by Tara Brach (This article originally was published in Awakening Mind, June, 2003)
We’ve all been hurt, disappointed, betrayed, maybe even abused. Sometimes the perpetrator is someone we love; at other times it may be an institution such as our employer or our government; still other times, we mistreat ourselves. But regardless of the source of our pain, we instinctively react with aversion—both as individuals and as communities. Our anger and blame help us to feel in control and motivate us to eliminate the threat. We yell at our spouse or our co-worker. We punish ourselves. As a nation, we declare war on the enemy.
The Buddha taught that although such reactions are natural, at best they provide only temporary relief, and inevitably they fuel further reaction. As with all other phenomena, the Buddha suggested that we meet violence with an accepting, compassionate presence. But for many of us, the question immediately arises: Does this mean we should buckle under and accept the person who has betrayed us, accept those who make war or destroy the environment in our name, accept our own addictive behaviors? Such acceptance might even seem unethical—as if we’re supposed to simply stand back and watch harmful behaviors unfold with a detached eye.
In a recent magazine interview on my book Radical Acceptance I was asked, “As a peace activist, how do you reconcile acceptance with a world that is violent and filled with suffering?” That’s a good question, because it points out a misunderstanding about what Radical Acceptance means. Radical Acceptance does not mean allowing someone to harm us or to injure themselves. It does not mean that we endorse war. Rather, Radical Acceptance is the capacity to recognize clearly what is happening inside us in the present moment, and to meet what we see with kindness. We accept our own experience of the hurt or fear or anger that arise in reaction to an external circumstance. Only when we do so can our decisions and actions be guided by a wise heart.
This past year, reading the newspapers was for me a regular source of dismay, blame and anger. I felt outraged at individuals in power who made decisions that I believed directly caused suffering. I blamed them for deception, for not caring about the consequences of their aggression. But when I remembered to practice Radical Acceptance, the experience was very different. I would pause, stop reading and ask myself what was happening inside. I’d note the swelling pressure and heat of anger in my body and just allow it to be there, without judgment. Deepening my attention, I would invariably experience the grip of fear—fear for our world, fear of how violence and misunderstanding is proliferating, fear about how we are devastating our natural habitat. As I continued to offer a gentle presence, fear would gradually give way to a tender caring about life. Now I could resume reading and, instead of reacting with righteous anger, I was more inclined to respond to the headlines with compassion.
Practicing in this way allows us to see more clearly what we have been reacting to. We see that when we blame, we’re caught up in a narrative that necessarily includes a villain. Yet there is no single person or group of people responsible for causing suffering. Harmful behaviors are driven by ignorance—by fear, greed or hatred. When we realize this, instead of casting blame we are freer to respond with understanding and forgiveness.
But, releasing blame and accepting our experience does not mean we become passive observers. When we allow ourselves to feel the reality of suffering, a deep caring arises. Last spring, this caring led a group of us to form of the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Caring, not anger, was the spirit that propelled our interfaith peace walk. Caring, not blame, inspired some of us to get arrested as an expression of our concern over the war in Iraq.
Many of us reserve our deepest blame for ourselves. Here, too, it is ignorance—the perception of being a defective, unworthy self—that gives rise to our most troubled behaviors. If we binge on food or alcohol, and the next day punish ourselves with thoughts and feelings of self-hatred, this just fuels another round of addictive behavior. If instead, we can accept our experience with kindness, we begin to break the inner cycle of violence. This doesn’t mean we give ourselves permission to continue to act in harmful ways. But we don’t condemn ourselves either. Instead, we identify exactly what we’re feeling in the moment—physical discomfort, shame, remorse—and meet our experience with a kind attention. As we do so, our sense of identity grows beyond a “flawed” self, and we begin to trust our essence as compassionate awareness. We gradually become more responsible—more able to respond wisely to our present circumstances.
Our most direct way of promoting healing and peace is to become mindful of our habits of judging and blaming. It is a brave activity, because to do this we must let go of our most familiar, comfortable reference points. In the moment of releasing blame, we step out of the story of self and other, the story of good self and bad self, and discover the spaciousness and tenderness of being alive. Blaming distances while acceptance connects. When we let go of blame, we open to the compassion that can genuinely transform ourselves and our world.