"An honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is" / Radical Acceptance: A talk with Tara Brach

I come from one of those immigrant families, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type. You know the type. Hell, you, too, may be in the type. Three years ago, my younger sister graduated from college, and promptly announced that she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. For good measure, she tossed into the bubbling soup a sentence or two about moving across the country to a state that she had never visited, with some friends that my father had never met. We hadn't pegged her has the rebellious type. And quite frankly, this level of insolence was unheard of in our home -- it was uncharted territory. What else could this be, but evidence that we had collectively failed her? Confusion ensued. Panic struck. Uncles were called, aunties planned an intervention, and relatives prayed to a merciful Mungu for her deliverance from the crushing jaws of early onset twenty-something ambivalence, considered harmless for American youth, but virulent for African watoto.

This is not intended as a stinging indictment against my family’s attitudes, beliefs, habits, and practices as they relate to achievement in academic and other settings. Internalizing -- and thriving, depending on the measures in use -- under a certain pressure to perform has hoisted me in such a way that I have the luxury to pontificate and wax poetic on this issue, secure in the fact that I’m assured of a roof over my head and three square meals a day, plus dessert from time to time. I’m fully aware that this is a privilege, however hard-earned. But I also recognize that it has not come without a cost. I am, at best, a fair-weather companion to myself: unyielding, unforgiving and relentless. I have lived most of my life with a foot firmly planted in the future, in anticipation of the sense of wholeness that will magically materialize when I __________ (insert accomplishment here), and the jigsaw puzzle that is my existence is finally complete. I struggle mightily to demonstrate patience with and gentleness towards myself, and to find value in the here and now -- to stay present in the process, not just the fantasy of the potential product. A year or so ago, said sister, in the final throes of wanderlust, introduced me to Tara Brach -- a clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. Brach is best known for her popularization of radical acceptance as a concept, which she describes as follows in an interview with Elisha Goldstein:

Radical acceptance has two elements: It is an honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is. I sometimes simplify it to “recognizing” and “allowing.” You can accept an experience without liking it. In fact, let’s say you are feeling stuck in anxiety and disliking the feeling. Radical acceptance includes accepting both the feelings of anxiety and the aversion to it. In fact, acceptance is not real and not healing unless it honestly includes all aspects of your experience.

Brach believes, in other words, that radical acceptance is simply saying ‘yes’ to a moment itself, to our response to that moment, and to ourselves, more broadly -- all while intentionally refraining from judgment, and embracing our thoughts and feelings in all their unfiltered and unpleasant glory.

The audio below offers a crash course in Brach’s work and a solid peek into her first book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha . Although steeped in the Buddhist tradition, her words offer food-for-thought that transcends the various philosophical or religious stances that we may individually adopt. She operates from the perspective that in our natural states, we are loving, kind, and spiritually free. Her goal, therefore, is to assist us in breaking through the calluses that cement around our hearts in moments of self-loathing, when we are especially disconnected from that natural state. She draws heavily from her own lived experience, making her a credible teacher, and walks the listener through a series of exercises designed to interrupt self-aversion, promote self-acceptance and ultimately, channel emotional liberation. Brach urges us to recognize that we can befriend the self-generated darkness that often engulfs as we traverse this life, and illuminate our own paths by returning home, to the source of the light and warmth that we so willingly offer others, but deny our equally blind selves.

Tara Brach: Radical Acceptance


Working with Our Stories: An Interview with Tara Brach
(SOURCE: Tarabrach.com)

Inquiring Mind (IM): In your book you talk about being caught for years in what you call “the trance of unworthiness,” always feeling as if something were wrong with you. How did you first realize that you could let go of that story and accept yourself?

