Radical Acceptance book summary
Feeling unworthy goes hand in hand with feeling separate from others, separate from life. If we are defective, how can we possibly belong?
Those who feel plagued by not being good enough are often drawn to idealistic worldviews that offer the possibility of purifying and transcending a flawed nature. This quest for perfection is based in the assumption that we must change ourselves to belong.
By teaching us that something is fundamentally wrong with us, our parents and culture carry forth the message of Eden. As we internalize this view of our nature, we become ensnared in the trance of unworthiness. We can spend years and decades of our life trying to be who they wanted us to be, trying to be good enough to reenter the garden.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t compete in a healthy way, put wholehearted effort into work or acknowledge and take pleasure in our own competence. But when our efforts are driven by the fear that we are flawed, we deepen the trance of unworthiness.
This was his first noble truth: Suffering or discontent is universal, and fully recognizing its existence is the first step on the path of awakening.
His amazing insight was that all suffering or dissatisfaction arises from a mistaken understanding that we are a separate and distinct self. This perception of “selfness” imprisons us in endless rounds of craving and aversion. When our sense of being is confined in this way, we have forgotten the loving awareness that is our essence and that connects us with all of life.
When we take life personally by I-ing and my-ing, the universal sense that “something is wrong” easily solidifies into “something is wrong with me.”
Zen master Seng-tsan taught that true freedom is being “without anxiety about imperfection.” This means accepting our human existence and all of life as it is. Imperfection is not our personal problem—it is a natural part of existing.
Although the trance of feeling separate and unworthy is an inherent part of our conditioning as humans, so too is our capacity to awaken.
As you go through your day, pause occasionally to ask yourself, “This moment, do I accept myself just as I am?” Without judging yourself, simply become aware of how you are relating to your body, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. As the trance of unworthiness becomes conscious, it begins to lose its power over our lives.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness and dissatisfaction.
The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience.
Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance.
Our enjoyment is tainted by anxiety about keeping what we have and our compulsion to reach out and get more.
The two parts of genuine acceptance—seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion—are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.
...psychologist Carl Rogers’s seminal insight proclaims: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Our deepest nature is to awaken and flower.
The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom. During the silence that followed, memories flashed through my mind revealing how much of my life experience I had been defended against.
Many times since then, especially when I’ve been caught up in tension or self-judgment, I have stopped and asked myself, “What would it be like if I could accept life—accept this moment—exactly as it is?”
Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward any goal.
Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so.
As Carl Jung states in one of his key insights, the unfaced and unfelt parts of our psyche are the source of all neurosis and suffering.
This attitude of neither grasping nor pushing away any experience has come to be known as the Middle Way, and it characterizes the engaged presence we awaken in pausing. In the pause, we, like Siddhartha, become available to whatever life brings us, including the unfaced, unfelt parts of our psyche.
Pausing is the gateway to Radical Acceptance. In the midst of a pause, we are giving room and attention to the life that is always streaming through us, the life that is habitually overlooked. It is in this rest under the bodhi tree that we realize the natural freedom of our heart and awareness.
Pema Chödrön, an American nun who is a highly respected teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says that through spiritual practice “We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.”
In traditional cultures, naming plays a significant role in the healing process. It is believed that no matter how powerful the spirits causing the illness may be, if the shaman can name them, they are subdued. They can no longer control their victim, so healing takes place.
Thich Nhat Hanh calls his practice of yes “smile yoga.” He suggests bringing a slight but real smile to our lips many times throughout the day, whether we are meditating or simply stopping for a red light. “A tiny bud of a smile on your lips,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, “nourishes awareness and calms you miraculously . . . your smile will bring happiness to you and to those around you.” The power of a smile to open and relax us is confirmed by modern science.
When we put down ideas of what life should be like, we are free to wholeheartedly say yes to our life as it is.
All our strategies of trying to control life through blaming or withdrawing are aimed at keeping us from the raw experience of just such a moment. In the pause, rather than getting lost in our reactive thoughts and actions, we become directly aware of what is happening in our body. At these times, we begin to see how interconnected our mind and body are.
S. N. Goenka, a contemporary teacher of vipassana meditation, warns us that if we just pay attention to passing thoughts, for instance, “deep inside, a part of the mind keeps on reacting. Because with the thought, there’s also a sensation. You must not miss this root.”
We train to experience the body from the inside out.
