I read Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Live With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach for the first time while on a trip to Italy with my family several years ago. It was the perfect book for that particular time in my life as I was in a major transitional period. I had just spend almost a year living alone in Latin America and was trying to decide what was next for me. Two of the family members on the trip to Italy are people I don’t get along with and I was struck with them every day for two weeks. I had also recently reconnected with an ex and was struggling with very mixed feelings about the situation. This book really helped me learn to accept what really is and move forward in my life. I felt less reactive during confrontations with my family and when Anthony Bourdain died while I was in Florence, it helped me deal with the feelings I had after hearing that the man who had inspired me to face my fears and travel the world was gone.
When I pulled this book off the shelf to read for the second time, I found a surprise tucked away in the pages. A bookmark I bought at the gift shop in ancient Pompeii, Italy while finishing up this book the first time. I love this bookmark! It’s dark and tragic but if anything represents a situation for Radical Acceptance, it’s the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of ancient Pompeii.
Tara opens the book with a story about an interaction she had in college that led her to the realization that “I was the furthest thing from my own best friend.” I’ve felt this so many times in my own life. I’ve always felt like I was my own worst enemy. Having a chronic illness caused me to constantly feel like I was at war with my own body. I have been so horrible to myself throughout my life. Saying awful things to myself. Doing awful things to myself. Feeling like I needed to punish this monster living inside me.
For many years I couldn’t accept that chronic illness was now my life. Never-ending pain. Constant loneliness. Hospitals. Doctors. So many pills. A newfound fear of food. Rage. I was so exhausted fighting against myself and everyone else. I wish I would have found acceptance sooner, before I put myself through years of torment. Tara says, “Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense.” Years before I found this book I finally began accepting the things I couldn’t change. I didn’t have the eloquent vocabulary or the psychology and meditation background that Tara provides in this book but I did have rock bottom. I did have the desperation to give up the act I had wasted so much energy on. I stopped pretending I wasn’t as sick as I was and I just began to accept that this hell would be my life every single day until I was gone. Tara claims, “Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is.” I became willing to experience it all fully without the façade and that’s when my life really began to change for the better.
Tara talks about the trance we get stuck in, trapped in our stories and fears. “Convinced that we are not good enough, we can never relax. We stay on guard, monitoring ourselves for shortcomings.” It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how tense my body always was. Chögyam Trumgpa described it as, “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.” Tara explained that we often don’t even realize our own armor because it’s become such a familiar part of who we are but we can see it in others. I didn’t know I had this issue until I started getting massages. The massuse would say, “You can relax now,” and I would be so confused because I thought I was relaxed. I didn’t know how to relax and relaxing is still something that I struggle with today.
During one of her therapy sessions, a client named Laura participated in a guided visualization and began to see herself running and hiding from an angry dragon. When Tara asked what would happen if she stopped running, Laura said, “I’ll see that I don’t have a mother anymore, that it’s true – she really is a dragon. There is no one who loves me . . . and I’m too awful to be loved.” I cried when I read this. This describes perfectly how I have felt most of my life. Not just about my mother but from almost everyone in my childhood. Everyone always acted like having to deal with me was such a huge unwanted burden. I never really had much of a mother-daughter relationship with my mother. I thought of her more like a mean older sister who blames me for everything and takes all her frustrations out on me. We don’t fight and argue anymore. Now there’s really just nothing. I don’t have a mother. As much as that hurts, accepting that has also brought me so much peace.
Tara states, “Fears, insecurities and desires get passed along for generations.” Now that I understand more about intergenerational trauma, I can look at my family and see the patterns of trauma that have been passed down through the generations. To them, these things are normal and even make sense. To them, I’m the one starting problems by talking about the past and trying to change the present. I don’t have much contact with my family at this point in my life. I don’t want the future to become a replay of the past so I choose to limit my associations with them.
I’ve always been an angry person. My family would tell you I came out of the womb like that and they are probably right. Not only was I the unwanted child of a young single mother but verbal and physical abuse were common in my family. Tara claims, “The greater the fear, the more intense the hostility.” I was always afraid. Afraid of getting hit. Afraid of getting yelled at. Afraid that the horrible things I was being told about myself were true. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of being different. Afraid of being like them. I was incredibly hostile and if I’m not constantly working on myself, hostility is my knee-jerk reaction to many situations. Tara wrote, “Directing anger at an enemy temporarily reduces our feelings of fear and vulnerability.” That’s so true. Nothing feels more powerful in the moment than destroying your enemy. It’s only later that you realize you’re also destroying yourself.
