Practicing Radical Self-Acceptance
“With genuine self-acceptance, it becomes impossible to sustain negative judgments of others. We naturally do unto others as we do unto our self. We stop casting stones both inwardly and outwardly.”
The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence, by John J. Prendergast, Ph.D., “explores the convergence of psychological healing and spiritual awakening that happens most clearly and powerfully in the depths of the heart.” The following is an excerpt:
Our greatest suffering comes from our sense of aloneness. Aloneness has two distinct dimensions: psychodynamic and existential—that is, our specific psychological conditioning and the human condition that we all share. If we experienced an early rupture in bonding with our primary caregivers, we’re usually left with a strong feeling of interpersonal aloneness on a psychological level. Imagine an infant reaching out to connect with her mother, needing to be touched, warmed, comforted, soothed, nourished, emotionally attuned with, and protected, and instead not finding it—or worse, being shamed or rejected even for reaching out in the first place. Imagine this young child doing so repeatedly, sometimes desperately, and rarely being met or, if so, inconsistently or with confusing conditions.
What’s the effect of all of this? It depends on the degree and frequency of the mis attunement, neglect, or abuse as well as the child’s temperament. Infants will generally first rage and then give up, withdraw, shut down, and try to self-soothe. However, absent the stabilizing presence of an attuned caregiver, their nervous systems remain hyper aroused. They fail to thrive and experience a profound sense of being inconsolably alone. You may have seen and heard this phenomenon in puppies and kittens that are weaned too soon. It’s heartbreaking to witness with babies of any kind.
Some of my clients have gone through versions of this type of parenting. It takes years for their systems to unwind and repattern. Even though they feel desperately alone, they also fear opening up to others and risking rejection. To them, it can feel like a matter of life or death to try again. It feels almost impossible to trust another person and cultivate closeness. However, when they are able to do so, it feels profoundly liberating. Being able to authentically connect with another human being feels like coming out of a hellish underground dungeon and into the bright daylight. It takes time, often years, for this contact to happen and for lasting trust to form. It also requires skillful therapists or patient and loving partners who are willing to meet these people in hell without becoming lost there themselves.
When the separate-inside-self—the little me—is unveiled as timeless awareness, the bubble of separation bursts.
The other dimension of aloneness I mentioned above is existential. Regardless of our psychological background and attachment style, we feel alone as long as we mistake our self as a separate-inside-self. Separation = aloneness. There’s no way around it, even if we endlessly distract and numb ourselves. This is particularly acute in individualistic societies such as the United States where the fabric of community is increasingly frayed. The angst of the separate-self is magnified as family and community affiliations wither.
This type of aloneness shows up in our terror of death and disability, our fear of being a social outcast, and our need to be seen as a valued member of society. We see it also in our traditional religious beliefs as we attempt to make sense out of apparently random events. It’s also evident in our attempts to manipulate others so that we feel safe and loved or, at the very least, not disapproved of. We experience this aloneness as a subtle groundlessness, sensing that everything can be ripped apart at any moment.
Meditative Inquiry: Aloneness
Be quiet and take a few deep breaths.
Imagine that you can breathe directly into and out of the heart area.
Ask yourself: “Am I alone? What is my deepest knowing about this?” Don’t go to your mind for an answer.
Allow a deeper truth to emerge and let it in.
This sense of existential aloneness shifts as we discover the ground of being. When the separate-inside-self—the little me—is unveiled as timeless awareness, the bubble of separation bursts. We recognize that we are not just this story and image, these emotions, and this body. Rather, our thoughts, feelings, and sensations are in us as open awareness, and they are intimate expressions of who we really are. When we realize that we are a wave and the ocean, the existential dimension of aloneness dissolves.
Judging Our Self and Others
Judgments poison relationships and promote disconnection precisely 100 percent of the time. Check it out for yourself. Think of someone that you critically judge, consciously evoke your judgment of them, and then notice if you feel closer to or more distant from that person.
Discernment means seeing things as they are. Judgment means evaluating whether something or someone is good or bad, right or wrong. We can detect our judgments by the use of should in our thought and speech. When we judge, we’re measuring what is actual against an ideal—for example, we tell our self that someone should not have done something when in fact they did. Our conditioned mind is arguing with reality, which is something that it does particularly well.
When we tap into presence, we realize that we are already accepted as we are.
All judgments of others start with self-judgments. The less conscious we are, the more we project these self-judgments onto others. For example, if I think that someone else is truly bad, nasty, or evil, I hold some version of the same judgment about myself, usually subconsciously. Because we can’t bear this feeling about our self, we project it onto others. Taking responsibility for these projections doesn’t mean that we become blind to the harm that others do or that we are paralyzed from taking appropriate action. It does mean that we stop moralizing and pretending that we are essentially separate from anyone else.
As we recognize and see through the shadow elements in our own psyche, we stop projecting them onto others. We all have weaknesses and blind spots, and the more we can accept our self as we are without judgment, the more we will accept others just as they are. With genuine self-acceptance, it becomes impossible to sustain negative judgments of others. We naturally do unto others as we do unto our self. We stop casting stones both inwardly and outwardly.
Radical Acceptance of Self and Other
How do we accept our self? Here is a hint: we don’t. At least, our ordinary mind doesn’t, despite our best intentions. Our conditioned mind is designed to judge and compare, so to expect it to accept unconditionally is both unrealistic and unkind. Presented with the injunction to accept what is, the mind will judge itself for being too judgmental—talk about a paradox. My mother would call this a real kettle of fish.
The paradox resolves when we recognize that radical acceptance of our self and others comes from somewhere other than the conditioned mind. It comes from presence—the conscious recognition of being. When we tap into presence, we realize that we are already accepted as we are. We don’t have to work at it, we just need to recognize it.
At the end of a recent retreat, I guided a meditation in which I invited everyone to recognize that they were completely loved and accepted as they were—there was nothing to fix, change, or attain that would make them any more whole than they already were. During our closing circle, one of the participants, who had been notably quiet the prior four days, said that this particular meditation had touched her the most. She realized that she had long been holding the belief that if anyone really got to know her, they would find out that she was neither lovable nor acceptable and then abandon her. Letting this core belief go was a huge relief for her.
Meditative Inquiry: Radical Acceptance
Take a few deep breaths and relax.
Breathe directly into and out of the heart area.
Ask yourself: “Is there something that already accepts me as I am?” Sense what comes as you keep an open mind.
Open to being completely accepted just as you are.
Excerpted from THE DEEP HEART: Our Portal to Presence by John J. Prendergast, PhD. Sounds True, December 2019. Reprinted with permission.