It’s easy to let the river flow when sensations are pleasant. But when they’re not, when we’re in emotional or physical pain, we contract, pull away. Seeing this and learning how to meet pain with Radical Acceptance is one of the most challenging and liberating of practices.
The Buddha taught that we suffer when we cling to or resist experience, when we want life different than it is. As the saying goes: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” When painful sensations arise, if we meet them with clarity and presence, we can see that pain is just pain.
In both Buddhist psychology and Western experiential therapy, this process of experiencing and accepting the changing stream of sensations is central to the alchemy of transformation. Emotions, a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves, continue to cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our body.
...the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience...
The Buddha taught that by being aware of desire, we free ourselves from identifying with it. With Radical Acceptance, we begin to shed the layers of shame and aversion we have built around our “deficient, wanting self.”
The root of all our fear is our basic craving for existence and aversion to deterioration and death. We are always facing death in some form or other.
And yet, without our fear, we would not be able to stay alive or to thrive. The problem is: The emotion of fear often works overtime. Even when there is no immediate threat, our body may remain tight and on guard, our mind narrowed to focus on what might go wrong. When this happens, fear is no longer functioning to secure our survival. We are caught in the trance of fear and our moment-to-moment experience becomes bound in reactivity. We spend our time and energy defending our life rather than living it fully.
Because we are responding to an accumulation of past pain, our reactions are out of proportion to what is happening in the moment. When someone criticizes us or disapproves of us, we get thrown back in time and have no access to our adult understanding. We feel as if we were a child who is powerless, alone and terrified.
Because the trance of fear arises from feeling cut off in relationships, we continue to feel fundamentally unsafe until we begin to experience with others some of the love and understanding we needed as children.
When the trance of fear arises, instead of getting caught up in worrying or looking for something to eat, instead of getting busy and trying to fix things, we can choose to lean in. Naturally there are times when fear is too strong and we don’t feel safe enough to engage with it. If we are feeling contracted and small, we may first need to widen the lens of awareness before bringing our full attention to fear. But in those moments when we can courageously lie down on the icy couch of fear and allow ourselves to experience its sharp edges, we are carried into the love and awareness that are beyond the reach of fear.
Facing fear is a lifelong training in letting go of all we cling to—it is a training in how to die. We practice as we face our many daily fears—anxiety about performing well, insecurity around certain people, worries about our children, about our finances, about letting down people we love. Our capacity to meet the ongoing losses in life with Radical Acceptance grows with practice. In time we find that we can indeed handle fear, including that deepest fear of losing life itself.
Buddhist compassion practices usually begin with being aware of our own pain because once our hearts are tender and open to our own suffering, we can more easily extend compassion to others.
Compassion begins with the capacity to hold your own life with a loving heart. Whenever you’re aware that you are suffering, if you offer yourself care—through attention, words and touch—compassion will naturally awaken.
As we transform suffering into compassion, we realize our interconnectedness with all of life.
Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness,” he is expressing his commitment to live with the unconditionally open and loving heart of compassion. Kindness is a facet of the jewel of compassion. It is the desire to help that arises when we remember that we are connected with every living being we meet. Each person is precious, each person is fragile, each person matters.
Seeing the goodness in others begins with seeing the goodness in ourselves. Even when we feel ashamed or depressed, resentful or insecure, we don’t give up on ourselves.
Rather than living in reaction to past events, rather than identifying ourselves as an angry person, a betrayed person, a bad person, we free ourselves to meet the present moment with wisdom and kindness. This is the essence of forgiveness. Whether we are angry with ourselves or others, we forgive by letting go of blame and opening to the pain we have tried to push away.
We maintain the intention to forgive because we understand that not forgiving hardens and imprisons our heart. If we feel hatred toward anyone, we remain chained to the sufferings of the past and cannot find genuine peace.
When we forgive, we stop rigidly identifying others by their undesirable behavior. Without denying anything, we open our heart and mind wide enough to see the deeper truth of who they are. We see their goodness.
Rather, suffering is a shared concern, a part of everyone’s life. Pain does not belong to one individual. Not taking pain personally is essential to Radical Acceptance. As the Buddha taught, life’s difficulties are not owned or caused by an individual—our changing states of body and mind are influenced by myriad variables. When we recognize this, remaining open and vulnerable and accepting with each other, we heal together.
The path of awakening is simply a process of wakeful, profound relaxing. We see what is here right now and we let go into life exactly as it is.