Radical Acceptance

Photo by Philipp Sewing

It might come as a surprise to you that something as calm, balanced, and rational as acceptance can be considered radical. What makes something radical? For our purposes, it means it is both 1) a departure from the traditional, and 2) complete & total. When we put that together with acceptance, which is allowing what is already here to be in awareness without struggle, we might say radical acceptance is a subversive and comprehensive acknowledgment of experience, as it is, without need for adornment or correction. Tara Brach defined radical acceptance as “The willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as they are.”

We also call it radical because it isn’t celebrated in US culture. Society encourages us to be extraordinary, to fight against what is unwanted, and to be relentless in our striving for what we want. This is a very rigid prescription for happiness and it doesn’t fit every circumstance. Practicing radical acceptance is training in adaptability, flexibility, and relaxing the grip of a rigid mind. Tara Brach said, “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” When we learn to accept reality, we become boundless because we are liberated from the tyranny of shouldn’t and ought not (“It shouldn’t be this way!”), the unanswerable (“Why me?”), and the illusion of fairness (“Its not right!”).

Tara Brach, in her book by the same name, described radical acceptance as a bird with two wings – we need both to truly soar:

  • the wing of mindfulness is the ability to be present to what is here with alertness and non-judgment for clearer seeing
  • the wing of compassion is an acknowledgment of suffering combined with a desire to alleviate it – we start with ourselves and then move outward to others

Just as compassion must start with ourselves, so must radical acceptance. We make an agreement with ourselves to appreciate, validate, and support ourselves as we are, knowing that we are also free to change things, if it makes sense. Many of us suffer from a profound fear of failure, that we are going to drop the ball in some catastrophic way, or that we are completely alone and separate from others, that we don’t belong, that something is wrong with us, that we are deficient or even fatally flawed or defective, and that we are to blame for it all. Mindfulness and self-compassion help us move toward greater acceptance of ourselves, which interestingly makes us more available for connection, growth and change.

The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers

Rigid non-acceptance can lead to the development of unhealthy coping strategies such as addictions, avoidance of intimacy, needing constant reassurance, hyper-vigilance to potential threats, over-efforting, and an illusion of control. These attempts at self-protection actually create a negative feedback loop, strengthening our non-acceptance. This is because:

  • Avoidance reinforces fear
  • Striving to prove worth reinforces that we are not worthy as we are
  • Projecting our problems outward makes us blame others and gives us a temporary feeling of superiority, safety or efficacy

So how do we move toward greater acceptance? First we have to trust ourselves. We build confidence by developing the tools we need to skillfully meet what life delivers. This requires some diligence and effort. We can cultivate both mindfulness and self-compassion through practice so that we can attend to the present moment with kindness. This will build confidence that everything we encounter is workable.

… we have to have trust in ourselves first. We have to see that whatever others offer us, we have the inner tools to take it on. These of course need to be systematically developed. – Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center

Radical acceptance can also be cultivated through the realization that everything has a complex web of causes and conditions, often beyond our understanding. Like a chain of dominoes or a Rube Goldberg machine, the start of something, how it plays out, and its conclusion can be quite complicated. In an earthquake, seismic waves ripple through the layers and surface of the Earth, which are arranged like the pieces of a puzzle. The epicenter of an earthquake is generally easy to see, because it is the place above which the plates of the Earth’s surface have ruptured. But the cause of the rupture can be very complex with ancient origins. It can be difficult to predict how strong an earthquake will be, how far it will reverberate, or how many aftershocks will come. This is also true of our life circumstances. When we truly understand this, we can begin to let go of shoulds, unanswerable questions, and cries of unfairness and move forward in a way that is more satisfying and effective.

Home Practice Suggestions:

  • Read Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
  • Observe your reaction to life events. Examine which events in particular tend to get to you. How do you react? Just take note of it.
  • Notice your reactive thoughts & the form they tend to take. Then practice “turning the mind” toward acceptance. See if you can reword your reactive thoughts in a way that is more accepting.
  • Practice “being with what is” in meditation
  • Pick a situation in the news or in politics and notice and reflect on the multiple perspectives and points of view around it. Find the kernel of truth that arises from considering a point of view you disagree with.
  • Notice the “little deaths” of everyday life – the end of something, the passing of a moment, constant change, disappointments, missed opportunities – and notice your reaction to them.
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