Radical Acceptance

25 Feb

I just got back from the BOLD Academy in San Francisco and I came away from that experience with a renewed appreciation for the personal change process. I’ve tried to capture that insight below. First of all, what I’m trying to describe is a little nuanced (but infinitely practical) so if it doesn’t make sense, then feel free to blame the messenger. Second, it’s equally likely that you’ll get it and won’t agree with it. That’s fine too. Please let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below. I’d like my ideas to most fully represent the truth and we all have important pieces of it.

dancing-at-bold

The BOLD house vibrated with energy, but underneath that energy was a community of radical acceptance and support.

I’m ambitious. And if you’re like me then you know that setting and achieving goals is one of the most pleasurable feelings in the world. I love the challenge of pushing myself beyond my limits, failing, and getting up again. And again. And again. This type of grit got me through my tough times and I certainly wouldn’t have succeeded if I didn’t have a compelling purpose pulling me forward. But recently I’ve realized the limitations of this way of thinking. I’ve spent so much time being pulled forward by purpose and trying to overcome obstacles that I’ve failed to notice something else. The world was no longer the same. Change happens so radically today that my dream job may be obsolete by the time I even start a two-year plan to get it. Careers, businesses, and even entire markets are created and destroyed from month to month. So, I began to realize that I needed a new way of doing things. I think the problem is simply that my ego-driven mindset restricts me from making necessary adjustments to an ever-changing reality. I simply don’t know when a danger sign is just self-doubt (and I should push through it) or when it signals that I need to make an actual change in our approach. So, how do you know the difference?

Well, I have a guess. I think the method for knowing the difference is intuitive rather than intellectual. It is something I’m calling radical acceptance and the idea is pretty simple. If you are resisting your own thoughts or feelings then you are not acknowledging reality and the only way to stop compulsive resistance is start accepting – everything. The reason it’s called “radical” acceptance is because it accepts everything…including resistance itself. Confused? I was too. Here is an story of how this shows up.

A friend and I had just finished a yoga class together and a few minutes later I found her crying. She said that during the mindfulness practice, she finally became aware of all of the negative self talk in her head. The voices that told her she wasn’t good enough. The voices that said she needed to try harder. Her practice had opened up new insight, but as she told me this amazing revelation she became increasingly upset. “I just can’t believe how much of my time I’ve wasted,” she said. “These negative voices in my head have been holding me back this whole time. They tell me that I’m not good enough and I can’t believe that I listened to them.” As she embellished how her negative self talk had been such an awful thing and how she needed to get rid of it. I said, “that’s an amazing insight, but be careful that you don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.” She paused and smiled.

My point was that your ego will adapt to whatever thing you fear. If you fear being poor then it will make you feel bad for not making enough money. If you fear being selfish then it will make you feel bad for buying designer shoes. If you fear being superficial then it will make you feel bad for skipping yoga class. Resistance will always tell you that you are not centered enough or not being generous enough or not being spiritual enough. Know that it is all just your ego using resistance against you. And just like you cannot fight darkness with darkness, you cannot fight resistance with resistance. And underneath all of the surface level problems you are facing, the real problem is resistance itself.

dark-room-light-through-window-hunched-man1 PAINT(1)

You cannot fight darkness with darkness.

So, radical acceptance is deeper than just awareness. My yoga friend was aware of the negative self talk, but she had not yet accepted it. She was using negative self talk to keep herself from using negative self talk. It is silly, but also tragic. We instinctively move towards happy feelings and move away from negative feelings. We rarely stop and accept them as they are. Radical acceptance is such an effective approach because it isn’t about moving towards or away. It isn’t about compulsive action at all. When you accept everything as it is without an agenda then your actions will be aligned. When your actions are aligned things will change organically. It’s a complete paradigm shift.

Unconditional acceptance as a means for change is a radical notion, but one that ultimately frees us to walk confidently through the fog of attachments. It’s a little nuanced, but I think that’s the point. Our ego is fueled by resistance largely because, according to neurologists, the brain’s primary function is to curate reality. It’s primary function is to delete information from your awareness. So, if you practice a form of radical acceptance training (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc.) then you can offset your inborn brain/ego/curator/resistance machine that blinds you to what’s really happening. If you don’t, then you’ll be living in black and white (which, since we are radically accepting, isn’t a bad thing…it’s just a thing).

So, be careful with the goal-setting workshops and all of the stories about what you are supposed to want. Start by becoming aware of your thoughts and feeling and start by accepting them. If you don’t want to accept them, then accept that feeling. If that thought makes you feel angry. Accept that feeling. If it makes you feel bored, then accept that feeling. If it makes you hungry, then go make a sandwich. Remember that love must be unconditional or it isn’t love. so if you’re going to really love yourself then you need to accept everything about yourself, every moment. The key point is that even when you don’t want to accept something, you can still accept the feeling of non-acceptance.

