Radical Acceptance: Tara Brach and Buddhism

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What is Radical Acceptance about? How does Tara Brach combine the psychological aspects of Radical Acceptance with Buddhist teachings?

Radical Acceptance is the practice of acknowledging your experiences so you can be more present in the moment. Dr. Tara Brach is a psychologist and a devout Buddhist and she explains how we can learn to accept each moment as it comes—without judging our experiences or ourselves.

Continue on to learn more about Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

Radical Acceptance is a meditative practice wherein we acknowledge what we’re experiencing—positive or negative—and welcome it. It’s a powerful tool that allows us to be fully present in each passing moment. It helps us avoid getting stuck in our own heads. Tara Brach, a practicing psychologist and devout Buddhist, discusses how we can use Radical Acceptance to live our lives more fully by always bringing our full attention to the present moment and accepting it for what it is.

In Radical Acceptance we’ll discuss:

  • How and why we get trapped in the stories we tell ourselves
  • How Radical Acceptance can help bring us out of that trance
  • Various ways of practicing Radical Acceptance in our lives and relationships

Feelings of Unworthiness

Many of us—perhaps even most of us—struggle with feelings of unworthiness. We never feel as if we’re good enough, smart enough, successful enough, or whatever the focus of our insecurity is. 

In our attempts to become “better,” we constantly observe and judge ourselves. We’re always on the lookout for imperfections; and, when we inevitably find some, it just drives us deeper into our sense of inadequacy.

These feelings drive us to all kinds of self-destructive behavior, most notably addiction in all its various forms. Whether it’s to drugs, sex, work—an addiction that is, unfortunately, applauded by Western culture—or something else, addiction is often an attempt to escape the feelings of worthlessness. 

Thoughts of unworthiness also create feelings of isolation. When we don’t think that we’re good enough, we assume that others think the same thing. We find it hard to trust people who offer us love, friendship, or even simple encouragement. 

Letting Go of Perfection 

The Zen master Seng-tsan said that to be free is to live without worrying about imperfection. Imperfections don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, that you’re not worthy of love or respect—rather, they’re a natural and inescapable part of existence. Therefore, it’s much better to accept yourself, others, and life as they are, rather than chasing some impossible dream of how they should be. 

By becoming so focused on ourselves, and chasing what we think we want, we cut ourselves off from the things that fulfill our greatest needs: those things that keep us connected to ourselves and each other. 

Our greatest needs are met when we relate to one another, when we are fully present in every moment instead of worrying about the past or future, and when we accept and revel in the beauty—and the pain—that’s always around us.

Decenter yourself. Not everything that happens is a reflection of you or your perceived flaws. Whatever’s going on at any given moment, remember that it’s not about you; it just is what it is. That’s the key to Radical Acceptance.

Accepting Things as They Are

Breaking out of these unhealthy thoughts and coping mechanisms begins with accepting everything about ourselves, our lives, and our experiences. This means being aware of everything that’s happening inside our minds at bodies at every moment and embracing it. It means not shying away from sorrow or pain. It means recognizing our desires and dislikes without judging ourselves for them or feeling forced to act upon them. (However, Radical Acceptance does not mean accepting harmful behavior, either from ourselves or anyone else.) 

Radical Acceptance goes against all of our conditioned reactions. Rather than embracing physical and emotional pain, we tend to resist it. We tense up our muscles and our minds. We start thinking about what could be causing the pain, how long it might last, what we can do to make it go away. Perhaps we blame ourselves for the pain, thinking that it’s a sign of our own shortcomings. 

Even when things are going well, we start telling ourselves stories about how we don’t deserve the good fortune, when it might end, or how it’ll lead to more pain in the long run (like eating an ice cream cone while worrying about how many calories are in it). 

By building up these narratives around our experiences, we distance ourselves from the experiences themselves. The narratives often devolve into harmful mantras about how we have to do more, do better, be better to make the pain stop. Even our good experiences are tainted with anxiety because we don’t simply accept them as they happen.

Two Aspects of Radical Acceptance

There are two key aspects of Radical Acceptance: recognition and compassion. The first part, recognition, is what Buddhists often call mindfulness. This is the practice of understanding what is happening to us physically, mentally, and emotionally, without being ruled by it. 

For example, if we’re afraid, we might recognize that our minds are racing, our bodies are tense, and we feel compelled to run away. In doing this, we don’t try to change or manage the experience, we simply take it as-is. We can’t accept an experience until we clearly see what we’re accepting.

