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:
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.
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.
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.
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...
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Radical Acceptance is a meditative practice that acknowledges what we’re experiencing—positive or negative—and welcomes 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:
Many people—perhaps even most people—struggle with feelings of unworthiness. They never feel as if they’re good enough, or smart enough, or successful enough, or whatever the focus of their insecurity is. In their attempts to become “better,” people constantly observe and judge themselves. They are always on the lookout...
Recognizing habitual thought patterns and worries is the first step toward accepting yourself. As you do this, make sure not to judge yourself or your responses to these questions; just accept them for what they currently are.
Is there something about your body that you don’t accept? This could mean something about your appearance, your fitness, or your general health, such as blaming yourself when you get sick. What is it, if anything?
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 12x12 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.
The way out of this self-imposed prison starts with accepting everything about ourselves, our lives, and our experiences. This means being aware...
The previous chapters introduced Radical Acceptance and explained why we all need it. In chapters 3-5 we’ll begin exploring techniques to bring Radical Acceptance into our lives.
Radical Acceptance requires that we be fully present, aware of what’s happening to us and within us. In order to do that we have to pause—momentarily stop our efforts to control the world and ourselves. In this chapter we discuss the importance of taking a moment to observe your experiences before responding to them.
Oftentimes, we simply react to problems as they arise. However, when we just react, we’re often responding from a place of negative emotion such as fear, anger, or frustration. Stopping for just a few seconds to observe and identify your current experience can help you respond to it with wisdom and clarity.
For example, if we’re about to eat a piece of chocolate, we should first take a moment to recognize the anticipation we feel, and perhaps the underlying guilt or judgment. We might then decide to eat it anyway—fully present and able to enjoy the experience—or we might put it back and go for a jog instead. **The point of a pause is that we don’t know...
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While you’re pursuing some goal-oriented activity like working, cleaning, or eating, try taking a moment to pause. Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, and take a few deep, slow breaths. Try to be aware of what you’re experiencing without any thoughts of what you’re going to do about it.
What physical sensations are you aware of during this pause? Are you tense, nervous, or restless?
In these two chapters we’ll look at specific challenges we all face in life, and how we can apply Radical Acceptance to overcome them.
We begin Chapter 4 with another story of the Buddha and the god Mara, which illustrates how we can practice Radical Acceptance as a friendly conversation with ourselves.
In Chapter 5, we recognize that every mental and emotional experience has a physical impact—and, therefore, what’s happening inside our bodies is an excellent place to begin our friendly questioning. We also discuss how trauma can cut us off from those physical sensations, and possible ways to reconnect with ourselves.
The core of Radical Acceptance is the friendly question. 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. A powerful example of this is seen in the following anecdote.
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...
Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Starting with the top of your head, do a slow and thorough examination of your entire body. Don’t look with your eyes; instead, simply allow your consciousness to inhabit each part of your body fully and consider what it’s telling you, without trying to judge or change any part of it.
What in particular stood out to you as you did your check in?
In Chapter 6 we discuss desire: what it really is, how it affects us, and how we can meet it with Radical Acceptance. We also explore how there’s often a deeper desire underneath the superficial one we’re experiencing—for example, desire for a person might be masking our deeper desire to be loved and appreciated.
The key lesson is that desire is not inherently wrong or sinful, and experiencing desire doesn’t mean that we’re bad people.
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....
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This chapter begins much like the last one. This time we discuss the emotion of fear—why we experience it, why it’s necessary, and how to avoid becoming overwhelmed by it.
As always, Radical Acceptance is the key to meeting the experience of fear without getting swept away in it; however, we must also recognize that sometimes fear is too extreme to face alone. Therefore, this chapter also begins discussing the importance of community in our spiritual practice.
Like desire, fear is a natural force that helps keep us alive. 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.
The emotion of fear comes with powerful physical responses as well. Blood rushes to our extremities, our muscles tense, and we produce...
So far we’ve been mostly discussing mindfulness, or awareness of our moment-to-moment experiences. However, it’s important to remember that the second part of Radical Acceptance is compassion.
Chapter 8 begins to discuss compassion in earnest: what it is, and how we can cultivate it in our own lives. Then, in Chapter 9 we start exploring how to bring that same openness and empathy to other peoples’ experiences.
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 our attention on it in order to cultivate compassion.
Pain, whether physical or emotional, can create an insidious trap. When we’re suffering, we tend to blame ourselves for it. Someone might tell himself that his back hurts because he doesn’t take proper care of himself, or that his relationship fell apart because he wasn’t attentive enough. This puts us into the...
We can have compassion for others or for our own suffering. Sit in a comfortable position that allows you to be both relaxed and focused, and bring a painful experience to mind. The pain can be your own or that of someone close to you—a family member, a friend, or even a pet.
What is the experience you thought of?
The final three chapters of Radical Acceptance shift the focus away from ourselves. Instead, we start discussing how to practice Radical Acceptance of others. We begin the shift in this chapter, by revisiting the idea of the essential goodness that exists in all of us. We begin by acknowledging that there will be times when we have trouble recognizing the goodness in ourselves and in others.
Therefore, this chapter discusses various ways to see people (including ourselves) differently. It goes over several practices we can use to see past the negative emotions and stories we’ve built up about ourselves and those around us, and to rediscover the Buddha nature in everyone.
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...
Forgiving yourself is an important practice, but you may find that sometimes you don’t even know what you need to forgive yourself for. Before going to bed for the night, take some time to remember the day and scan your feelings to see if you’re holding anything against yourself from the day. Examples might be a mistake you made at work, or something you regret saying to someone else.
What are you regretting from the past day?
Chapter 10 spoke about Radical Acceptance of others in fairly general terms. Now we’ll discuss specific ways to practice Radical Acceptance in our relationships with other people. This is a crucial step in spiritual growth—although spirituality is a deeply personal journey, humans are social beings by nature.
A lot of the pains and fears we carry are the results of our relationships with other people. Therefore, we can’t truly heal while isolating ourselves. Community is a powerful and necessary force, and Radical Acceptance can help us to fully engage with it just as it helps us engage with our own inner lives.
Much of what we’ve discussed so far has been focused on ourselves as individuals: personal meditations, personal growth, and so on. However, humans are social creatures, and our spiritual journey can’t happen in isolation—a great deal of our pain comes from our relationships with each other, and it can only be healed through relationships.
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....
In this final chapter, we discuss how Radical Acceptance can help us finally see beyond the illusions and narratives that we build up around ourselves. Buddhists believe that there’s no such thing as the “self.” Buddhism teaches that each of us is part of a universal presence of awareness and love, rather than an individual entity. We’re born from that universal presence, and we return to it when we die.
Radical Acceptance is the practice of welcoming each experience as it comes, and remaining unaffected—however, it’s also the first step toward recognizing that the reason we’re unaffected is because there’s no “us” to be affected. We’re beings of awareness and love—not ego.
There will be times when we doubt that we really have Buddha nature—times when we feel angry, judgmental, unfocused, or self-conscious. At times like these, it’s helpful to remember the story of Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree.
Mara, the god of delusion and hatred, was the final obstacle between Siddhartha and enlightenment. After all of Mara’s frightening illusions and vicious attacks failed, his final challenge was a simple question: What gave Siddhartha the right...