Radical Acceptance

June 13, 2010

Didn’t emotional insecurity exist in the time of the Buddha? I’m not questioning the traditional “craving-hatred-ignorance = three causes of suffering” equation. Rather, I’m saying that the black pits of despair and self-hatred that our spirits hide in every time our self esteem gets kicked in the teeth are so deep, so dark and so widespread, they deserve special mention as a cause of suffering.

Tara Brach, clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, squares off with this problem on the very first page of Radical Acceptance. Chapter one, “The Trance of Unworthiness”, uses a combination of personnel and professional stories, to gently, but also unflinchingly, probe that sensitive spot in every human psyche that says, “I’m not good enough and I’m afraid to let anyone else know it.”

Subsequent chapters explore other emotional problems (uncontrollable desires, fear, not being at home in our bodies, broken relationships), but the solution is always the same: Radical Acceptance (this is defined on p. 26 (paperback) as, “clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart”). Each chapter closes with a couple of guided meditations that can help foster radical acceptance for the problem at hand.

It feels wrong to say something bad about this book, yet I couldn’t get past chapter two without alternately feeling grateful or queasy (or worse). What is it about this book that feels so offensive?

  • Emotionally laden words (e.g. love, heart, spaciousness, freedom, the Beloved, etc.) are used so often that they become repugnant.
  • Every chapter is constructed according to the same uninspired pattern. Poem? Check. Story about Eastern teacher? Check. Story about client or meditator with deep personal problems that ultimately get resolved through meditation? Check. Story about the author’s own life in which some problem (often minor) is resolved by stepping back and using radical acceptance? Check.
  • A view of how the mind, the heart, and even the cosmos, operate that is so single-minded and narrow as to be off-putting. For example, in chapter 12 (under “Realizing Our Nature As Both Emptiness and Love”) we read, “In Mahayana Buddhism, the open, wakeful emptiness of awareness is our absolute nature. Our original nature is changeless, unconditioned, timeless and pure. When we bring this awareness to the relative world of form, love awakens.” Absolute? Original? Unconditioned? Timeless? Relative? These words don’t leave any room for shades of gray do they? And, although I can accept that these statements might be consistent with someone’s doctrine, they are a lot for me to swallow (I’m not even sure these statements are syntactically meaningful. What is ‘this awareness’ in the third sentence?)

Perhaps I am just overly sensitive. The book contains wonderful poems (check), wonderful stories about Eastern teachers (check), and unflinching stories about people with real problems (check). And acceptance (why “radical”? why capitalize it?) is an important tool for creating and keeping an open heart. If you would like another take on the subject, check out this online interview with the author.

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