When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in the trance of unworthiness.
We don’t have to wait until we are on our deathbed to realise what a waste of our precious lives it is to carry the belief that something is wrong with us.
The Trance of Unworthiness
We seem unaware that choices and options might exist.
We are living in a waking dream that completely defines and delimits our experience of life.
Feeling unworthy goes hand in hand with feeling separate from others, separate from life.
The trance of unworthiness doesn’t always show up as overt feelings of shame and deficiency.
Chögyam Trungpa, a contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher, writes, “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.”
While all humans feel ashamed of weakness and afraid of rejection, our Western culture is a breeding ground for the kind of shame and self-hatred the Dalai Lama couldn’t comprehend.
We learn early in life that any affiliation—with family and friends, at school or in the workplace—requires proving that we are worthy.
Spiritual awakening is the process of recognising our essential goodness, our natural wisdom and compassion.
The running commentary in our mind reminds us over and over that we always screw up, that others are managing their lives so much more efficiently and successfully.
Staying on top of what is wrong with us gives us the sense that we are controlling our impulses, disguising our weaknesses and possibly improving our character.
The more we anxiously tell ourselves stories about how we might fail or what is wrong with us or with others, the more we deepen the grooves—the neural pathways—that generate feelings of deficiency. Every time we hide a defeat we reinforce the fear that we are insufficient.
The renowned seventh-century Zen master Sengtsan taught that true freedom is being “without anxiety about imperfection.” This means accepting our human existence and all of life as it is.
Awakening From the Trance
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns.
The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience.
This is an inner process of accepting our actual, present-moment experience.
Radical Acceptance flies in the face of our conditioned reactions.
When we get lost in our stories, we lose touch with our actual experience. Leaning into the future, or rehashing the past, we leave the living experience of the immediate moment.
When things are going well, we question whether we deserve it, or fear that now something bad is bound to happen.
The two parts of genuine acceptance
- Recognition of the truth of our experience: We can’t honestly accept an experience unless we see clearly what we are accepting.
- Compassion: our capacity to relate in a sympathetic way to what we perceive.
Instead of pushing away or judging our anger or despondency, compassion enables us to be softly and kindly present with our open wounds.
Radical Acceptance helps us to heal and move on, free from unconscious habits of self-hatred and blame.
Buddhist mindfulness practices, taught me to simply open and allow the changing stream of experience to move through me. When a harsh self-judgment appeared, I could recognise it simply as a passing thought.
Realising thoughts aren't the truth is wonderfully liberating.
The Pause: Resting Under the Bodhi Tree
In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work.
What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?
Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so.
As happens in any addiction, the behaviours we use to keep us from pain only fuel our suffering.
The unfaced and unfelt parts of our psyche are the source of all neurosis and suffering.
The image of the Buddha seated under the bodhi tree is one of the great mythic symbols depicting the power of the pause. Siddhartha was no longer clinging to pleasure or running away from any part of his experience. He was making himself absolutely available to the changing stream of life. This attitude of neither grasping nor pushing away any experience has come to be known as the Middle Way, and it characterises the engaged presence we awaken in pausing. In the pause, we, like Siddhartha, become available to whatever life brings us, including the unfaced, unfelt parts of our psyche.
Until we stop our mental busyness, stop our endless activities, we have no way of knowing our actual experience.
We practice Radical Acceptance by pausing and then meeting whatever is happening inside us with this kind of unconditional friendliness. Instead of turning our jealous thoughts or angry feelings into the enemy, we pay attention in a way that enables us to recognise and touch any experience with care.
Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness.
Pema Chödrön, an American nun who is a highly respected teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says that through spiritual practice “We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.”
One tool of mindfulness that can cut through our numbing trance is inquiry. As we ask ourselves questions about our experience, our attention gets engaged. We might begin by scanning our body, noticing what we are feeling, especially in the throat, chest, abdomen and stomach, and then asking, “What is happening?” We might also ask, “What wants my attention right now?” or, “What is asking for acceptance?” Then we attend, with genuine interest and care, listening to our heart, body and mind.
It is important to approach inquiry with a genuine attitude of unconditional friendliness.
The practices of inquiry and noting are actually ways to wake us up to the fact that we are suffering.
It is different from focusing on how many problems we have. Rather, seeing and feeling the degree of suffering we are living with reconnects us to our heart.
