forgiveness for the pain we have caused others
- forgiving ourselves for doing wrong
- forgiving those we feel have caused us to suffer
Here is a lovely guided forgiveness meditation that goes through these three stages (34 mins): https://www.tarabrach.com/heart-meditation-three-domains-of-forgiveness/
Cultivating lovingkindness is done by silently offering phrases of goodwill to ourselves, to someone we love, to someone we find difficult and ultimately to all beings everywhere.
Here is a short and clear lovingkindness guided meditation (12 mins): https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-metta-lovingkindness/
Mindful communication focuses on learning to speak and listen from our hearts – rather than half listening and half planning what we are about to say next – to which Tara offers the following steps:
- Start by setting your intention to try to be present, honest, and kind in relating to others.
- Anchor your attention in your body – returning to the sensations of breathing, the shoulders, hands, stomach, etc. – and try to come back to these sensations often when engaged in conversation.
- When others are speaking, try to let go of thoughts, noticing when you start to criticise, analyse or interpret, and returning to the breath, the body and open, empty listening.
- When speaking try not to prepare or judge what you are saying, instead listen inwardly, tuning into the body to share what is present and true in this moment.
- Pause briefly before and after you and the other person speak to give space for words to settle and to reconnect with your body and feelings.
- Try to hold the whole process in mindfulness and compassion, forgiving yourself and others again and again and returning to the soothing movement of the breath whenever needed.
Touching our true nature
“One moment of unconditional love may call into question a lifetime of feeling unworthy and invalidate it.” ~ Rachel Naomi Ramen
At the core of Radical Acceptance is a subtle awareness of what lies in depths of our true nature: namely, a deeply wise, free and compassionate being.
When we let go of the contracting focus of fear and craving and allow ourselves to open into connection with others, we can feel our sense of self expanding to become fuller and greater than we might have imagined.
In this way, Radical Acceptance is the art of engaging fully in the world, wholeheartedly caring about the preciousness of life, whilst resting in the formless awareness that allows things to simply arise and pass away.
When we embrace ourselves and others in this way, we are seeing past the roles, stories, and behaviours that obscure our true nature and open ourselves up to the true immensity of who we are.
Tara offers the following practice for directly cultivating this sense of perspective in our lives:
- Find a setting where you can look directly at the open sky or any expansive view that is not distracting.
- With your eyes open, rest your gaze on a point slightly above your line of sight. Soften your eyes so that your gaze is unfocused and you are receiving images from the periphery of your vision. Relax the flesh around your eyes and let your forehead be smooth. There should be almost no effort at all.
- Allow your mind to be wide-open.
- Take some moments to listen to sounds, noticing how they are happening on their own, without your conscious involvement.
- In the same way that sounds are appearing and disappearing, allow sensations and emotions in you to arise and dissolve away.
- When you realise your mind has inevitably fixed on a particular thought – on a judgement, image or story – gently look into your own state of awareness to recognise the source of your thinking.
- Ask yourself: Who is really thinking this?
- There is no need to investigate, just drop the question into your awareness and return to a state of non-doing, resting undistracted in full awareness until the next fixed thought can be met with the same question.
There’s no need to kid ourselves: committing to Radical Acceptance as an occasional practice is one thing, as a lifestyle, it’s quite another – it seems we’re all pretty stuck in this habit of being a separate, fearful, wanting self 🙂
But I feel encouraged that we’re not on this path alone, and that our practice benefits more than ourselves: as we become open about our own hurt or fear, we indirectly give permission to others to be more in touch and authentic too.
The message of this book is simple and powerful: by accepting unconditionally our moment-to-moment experience we free ourselves from the cage of judgement and mistrust and return to our root nature, as a wild and authentic being that is wholly and fully alive.
Whenever we get lost, we need only pause, look at what is in front of us, relax our heart and arrive again in the pure, wakeful awareness that beholds, with love, all of creation.