Monday, July 4, 2011

Radical Acceptance

My spiritual practice is based on the concept of radical acceptance. In every moment of now, accept the way it is. Embrace reality.

My mantra is “bend like a willow,” which means, “bow to the reality of whatever is before me.” This phrase came to me after reading the following passage about acceptance in Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity: “The principle of the thing is clearly something like judo, the gentle (ju) way (do) of mastering an opposing force by giving in to it…[Taoism] showed how the supple willow survives the tough pine in a snowstorm, for whereas the unyielding branches of the pine accumulate snow until they crack, the springy boughs of the willow bend under its weight, drop the snow, and jump back again.”

Bend like a willow is my visual representation of acceptance: as a willow bends in the wind so I can bend with the events that flow my way and allow them to move through and past me without breaking me. In flexibility there is strength.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I accept everything all the time! But the feelings of irritation and unhappiness that I experience when I’m not accepting reality are the cues that I am off balance and need to come back into harmony with what is.

Marsha Linehan, a psychologist in Washington, uses radical acceptance with her suicidal patients suffering from “borderline personality disorder,” a condition worse that its name implies. One of the characteristics of this disorder is powerful self-destructive urges. Dr. Linehan, who suffers from the disorder herself, counsels her patients to not only accept their condition, but to accept the associated feelings of despair as appropriate for a person with this condition. Instead of rejecting their feelings, they accept them.

An article in the New York Times describes the process by which she discovered the concept of radical acceptance:
It took years of study in psychology — she earned a Ph.D. at Loyola in 1971 — before she found an answer. On the surface, it seemed obvious: She had accepted herself as she was. She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.
That basic idea — radical acceptance, she now calls it — became increasingly important as she began working with patients, first at a suicide clinic in Buffalo and later as a researcher. Yes, real change was possible. The emerging discipline of behaviorism taught that people could learn new behaviors — and that acting differently can in time alter underlying emotions from the top down.

But deeply suicidal people have tried to change a million times and failed. The only way to get through to them was to acknowledge that their behavior made sense: Thoughts of death were sweet release given what they were suffering.

But now Dr. Linehan was closing in on two seemingly opposed principles that could form the basis of a treatment: acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality and because of it.

Dr. Linehan found that the tension of acceptance could at least keep people in the room: patients accept who they are, that they feel the mental squalls of rage, emptiness and anxiety far more intensely than most people do. In turn, the therapist accepts that given all this, cutting, burning and suicide attempts make some sense.
This sounds like a dangerous prescription in the case of a suicidal patient, but Dr. Linehan’s technique works:

In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere tracked the progress of hundreds of borderline patients at high risk of suicide who attended weekly dialectical therapy sessions. Compared with similar patients who got other experts’ treatments, those who learned Dr. Linehan’s approach made far fewer suicide attempts, landed in the hospital less often and were much more likely to stay in treatment. D.B.T. is now widely used for a variety of stubborn clients, including juvenile offenders, people with eating disorders and those with drug addictions.
Alan Watts gives an explanation for why this works (This Is It): “Before a man can change his course of action he must first be sincere, going with and not against his nature, even when the immediate trend of his nature is toward evil, toward a fall...One turns the front wheel of a bicycle in the direction in which one is falling. Surprisingly, to the beginner, one does not lose control but regains it. So, also, to recover himself the automobile driver must turn in the direction of a skid.”

The complete acceptance of reality sounds like a dangerous prescription for being a doormat to many people. Are we to “accept” a person who attacks us? Does acceptance mean that we let anyone do anything they want to us? Do we just let bad things happen without taking any action?

These common prejudices about acceptance are wrong. Radical acceptance is not fatalism. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean we stay stuck; it doesn’t mean we don’t change beliefs and behaviors that are harmful. In fact, radical acceptance makes it easier to change!

Acceptance of reality greatly enhances our ability to act in the world. When we accept reality it means that we perceive reality more accurately, thus our ability to appropriately interact with it is enhanced.

This is the philosophy behind martial arts, and particularly Aikido, a non-aggressive system of self-defense. Aikido training involves learning to perceive, accept, and exploit reality to your survival advantage. By objectively seeing the dynamics of an attack you have the ability to use the energy of your attacker to move him or her beyond you while expending as little of your own energy as possible. The more accurately you perceive and accept the exact configuration of an attack, the easier it is for you to deal with it.

Radical acceptance is an incredibly empowering attitude towards life.


  1. Katie,
    I love this blog entry! I, too, am a big fan of Alan Watts, and there is indeed strength in yielding. In fact, I teach the importance of flexibility in my "Love Your Liver: Spring and the Wood Element" class as Wood must have flexibility in order to bend and not break and this applies to areas of life. Radical self acceptance is what I also call 'radical self love.' I believe it is a prerequisite for transformation and talk about exactly that in my forthcoming book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth. Thanks so much for these wonderful insights - and I love your partner, Arthur's song "Bend Like a Willow."

  2. Thea's son Sean has been teaching me about this in regards to basketball training. But I'm sure it would apply to a lot of other sports. He says, "Assistance, not resistance." It's slowly becoming my mantra.

  3. Thank you! Love words flowing about acceptance as a means to change/transformation. Much of the work I did when I was young so often slipped into a place that had resistance...'working against' injustices (rather than working F O R a clearly elaborated goal). Still I catch myself in that resistance place. Our culture seems imbedded in focusing on the problems (rejection rather than acceptance, of how things are) as a motivation/means to change.
    Its easier to motivate others to (take a stand, to take action) by focusing on the problem because it incites indignation or anger---a quicker route perhaps to the energy to jumpstart activism.
    Now my preferred approach is to focus on Evolving, particularly my own.
    Hoping to maintain energy states w/consequent perceptions and points of view that might i n s p i r e others (and me) to proactively focus on what it is we want to create, for the good of all beings.
    Inspiring others is a taller order! (Or a 'higher order', if you will).
    Here the arts, particularly music, is key. (s'cuse the pun--but then, almost said music is so instrumental to inspiring)!
    Which is why I'm really lookin fw to hearing yours at Firestorm Fri. eve.