The power of a smile to open and relax us is confirmed by modern science. The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight, fight or freeze response.
Coming Home to our Body
At these times, we begin to see how interconnected our mind and body are. With anger, the body tightens, the chest fills with an explosive feeling of pressure.
With fear, we might feel the grip of knots in our stomach, the constriction in our chest or throat. If shame arises, our face burns, our shoulders slump, we feel a physical impulse to shrink back, to hide.
Sensations in the body are ground zero, the place where we directly experience the entire play of life.
Both Buddhist and Western psychology tell us how this happens: The mind instantly and unconsciously assesses whatever we experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
The Buddha makes clear that being mindful of sensations does not mean standing apart and observing like a distant witness. Rather we’re directly experiencing what is happening in our body.
We train to experience the body from the inside out.
“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” When painful sensations arise, if we meet them with clarity and presence, we can see that pain is just pain. When we are mindful of pain rather than reactive, we do not contract into the experience of a victimised, suffering self.
When we are habitually immersed in our stories about pain, we prevent ourselves from experiencing it as the changing stream of sensations that it is.
As you move through the various circumstances of your day, notice what sensations arise in your body.
What is the experience actually like? Do you feel burning, aching, twisting, throbbing, tearing, stabbing? Does the pain feel like a knot, a constricting band? Does the area feel as if it is being pressed down or crushed by a great weight? Are the unpleasant sensations diffuse or focused in their intensity? How do they change as you observe them? Investigate with a nonreactive, soft attention. Allow the sensations you may feel as a solid block of pain to unfold and move in their natural dance of change.
Radical Acceptance of Desire
While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive.
We are uncomfortable because everything in our life keeps changing—our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in.
We want others to be a certain way—always happy, healthy, loving and respectful toward us. Yet because these things don’t happen, we are driven by the feeling that something is missing or wrong.
When we can’t meet our emotional needs directly, the wanting self develops strategies for satisfying them with substitutes.
It’s not hard to understand why our substitutes are so attractive. Even if they don’t address our deepest needs, they prop us up and for a time keep getting us the goods that give us those momentary pleasant sensations.
While we often don’t like ourselves when caught in wanting, this dislike turns to full-blown aversion when wanting gets out of control and takes over our life.
Most mainstream religions—Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian—teach that our wanting, passion and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred.
Now, instead of resisting these feelings as demons, I just practiced accepting them and, with some curiosity, exploring them further.
Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear
When fear takes over in this way, we are caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract.
Trapped in the trance, we experience life through the filter of fear.
Fear is the anticipation of future pain.
When I pause and ask what is really bothering me, I realise that in each situation I am anticipating loss—loss of something I think is essential to my life and happiness.
We are caught in the trance of fear when the emotion of fear becomes the core of our identity and constricts our capacity to live fully.
Because we are responding to an accumulation of past pain, our reactions are out of proportion to what is happening in the moment.
In facing intense fear, we need to be reminded that we are part of something larger than our own frightened self.
The Buddhist practice of “taking refuge.” awakens and cultivates that inner experience of safety and belonging. In Buddhism, the three fundamental refuges are the Buddha (our awakened nature), the dharma (the path or the way) and the sangha (the community of spiritual aspirants). In these refuges we find genuine safety and peace. We discover a place to rest our human vulnerability, and a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind. In their shelter we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.
The Buddha taught that our fear is great, but greater still is the truth of our connectedness. Taking refuge transforms our relationship with fear. When we feel the safety of belonging, we can begin to meet fear with Radical Acceptance.
Leaning into fear
The habit of avoidance seeps into every aspect of our life: It prevents us from loving well, from cherishing beauty within and around us, from being present to the moment.
Leaning into fear does not mean losing our balance and getting lost in fear. Because our usual stance in relating to fear is leaning away from it, to turn and face fear directly serves as a correction.
While the mind will continue to generate stories about what we fear, we can recognize the thoughts for what they are and drop under them again and again to connect with the feelings in our body.
Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, like “lying down on an icy couch,” It can be extraordinarily difficult to let ourselves relax in that situation. We want to hold back because it feels as if we might die of the pain. Nevertheless, if we can let the hard edges of fear press into us, the sharpness stab us, the violence pull us apart, something amazing happens.
