Sunday, May 15, 2016

"All my life, I was never good enough"

Probably the most peaceful moment of my life was lying flat on my back in my family's old gravel bank, my hand applying pressure to where the chain saw had cut into my shoulder, watching the clouds pass by in a clear blue sky.

I didn't know the extent of the damage, and it seems like I should have panicked instead of soaking in the feeling of the stones beneath my back and feeling at one everything.

It was as if, with nothing I could do but wait for help, I could finally just relax and not worry about striving for whatever it is I'm always striving for.

For just a little while that day, I was free from what Tara Brach, in her book, Radical Acceptance, calls the "trance of unworthiness." Like many people, all my life I've been walking around believing there's something wrong with me--that I am never good enough, that I have to prove something to the world, and always fall short somehow. And I find myself pushing my wife, kids, and students in the same way I push myself, always seeing deficiencies and room for improvement, sending the message that I don't accept them for who they are right now.

Improvement is good, but judgement and lack of acceptance is not. It keeps us from enjoying our moments, trapped in anxiety, resentment, and discouragement. It causes us to hide, pretend, and react to things in unhealthy ways, and keeps us from seeing clearly enough to bring about the change we need.

Radical acceptance, on the other hand, means facing and embracing everything about ourselves just as we are right now: weakness, anger, mistakes, envy, flaws, lust, frustration, fear, and failure. It means opening up to everything about our circumstances as they really are right now, denying nothing, hiding from nothing, feeling everything. It means seeing these self-imposed requirements and judgements and the suffering they cause to us and others. It means accepting ourselves without judgement.

In other words, there's nothing wrong with me. I have nothing to prove. What I am and what I have, right now, is enough.

Wait, is that true?

If not, then enough will be impossible for me. I know myself well enough. It's either enough now, or it never will be. I don't know if I'll have another minute on this planet, and I don't want to be like the woman in Brach's story who woke only long enough to say to her daughter, "All my life, I was never good enough," and then slipped back into her coma.

Accepting allows us to experience "enough" even in the midst of pain. Like the Buddha of legend, we can say to shame, fear and anger, "I see you Mara," and invite him to tea. Instead of being swept away in cascades of negative thoughts, we can defuse the chain reaction and experience the good around and within us, even in the bad.

But accepting doesn't mean being content with staying where you are. Like Tim Ferriss, whose interview with Tara Brach introduced me to her, I worry that accepting myself will mean I stop improving. I've struggled in the past on this blog about the balance between contentment and improvement. Tara Brach's answer is that honest and non-judgemental awareness of where you are (radical acceptance) is the only first step to real change.

My trance of unworthiness manifests itself in high achieving, never satisfied obsession, but I have students who are not high achievers, yet struggle more than I with self-condemnation and the trance of unworthiness. The outcomes may look different: me, enslaved to stressful striving, they, paralyzed in fear of failure. In both cases, we suffer.

For all of us, radical acceptance means being free: free to be enough, just as you are, to just lay there, feeling the grit through your shirt, maybe even bleeding, and just watch all those self-imposed requirements float by in a blue sky.

And then it means being free to act mindfully, and change.

So this is what I'm working on these days: practicing radical acceptance. 

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