The Path of Radical Acceptance
Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the Washington DC National Zoo. For most of those years her home was in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, a pond and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment. But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve-by-twelve feet was worn bare of grass.
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. Unlike Mohini, however, we can learn to recognize when we are keeping ourselves trapped by our own beliefs and fears. We can see how we are wasting our precious lives.
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. By accepting absolutely everything, what I mean is that we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment, without trying to control or judge or pull away. I do not mean that we are putting up with harmful behavior—our own or another’s. This is an inner process of accepting our actual present-moment experience. It means feeling sorrow and pain without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it.
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. If we are holding back from any part of our experience, if our heart shuts out any part of who we are and what we feel, we are fueling the fears and feelings of separation that sustain the trance of unworthiness. Radical Acceptance directly dismantles the very foundation of this trance.
Radical Acceptance flies in the face of our conditioned reactions. When physical or emotional pain arises, our reflex is to resist it not only by stiffening our body and contracting our muscles, but also by contracting our mind. We lose ourselves in thoughts about what is wrong, how long it will last, what we should do about it and how the pain reflects our unworthiness. A physical pain, such as a backache or a migraine, might turn into a commentary on how we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, how we don’t eat well or exercise enough. The pain might make us feel like a victim; it might tell us we can’t count on our body, that things will always go wrong. In the same way, we amplify emotional pain with our judgments and stories. Feeling fear and anger or jealousy means something is wrong with us, that we are weak or bad.
When we get lost in our stories, we lose touch with our actual experience. Leaning into the future, or rehashing the past, we leave the living experience of the immediate moment. Our trance deepens as we move through the day driven by “I have to do more to be okay” or “I am incomplete; I need more to be happy.” These “mantras” reinforce the trance belief that our life should be different from what it is.
When things are going well, we question whether we deserve it, or fear that now something bad is bound to happen. No sooner do we take a bite of our favorite flavor of ice cream than we start calculating how much more we can eat without feeling too guilty or piling on the pounds. We stand in a beautiful landscape and worry because we have run out of film or start thinking that we really should move to the country. When we are meditating, we experience a delicious stretch of tranquility and peace, and then immediately begin wondering how to keep it going. Our enjoyment is tainted by anxiety about keeping what we have and our compulsion to reach out and get more.
Excerpted from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, by Tara Brach. Reprinted with permission from Random House, Inc.