Facing fear is a lifelong training in letting go of all we cling to—it is a training in how to die.
Awakening Compassion for Ourselves
Being hard on ourselves like Daniel is familiar to many of us. We often distance ourselves from emotional pain—our vulnerability, anger, jealousy, fear—by covering it over with self-judgment.
In the Buddhist tradition, one who has realized the fullness of compassion and lives from compassion is called a bodhisattva.
Although not always highlighted in the West, prayer and devotion are a living stream in Buddhism. The earnest wishes expressed in the practices of lovingkindness and compassion—may I be happy, may I be free from pain and suffering—are forms of prayer.
but with mindful prayer we also turn inward and listen deeply to the suffering that is giving rise to our prayer.
When we understand our pain as an intrinsic gateway to compassion, we begin to awaken from the imprisoning story of a suffering self.
Widening the Circles of Compassion
Spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti wrote that “to pay attention means we care, which means we really love.” Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.
In describing his own spiritual unfolding, Mahatma Gandhi said, “I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth. By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody. I know this is a big claim. Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.”
Aversion arises because we are so deeply conditioned to feel separate and different from others.
Compassion for ourselves naturally leads to compassion for others.
The 'Unreal' Other
Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.
Our immediate response of attraction or aversion, of interest or inattention, is part of our biological programming for survival. How a person looks, the way they smell and speak, alerts us to whether or not they are from the same tribe.
Longfellow writes, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
As Mother Teresa teaches, “We can do no great things—only small things with great love.”
Recognising Our Basic Goodness
The Buddhist perspective holds that there is no such thing as a sinful or evil person. When we harm ourselves or others, it is not because we are bad but because we are ignorant.
Whether we are angry with ourselves or others, we forgive by letting go of blame and opening to the pain we have tried to push away.
No matter what appears—burning rage, gnawing anxiety, cruel thoughts or utter despondency—by offering forgiveness directly to each, we give permission to our inner life to be as it is.
Feeling guilty and bad about ourselves for something we’ve done might temporarily restrain us from doing harm, but ultimately blaming and hating ourselves only leads to further harmful actions.
Through the simple practice of seeing our own goodness, we undo the deeply rooted habits of blame and self-hate that keep us feeling isolated and unworthy.
By letting go of our habitual ways of defining others, we can see the radiant awareness, the goodness of their true nature. Most of us, however, fall into the habit of pinning a narrow and static identity on those around us. All too often this is based on behaviours we find unpleasant or annoying. We might fixate on how stubborn or rude our child is, or how a colleague brags about his accomplishments. If someone has offended us, we feel wary and guarded each time we see them. If our partner makes a cutting remark to us before leaving for work in the morning, we are ready for more of the same in the evening. We forget that every person, including ourselves, is new every moment.
We are social beings—we eat, sleep, work, love, heal, fulfill ourselves and awaken with each other. Even when we are completely alone, we carry within us the sense of whom we belong with and our concerns about how others regard
While periods of solitude are a precious and vital part of spiritual practice, teachings that primarily emphasise silent meditation and a focus on one’s inner life can lead to a basic misunderstanding.
Tricycle magazine once printed a cartoon featuring an ad for a Buddhist personals column: Tall, Dark, Handsome Buddhist looking For himself.
If we consider our practice to be “spiritual” only when it takes place in the context of formal meditations, we are missing how critical daily relationships are to our awakening.
While engaged in conversation, instead of immediately responding when someone speaks, we pause for a moment, relax our body and mind and mindfully notice what we are experiencing. We might inquire, “What really wants attention?” and notice the feelings and thoughts that are arising. Are we judging or interpreting or commenting on what another person is saying? What sensations are we experiencing in our body? By pausing and paying attention we become acutely aware of our patterns of reaction.
Not taking pain personally is essential to Radical Acceptance.
Not taking our pain personally is a profound shift away from our habitual way of regarding our life. Even when we are trying not to judge ourselves, it is easy to assume that our jealous thoughts, our selfish tendencies, our compulsions and our often nonstop judging are a personal problem and sign of deficiency.
Realising our True Nature
We may spend our lives seeking something that is actually right inside us, and could be found if we would only stop and deepen our attention. But distracted, we spend our life on our way to somewhere else.
No matter how thick are the clouds of fear, shame and confusion, we can remember our longing to awaken compassion, our longing to be wise and free.