2012.07.09 acceptance

Love is unconditional or it isn’t love.

Again, the ego is fueled by resistance and it will trick you into thinking that you need to DO something to feel love or find peace. Radical acceptance neutralizes this with grace and elegance. You don’t need to do anything to radical accept. It starts the moment you’re ready for it to start and paradoxically, when that happens you’ll find love and peace (and money and whatever else you really needed). The therapist Carl Rogers said it this way, “It seems to me to have value because the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” (The Carl Rogers Reader, pg. 19)

Radical acceptance as a means for change is about being centered not being pushed or pulled. And we all learned in high school physics that when weight is centered it reduces the object’s moment of inertia making it easier and faster to change direction. If you want to survive the pace of radical change, then you need to center yourself and accept the most current reality. Both in your environment and inside yourself. With complete acceptance of reality you will be free of compulsion. You will be free to act when you need to act. You will be free to rest when you need to rest. Paradoxically, it is only when you radically accept things as they are that you or your organization can respond appropriately to the ever-changing demands of modern life.

In 1906, the South African newspaper Indian Opinion held a competition to define the growing resistance against British rule. Gandhi famously adapted one of the entries – “satyagraha” – to define his vision of social change. We often think about acceptance as a passive act and RADICAL acceptance even more so. But Gandhi never liked the terms “passive resistance” or even “non-violent resistance.” In fact, satyagraha means “insistence on truth.” So, radical acceptance isn’t about change. It is foremost about truth. And yet, magically, it is through accepting truth that we change.   

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4 Responses to “Radical Acceptance”

  1. Dragonfly Diva February 25, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    I’ve spent the last three years immersed in the personal change process while I worked to get my MS in Leadership. It was an unbelievable, hard, enriching, enjoyable and detestable process…if that make sense – and I would not give it up for the world. Radical Acceptance. I get it and I agree with it! 🙂 I fear not being seen as a capable person, so I continue to load up on responsibilities to the point of overload and feel bad in most cases for giving tasks to someone else. I fear being viewed as selfish or lazy, so I rarely ask for help with those responsibilities and feel bad when I am overloaded and lash out at others, or have to have help because I become ill from the stress So in practicing radical acceptance, I accept that I have negative self-thoughts when I assign tasks to others. I accept that I have negative feelings when I lose my temper with family and friends during stress-filled times. I believe I have begun radical acceptance practices in my life and am experiencing some of the effects of peace and change. I’m moving past those debilitating thoughts that are internally based – not externally uttered. I accept that my feelings are based upon my desire to be capable and strong in the eyes of others and that radically, those feelings are not a basis for living life. Therefore by radical acceptance of these truths, my ego is able to by-pass its own innate resistance and move toward positive change. Insightful! Thanks for sharing.

    • chrcowan February 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      Well said, Diva. It’s so true. We are constantly exposed to opportunities for growth, but the ones that stick are the ones that we are ready to accept. How could it be otherwise?

  2. chrcowan March 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    There is a Japanese word that captures the dynamic tension created by
    acceptance and the desire for change -arugamama. Arugamama is a state
    of unconditional acceptance of yourself and your life as they are at
    this moment, but with the simultaneous intention to act in positive
    ways to create change. As one Buddhist teacher humorously put it, “You
    are perfect as you are…and you could use some improvement!”
    Beginning with this energized self-acceptance is the ultimate “start
    where you are” stance. Always complete. Never finished.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. In Defense of Ego | Act.Learn.Lead - February 18, 2014

    […] Ego/mind/etc., or whatever word one wants to use to describe something “bad” or “negative,” when it is used in that way…doesn’t actually point to anything. That is, the word exists as a signifier…a sign post….but there is no signified. The sign points in a direction, but if you were to go there, you would find that nothing exists. In this way, ego has no content. It does not exist! It is so simple. We have a word for it, like we have the word “unicorn,” but that doesn’t mean that they signify something that exists in the real world. “Ego,” then doesn’t really exist in the way people use it to mean something negative or bad. In fact, what they are experiencing is the misattunement of TWO things that DO exist. How then do we bring those different rhythms into alignment? Well, I think through radical acceptance. Awareness is great. Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. Now try to accept. See if you can accept it as well. Create a new exterior. Create a new object. That that which was subject to you and make it object. Make it an exterior (that is, make it part of “mind/ego”). As an exterior, it may help you OR….maybe it is already an object…and you’ve divorced yourself from that object. These are the things that you need to bring into radical acceptance. […]

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