Radical Acceptance

date Jul 17, 2023
authors Tara Brach
reading time 17 mins

This cultivation of mindfulness and compassion is what I call Radical Acceptance.

Self criticism

Inner critic

I was the furthest thing from my own best friend. I was continually harassed by an inner judge who was merciless, relentless, nit-picking, driving, often invisible but always on the job. I knew I would never treat a friend the way I treated myself, without mercy or kindness.

Unable to see our true strenths

When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.

Death regret of wasting time on self criticism

“You know,” she whispered softly, “all my life I thought something was wrong with me.” Shaking her head slightly, as if to say, “What a waste,” she closed her eyes and drifted back into a coma. Several hours later she passed away.


Our feelings of unworthiness and alienation from others give rise to various forms of suffering. For some, the most glaring expression is addiction. It may be to alcohol, food or drugs. Others feel addicted to a relationship, dependent on a particular person or people in order to feel they are complete and that life is worth living.

Wrong assumptions

We may assume that our physical sickness or emotional depression is our own fault — the result of our bad genes or our lack of discipline and willpower.

Nowhere to go with all the occupation of the mind

Convinced that we are not good enough, we can never relax. We stay on guard, monitoring ourselves for shortcomings. When we inevitably find them, we feel even more insecure and undeserving. We have to try even harder. The irony of all of this is … where do we think we are going anyway?

Message of the original sin

The message of “original sin” is unequivocal: Because of our basically flawed nature, we do not deserve to be happy, loved by others, at ease with life. We are outcasts, and if we are to reenter the garden, we must redeem our sinful selves.


Only child

Being an only child, she felt as if she was on the planet to be the person her parents wanted her to be. Her value rested solely on how well she represented them, and whether or not she made them proud. She was their object to manage and control, to show off or reprimand. Her opinions and feelings didn’t matter because, as she said, they didn’t see her as “her own person.”

Parents to parents

Our imperfect parents had imperfect parents of their own. Fears, insecurities and desires get passed along for generations. Parents want to see their offspring make it in ways that are important to them.

Unworthy from the viewpoint of parents

As we internalize this view of our nature, we become ensnared in the trance of unworthiness. We can spend years and decades of our life trying to be who they wanted us to be, trying to be good enough to reenter the garden.

Pick up where our parents left us off

The running commentary in our mind reminds us over and over that we always screw up, that others are managing their lives so much more efficiently and successfully. Often we take over where our parents left off, pointedly reminding ourselves of our flaws.

Young children and abusive experiences

Young children make sense of abusive experiences by thinking that they caused them to happen, that they were in some way to blame. Barbara grew up assuming that she brought on her father’s unpredictable outbreaks.

Illusion of control

Internal dialogue about problems and people

We keep certain key themes going: what we have to do, what has not worked out, what trouble might lie ahead, how others are viewing us, how others are (or are not) meeting our needs, how others are interfering or letting us down.

Future thinking is an illusion

Living in the future creates the illusion that we are managing our life and steels us against personal failure.

Illusion of control by always thinking about what is wrong

Staying on top of what is wrong with us gives us the sense that we are controlling our impulses, disguising our weaknesses and possibly improving our character.

Temporary relief with an enemy

Whether it is a family schism or a generations-long war between ethnic groups, creating an enemy imparts a sense of control—we feel superior, we feel right, we believe we are doing something about the problem. Directing anger at an enemy temporarily reduces our feelings of fear and vulnerability.

Seperate and unique problems

His amazing insight was that all suffering or dissatisfaction arises from a mistaken understanding that we are a separate and distinct self.

Stories of the past and the future

When we get lost in our stories, we lose touch with our actual experience. Leaning into the future, or rehashing the past, we leave the living experience of the immediate moment.

Realising our goodness

How could they feel that way about themselves, he wondered, when “everybody has Buddha nature.”

Recognising our goodness

Spiritual awakening is the process of recognizing our essential goodness, our natural wisdom and compassion.

Accepting that suffering is universal

This was his first noble truth: Suffering or discontent is universal, and fully recognizing its existence is the first step on the path of awakening.

