Tara Brach: Radical Acceptance and Spiritual Activism
I was hoping to be in touch with Tara about the possibility of writing a brief blog post for Turning Wheel Media on the relationship between radical acceptance and resistance to oppression.
When [BPF Co-Director] Katie asked me to offer a blog post for Turning Wheel Media, I had just completed a two part series of talks [Part 1]; [Part 2]; about aversive judgment and how it is a form of violence that always leads to separation and suffering.
I agreed to contribute to TWM because since writing Radical Acceptance, it’s become increasingly clear to me that any true transformation and healing in our world can only arise from awakening consciousness. The below includes my own struggle with anger toward “the enemy” and a broader look at acceptance as the engaged presence that enables an intelligent and compassionate response to the suffering of our world.
Radical Acceptance and
adapted from True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom
in Your Own Awakened Heart
fter the September 11, 2001 attacks, as many people feared an ongoing and vicious spiral of retaliation and global violence, a wonderful Cherokee legend went viral on the Internet.
An old grandfather is speaking to his grandson about what causes the violence and cruelty in the world. “In each human heart,” he tells the boy, “there are two wolves battling one another— one is fearful and angry, and the other is understanding and kind.” The young boy looks intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asks, “Which one will win?” His grandfather smiles and quietly says, “Whichever one we choose to feed.”
We do have a choice. Meditations that cultivate mindfulness and compassion directly deactivate the anger pathways in the limbic brain that propel our habitual and hurtful behaviors. Mindfulness is the “remembering” that helps us pause, recognize and accept what is happening in the present moment. Once we have opened fully to our living experience, we are more capable of acting in a way that is guided by our innate wisdom and compassion. This awakening is our evolutionary potential: For the sake of our own inner freedom and the well- being of others, we can intentionally feed the understanding, accepting, kind wolf.
Yet it is important to understand that our acceptance is not passivity. My book Radical Acceptance came out soon after the United States launched the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As I traveled from city to city, many people asked me whether we were supposed to be radically accepting of our country’s militancy. “How can acceptance and activism go together?” they’d say. It’s a good question. If we only feed the compassionate, accepting wolf, will we ignore the wrongdoing in our world? How will anyone be motivated to stand up against injustice, to speak truth, to stop wars and to heal our earth, if they don’t feel angry or outraged?
I often responded with my own story. In the weeks before the invasion, I read the newspapers with an increasing sense of agitation. I couldn’t stop thinking about the men in our administration who were responsible for what seemed an inevitable next step in the global escalation of violence. Just seeing their pictures in the paper would arouse huge waves of anger and hostility.
Then I became increasingly aware of how creating an enemy in my mind was yet another form of violence. So I decided to start a newspaper meditation based on radical acceptance. I’d look at the headlines, read a bit, and then stop. In that pause I would witness my thoughts and allow myself to acknowledge my growing outrage. Then I’d investigate, letting the feelings express themselves fully. Almost every day, as I’d open to anger and feel its full force, it would unfold into fear— for our world. And as I stayed in direct contact with the fear, it would unfold into grief— for all the suffering and loss. And the grief would unfold into caring about all those beings who were bound to suffer from our warlike actions. My country was feeding the aggressive wolf, and the pain of that was heartbreaking.
Sitting with the feelings that arose in my newspaper meditation left me raw and tender. It reminded me that under my anger and fear was caring about life. And it motivated me to act, not from an anger that focused on an enemy, but from caring.
I was not alone. A growing interfaith peace movement was committed to feeding the wise wolf. On March 26, 2003, a week after the start of the Iraq war, a large group of us gathered in front of the White House. We carried posters showing Iraqi mothers weeping over bodies of wounded children; young American soldiers whose lives would be endangered; Iraqi orphans; men, women, and children from both societies who would suffer. After the designated speakers were finished, a mike was handed around so that anyone who felt moved could offer a prayer. A young girl perched on her dad’s shoulders spoke into the attentive crowd: “The Iraqi kids are just like our kids. Please, please . . . don’t let them be hurt.” We were a nonviolent protest, with poems, songs, and pleas to hold all humans in our hearts. The mood was contagious. When the police arrived to arrest us they were friendly, respectful, and kind. As we were loaded into the paddy wagon, I was given a boost and help with my backpack. In another van sat a bishop and a minister, both in their clerical gear. A policeman poked his head in and said cheerfully, “Ah, white-collar crime.”
