Radical Acceptance???

I looked at this but did not change it on 4/13/10. I corrected a typo so I’m assuming this will now appear in google reader as a new post. It is not a new post and my ideas have changed since it was posted. I fully embrace the idea of radical acceptance now and my ideas regarding the subject have developed considerably.

I awoke the other morning at 4 am. Since the time had just changed the night before my body said it was 3 am. I awoke because as I often do I stroked my cat who sleeps between my and my husband’s head. I often stroke her in my sleep because I find her warmth and soft fur soothing. This morning she did not stir and was completely limp (this may have been a dream). She is 17 years old and becoming frail. I love her ferociously. She was my first pet. I got her long before I met my husband and she and my other pets are my “children.”

And so, I have for the last couple of years — as she’s developed arthritis and began moving as though she is in pain — had a feeling of impending doom when I think about her life being close to its end. I hurt when I imagine that it is painful for her to move. When I awoke this morning, feeling her limp body next to me, I cried out…”Kali! is she alive?” to my husband who in turn woke up startled. I could not continue to feel her body for fear that I would find her dead — I needed my husband to check. She was not dead. I remained awake, disturbed by anxiety. I got up a half hour later.

This fear of my cat’s death and death in general is made much worse by the fact that my brother has cancer. He has been battling it for four years and it is no longer likely that he will survive. He may have a year left, perhaps less. The fear and dread I experience when thinking of the loss of these two beings that I love so much often triggers several days of short-lived but intense depression. I am terrified with how I will deal with the end of these lives. Will my recovery be stopped in its tracks? I fear becoming an emotional cripple. My coping skills have already diminished over the time I’ve been on meds. My anxiety is that my fear is well-founded, based on my history, but in my more lucid moments I don’t believe that becoming an emotional cripple has to be realized.

This kind of fear of death I am experiencing may be normal, but it is not healthy–the truly terrifying thing I imagine is becoming completely unraveled. Coming to terms with the reality of the human condition, including death, suffering and pain in all it’s contexts–the things all of us deal with in life is critical for mental health. This is especially true for those of us who have delicate psyches.

I believe that the root cause of my problems are emotional and nutritional. They are not a chemical imbalance or mental illness per se. The root problem has been and continues to be exacerbated by the drugs purportedly prescribed to heal what was understood by my doctors as brain disease. Instead, I believe that these emotional and nutritional issues are not brain disease at all but do, in fact, nevertheless, have a very real, physically measurable impact on how my brain functions. This is demonstrated in my EEG as viewed by my neuro-pyschologist when he does my neurofeedback. Besides using neurofeedback which trains my brain-waves to act accordingly, and nutrition to heal my body, I must change the way my psyche operates. I think that the concept of “radical acceptance” is key to this happening. I believe I have started this journey, but have a long way to go.

The term radical acceptance, I believe was first coined by the American Vispassana Tradition of Buddhism. Though the concept in some form has a long history in all of Buddhism. It has been adopted by Marsha Linehan, who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT. The DBT modality was created to treat people with “Borderline Personality Disorder,” but has since been used with anyone dealing with all sorts of emotional issues. I’m mostly familiar with the concept of radical acceptance from reading Buddhist literature (most specifically, but not exclusively a book by Tara Brach, entitled simply “Radical Acceptance”). Here I will use quotes from A. J. Mahari as found on this website. He or she captures the idea very well. I will follow a quote from Brach’s book and then with my own personal caveats.

But first I want to start by quoting Marsha Linehan:

“To accept something is not the same as judging it good”

Below are the quotes from Mahari:

Radical Acceptance is a way of saying yes to each and every moment mindfully. If we can radically accept that we won’t always be accepted or liked by others and that life is full of challenges, for example, we can clear the pathway from the power of rejection and negative experience and/or thoughts and how we may have experienced them as severing our belonging. We can then make way for much more positive thoughts and feelings. Rejection or any other defined negative experience only has the power that we continue to give it. Radical Acceptance, in essence frees us up emotionally in reassuring ways that allow us to take back our personal power, or to not give it away to circumstance and whim anymore.Most of us don’t realize how much of our thinking is narrow, black and white, at times, and also very repetitive. Not to mention, often, negative and protective, often without cause. These kinds of thought patterns are always destined to give us similar feelings. Feelings that create anxiety and worry and leave us fearful and even angry. Feelings that, if acted upon, often produce very unwanted impulsive self-defeating and regrettable behaviour.

Radical acceptance does provide emotional freedom. It does this by freeing up our minds long enough with new information and possibility that we see that ruminating, dwelling on thoughts and worrying about things past or future robs us totally of every here and now unfolding present moment.

Life lived mindfully, with radical acceptance of all that is in each and every unfolding here and now moment is manageable and transforms endless suffering into manageable pain and in time, into a greater more stable and consistent peace of mind.

It is very important to work at tolerating the thoughts and feelings that you may have, for so long, felt very adverse to. Radically accepting them gives you an opportunity to get to know them in a new and more productive and manageable way. You will come to gain more insight into how you think and how that leaves you feeling by accepting what is and allowing yourself to equally accept how what is really feels without trying to deny it, push it away, mask it and/or escape from it.