The second aspect, compassion, is responding with care and tenderness. Rather than judging ourselves harshly for what we feel or think, we honor the experience. However, that doesn’t mean that we indulge all of our desires. Rather, we acknowledge them and look upon them with tenderness and care. 

Instead of berating ourselves for wanting a candy bar, for instance, we simply accept that at this point in time we feel the desire for a candy bar. That doesn’t mean we have to have one—though we could—we simply understand and accept our desire for what it is.

Both aspects are needed for Radical Acceptance. Either one on its own will create an unbalanced and harmful mindset. 

Recognition without compassion may leave us aware of what we’re experiencing, but without the tools to cope with it. We could end up digging ourselves deeper into those feelings by dwelling on them or judging and blaming ourselves for getting into whatever situation caused them.

Compassion without recognition causes a different kind of problem: Instead of trapping ourselves in self-reproach, we trap ourselves in self-pity. We create narratives wherein we tried our best but still couldn’t get what we wanted or needed. This is the trap of accepting experiences without truly understanding them. 

Freedom Through Radical Acceptance

Feeling unworthy puts us into a sort of trance. We can’t see past our own perceived shortcomings; our self-image becomes twisted and ugly, and we feel unkind both toward ourselves and others. We start behaving like tigers freed from long captivity—we pace the same tiny corners of our minds over and over, and never realize that the cage is an illusion. 

Radical Acceptance is how we awaken from that trance. Recognition of, and compassion for, our own moment-to-moment experiences help us to recognize when we’re caught in harmful patterns. We must recognize when we’re stuck in habits of fighting (others or ourselves), judging (again, others or ourselves), and trying to control our pleasures and pains.

With that understanding, we can start to see other ways forward. If we stop being so afraid of unpleasant experiences and demanding people, and learn to forgive ourselves for our own mistakes, we can start taking down the defenses that block out so much of the world. Rather than trying to control life, we can simply live it. 

Buddhists call this clear comprehension: seeing things as they are. That includes patterns that emerge in our lives, and broader consequences of our thoughts and actions.

Accepting Negative Feelings

The times we need Radical Acceptance the most may be when it seems impossible to practice—when we’re angry, or afraid, or hurting. These are the times when we must be the kindest to ourselves. 

We can begin by asking ourselves simple, friendly questions. Imagine that you’re talking to a friend about how her day went. You’re not looking to pass judgment or make any changes, you’re just curious and looking for insight. The following anecdote shows a powerful example of this practice.

There was a clinical psychologist and practicing Buddhist, whom we’ll call Jacob. Jacob was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease when he went to give a talk on Buddhism to an audience of over 100 people. He got up on stage and suddenly realized that he had no idea where he was or why. Jacob began to panic.

Rather than being ruled by his feelings, Jacob practiced a mindfulness technique—he turned his attention inward and asked himself what he was experiencing. Then he started naming his experiences aloud: fear, embarrassment, confusion, and so on. As the exercise took effect and he started calming down, he shared that experience too. Finally, after several minutes, he returned his attention to his audience. 

Many of the people there were deeply moved. Jacob’s meditation had been both a practical lesson about mindfulness and a powerful insight into Alzheimer’s Disease. 

The exercise worked because Jacob embraced his experience with open curiosity and acceptance. He didn’t try to fight against his fear and confusion, because they weren’t something to be fought—they were simply his reality at that moment. Jacob didn’t create an enemy where there wasn’t one. 

A common story of the Buddha has a similar lesson. Mara, the god of deception, appeared frequently throughout the Buddha’s life to attack him or try to sway him from his enlightenment. Each time Mara came, the Buddha acknowledged his presence with a simple, “I see you, Mara.” 

Rather than trying to block Mara out or drive him away, the Buddha would invite him in for tea. They would talk for a while, and eventually Mara would realize that his illusions and lies were powerless against the Buddha’s acceptance and kindness. Each time, Mara eventually left on his own, leaving the Buddha completely unharmed.

Welcoming Mara

All of us will have our own visits from “Mara” throughout our lives. These visits may come in the form of difficult emotions like anger and fear, or in the form of the stories we tell ourselves. Every time we tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, doomed to unhappiness, an embarrassment, or whatever judgments we pass on ourselves, that could be seen as a visit from Mara.

Like the Buddha, and like Jacob, we can meet these experiences with unconditional friendliness. Sometimes we’ll catch ourselves lashing out at those around us, or stewing in frustration over every little problem. That’s a chance to name our experiences like Jacob did, and invite them in for tea like the Buddha did. 

