Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach: Summary and Notes

Tara Brach talks about personal issues in a way that resonates with the soul. In her sessions —meditations and counseling — she is known to bring people to tears. The book we are about to review, Radical Acceptance, probably won’t do that but it will open you to a side of yours that you likely don't explore. Tara asks: how about you become your own best friend? How about radically accepting yourself and your life situation?

Her teachings may be inspired by Buddhism but even if you don't subscribe to the practice — most people consider Buddhism a practice as opposed to a religion — you will still find them worthwhile. You will learn how to deal with your pain, fear, shame, guilt, and other troublesome emotions. Importantly, the book teaches the art of self-compassion. Something I think we all deserve.
What is Radical Acceptance?
“We don’t have to wait until we are on our deathbed to realize what a waste of our precious lives it is to carry the belief that something is wrong with us. Yet because our habits of feeling insufficient are so strong, awakening from the trance of unworthiness involves not only inner resolve, but also an active training of the heart and mind. Through…awareness practices, we free ourselves from the suffering of trance by learning to recognize what is true in the present moment, and by embracing whatever we see with an open heart. This cultivation of mindfulness and compassion is what I call Radical Acceptance…[It] is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.”
As Tara Brach defines it, Radical Acceptance is an act of great love and resolve and it involves accepting ourselves unconditionally despite our many faults. From a Western point of view, that is a hard thing to do because the cultural myth of Adam and Eve teaches we are tainted by the original sin, and that our lifelong mission is to seek redemption from our sinful nature. This basic premise sets the stage for the feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy that plague many westerners.

However, with the help of Buddhist philosophies, it is possible to feel whole again, experience life in its full splendor, and escape the trance of unworthiness. One of the ideas that stuck with me is what the Dalai Lama calls Buddha nature. He says we all have Buddha nature or are essentially good and incorruptible at our core. No wonder the Dalai Lama doesn’t understand states like self-hate because how can you hate yourself when you are essentially good?

The point of practicing Radical Acceptance is to give way to this essential nature and Tara spends the rest of the book explaining how to do this in the face of fear, sorrow, trauma, and so on. But as you shall learn, everything starts with accepting our emotions with an open heart.

The following is a breakdown of some of the core ideas and concepts that resonated the most with me.
#1 You don’t have to suffer
You have probably been caught up in some kind of suffering. Maybe you lost a loved one, lost your job or something else has happened to you. It is all part of life but that doesn’t mean your experience(s) should be the central focus of your existence. Unfortunately, for most people, that is exactly what happens.

Tara says like the Tiger Mohini, most of us are trapped in a prison of our own making. Mohini lived most of her life in a tiny twelve by twelve feet cage at the National Museum in Washington, DC. As fate would have it, the zoo masters arranged for the tiger to be moved to a more spacious outdoor space but to the surprise of everyone, rather than enjoy her newfound freedom, Mohini moved to a corner of the huge playground and paced on a twelve by twelve space for the remainder of her days. She had simply carried her prison with her and so do many people.

Radical Acceptance teaches you to escape the patterns of behavior that have held you back. The process promises to end your suffering and given the countless examples from the book — including Tara’s experiences — it is something that’s worth considering.

Tara puts it best when she says:

“Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.”
#2 Take time to pause
Learning to pause is the first step to Radical Acceptance. It involves taking a step back and making a fair assessment of the situation. As Tara explains, most of us are caught up in a race from one goal to the next and the pause is the exact opposite of this. It can take a minute, hours, or even days but it reinforces the idea that you don’t have to react to everything that comes your way. You can instead consciously observe your experience.

The pause can be practiced in any situation which makes it a very powerful tool for shaping your reality. For example, if you struggle with overeating, and want to lose weight, you can ‘eavesdrop’ on the urge to eat instead of acting on it. Observe it as it takes over your body, see how it fuels your thoughts and influences your mood. This process is part of what Buddhists call the Middle Way and it teaches that there is nothing wrong with any of our emotions. For example, when Buddha faced fear in the shape of the god Mara, he would invite it for a cup of tea. Why? Because you don’t have to do anything that fear tells you to and more importantly, there is nothing wrong with fear.

“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.”

Tara concedes that some of her students and those new to Buddhism are likely to mistake the call to accept your emotions as surrendering to whatever they command. This is not true. For example, feeling lustful doesn’t mean you are lustful or that you should act in a lustful manner. The thing is, emotions are not markers of who we are because we can consciously change how we react to them.