I want to again emphasize the above quote made by Linehan:

“To accept something is not the same as judging it good”

An additional quote from a Buddhist perspective follows. It is more poetic. This is from Tara Brach’s book “Radical Acceptance,” pg. 27.

When we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, we do not clearly recognize what is happening inside us, nor do we feel kind. Our view of who we are is contorted and narrowed and our hearts feel hardened against life. As we lean into the experience of the moment….Radical Acceptance begins to unfold. The two parts of genuine acceptance–seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion–are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.

Now to add my caveats: This is all fine and dandy in theory. I will apply a simple but relavent quote from Ruth at Off-Label and thereby turn you on to an interesting commentary of several incarnations of CBT on her site as well. The quote:

It is, I believe, a verifiable fact that some of us have less control over our emotions than others; that this is a developmental stage frequently encountered by those suffering from the aftermath of childhood abuse and trauma.

And this results in much of the mental instability we see in those labeled with mental illness. With this in mind we can begin to think that perhaps applying the concepts of radical acceptance and differing forms of CBT/DBT to someone who is severely emotionally challenged may not always be effective. Ruth also points out that these modalities don’t work as well for those of us who have a “philosophical or analytical bent.” The applications of radical acceptance embraced by DBT and Buddhism are not straight forward. I personally do not respond well to CBT or DBT as traditionally practiced. I found them to be condescending and insulting at least as practiced by the practitioners I approached and the books I’ve read. The assumptions imposed upon the reader or client are often inherently patronizing. I have however responded well to basic CBT ideas and concepts as discussed on one of my withdrawal lists.

I have no doubt that these methods work well for many people and that the ideas are practiced sensitively and responsibly by many therapists. I’ve known many people who firmly believe that these modalites have saved their lives. I have no intention of minimizing or invalidating these people’s experiences. Nonetheless, I also know that CBT and DBT, traditionally practiced, simply does not work for everyone. The dogmatic believer will say that this is because of resistance or lack of motivation. I don’t believe this.

I do, however, believe that the ideas behind “radical acceptance” and much of CBT and it’s relatives can be extremely powerful for anyone, but the right modality needs to be found and that can differ tremendously from person to person.

To quickly address the idea of radical acceptance in Buddhism as a practice–I know that for many people it is a profound and reassuring experience within the context of community and meditation. I simply found it too elusive in that context–sitting meditation is not my strong suit, thought I think it is a powerful means for growth and maturity for many people.

I personally use the concept of “radical acceptance” as a vague underlying theory that propels me into an evolving appreciation of my particular reality. I don’t “practice” anything. The ideas just color my reality. And I see that I am changing. I have found a modality that works for me as well. It does not use the language or concepts of CBT/DBT and their relatives. Nor does it talk about radical acceptance per se, though it is certainly conceivable that some practitioners might use the term. My experience with a Hakomi therapist does, in the end, move me towards this elusive concept of radical acceptance which I was drawn to, but until relatively recently had no means of pursuing. My process of evolving in this direction is part of what has emboldened me and hoisted me out of what was a pathetic state of self-absorption. I am healing my “mental illness,” in many ways. As far as any therapy or meditation practice, everyone has to find their own way. How to find the path for your journey? Well…you’re already on it.

 

About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters

6 Responses

  1. Stephany

    Gianna,
    I have been reading your blog with great interest. I am sorry about your brother and your cat. Being a cat-owner since I could carry one, I understand the impending doom you talk about, worrying when the day your lovely cat will pass. One thing I did, when a Golden Retriever (my best gardening pal in the world)was dying from a tumor(she was 13 yrs old.), was to plant flower bulbs that I knew would bloom, after she was gone. Fall bulbs or something. She was in fact gone when they bloomed, and the solace of planting them with her at my side, and enjoying seeing the blooming flowers in her honor later, was quite a comfort.
    I had a dear friend of 43 years suddenly die 5 days after starting my treatment for bipolar disorder, in December 2006. I never ever in my life, imagined her leaving me. She was there throughout childhood trauma, fun times, and bad times.
    There just is not a place to file these things away in our minds. But somehow, we must draw from the positive memories of friends, family and even pets, to give us strength and even a laugh now and then, remembering good times.

    Take care, and keep up the good work here,

    Stephany

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  2. Ruth

    Hi Gianna,

    Great post. My cat was hit by a car a couple of years ago, and I still feel that I don’t have the emotional reserves to adopt another one, lest the same thing happen.

    I think that for a given person, at a given moment in time, faced with a given situation, ‘Radical Acceptance’ could be highly useful coping strategy. Clearly ‘Radical Resistance’ – defined as the opposite of Linehan’s suggested approach – can only result in a lifetime of needless stress, struggle and isolation. But if ‘Radical Acceptance’ were practiced across history by everyone in every situation, I think we’d still be freezing our butts off in caves. I think a certain amount of ‘unaccepted’ anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness etc is crucial to the progress of civilisation.

    I guess we need to find the middle ground. I know it’s a 12-step cliche, but “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
    the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”, seems to sum it up pretty well. My concern is that certain therapies have the potential to skew “the wisdom to know the difference” such that our serenity muscles become overworked and our courage (and capacity for critical thinking) withers on the vine.

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