“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers
My initial encounter with radical acceptance took place when I lay down for the first time on a yoga mat. Our teacher, Mari Gayatri, taught mindfulness yoga. She instructed us to follow our breath in and out and to embrace with equanimity anything that arose within us. She told us to internally name the thoughts, feelings and sensations that came and went. She said, to watch thoughts blow across the landscape of the mind, like clouds in a windy sky, and not grab hold or follow them.
I have to admit, that at first all this didn’t make that much sense to me. My mind was so busy, my gut so taunt with worry and fear, that following her instructions, even for a few moments, seemed impossible. This was a time in my life when things were falling apart for me and the ones I loved, and I blamed myself.
In the midst of trauma and loss, I scanned my mind constantly for some solution, some hope, some angle. I struggled and clawed at the reality of the situation and clung to the illusion that I could solve problems for those I loved. So how, I wondered, could I focus on my breath or allow thoughts to arise and fall away, when it seemed so important to hold on fiercely to every shred of internal dialogue, in case, in case, a rescue plan was to be hatched from one of these fragments.
But in spite of my confusion, I kept going back to Mari’s class, and over the weeks and months, began to get it. There would be moments on the mat when I could watch anxiety rise in my chest and watch it fade in intensity and then rise again more powerfully and then fade again. There were moments when I could follow my breath for a few inhalations and exhalations, find I’d gone away in my mind to ponder some dilemma, then notice that, and gently bring myself back. I began to loosen my grip a bit, began to let go of the delusion that I could somehow arrange things so they would turn out the way I thought they should.
This was the beginning of my radicalization, of making radical acceptance a central aspect of my life. Eventually, I learned to bring what I had experienced on the yoga mat into my daily existence. I learned to pause in the midst of things to take what Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance calls, “the sacred pause”.
Brach describes pause this way, “A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward a goal…We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on retreat or to spend time in nature….We may pause in conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart…You might try it now: Stop reading and sit there, doing, ‘no thing,’ and simply notice what you are experiencing.”
Learning to pause, like adopting the stance of radical acceptance takes practice and it can be tough to wrap our heads around what accepting things just as they are really means. It often helps to start with what it doesn’t mean.
Radical acceptance does not mean we like what is happening. In fact, what is happening may be incredibly painful. But, when we can accept what exists rather than struggling against it we experience less suffering. Suffering it is said, is the naturally occurring pain of life, in the grip of non-acceptance.
Radical acceptance does not mean apathy. As Carl Rogers (the father of humanistic psychology) so aptly put it, accepting ourselves, including all the circumstances in and around us, really does open the door to the possibility of change. Once we have let go of rumination about the past, the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, and released the anxious planning and plotting about the future, we are free to truly embrace the present moment, which is the only moment we have any real control over. It is in each of these present moments that the catalyst for change lives and breathes and has meaning.
Radical acceptance does not give us permission to act on the difficult emotions and urges that exist in all of us. On the contrary, acceptance and the ability to be with ourselves in whatever state we are in with compassion and tenderness, is one of the gifts of practicing radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is not something you do once. It is a practice. It is something we never truly master. We humans like control. We like to think we know. We like to believe we can purge ourselves of “negative emotions” and become fully healed and happy. But this is not the human condition. Radical acceptance helps us live with this reality and find peace and even meaning from the difficulties both inside ourselves and in the world at large.
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt – marvelous error! –
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Translated by Robert Bly