Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach Ph.D.
As I mentioned when I announced I was going to read the book, Radical Acceptance, it’s been on the shelf in my office for years. In fact it was my individual therapist, Kim, who recommended the book to me. Back when my daughter got sick, Kim helped me first to survive our family crisis and then she helped me establish a path to thrive. Along the way she mentioned Radical Acceptance and its author Tara Brach. I don’t know why I didn't read it sooner except to say that I believe the universe leads us to what we need when the time is right. Back then the time wasn’t right. Now was right.
Let me tell you, this book is full of gold. The title of the prologue is, “Something is wrong with me.” Right from the get-go she hooked me. Tara’s writing is down to earth, easy to read and to understand. But what struck me most was the way, page after page, I wondered if Brach is an earth bound Spock doppelganger, able to mind meld and read my deepest most private thoughts. On the very first page, Brach writes about her fundamental belief during her youth that something was wrong with her and how she struggled to control and to fix what she felt was her flawed self. “Feeling not okay,” she writes, “went hand in hand with deep loneliness.” Yeppers, I thought. I could relate to that. She ends the prologue by saying that it is our ability to free ourselves from the suffering around our feelings of “wrongness” that enables us to express the fullness of who we are.
Welcome to the foundation (albeit slightly tweaked) of my memoir in progress: a journey to lead by example, to stop suffering over my “wrongness” and fall as madly in love with myself as I’d always been with my daughter.
One of the first subtitles I considered for my book was, “My journey out of longing.” Not very original or descriptive, I know, but longing was at the heart of me and I believed it was at the heart of my story. So I wrote and I wrote some more, and the more I wrote, the more elusive longing became. The feeling was real. Oh so real, as I believe it is for many of us, but I couldn’t pinpoint where it began, what I was longing for, or how exactly it made me me. Eventually, longing scampered out of the driver seat of my story line to ride shot gun so longing’s bastard cousin inadequacy could grab the wheel. One might say, “Six of one, and a half dozen of the other,” but there is a big difference.
Anyway, Brach wrote chapters on mindfulness and on the sacred pause. Participants of my Rising Strong book club might better recognize this concept as “minding the gap.” She has chapters on the acceptance of pain and fear and on facing life and ourselves with compassion. But the topic of the chapter I want to mention here is, you guessed it, longing. Specifically what Brach calls, “The Emergence Of A Wanting Self.”
When I was a baby and young child, my parents loved me. Of course they did. They loved me the best way they knew how. Life happens though, and when my mother had another baby that died, she sank into a deep depression. My dad did, too, and they either couldn’t or wouldn’t help each other to heal. I don’t know which or why. All I do know is that my earliest memories are those of sensing that something was deeply wrong with my family. My baby sister’s name was Lauren and her death was never discussed. Ever. I probably wouldn’t have understood even if it was.
Regardless, my forming young brain understood that something was terribly wrong and in the absence of other information assumed that what was terribly wrong was me. There were times during those difficult months and years that my parents ignored me. Not on purpose, but come on—it happens under the best of circumstances. I’m sure they snapped at me in anger or hurt or frustration over events that may or may not have had anything to do with me. I’m also sure at times that I annoyed and irritated them, which they neglected to recognize as an entreaty. My emerging “self” felt alone and abandoned. I had desires that were not met. Every child does. I tried hard to make them happy. Then I tried harder. And then I grew up. There will be plenty more details in my forthcoming memoir.
The point, for my purposes here, is that Brach explains how our self emerges from the compilation of all of our experiences and our reactions to them, both pleasant and unpleasant. We want loving attention and our bodies feel sensations around that wanting. When we don’t get the attention we seek, our bodies physically contract. We feel shame (yep, been there) and want to hide (absolutely, done that). Brach writes, “The intense cluster of reactive feelings, locked in the body, forms the energetic core of a wanting self.” Whoa. . .the key insight I’d been missing.
Over and over again we experience the feeling in conjunction with the physical sensations and learn to identify ourselves as the two together. No wonder harmful patterns are so hard to break. We aren’t trying to retrain only our brain from the myriad ways these patterns manifest; we’re retraining the very physiology of our bodies! Only recently, and now from reading Radical Acceptance, have I begun to understand just how ingrained our life experiences are inside our body and how important it is to make our body part of the healing plan. Heretofore, I simply thought I needed more exercise. No! I'm beginning to recognize the physical signs of shame and contraction in my body like a flushed face, buzzing in my ears, compression in my chest and queasiness in my stomach. By recognizing them, I can slow down and meet them with acceptance. I can free myself from the feelings of wrongness and move forward in a more compassionate way.
And just yesterday, as part of the self-compassion class I’m taking over on CourageWorks, I learned about the necessity of soothing touch as part of a self-compassion practice—useful and helpful information that gives me a direction in which to focus my healing work.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours? Do you thinking longing played a starring role in your life? If so, how? And what have you learned from it?
Up Next: I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help, (How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment) by Xavier Amador, Ph.D. This book comes up every time I teach NAMI’s Family-To-Family class. I’m looking forward to learning more about Amador’s teaching to Listen, Empathize, Agree, and Partner.