An interview with Tara Brach and an excerpt from her book, Radical Acceptance
Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, in her new book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam, 2003, $23.95, cloth), shows how Buddhist teachings and practice can help us heal pervasive feelings of unworthiness that keep us at war with ourselves and others, and guide us in responding deeply and compassionately to suffering in the world. Brach’s message could not be timelier. On the eve of America’s invasion of Iraq, Tricycle spoke with Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C., where she had just co-led an interfaith yatra—silent peace walk—and was pondering what further peace action was called for.
What is Radical Acceptance? Radical Acceptance is a different way of framing the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion. It is the capacity to clearly recognize our inner experience and embrace what we see with a kind heart. Radical Acceptance emphasizes a flavor of the dharma that’s especially needed at this time in our culture. We habitually reject parts of ourselves, and we judge others and make them the enemy. Befriending whatever we experience is what begins to free us.
Our basic suffering is that we have a sense of being a separate self, and the primal mood of the separate self is fear. Whenever there’s fear, we feel that something’s wrong. Sometimes we aim that at ourselves: Something’s wrong with me, I’m bad. That’s the trance of unworthiness, and it burdens us with shame and anxiety, depression and anger. We also project fear outward and mistrust others: You’re a threat to my existence, I need to defend myself, I need to attack you. Basically, the trance of separation keeps us at war with the life inside us and with the world around us.
How does your approach combine Buddhism and Western psychotherapy? Psychotherapy calls our attention to emotional difficulties; Buddhist practices enable us to face and transform them fully. Buddhist meditation trains us to stay present with experiences we might otherwise push away.
What practices can we do to work with difficult emotions, particularly fear? We’re continually resisting the present moment and tumbling into the future. So the basic practice is to pause and create a space of nondoing. That is the beginning of Radical Acceptance. To genuinely accept our inner experience, we have to arrive fully right now. Legend has it that even after the Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara, the god of greed, hatred and delusion, would appear unexpectedly now and then. Ananda, the Buddha’s devoted disciple, was very disturbed by this. But each time, the Buddha would greet Mara with unconditional friendliness and say, “I see, you Mara.” That response is the essence of mindfulness. When I teach people about cultivating Radical Acceptance, I encourage them to ask: What really wants attention right now? What wants to be accepted? Then we might use the tool of naming—just gently naming what’s there. [See excerpt on final page.]
After recognizing Mara, the Buddha would then invite him to tea. That expresses the quality of compassion—welcoming our experience. The practice of really saying “yes” to life has helped me so much. On one of the first retreats I did at IMS [Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts], I was going through a lot of adversity. So I just decided to say “yes” to whatever I experienced. Yes to this ache, yes to this snuffle, yes to this irritation, yes to my obsessive thoughts. At first it was kind of grudging, then everything became kind of silly. Then there was tenderness at meeting each experience with the idea “It’s okay.” That allowed for a real spaciousness: life could just drift through, and there was room for it. Inviting Mara to tea is simply saying “yes” to whatever arises in the body and mind.
How can Radical Acceptance help us in stressful times? With Radical Acceptance, we cultivate what the Indian teacher Munindra called “a heart that is ready for anything.” Right now there seems to be huge stress in both our personal lives and in the world. Every day when I read the front page of the newspaper, my first reaction is anger at seeing our country plunge into war against the Iraqi people. If I sit with that anger, I see that what I’m really feeling is fear - fear of the suffering that goes hand in hand with violence. If I stay mindful of that fear, rather than pushing it away or feeding it, it naturally unfolds into grief about loss. And under that grief is my deep caring about this world.
Radical Acceptance doesn’t mean being passive about situations that cause us stress. When we accept exactly what we’re experiencing in the present moment—if we really open up to whatever is going on in our body and heart—then we are naturally going to act to relieve suffering, whether it’s in our personal life or in the world. And if, instead of reacting and adding more violence to the situation, we pause and deepen our attention, we can respond from a place that cherishes life.