The choice of presence and acceptance— feeding the wise, compassionate wolf— fuels the evolutionary current that carries us humans toward peace and full spiritual freedom. In mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, the world again honored the transformative power of a forgiving heart. Imprisoned in 1962 for his antiapartheid activism, he spent twenty- seven years of his life in jail. For eighteen of those years Mandela was held on the notorious Robben Island near Cape Town where prisoners were segregated, deprived of food, subjected to countless indignities, and forced to do hard labor. Yet during this time, he managed to befriend a number of his jailers. Mandela believed that people were kind at their core “if you could arouse their inherent goodness,” and he did just that: One warden risked his job by sneaking in Mandela’s new grandchild, so that, with tears in his eyes, Mandela could hold and kiss the baby.
When Mandela was elected president of South Africa after his release, he riveted the world’s attention by inviting one of his white jailers to the inaugural ceremony. His dedication to seeking understanding and reconciliation pulled South Africa back from the brink of civil war and allowed the country to make the transition from the racial tyranny of apartheid to a multiracial democracy. Mandela exemplifies our human and evolutionary potential: He stepped beyond the reactivity of hatred and vengeance, and responded to his world with an inclusive, forgiving heart. His capacity for radical acceptance was the very grounds of spiritually engaged activism.
We can feed the wise wolf if we care about peace and learn to pause. Mattie Stepanek, a thirteen- year- old poet who has since died of muscular dystrophy, wrote about this possibility on the day after September 11:
We need to stop
Stop for a moment . . .
Before anybody says or does anything That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Silent for a moment
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust
Stop. Be silent, and notice
In so many ways we are the same.
Tara Brach’s teachings blend Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices, mindful attention to our inner life, and a full, compassionate engagement with our world. The result is a distinctive voice in Western Buddhism, one that offers a wise and caring approach to freeing ourselves and society from suffering.
As an undergraduate at Clark University, Tara pursued a double major in psychology and political science. During this time, while working as a grass roots organizer for tenants’ rights, she also began attending yoga classes and exploring Eastern approaches to inner transformation. After college, she lived for ten years in an ashram—a spiritual community—where she practiced and taught both yoga and concentrative meditation. When she left the ashram and attended her first Buddhist Insight Meditation retreat, led by Joseph Goldstein, she realized she was home. “I had found wisdom teachings and practices that train the heart and mind in unconditional and loving presence,” she explains. “I knew that this was a path of true freedom.”
Over the following years, Tara earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Fielding Institute, with a dissertation exploring meditation as a therapeutic modality in treating addiction. She went on to complete a five-year Buddhist teacher training program at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, under the guidance of Jack Kornfield. Working as both a psychotherapist and a meditation teacher, she found herself naturally blending these two powerful traditions—introducing meditation to her therapy clients and sharing western psychological insights with meditation students. This synthesis has evolved, in more recent years, into Tara’s groundbreaking work in training psychotherapists to integrate mindfulness strategies into their clinical work.
In 1998, Tara founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC (IMCW), which is now one of the largest and most dynamic non-residential meditation centers in the United States. She gives presentations, teaches classes, offers workshops, and leads silent meditation retreats at IMCW and at conferences and retreat centers across North America. Her themes reveal the possibility of emotional healing and spiritual awakening through mindful, loving awareness as well as the alleviation of suffering in the larger world by practicing compassion in action. She helped create the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship and has fostered efforts to bring principles and practices of mindfulness to issues of diversity, peace, and environmental sustainability, as well as to prisons and schools. Recently, she co-founded the DC-based Meditation Teacher Training Institute to help address the growing demand for the teachings of mindfulness and compassion.
In addition to numerous articles, videos, and hundreds of recorded talks, Tara is the author of the books Radical Acceptance (2003) and True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013). She has a son, Narayan, and lives in Great Falls, VA, with her husband, Jonathan Foust; their 2 dogs; and her mother, Nancy Brach.
You can learn more about Tara and her work at www.tarabrach.com.