By naming our hardships, we rob them of some of their power. Approach this with a spirit of friendly questioning; you’re not seeking to judge, only to understand. For example, you might ask yourself if you’re really so angry because there’s a fly in your office, or if you’re stressed about your work and worried that you’re falling behind. Finding and recognizing what we’re actually experiencing is how we say, “I see you, Mara.”

Once we understand what’s happening to us, the next step is to welcome it. In the spirit of Radical Acceptance, we can say “yes” to our experiences, no matter what they may be. Say “yes” to the frustration, to the sadness, to the desire. Love yourself and all of your experiences. In other words, greet Mara as an old friend and invite him in for tea. By welcoming our experiences in this way, we allow them to rise up and fade away without gaining power over us. 

Fear and Desire

Desire and fear are two of the most powerful forces in our lives. Desire attracts us to things, and fear drives us away from them. If we don’t encounter them with mindfulness and acceptance, we may find that the push and pull of those two emotions drive our every thought and action.

There’s a common misconception that Buddhism is anti-pleasure and anti-desire. People can come away with the impression that they’re not supposed to want things, or to pursue those wants. In fact, Buddha’s teachings were never about eliminating or ignoring desire. As with all of our experiences, Buddha merely urges us not to be ruled by it. 

When we encounter desire in any form—whether it’s desire for food, companionship, a new gadget, or anything else—we should meet it without resistance and without letting it possess us. We should meet desire with mindfulness; in other words, with Radical Acceptance. In doing so, we’ll find that we can experience desire but live freely in spite of it.

The writer D.H. Lawrence once said that people who just do whatever they want at the moment aren’t free. On a superficial level it might feel like freedom, but their every action is being commanded by their desires. The Buddha’s teachings about desire are really about avoiding that false freedom. 

Fear, like desire, is a natural and necessary force. Fear warns us of danger and prepares us—physically and mentally—to run, fight, or hide from it. In its purest form, fear is a desire for life and an aversion to death. 

However, fear often goes beyond what’s needed to keep us alive. We may find ourselves tense and on guard, even when there’s no threat to our safety. Our minds may be working constantly, trying to figure out what will go wrong next. When this is the case, we’re in a state of defending our lives rather than living them.

Furthermore, the effect isn’t just physical. Fear also creates rigid, habitual thought patterns. The intense focus that helps us respond to real threats becomes obsession. Our minds, which are hardwired to look for patterns, tell us endless stories about what could go wrong and how we might avoid it. 

Accepting Desire

Many mainstream religions, from Judaism and Christianity to Buddhism and Confucianism, teach that desire causes suffering. While that can be true, the lesson is often delivered with a lack of nuance that only makes matters worse. We come to believe that all desire is sinful, and that feeling it is a sign that we’re flawed and selfish. We berate ourselves for experiencing natural urges, and we fear the intensity of our own passions. 

However, desire isn’t sinful or wrong, it’s natural. Moreover, we can learn to face desire without blaming ourselves for it or letting it control us.

When we find ourselves gripped by desire, we should begin by taking a pause. Don’t immediately chase after what you want; instead, recognize what’s happening to you and take a step back to observe your experience. 

A key realization that comes from such mindfulness is that those desires and experiences aren’t our fault. We don’t create them, and we’re not to blame for them; they simply exist. It’s up to us to accept them for what they are. 

This realization frees us from the fear and shame that come with unmet desires. We come to understand that experiencing desire doesn’t mean we’re flawed or sinful people—we’re simply people who have natural experiences. 

Accepting Fear

Like desire, we often make fear personal when it really isn’t. We think that we’re afraid because of some flaw or mistake that we’ve made, and we blame ourselves for it. This may be a carryover from childhood: Children often make sense of hurtful or frightening situations by blaming themselves, because the thought of their caregivers or the world being cruel and painful seems impossible. 

In short, we aren’t just afraid; we’re afraid that we’re going to be punished for something we did wrong. We think we’ve made a mistake and somehow left ourselves vulnerable.

Worry and anxiety can prevent us from existing fully in the moment. When we’re constantly withdrawn and tense, when our minds are hyperaware of our surroundings and telling us that these feelings are our own fault, we can’t accept and live our experiences. 

As with desire, we can awaken from the trance by taking a pause and practicing Radical Acceptance. When we examine our fear and welcome it in, we’ll come to understand that it’s not something we created—it’s not our fault. Like any other experience, we can allow the fear to rise up and fade away without affecting us. That allows us to tackle the source of the fear—the problem—with clarity and understanding.