How to deal with the trance of unworthiness

Start with awareness

Without judging yourself, simply become aware of how you are relating to your body, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. As the trance of unworthiness becomes conscious, it begins to lose its power over our lives.


The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change… The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience.


We can’t honestly accept an experience unless we see clearly what we are accepting.


The two wings of clear seeing and compassion are inseparable; both are essential in liberating us from the trance. They work together, mutually reinforcing each other.

Not denuying or suppressing

Radical Acceptance is not self-indulgence. It does not say, “I accept that I have this lust or craving, and therefore I’ll act on it.” While it’s important not to deny or suppress our desires, it’s also important to be aware of what motivates us and the effects of our behavior.

Going to the root of the problem

I like to remind students that radical is derived from the Latin word radix, meaning “going to the root or origin.” Radical Acceptance enables us to return to the root or origin of who we are, to the source of our being.



When you become aware of thinking, you might use a soft and friendly mental note: “Thinking, thinking.” Then, without any judgment, gently return to the immediacy of the breath.


Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward any goal.

Disrupting habitual behaviours

When we pause, we don’t know what will happen next. But by disrupting our habitual behaviors, we open to the possibility of new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears.

Pausing is difficult

Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. Pausing in a fit of anger, or when overwhelmed by sorrow or filled with desire, may be the last thing we want to do.

Neither pleasure nor suffering

This attitude of neither grasping nor pushing away any experience has come to be known as the Middle Way, and it characterizes the engaged presence we awaken in pausing.

Pausing our mental chatter

Until we stop our mental busyness, stop our endless activities, we have no way of knowing our actual experience. Like Laura, we primarily know how to avoid it.

Naming the feelings without judgement

He didn’t know where he was or why he was there. All he knew was that his heart was pounding furiously and his mind was spinning in confusion. Putting his palms together at his heart, Jacob started naming out loud what was happening: “Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost.” For several more minutes he sat, head slightly bowed, continuing to name his experience.

Non-judgemental naming and awareness of feelings right now

Rather than pushing away his experience and deepening his agitation, Jacob had the courage and training simply to name what he was aware of, and, most significantly, to bow to his experience. In some fundamental way he didn’t create an adversary out of feelings of fear and confusion. He didn’t make anything wrong.

I see you feelings

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

Recognising itself will lessen the feeling

As I sit with it, I become aware that I’m afraid of not having the energy to get everything done, afraid of failing. This fear that has hardened my heart is what now needs my attention. The moment I recognize Mara, some of the power of that fear lessens, and with it, the self-judgment. I am not so caught in my assumed identity as a stressed, striving and potentially deficient person.

Lost in thoughts and realising it

You may get lost for a time in thoughts. When you realize this, gently note, “planning, obsessing, fantasizing,” and return your attention to your body. Again sense and name any strong emotions or sensations that you become aware of.


When we are quiet, we can more readily notice our changing stream of experience: of vibration, pulsing, pressure, heat, light, tastes, images and sounds.

Waterfall effect

The Buddha called our persistent emotional and mental reactivity the “waterfall” because we so easily are carried away from the experience of the present moment by its compelling force. Both Buddhist and Western psychology tell us how this happens: The mind instantly and unconsciously assesses whatever we experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Direct experience

The Buddha makes clear that being mindful of sensations does not mean standing apart and observing like a distant witness. Rather we’re directly experiencing what is happening in our body.

Let go of the story

Each time we let go of our story, we realize there is no ground to stand on, no position that orients us, no way to hide or avoid what is arising.

Feelings are the messengers

In the old days, if a king didn’t like the message he was given, he would sometimes have the messenger killed. This is tantamount to suppressing your symptoms or your feelings because they are unwanted. Killing the messenger and denying the message or raging against it are not intelligent ways of approaching healing.


When desire is a problem

Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are. In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food and sex, for love and freedom.

Immediate gratification

We often try to satisfy our emotional needs with the more immediate pleasures of food, alcohol and drugs. When they “work,” these strategies provide immediate gratification through a temporary surge of pleasant sensations.