Tara Brach (TB): Somewhere in my early twenties I realized I was pretty constantly monitoring myself, judging how I was always falling short, whether it was about not being a good enough daughter or friend, or my appearance, or whatever. I ended up becoming involved with a spiritual path in the yogic tradition, living in an ashram, doing a very rigorous spiritual practice. It was understood that we had a lot of flaws -- negative thoughts, cravings, jealousy, anger, lust -- and we were using these practices to help us transcend our ego and purify ourselves. This really fit in with my belief that something was wrong with me.

IM: After so many years of believing something was wrong with you, how could you in a moment so fully accept yourself?

TB: Along with judging myself harshly, I’d also always seen the truth of goodness in me. I’d known that I had the capacity to love, that I enjoyed seeing other people be happy, that I had a real awe and wonder about the beauty of this world. But it was the enormity of the suffering I was experiencing right then, the basic separation and loneliness that came from being turned against myself, that gave me such a deep resolve to embrace myself. I registered…self-aversion with such clarity that I knew there was no freedom unless I could love this life without holding back. This didn’t mean I was going to ignore my flaws and stop seeking to improve what I could. But in the deepest way, I was not going to fixate on the conclusion that something was wrong with me.

IM: Did that habit of judging yourself just fall away then?

TB: Self-judgment continues to arise -- it’s a strong habit -- but the fact that I made a conscious commitment to recognize it has helped me stop feeding the story of being unworthy.

IM: Do you mean you were choosing a different story?

TB: No. While I was choosing not to believe a story that was harmful, that doesn’t mean I was replacing it with another story. I wasn’t saying: “I don’t believe I’m bad, and I do believe I’m good.” It was more a matter of opening myself to the inherent goodness in an experiential way by feeling my heart, by seeing and trusting what is true.

Stories about ourselves and about the world continually arise in our minds and shape our beliefs about reality. There are stories we take on from our culture, and there are stories based on our own personal history. Some of those stories lock us in limiting beliefs and lead to suffering, and there are others that can move us toward freedom. What I am most interested in is what happens if we have an unhealthy story of self, a story of falling short, and how do we work with that?

Most of us grew up with a very damaging story that something is wrong with us. Gradually -- or as in my case, suddenly -- we become resolved not to believe this anymore. It takes a dedicated practice to follow up on that resolution, because the conditioning is very strong to keep generating self-demeaning stories. In the process of deeply accepting our own inner experience, instead of being identified with a story of a limited self, we realize the compassion and wakefulness that is our essence.

IM: So we free ourselves from negative and harmful stories by accepting and allowing whatever we’re feeling?

TB: Emotions are the interaction of thoughts and of sensations in the body. The process of radical acceptance is to accept that a story has appeared in the mind, and then deepen the attention to see clearly what’s happening in the body, to regard those feelings and sensations with kindness and acceptance, and to notice how they come and go. For example, I might find that I have a habit of being jealous and comparing myself with other people and riveting my attention on how much somebody else is accomplishing or doing, or how much better they are at such and such. First, I might recognize the story -- the mental images and internal dialogue -- and say, “Okay, comparing mind.” Then, rather than staying caught in the content, I’ll bring my attention into my body and open to the immediate feelings that are there. If I don’t pay attention to these feelings, they just fuel more stories and I stay stuck in the suffering of a small, deficient self. No matter what feeling comes up -- numbness, irritability, shame -- if I let it arise and play itself through, I naturally open into wakefulness and care.

IM: What you call “radical acceptance” sounds much the same as mindfulness practice. Why do you choose to use that particular term?

TB: Because we have such a deeply grooved conditioning to reject and condemn ourselves, particularly in this culture, I find that emphasis on the word “acceptance” is central in healing. It brings our attention to the possibility of saying yes to what we are experiencing in the moment, and counteracts the conditioning to push away what feels unpleasant or intense or unfamiliar. In a basic way, acceptance is seeing clearly what’s happening and holding it with kindness. This is a radical antidote to the suffering of judging mind. We discover…the freedom of living “without anxiety about imperfection.” (source)

Originally Posted 9/16/2011

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