Compassion and Relationships

The word compassion means “to feel with.” Compassion is when we respond to pain—our own or someone else’s—with tenderness and love. It goes directly against our societal conditioning, which tells us to run from pain. However, compassion allows us to embrace our experiences instead of constantly fighting against them. Far from avoiding pain, we have to intentionally focus on it in order to cultivate compassion. 

Meeting our pain with compassion and Radical Acceptance is doubly hard because, like with desire and fear, we often blame ourselves for our pain. We might tell ourselves that we haven’t been taking proper care of ourselves, or that we made a stupid mistake that led to our current pain. 

Instead, we can meet that suffering with compassion. We can say to ourselves, “I care about this pain. May this pain kindle compassion.” It’ll probably feel strange at first, or even embarrassing—we aren’t used to offering ourselves compassion in this way. However, by continuing to practice compassion for our own pain, we can start to let go of our own pains and the insecurities that come with them.

Radical Acceptance can help to strip away the blame and shame we put upon ourselves. When we’re blocking out painful experiences, compassion helps to bring down the walls. In many cases, compassion is necessary for emotional and spiritual healing. 

Compassion for Others

When we have awareness and compassion in our relationships—in other words, when we approach them with Radical Acceptance—they can be powerful tools for spiritual growth and healing. 

Note that ”relationships” here doesn’t just mean romantic relationships. We have relationships with everyone we interact with: family, friends, teachers, colleagues, and so on.

We’ve discussed how Radical Acceptance tells us that our suffering isn’t wrong, and pain doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us. We can get that same message from others, and give it back to them. 

Giving Radical Acceptance to others reminds them that they are inherently good, and worthy of love. When we practice Radical Acceptance of others, and they practice Radical Acceptance of us, we can find wells of confidence and strength we never knew that we had. 

For an example of what this strength can do, Radical Acceptance is the key to interventions for alcoholics or drug addicts. An intervention isn’t about confronting or attacking the addict. Instead, the key is to let the addict see and hear the people who love him in spite of the harm he’d caused to himself and others. 

In short, relationships have power that individuals lack. 

Our Essential Goodness

Each of us has an essential goodness at the core of our beings—what the Dalai Lama calls “Buddha nature.” We are, at heart, beings of awareness and love. However, it’s often hard to see that essential goodness in ourselves or in others. Rediscovering it is one major goal of Radical Acceptance.

When we feel betrayed (like by a cheating spouse, for example) we often lash out in anger. We attack the one who hurt us, and initially put the blame on him or her. However, many of our negative experiences also put us into the trance of unworthiness—we come to think that we’re having problems because there’s something wrong with us. Our outward resentment of that other person then reflects our inner resentment of ourselves—the betrayal confirms our feelings that we’re unworthy of love. 

Recognizing the difference between doing bad things and being a bad person is a difficult task. It requires looking past harmful behaviors to see each person’s vulnerability and pain, and the Buddha nature beneath all of that. It requires Radical Acceptance.

Seeing the Goodness in Others

Other people have Buddha nature at the core of their beings, just like we do. If we concentrate on seeing past everything extraneous like people’s appearance, actions, and our own labels for them, we start to see that we’re all essentially the same: beings made of love and awareness.

There are various techniques that can help us see this basic goodness in others:

One practice is to imagine other people as children. No matter how frustrated parents may get with their children, many of them will feel simple, powerful love during quiet times; times when the child isn’t asking for yet another cookie, or bothering the parent during an important meeting. As with children, we don’t necessarily dislike people just because we’re frustrated with their behavior. 

Another method is to imagine that you’re meeting someone for the first time. Let go of your history with that person and your habitual labels for him or her. Simply encounter people as they are in that moment, not as you imagine them based on past interactions.

Finally, imagine that you’re seeing someone for the last time. What do you admire about that person? What would you want to remember if you knew you’d never see him or her again?

Seeing the essential goodness in people naturally awakens what Buddhists call metta, translated as “lovingkindness.” Simply put, metta is a wish for someone’s health and happiness.

This practice of universal lovingkindness is based on the understanding that every person’s deepest wish is simply to be loved. According to the Buddha, lovingkindness is the single most important spiritual practice. Wishing for universal peace and happiness helps us to reconnect with the essential goodness that exists in all people, and it all begins with Radical Acceptance.

Radical Acceptance: Tara Brach and Buddhism

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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