Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
Reading Time: 8 minutes
If you have ever struggled with self-compassion, this book is for you. Clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach, introduces a fantastic approach to better relating to your experience and emotions. Through powerful stories and guided meditation exercises, Brach provides you with a toolkit that will allow you to become a friend to your thoughts and overcome habitual feelings of deficiency.
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What is Radical Acceptance?
“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.”
“As we lean into the experience of the moment—releasing our stories and gently holding our pain or desire—Radical Acceptance begins to unfold. 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.”
Radical acceptance has two pillars: learning to observe our experience clearly and how to be compassionate towards that experience. Throughout the book, Brach examines these two pillars in detail, using stories about her life, anecdotes about the experiences of the patients she has helped in her clinical psychology practice, and various meditations.
The power of a pause
“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. Unlike the frantic pilots, we stop asking, “What do I do next?” The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.”
Most of us spend our time frantically moving from task to task. In the chaos of everyday life, we often forget to pause and take a minute to remember where we are, what we are doing, and why we think it matters. Learning to incorporate pauses throughout our days is a simple and effective way to begin becoming more conscious observers of and participants in our experience.
We all just want to belong
“After a lifetime of working with the poor and the sick, Mother Teresa’s surprising insight was: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging.” In our own society, this disease has reached epidemic proportions. We long to belong and feel as if we don’t deserve to.”
As social creatures, one of our biggest desires is to belong. But in a fast-paced world with constant connectivity and superficial connections, many of us feel alone in our experience. Feeling alone can increase our anxiety, depression, and unhappiness about the world.
“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. During his all-night vigil, the Buddha looked deeply into his own suffering. 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.”
Everyone – in one way, shape, or form – is suffering. Suffering is inherent to the human condition. The Buddha recognized that this suffering stems from being trapped in our sense of self and forgetting that we are connected to all that exists in this world.
“When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away.”
A common misconception about Buddhism is that the goal is to eliminate the craving that causes suffering, but the reality is that desires will always exist. They cannot be eliminated. However, through accepting the fleeting nature of all things and experiences, we can better relate to our desires, and in doing so, we will suffer less.
“While desire naturally arises again, the wisdom of seeing that everything passes is liberating. Observing desire without acting on it enlarges our freedom to choose how we live.”
Everything passes. Once you genuinely accept this reality, your life will feel lighter.
The trance of unworthiness
“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. Like Mohini, we grow incapable of accessing the freedom and peace that are our birthright. We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small. Even if we were to win millions of dollars in the lottery or marry the perfect person, as long as we feel not good enough, we won’t be able to enjoy the possibilities before us.”
In every moment, joy and freedom are possible. But many of us get caught up in habitual thinking patterns that prevent us from feeling the many joys of life. Instead of being grateful for a pay raise, we complain and think we deserve more. Instead of accepting ourselves as imperfect beings doing our best, we criticize ourselves for making small mistakes. Until we learn to accept ourselves and our experience, we stay in the trance of unworthiness.
An essential question
“What would it be like if I could accept life—accept this moment—exactly as it is?”
Instead of complaining about your experience or rejecting what you are feeling, what if you accepted the moment for what it is? What if you stopped thinking about all of the ways in which the moment could be better? What if you stopped resisting your reality? When you give up your resistance, you open yourself to the joy, freedom, and possibility that exist in every moment.
Fully experiencing your emotions
“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. 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.” Layers of historic hurt, fear or anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness.”
The next time you experience a pleasant or unpleasant emotion, pay close attention to where you feel that emotion. Notice the stories you tell that either enhance or reduce the feeling. Observe that patterns that led you to feel this way.
Over time, we build stories and scar tissue that influence how we feel and approach life. Some of these feelings are justified while others are exacerbated by being hurt in the past. But in bringing your full attention and awareness to your experience, you can begin to better understand and relate to your emotions. In doing so, you can move closer to the process of acceptance and transformation.
Drive for productivity
“Ever since I was a teen, my drive to be productive has been a key strategy of my wanting self. When I feel insecure, producing—whether it is a finished article, a stack of paid bills or a clean kitchen—is my most readily accessible device for feeling worthwhile.”
