In the early 1990’s, a small group of prominent Western researchers and meditation practitioners participated in a series of meetings with the 14th Dalai Lama to collaborate on a scientific study of spirituality. During one session, Sharon Saltzburg, a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher, asked the Dalai Lama what he thought about the concept of self-hatred. His response was, “What’s that?” He was truly confused when it was explained that many in Western society live in a constant cycle of self-judgment, guilt, and negative thought patterns. He responded, “How could you feel that way about yourself? We all have a Buddhist Nature.”
Can you imagine living in a culture where the very idea of negative self-judgment does not even exist? Yet in Western society, due to the pervasiveness of individualism, we base our value and worth to society on achievement and external sources - money, power, and worldly goods. Unfortunately, as a result we lose a deeper and truer sense of connection to ourselves, others, and our earth. This cultural world-view is so ingrained and conditioned that we barely notice when it is happing. Dr. Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist and meditation practitioner, calls this the Trance of Unworthiness.
I too have struggled with this chronic undercurrent of negative self-assessment, driven by thoughts of how I should be and resulting in chronic anxiety, perfectionism, and an exhausting drive to do more. The entry of chronic illness into my life fueled my negative self-thinking for many years, but eventually resulted in a gift – forcing me to slow down, reconsider my perspective, and slowly work toward radical (self) acceptance. The concept of radical acceptance has therapeutically been used for decades as a component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It is a mindfulness concept that refers to truly embracing life as it unfolds rather than fighting against it or connecting it to our sense of self.
For some the Trance of Unworthiness will be far more ingrained than for others. The healing takes time and patience as we wade our way through decades of learned responses and emotional patterns. Some who have lived through particularly difficult or traumatic experiences will also need the help of a therapist in this process. Brach describes two pillars necessary in the work toward radical acceptance. The first is learning to observe and embrace our experiences mindfully without judgment. The second is cultivating self-compassion. She explains, “Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance…As we lean into the experience of the moment - releasing our stories and gently holding our pain or desire - Radical Acceptance begins to unfold.”
Let me give an example. Crafting this blog entry has been particularly challenging. I spent days leaving and coming back to it - trying to express the words in just the right way. I became frustrated and moved toward a pattern of negative self-assessment: “Maybe I can’t do it,” “Maybe blog writing isn’t for me,” “Is it worth this stress?” Then it struck me: I was struck in my old patterns of feeling unworthy. I said to myself, “Oh, there you are again.” Just by noticing the pattern without judgment, I felt a weight lift from my heart. Next I provided myself words of compassion and love and was slowly able to let go. I accepted that the writing process needed to take longer - not because I was “less than” but because that is what it needed. It was also helpful to remind myself that it’s my values driving this work.
I wish for all of you the profound peace and freedom that comes with these small moments of radical acceptance. If you wish to read about these concepts further I strongly recommend Tara Brach’s books: Radical Acceptance; Radical Compassion; and True Refuge.
-With Warmth and Light