Tara tells the story of a man named Jacob who, while giving a speech in front of a large crowd, suddenly became confused and didn’t know what to say or do. So he just began speaking his experience, “Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost.” The audience was so moved. Jacob taught the crowd of onlookers that we can pause and embrace our fear and uncertainty without it meaning that something is wrong. I love this! I think naming out loud our experience can be so powerful. We all feel overwhelmed at times and we all need to be reminded that NOTHING IS WRONG!
Tara wrote, “Some years ago in the middle of a weeklong vipassana retreat I found myself swamped in negativity. I reacted with aversion to every facet of life around me.” This is how I felt at the silent vipassana meditation retreat I went to several years ago. It was an incredibly difficult ordeal. I wrote about my experience in the hell of my mind for ten days. You can read about it here . Like Tara, eventually I stopped resisting and just let it all come. The rage, the sadness, the loneliness, the pain. I felt so overwhelmed by it all, physically and mentally. I kept thinking to myself, “This is what a nervous breakdown feels like. I’m having a nervous breakdown.” Just accepting that I had no control over the flood of emotions and sensations I was experiencing was almost liberating. I thought, “And now this,” as I was buried under the weight of it all. Then gradually the weight lessened. It wasn’t gone, it just wasn’t crushing anymore.
Tara talked about a student on retreat named Sarah who was dealing with intense craving and fear. The more she said, “This too” to her experience and allowed the sensations to arise, the more she realized she could experience these things and not act on them. She didn’t have to do anything. She could just let the craving express itself. By moving mindfully through these experiences, Sarah was able to go from feeling like, “Something is wrong with me,” to approaching those intense cravings with compassion. My “this too” is “and now this.” For years I often felt overwhelmed by every aspect of my life. Every day seemed to be harder than the day before. The load felt like it was getting heavier and heavier. Slowly I just began accepting that each day would be an uphill battle and when something new popped up, I would say to myself, “And now this.” “And now this,” started out as more of a complaint to myself. I would already feel like I was struggling to deal with everything and then something else would happen that I would need to deal with and I would feel like, “and now this,” as in, “and now this bullshit too.” But gradually overtime, the frustration faded and it became a calming statement I would tell myself when I began to feel overwhelmed. I had overcome all of those other obstacles and I would overcome this one too. It became more of an opportunity than a burden. This on top of everything else and that’s ok.
Tara includes a brief writing from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn about pain. Kabat-Zinn runs the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. He wrote, “Symptoms of illness or distress, plus your feelings about them, can be viewed as messengers coming to tell you something important about your body or about your mind.” I hated my body for so long. It was diseased and dysfunctional. Everything I thought about myself was negative. Tara wrote, “When pain is traumatic, the trance can become full-blown and sustained. The victim pulls away from pain in the body with such fearful intensity that the conscious connection between body and mind is severed. This is called dissociation.” I pulled away so much that I completely lost myself for a long time. I still struggle with this. I fought against my physical and emotional pain for so much of my life that I went numb in many ways. It’s been a difficult road coming back to my body. Back to myself.
Tara is such an inspiration to me. She writes about some of her most vulnerable times and uses her own suffering and healing to help others understand that they are not alone in their struggles. Tara talked about a difficult place she found herself in with her son. His grades were slipping, he was spending too much time playing videogames and Tara felt frustrated, angry and shameful. It’s nice to hear her talk about her parenting struggles. We often want to believe that our teachers and mentors (or just everyone else) have it all figured out. Certainly they would never feel like they failed as parents or caused trauma to their kids, right? But the reality is that everyone does because they are just imperfect humans like everyone else. Tara found her way through this hard phase by remembering to pause. By coming into the her encounters with her son in a calm and honest manner instead of a reactive one.
Healing and being a human being is incredibly difficult. I love that Tara doesn’t see the world as black and white. She isn’t rigid in her approach to life. When things feel overwhelming, Tara suggests that, “saying no to what feels like too much, and yes to what simply works to keep us balanced, is the most compassionate response we can offer ourselves.” This is so true. Sometimes we need to say yes to what works right now even if it isn’t the best thing for us in the long run. We just need to make it through today.
I love this book! It’s filled with many wonderful lessons, meditations and touching stories. I’ll definitely read this book many more times throughout my life. Radical Acceptance has played such a huge role in my healing journey and I hope others learn to embrace life with Radical Acceptance.
Rating: 5/5 Stars
If this book sparks your interest, join my online book club! We read and discuss many amazing books.