Throughout my life, I’ve consistently attached myself to the drive for productivity. When I’m feeling the need for validation, doing tasks that I consider productive help alleviate any negative emotions I may be experiencing. While this drive for productivity can be incredibly beneficial if channeled appropriately, like anything, it can become a toxic escape from the discomfort of the present.
“A smile is the yes of unconditional friendliness that welcomes experience without fear.”
Smile more often. The world needs it.
Fear and death
“Fear is the anticipation of future pain.”
A great definition of fear.
“The ultimate loss—the one underlying all those smaller losses I’m afraid of—is loss of life itself. 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.”
For most of us, fear of death is a powerful motivator. Death is the ultimate end, the fate we all face. While many of us prefer to ignore the reality that one day we will die, it’s important to understand how it influences our daily actions and decision making.
Shame, fear, and freedom
“When we believe something is wrong with us, we are convinced we are in danger. Our shame fuels ongoing fear, and our fear fuels more shame.”
If we don’t fully accept ourselves or our experiences, we may feel shame. Shame about how things should be. But this shame is unhelpful. It creates a fear that fuels more shame, and a vicious feedback cycle begins.
“The other side of resisting fear is freedom. When we stop tensing against life, we open to an awareness that is immeasurably large and suffused with love.”
Freedom is on the other side of fear. Will you take the leap to get there?
Medications have their place
“But when fear is too overwhelming, medical intervention, at least for a period of time, may be the most compassionate response. Like insulin for a diabetic, medications shift an imbalanced chemistry toward normalcy.”
Don’t write off medications completely. While medication does not solve all problems, it may be the answer some of the time. Excessive fear, anxiety, or depression stem from an imbalance in our chemistry. For some people, medication may be the best solution to begin correcting the imbalance.
When everyone else becomes an “other”
“When we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.”
When we get lost in the narrative of our life, we begin to fictionalize the people around us. The hyper-attention on our existence becomes the lens through which we view every person or interaction. Instead of realizing that even those people we don’t like spending time with are humans with fears and desires like ours, we write them off as detractors to our story.
“Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real.”
The problem with seeing people as “unreal others” is that we lose perspective on how our beliefs about them or actions toward them may cause harm. We become much more likely to engage in behaviors that we would condemn in others. We start doing things that we previously thought unthinkable. And in the end, we fall victim to the trap that drives most of the suffering and violence in the world.
Feeling connected and kind
“Just as a bright sun causes ice cubes to melt, in the moments when we feel connected and kind, we create a warm environment that encourages others around us to relax and open up. Each time we widen the circle of caring—with a smile, a hug, a listening presence, a prayer—the ripples flow out endlessly.”
The little actions matter. A smile, listening intently, saying a few kind words – these small actions create an openness that encourages others to participate in the warmness of existence.
What to do when you’ve hurt someone
“Thich Nhat Hanh draws upon the Buddha’s teachings to offer ways to handle situations when we’ve hurt others. The key elements are: taking responsibility for causing pain to another, listening deeply to understand the person’s suffering, sincerely apologizing and renewing our resolve to act with compassion toward this person and all beings.
Hurting other people feels terrible. But it happens, and instead of wallowing in your sorrow, try this simple, but effective approach to moving forward: take responsibility for the pain you’ve caused, listen intently to understand the other persons suffering, offer a genuine apology, and revitalize your commitment to acting with compassion.
“As we spiritually mature, our yearning to see truth and live with an open heart becomes more compelling than our reflex to avoid pain and chase after pleasure. We may feel mistreated and angry at our partner but we are willing to recognize our part, to see their pain, to forgive and keep loving. When we become lonely or sad, we are less inclined to dull the painful feelings with food, drugs or staying busy. We become increasingly aligned with our evolutionary destiny, which is to awaken into our natural wisdom and compassion.”
Spiritual maturity means breaking free from our natural gravitation toward pleasure and away from pain. Instead of succumbing to these natural desires, we continue on the path to truth and treating all situations with an open heart. It’s a subtle, but meaningful difference.
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