Radical acceptance is about decreasing our resistance to the things we don't like. It's the capacity to notice when you are actively resisting a reality that conflicts with how you want things to be, and the willingness to work with this reality. To use a poker analogy, radical acceptance means playing the best hand you can with the cards you're dealt, rather than folding every time you don't get the exact cards you want.
We resist reality all the time. Just the other day I found myself unexpectedly stuck in traffic. Before I knew it, I was pounding my fists against the steering wheel while exasperatingly glaring at the clock, daring it to tick on. Then that little radical acceptance bell went off in my head. The bell that signals to me that I am wasting my energy, and wasting the moment by refusing to accept things as they are.
I stopped beating up my steering wheel. I relaxed my shoulders. My frustration with the situation wasn't going to change it. Acceptance. My response to the situation wasn't effective for me or my poor steering wheel. Acceptance. At the end of the day, our lives are ultimately made up of moments like these, moments in which we are subjected to a reality that is something other than what we want it to be. We can put our energy towards fighting these moments, or we can shift our perspective. Acceptance. I turned on The National, rolled down my windows, and enjoyed the sensation of resistance melting away.
So what exactly is radical acceptance? What did I do in that moment to shift my perspective?
1. Radical acceptance is first acknowledging reality. In this sense, it is kind of the opposite of denial. Rather than looking away from an experience because we find it threatening or difficult, we look directly at it, without attempting to change or distort it.
2. Radical acceptance is not the same as liking something. I can accept that I have a chronic disease. I don't have to like it.
3. Suffering = pain + resistance. If you decrease resistance and increase acceptance, you will still have pain, but your suffering will decrease. Not sure about this? Consider the research on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is one of the most effective interventions for chronic pain. It does not involve medications, physical therapy, or medical intervention. It is an 8-week course that teaches patients how to practice mindfulness, and how to cultivate acceptance. MBSR has proven to be one of the most effective treatments in reducing the suffering associated with chronic pain.
4. Radical acceptance is choosing to tolerate and wholeheartedly (radically) embrace the moment. It's shifting your focus away from how things "should be" and towards how they are. We often make the mistake of thinking that if we accept painful situations we will become complacent. If we don't resist what we don't like, then it will subsume us. In truth, it's usually the opposite: by avoiding or resisting what we don't like, we lose the ability to change it. For instance, if you have a substance abuse problem that you refuse to accept, it is unlikely that you will seek the help needed to resolve it.
When I was first diagnosed with MS, I was frankly in a bit of denial. I went to all my doctor appointments and took the meds they prescribed, but part of me wouldn't let it sink in. I was a runner. Had always been a runner. I'd developed some lower back pain that I'd explained away as passing sciatica. The doctors told me it was likely a complication of the MS. They said I needed to stop running. I kept running. The pain got worse. I kept running. They said, "if you keep going at this pace, you won't be able to walk, much less run." I kept running. Then the acceptance bell went off.
I reoriented. I began confiding in friends and colleagues about my diagnosis and in so doing took the first steps towards truly acknowledging it. I decidedly did not like this reality, but I accepted it. I chose to stop actively resisting it through my behavior (running), but I also chose not to let it subsume me. So I stopped hitting the pavement and started using ellipticals instead. I gave up my identity as a runner, and committed myself more generally to health and wellness.
One final note about acceptance: it truly is a practice. The things we resist most - death, loss, illness - usually require consistent if not daily efforts to accept. There's a reason AA meetings open with members stating their name followed by the statement "and I'm an alcoholic"- truths like these are easy to resist and require ongoing efforts to accept. That's not to say they will plague you forever; on, the contrary, learning to accept them is the only way to overcome the suffering they otherwise cause.
If you are working on radical acceptance or want to learn more about this skill, I highly recommend Tara Brach's Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. She provides very straightforward strategies for cultivating radical acceptance and using it to navigate life's challenges.