What Is Radical Acceptance? It’s Freedom

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Radical Acceptance? How does Mohini the tiger’s story perfectly illustrate the concept? What are the two key aspects of Radical Acceptance?

Radical Acceptance is comprised of mindfulness and compassion. Mindfulness is the practice of understanding what is happening to us physically, mentally, and emotionally, without being ruled by it and compassion is responding with care and tenderness. Both aspects are needed for Radical Acceptance.

Continue reading to learn about Radical Acceptance and how you can free yourself.

Freeing Ourselves Through Radical Acceptance

What is Radical Acceptance? Radical Acceptance states that many of us may be trapping ourselves without even realizing it. The following anecdote gives a literal example of this principle. 

There was a tiger named Mohini who lived at the Washington, D.C. National Zoo. She spent most of her life pacing around her 12×12 cage. Finally, biologists and zoo staff worked together to create what they thought would be an ideal enclosure: an area that covered several acres, complete with hills, a pond, and lots of different plants. They thought she’d be happy there.

However, when they moved her to the new enclosure, she immediately went to one small corner of it and spent the rest of her life there, pacing around an area the size of her old cage. Mohini was trapped in her old patterns, unable to understand the freedom that she now had.

It’s a deeply sad story, but one with a lesson that many of us can benefit from. Like Mohini, many of us spend our lives trapped in the same fearful, judgmental patterns, never realizing that we can be so much freer and happier than we think.

Accept Everything

The way out of this self-imposed prison starts 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. 

What Is Radical Acceptance? It’s Freedom

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Here's what you'll find in our full Radical Acceptance summary :

  • How to live your life fully experiencing everything
  • Why you need to let go of judging yourself or your experiences
  • How you can acknowledge and welcome any experience

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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