In Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach draws on her knowledge and experience as a psychologist, Buddhist, and meditation teacher. Buddhism plays a significant role in the book, but it’s written in a way that’s accessible to all.
The author describes radical acceptance as clearly recognizing what’s going on inside of us and bringing compassionate regard to it. It allows us to break from the “trance of unworthiness” from the stories that we’ve created and taken to be true. These same stories separate us from others and create suffering. Brach refers to shadow parts in each of us, where we relegate any emotions that could lead to rejection or other taboo experiences. This further contributes to suffering, as these rejected parts reinforce our beliefs about our own unworthiness.
The author also addresses the relationship between fear and pain, saying that we reinforce fear when we become immersed in our stories that pain is wrong and should be feared and avoided. That fear then becomes the core of our identity. The unworthiness and shame in these stories then constrict our capacity to live fully. This is an interesting idea to contemplate.
To some extent, I agree that we can change our relationship with pain. When I got my phoenix tattoo, it was extremely painful. I was able to reframe this as something that I could do only because I’d conquered so much mental pain. That probably made the pain more bearable, although I still needed regular breaks because I was shaking from the pain. Essentially, there’s not a magic bullet that lets you accept your way through the message your body is screaming at you.
The book offers guided meditation prompts to help readers to apply the concepts that are presented in each chapter. The author illustrates concepts using examples from her own life as well as her clients and students. The author gave examples of breakthroughs made by her own clients, but these seemed a bit too quick and easy. It doesn’t seem likely that 10 minutes of seeking deep into the body could be enough to solve one’s problems.
I think the author was just trying to give condensed examples, but it just felt a bit magic wand-ish sometimes. It probably didn’t help that I found the use of capital-R, capital-A in the terms Radical Acceptance a bit gimmicky.
I appreciated Brach’s acknowledgment that parts of the radical acceptance approach may not always be appropriate for people with trauma. She cautioned that, at a given point in time, an individual won’t necessarily have the balance or resilience to tackle trauma memories or triggers head-on.
In particular, she said the meditation exercise on meeting fear may not be appropriate when experiencing feelings/sensations regarding trauma. When levels of fear are very high and overwhelming, she said that medication may be the most compassionate response. She added that this may allow for a shift in the biological experience of fear so mindfulness can be applied. I tend to believe that no one approach can work in all situations, so it’s reassuring when proponents of an approach are able to acknowledge its potential limitations.
The book emphasizes getting in touch with what’s held in the body. Brach says that our reactions to external stimuli and thoughts in our mind represent reactions to bodily sensations. If we fail to recognize these bodily sensations, we become highly reactive. “If we bring a steady attention to the immediate physical experience of an emotion, past sensations and stories linked to it that have been locked in our body and mind are ‘de-repressed.'” While that may be true for some people, as a broad statement it struck me as a bit over-simplistic.
Brach considers thought mostly in terms of its role in creating and sustaining mental stories and the trance of unworthiness. I’ve always been a pretty cerebral person. I’ve always enjoyed learning, and I want to be exposed to new ideas and new knowledge. The right thought at the right time can change the world. This has always been how I’ve approached life, and while depression can suck me into thought traps, thought is still something I highly value. So I struggle with approaches or philosophies that are dismissive of thought. I know dismissive isn’t the right word, and I recognize that the judgment-tinged stories we concoct about ourselves are a very different thing from academic thought, but when approached in the right way I believe that thoughts can open our minds rather than close them.
The author tells us that there is no mind, no self, no self-awareness. She writes: “Our attention is always fixating on something… Our reality is the thoughts and drama we see in our mental movies. We step beyond the net by letting go of our stories and pursuits and turning toward awareness… We look back into the emptiness that is the creative source of all stories and emotions, into the formless fertile space that gives rest to all of existence. There we see the universe as it is.”
After her dog died, the author observed that “As I let go into this wakeful openness, there was no self who owned the grieving and no friend to lose.” I found this sad; yes, we’re all tied together by common humanity, but if we can’t appreciate our unique experience of relationships and the love and grief that goes along with them, how is that true acceptance?
While some parts of this book I agreed with and others I didn’t, there was a lot I reacted to. It was interesting to take this opportunity to unpack some of those reactions.
Radical Acceptance is available on Amazon (affiliate link).