Defining part of self

Our most regularly used strategies to get what we want also become a defining part of our sense of self. The overeating, the competing, the people pleasing, feel like me. As we immerse ourselves in the life-consuming pursuit of substitutes, we become increasingly alienated from our authentic desires, our deepest longings for love and belonging.

Craving for substitutes

Our fundamental longing to belong and feel loved becomes an insistent craving for substitutes.

The practise

Eliminating desire is not the goal

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue.

This too

When emotions surged up that felt too painful or consuming to be with, I reminded her to silently say to herself, “This too,” and with a gentle attention, focus on the sensations in her body.

Sitting still and naming

Sarah had begun seeing how even the most acute cravings eventually subsided if she just sat still, named what was happening and, instead of wishing they’d go away, just said, “This too.” “Suddenly it became clear that all my desires and thoughts and feelings are an endless, changing parade,” she told me.

After the pause

While we might still pursue what we want after the pause, at least we do so aware of some of the tension and suffering that lie under our desires.

Observe the desire

the wisdom of seeing that everything passes is liberating. Observing desire without acting on it enlarges our freedom to choose how we live.

Refuge: In ourself, our work and our community

In Buddhism, the three fundamental refuges are the Buddha (our awakened nature), the dharma (the path or the way) and the sangha (the community of spiritual aspirants).

Say hello and sit with me for a while

After a pause she added, “A voice is telling me, ‘You’ll blow it … you’re hopeless.’” I reminded her, “Just say hello to that too, and invite it to sit down.”

Does not help with the actual healing

What was I doing? My ongoing ritual of aching and praying and crying and hating my suffering was not really moving me toward healing.

Everyone feels some kind of pain

The anger no longer feels like a personal flaw or an oppressive burden. We begin to see its universal nature—it’s not our anger, it is notour pain. Everyone lives with anger, with fear, with grief.


When we look at our own lives and at the history of humanity, we realize that hatred, anger and all forms of dislike are a pervasive and natural part of being alive. Aversion arises because we are so deeply conditioned to feel separate and different from others.

Just human

She gave me a smile that was both sad and sweet and said, “When I remember that other people feel the same kind of insecurity that I do, then it’s not like I’m bad—I’m just human.” She paused and then added, “I can feel how we’re all in it together.”



Sometimes the very people we are closest to become unreal to us. We might easily assume we know what life is like for them and forget that, like us, they are always changing, their experience is always new.


When we have been betrayed, one of our first reactions is to lash out in blame. We create a story of good and bad and aim our anger at the one who has caused us pain. With deep resentment, we build a case against them, often with enough evidence to prove we should eliminate them from our life altogether. The word resentment means “to feel again.”


We can’t punish ourselves into being a good person.


forgiving is a product not of effort but of openness. This is why the intention to forgive is such a key element in the process.

Intention to forgive

Your intention to forgive is the seed of forgiveness—this willingness will gradually relax and open your heart.


I sought my god, my god I could not see. I sought my soul, my soul eluded me. I sought my brother, and found all three. - Anonymous

Not passiveness

When others accept us exactly as we are, it does not mean they like everything we do. It does not mean that they will passively stand by if we are injuring ourselves or others.

Not taking pain personally

Pain does not belong to one individual. Not taking pain personally is essential to Radical Acceptance. As the Buddha taught, life’s difficulties are not owned or caused by an individual—our changing states of body and mind are influenced by myriad variables.



We may spend our lives seeking something that is actually right inside us, and could be found if we would only stop and deepen our attention. But distracted, we spend our life on our way to somewhere else.


The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously.

The gap between thoughts

When thoughts arise, where do they come from, where do they go to? As you explore looking into the space between thoughts, through the holes in the net, you are looking into awareness itself.


What do you notice? Is there any “thing” or “self” you perceive that is static, solid or enduring? Is there an entity that exists apart from the changing stream of feelings, sensations or thoughts? What actually do you see when you look into awareness? Is there any boundary or center to your experience? Are you aware of being aware?


It is important that we practice dzogchen in an easy and effortless way, not contracting the mind by striving to do it right. To avoid creating stress, it is best to limit practice to five- to ten-minute intervals.