When you think about it, this is an idea potent with meaning because it implies we are in a way boundless, and considering that Buddhism teaches we are an extension of everything and not some isolated self, such notions have a lot of credence.
#3 Embrace your emotions fully
When I read the book, I was surprised to know that Buddha faced fear and temptation in the shape of the god Mara. Buddhist traditions say that Mara would present herself as seductive women and scary monsters but rather than give in to the emotions coursing through his veins, Buddha would invite Mara for a cup of tea. In other words, he would show the god that she had no power over him.

Buddha teaches that there is nothing wrong with any of the emotions we feel. It is okay to be afraid. It is okay to feel anger. It is okay to feel shame. What’s not okay is to give in to these emotions and allow them to take control of your life.

The lesson here is that when you accept your emotions without judgment, you take charge and your emotions become tools you can use to create a better reality.

On the matter of desire — an emotion that all of us have a hard time dealing with — Tara writes:

“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.”

The concept of Radical acceptance asks us to approach all emotions in a similar manner. Indeed, throughout the counseling sessions that Tara describes in her book, she is keen to show how her clients were able to transform their lives by stepping out of their experiences and noting how they react to different situations.
#4 Practice compassion and love
Tara says that we feel most alive when we act in love and in concert with others. She writes:

“Feeling loved and loving matters to us beyond all else. We feel most “who we are” when we feel connected to each other and the world around us, when our hearts are open, generous, and filled with love. Even when our hearts feel tight or numb, we still care about caring.”

Her observation is a fact of life because as Mother Teresa once said, the biggest affliction in the world is neither tuberculosis nor any other disease but the lack of a sense of belonging. By spreading love and acting in love, we create connections that bind us to each other.

I was especially moved by Tara’s point about seeing others as real. She says as long as we can see others through their lived experiences, we would be less inclined to hate. She illustrates this point by referencing an incident that happened while she was traveling. A fellow passenger had celebrated America’s victory in the First Gulf War by noting America had lost ‘just a few boys’. ‘But what about Iraqi boys and mothers’? Tara wondered? ‘Don’t they deserve compassion?

The following quote captures this sentiment perfectly:

“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.”

Buddhism teaches that we are all an extension of the same reality and loving others is thus an act of self-love. It is something we should strive for as we practice radical acceptance.
#5 Heal through forgiveness
When we think about forgiveness, most people think of forgiving others but there is another side to forgiveness — forgiving the self. Here is an excellent quote on the matter:

No matter what appears—burning rage, gnawing anxiety, cruel thoughts of utter despondency —by offering forgiveness directly to each, we give permission to our inner life to be as it is. Rather than forgiving a “self,” we forgive the experiences we are identified with. While resistance keeps us stuck by hardening our heart and contracting our body and mind, saying, “I forgive this,” or, “forgiven,” creates a warmth and softness that allow emotions to unfold and change.

The idea of forgiving yourself struck me as novel because it allows us to start life without the baggage of the past. Yes, we might have erred. Yes, we might have been awful but forgiveness teaches that everyone deserves a second chance even from themselves.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is a wonderfully rich book with the potential to transform your life. It is full of deep insights into the troubles of the living and offers practical solutions rooted in centuries-old philosophies.

To get going with Radical Acceptance, I suggest you incorporate the following into your daily meditation practice.

  1. When practicing mindfulness, pay attention to your experience. Don’t wish any thought or sensation away rather welcome it and make it the focus of your attention. Remember, the goal here is to be aware of your experience.
  2. When engaged in an activity eg cleaning, or washing dishes take a moment to pause. Let go of any worries you might have. Let your body relax and stop worrying about what you need to do next.
  3. To handle the negative emotions of fear, anger, anxiety, and so on, recreate the moments that elicit these emotions in your mind. Practice saying no to them. Practice pushing them away. Imagine a world in which you successfully resist these emotions. One way to do this is to clench and unclench your fist as you meditate.
  4. If faced with a difficult day, practice imagining a smile across your face. Allow the smile to descend to your heart. Allow its warmth to take over any feelings you may have in your heart.
  5. When faced with desire, reflect on the area of your life where the desire becomes strong. Practice pausing when you feel the urge to enact the behavior understand the nature of your actions and reactions towards the desire. By doing so, you will gain more control over your desires.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for spiritual healing and awakeness.