Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha is written by Tara Brach, 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. This is only going to be part book review, and mixed in with part me grappling with some of the concepts in the book.
The author describes radical acceptance as clearly recognizing what is going on inside of us and bringing compassionate regard to it. It allows us to break from the “trance of unworthiness” that is created by the stories we create and take 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 us being rejected 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. Brach says when we become immersed in our stories about pain, that it is wrong and something to be feared and avoided, we only reinforce the fear and allow it to become 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 had my phoenix tattoo done it was extremely painful, and I reframed this as something that I was able to do because I had conquered so much mental pain. I think that made the pain more bearable, but at the same time we still had to take regular breaks because I was shaking so much from the pain. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not sure there’s a magic bullet by which you can accept your way through the message that 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. Concepts are also illustrated by examples from the author’s own life as well as her clients and students. The author gave examples of breakthroughs made by her own clients, but the way these examples were presented seemed a bit too quick and easy, as if 10 minutes of seeking deep into the body was enough to solve whatever the problem happened to be. I think the author was just trying to give condensed examples, but to me 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 says 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 or sensations regarding trauma. When levels of fear are very high and overwhelming, she said that medication may be the most compassionate response, and this may allow for a shift in the biological experience of fear so mindfulness can be applied to the thoughts and feelings that sustain the trance of fear. I tend to believe that no one approach can work in all situations, so I find it reassuring when proponents of an approach are able to acknowledge its potential limitations.
There is a strong focus on getting in touch with what’s held in the body, and this approach is used in many of the examples she gives of work with her clients. Brach says that our reactions to external stimuli and thoughts in our mind represent reactions to bodily sensations. If these bodily sensations aren’t recognized, 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.
In this book, thought is mostly looked at in terms of its role in creating and sustaining mental stories and the trance of unworthiness. I’ve always been a pretty cerebral person. Learning has always been fun for me, 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 are 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 there were some parts of this book that I agreed with and others I did not, there were a lot of things that I reacted to, and it was interesting to have the opportunity to unpack some of those reactions.
You can find my other book reviews here.
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