Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Book Review: Radical Acceptance - Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

Hello Friends:

This book gets five out of five 'wings' from your Adventure Hostess.

One of the best books on 'healing' I've read in ages.  The 'self-help' book that tells you that you are not broken, and even gets you to believe it.  However, calling this a 'self-help' book is a disservice, as the text grapples with our views on life and death, grasping and denial, love and self-hatred, and much more.  It might have really rated a 4.8, since no book is perfect, but rounding up the score is pretty obvious in this case. 

Radical Acceptance - Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach was published in 2003, and I wished I'd found it earlier than 2009.  But until this year I would not have picked up a book with the word 'Buddha' on the cover, thinking it would only apply to people with that mindset or that religious perspective.  But I was wrong.  It has a lot to say to anyone interested in what it means to start accepting yourself for who you are right now.  I also would not have picked up a book with 'Radical' in the title, since I would have assumed it was one of those misguided 'Optimal Health' type books that get my perfectionism hackles up.  But don't be put off, there are no 'ten steps to perfect' anything in this book.  This is real life.

Some of What's in the Book

The subject of the book is obviously the author's idea of finding 'radical acceptance' with ourselves based on the idea that we are, inside, already exactly who we are meant to be.  She works from a premise called 'The Trance of Unworthiness'; that people who feel the need to 'fix' themselves are actually responding to a storyline in which they are always unworthy.  They are always trying to measure up, to be better, to earn the right to be treated with respect and compassion, especially by themselves.  We all come by our belief in this story in different ways.  But in the end, the 'Trance' comes down to the unshakable conviction that 'something is wrong with me.'  Brach writes, "Underneath our fear of being flawed is a more primal fear that something is wrong with life, that something bad is going to happen."

Brach makes convincing arguments that this is not true.  And shows some ways to begin to think and feel differently. "The two parts of genuine acceptance are ... seeing clearly (mindfulness) and holding our experience with compassion."  Brach's text gives concrete suggestions for manifesting both of these parts, including meditations, pausing, reflections, listening to body messages, and more.

This is a long read.  The book is a dense, idea packed 330 pages that I've now read four times and I am still finding passages I didn't absorb on previous reads.  The list of chapters is wordy, but gives some good insight into the content and so I'm going to list them here.

The Trance of Unworthiness
Awakening from the Trance: The Path of Radical Acceptance
The Sacred Pause: Resting Under the Bodhi Tree
Unconditional Friendliness: The Spirit of Radical Acceptance
Coming Home to Our Body: The Ground of Radical Acceptance
Radical Acceptance and Desire: Awakening to the Source of Our Longing
Opening our Heart in the Face of Fear
Awakening Compassion for Ourselves: Becoming the Holder and the Held
Widening the Circles of Compassion:  The Bodhisattva's Path
Awakening Together:  Practicing Radical Acceptance in Relationship
Realizing Our True Nature

Every chapter contains stories and anecdotes from the author, friends and family, and patients in her psychotherapy practice.  Each chapter ends with a guided reflection or meditation.  And these are not afterthoughts, but important exercises that help bring about the change she discusses in the chapters.  And so that you don't end up thumbing through the book trying to find that mediation you liked, she has them listed at the front of the book right after the table of contents.

Yes, the book is built off of the key ideas in Buddhism and from the nature of insight meditation as a practice.  But if you are not of that (or any) religious bent, don't be scared off.  The book does not challenge or force a religious perspective.  Other doctors-as-authors simply excise what they want from a religion and pretend they don't know where they got it from.  Brach presents the context happily and keeps a deep sense of reverence and respect for all religious traditions but without any preaching.

The author states that radical acceptance is "... accepting our human existence and all of life as it is.  Imperfection is not our personal problem - it is a natural part of existing."  She is quick to point out that acceptance does not mean giving up.  "Radical acceptance is not resignation ... Our deepest nature is to awaken and flower."  The book guides us through our natural fears of loss and even death, as well as our habits of "clinging to experience, that must, by nature, pass away".  The reverse of this is being so terrified of any kind of pain that we run from it the instant we spot a trace.  And some of my earlier posts deal with the complete uselessness of suppressing and avoidance, and how mindfulness-based therapies (the guts of which we see in Brach's text) help counter that.

What I Liked

Almost everything.  A key idea in Buddhism, especially Zen, is 'don't take my word for it, don't take anyone's word for it, experience it for yourself.'  Radical Acceptance follows that theme - you don't have to take the author's word for anything.  You can read the text, practice the meditations, and see how the world appears to you.  Do what works, and ditch what doesn't.  The author suggests, "In making choices on our path, it is important to ask ourselves whether or not they will serve awakening and freedom."

The tone is accessible without talking down to the reader.  Scholarly without being cold and distant.  The author speaks from personal experience of 'being in the Trance' so she presents the material with compassion for the reader.  I feel that the author cares about people who are suffering from all the results of being sure they are wrong, mutated, and broken.

Brach uses very compelling language and incisive references to make her points, and many resonated with me.  "In contrast to orthodox notions of climbing up a ladder seeking perfection, Jung describes the spiritual path as an unfolding into wholeness."  Another comment helped me articulate some of my own experience with PTSD, "Dissociation, while protective, creates suffering.  When we leave our bodies, we leave home."  And one I adore, "Longing, felt fully, carries us to belonging."  This isn't a platitude, but a result of the author's own experience of allowing herself to feel terrible longing, rather than running from it and the associated emotional pain.

What I Didn't Like

Not much, but there were a few things.  It's a minor one, but the title drives me nuts.  As I said, anything in a book title like 'optimal power', 'unlocking the code', 'ultimate solution', 'uncovering the secret', 'revolutionary anything' and on and on, will always trip my bull$h!t radar.  'Radical' sounds too much like a word for an extreme sports broadcast.

There are redundancies.  Things said multiple times.  Over and over again.  Sometimes it helps, since the ideas can take time to sink in, but other times the book drags when this happens.

Some of the stories and anecdotes seem to ... miss a little.  They make interesting points, but do not seem to always underscore the point I thought the author was trying to make.  And some of the stories seem to lack depth, sort of present a concept in a somewhat superficial manner.  The book could have been tightened up by removing some of these stories, and thereby reducing the redundancy issues, as well.

Summary and Final Comments

I think this is a great book.  This is a 'mindfulness-based therapy' book that lacks all of the bad aspects of therapy and self-help books in general.  I would recommend it to anyone, even people who may not say they feel the 'Trance' themselves.  The text is informative, uplifting, and original.  The meditations are useful and give the reader some insight :) when practiced.  And for people interested in a different portal for viewing the continued evolution of Buddhist mindfulness in America, it's perfect.

Your Hostess With Neuroses


Amy said...

I think you've sold me on this one. I love the idea of a non-linear approach to emotional healing. I would like to believe that I am not broken.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Amy - I appreciate the comment; I'm also grappling with the exciting and surprisingly scary idea that I might not be broken after all. That I don't need 'fixing' just 'flowering.'

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