Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance

There is no place you can be where you weren’t meant to be,

There is nothing you can do that you weren’t meant to do.

John Lennon….from “All You Need Is Love”


Typically, at the outset of psychotherapy sessions, I ask my patients how they have been doing since our previous session. I should probably think up a better opening line since it invariably forcibly entraps one into a non-functional answer.  So typically, answers might range from, “It was a great week”, or “Shitty”, or “It was a bad week”, or “Same shit, different day” and so on. So in other words, time is depicted as being either “good” or “bad” on the basis of the nature or degree of challenges that an individual faced over a given period of time, whether on the basis of external situations or one’s own symptomatic difficulties (eg., high anxiety etc).  Regardless, we are conditioned to believe that when things go the way the way we would like them to go, or when we feel the way we would like to feel,  then that is “good”.  So, assumably then, a “good” day is when things go easily, with minimal hassle, challenge or discomfort. This of course implies that when things don’t go the way we would like and we are experiencing difficult life circumstances, then that is “bad”. This in turn connotes that it should not have happened.  Of course this is all very understandable. We all wish things would go well all the time. And then of course we would be happy. Or so we believe. This assumes that the cause of suffering is dependent on the nature of external events. However, our tenacious clinging to the notion that the universe should comply with our desire for things to go a certain way undermines our ability to adapt to the way things are. This is a primary source of suffering.  radical acceptance

In Wetsern psychology, there is a growing recognition that the degree to which individuals are able to accept life’s pain and challenges, and in fact utilize them as a source of personal growth, is a predictor of one’s overall resilience, coping ability and life satisfaction and well being. This growing notion of what is often termed “Radical Acceptance” draws heavily upon aspects of Buddhist doctrine, philosophy and practice. So for example, Dr. Marsha Linehan, the influential psychologist who is best known for the development of Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT, incorporated such notions into her work with challenging psychiatric conditions such as Borderline PersonalityDisorder. Such individuals tend to resist difficult emotions and thus are given to act out or act in their feelings, often in very harmful ways ranging from self-cutting, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse and so on. Aren’t we all at least a little Borderline in terms of our resistance to consciously allowing ourselves to directly experiencing difficult emotional experiences? Most of us are in current flight from ourselves and are often trying to be in a different moment then the present one. But as Ekhart Tolle so beautifully reminds us, this moment is the only one we will ever have.

Dr. Tara Brach, author of “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha, teaches us that…“Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is.” This implies that we must all learn to stay open and present in our experience, no matter what that experience may hold. And so if that moment contains anger, we must stay fully present with the experience of anger. If the moment holds loneliness, we must open to that. And the same goes for sadness, frustration, disappointment, and so on. Just stay present. And pay attention to our strong desire to flee from the pain. But if you are able to hang in there, you just might find that as you sit with the experience, no matter how painful, it tends to loosen, soften and release….all on its own. And perhaps, most importantly, as we learn to sit with our discomforts, then it becomes increasingly unimportant to get away from whatever it is we are experiencing in any given moment. We ultimately come to learn that suffering is not caused by pain, but from our desire and endeavors to dismantle pain.

So it appears that their are two tears of suffering. The first is caused by our desires, attachments and aversions….as the Buddha taught. And it appears that among these desires, is the desire to not feel pain. This in turn promotes the second tier of suffering: all of our behaviors and internal defenses to reduce pain and the side effects promoted by those actions and defenses. So for example we drink alcohol to reduce the pain of loss and aloness. Or we post on Facebook or text and tweet. Whatever it is that we do does not dispel the loneliness; it only temporarily distracts us from it. Whatever our course of defense and distraction might be, and they are infinite, only adds to our suffering and actually can compound the initial pain. Or we can choose to open up to the feelings we are seeking to escape from.

Over time, this process gets a bit easier. It can be metaphorically likened to weightlifting. Lets say that one starts doing bench presses with say 135 lbs. At first, that might feel extremely heavy. But with repeated practice it becomes easier to complete a set of ten repetitions. And after a while, one might apply more weight at which time that will feel heavy. And eventually that gets more tolerable, enabling one to add more weight and so on. And so it is with emotional weightlifting. It never gets easy, but one’s ability to tolerate heavy weight improves such that over time, greater levels of emotional discomfort can be faced.  But any growth, whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual, requires pain and discomfort. We can certainly avoid discomfort by choosing to distance ourselves from emotional pain….in the short term. However pain does not eternally simply disappear or spontaneously dissipate. It just goes underground to reappear at a later time in a different manner.

In this manner, one can stay present in their life and thus end the cycle of checking out of one’s present moment. And over time, one can stay increasingly present, awake and fully alive. Eventually one might even come to view one’s pain, however it might manifest, as an opportunity for growth.

I am writing this post on New Years Day 2015. It occurs to me that every new moment is the start of a New Year. The one that we select to celebrate the calendar new year is actually quite arbitrary. We are all constantly invited to be present in this very moment. No matter what it contains. That is Radical Acceptance. So Happy New Moment to everyone!!!

Please feel free to post comments!! 




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