Radical Acceptance: Healing Trauma though Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy
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Radical Acceptance: Healing Trauma though Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy
The Power of Radical Acceptance:
Healing Trauma though the Integration of Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy


When I was in college, I went off to the mountains for a weekend of hiking with an older, wiser friend of twenty-two.  After we set up our tent, we sat by a stream, watching the water swirl around rocks and talking about our lives. At one point she described how she was learning to be "her own best friend." A huge wave of sadness came over me, and I broke down sobbing. I was the farthest thing from my own best friend.  I was continually harassed by an inner judge who was merciless, relentless, nit-picking, driving, often invisible but always on the job. In the eyes of the world, I was highly functional. Internally, I was anxious, driven and often depressed. I didn’t feel at peace with any part of my life. I longed to be kinder to myself. I longed to befriend my inner experience and to feel more intimacy and ease with the people in my life.

These longings drew me to psychotherapy—as a client and then clinician—and to the Buddhist path. In the weaving of these traditions I discovered what I now call “Radical Acceptance,” which means clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion. Carl Rogers wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”  In my own inner work, and in working with my psychotherapy clients and meditation students, I see over and over that Radical Acceptance is the gateway to healing wounds and spiritual transformation. When we can meet our experience with Radical Acceptance, we discover the wholeness, wisdom and love that are our deepest nature.

Buddhist meditation practices and psychotherapy contribute to Radical Acceptance in distinct and complementary ways. With Buddhist mindfulness training we learn to be aware of what is happening inside us with a clear, non-judging attention. Specific practices to develop compassion cultivate our capacity to hold with kindness painful or intense experiences that are arising within us.  Although taught and practiced in groups, these trainings of heart and mind are primarily a solitary, intrapsychic endeavor.  Especially when there has been childhood trauma, “going it alone" in this way can be frightening and disorienting. Mindfulness practices can unleash buried emotions that might re-traumatize the unskilled practitioner. Or, rigid and habitual defenses against raw feelings may impede the ability to focus or relax. In either case, meditation feels discouraging or impossible, only deepening a sense of unworthiness.

When there is deep wounding, the presence of the therapist and the tools of psychotherapy provide a safe and supportive container in which memories and associated feelings can gradually come into consciousness. But in my experience, if the process of including difficult emotions in awareness stops at the level of cognitive understanding without a fully embodied experience, the genuine acceptance, insight and inner freedom that are the essence of true healing will not be complete.  Also, if the client can only access and open to strong feelings in the presence of the therapist, he or she will not have the tools or confidence to continue on a path of personal and spiritual transformation. The work with my client Rosalie is an example of how, through a combination of psychotherapy and meditation practices, Radical Acceptance can lead to profound healing and spiritual transformation in a traumatized client.


Traumatic abuse causes lasting changes in our physiology, nervous system and brain chemistry.  In the course of normal development, memories are consolidated as we evaluate each new situation in terms of the cohesive worldview we have previously formulated. When there has been trauma, this cognitive process is short-circuited by the surge of painful and intense stimulation. Instead of “processing the experience” by fitting it into our understanding of how the world works and thereby learning from it, we revert to a more primitive form of encoding—through physical sensations and visual images. Even years after the actual danger is past, the trauma, undigested and locked in our body, randomly breaks through into consciousness. A person who has been traumatized may continue to relive the same event as if it were occurring in the present.  For Rosalie, traumatic memories surfaced in her dreams, and the effort of repressing them in daily life kept her body and mind in a constant state of anxiety.

Unprocessed pain keeps our system of self-preservation on permanent alert. In addition to sudden intrusive memories, a wide range of situations, many non-threatening, may activate the alarmingly high levels of pain and fear stored in our body.  Our partner might raise her voice in irritation, and the full force of our past wounds—all the terror or rage or hurt that lives in our body—can be unleashed.  Whether or not there is any present danger, we feel absolutely at risk and compelled to find a way to get away from the pain.

In order to make it through such sudden and severe pain, victims of trauma typically dissociate from their bodies, numbing their sensitivity to physical sensations. Some people feel “unreal,” as if they have left their body and are experiencing life from a great distance. They do whatever they can to keep from feeling the raw sensations of fear and pain in their body. They might lash out in aggression or freeze in depression or confusion.  They might have suicidal thoughts or drink themselves senseless. They overeat or starve themselves, use drugs, obsess and in other ways try to numb or control their experience. Yet the pain and fear don’t go away. Rather, they lurk in the background and from time to time suddenly take over.

Dissociation, while protective, creates suffering. When we leave our bodies, we leave home.  By rejecting pain and pulling away from the ground of our being, we experience the dis-ease of separation—loneliness, anxiety and shame. Author and psychotherapist Alice Miller lets us know that there is no way to avoid what’s in the body. We either pay attention to it, or we suffer the consequences:

The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it.  Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.


In addition to the safety provided by the therapeutic relationship, psychotherapy focuses on the historical story in a way that allows it to become a gateway to living experience. By paying attention to memories, we tap the related emotions and feelings that are locked in the body. Once the psyche is open to what the body holds, the only way to face those feelings wisely and successfully, and in a way that leads to deep healing, is to be able to stay present with the pain when it arises. This can be very difficult, especially when the habit of recoiling or hiding from intense and unpleasant sensations is deeply entrenched. In my work with clients, this is where I see the tremendous value of meditation practices in training the mind.  With Rosalie, once her defenses began to lift, it was important that she learn tools she could use to face the pain of trauma whenever it might arise.

In several subsequent sessions with Rosalie, I introduced her to the practices of mindfulness and compassion.  We began with a meditation in which she moved her attention slowly up and down her body, focusing on each region—feet and legs, torso, shoulders, arms and hands, neck, head. I encouraged Rosalie to imagine breathing energy and light into the part of the body she was attending to and totally letting go and relaxing as she breathed outward. As she deepened her attention in each area, I suggest that she simply notice whatever sensations she felt there, accepting them exactly as they were.


Learning to bring Radical Acceptance to physical and emotional experience is usually a gradual process.  If there is a large reservoir of fear locked in the body, it is important to begin as Rosalie did, with the support of a healer or therapist, and with a gentle exploration into the life story that carries such charged energy.  Then, guided and accompanied by a trusted other, the client learns to mindfully “put a toe in the river,” feeling the sensations and then stepping back when necessary.

In both Buddhist psychology and Western experiential therapy, this process of experiencing and accepting the changing stream of sensations is central to the alchemy of transformation. Emotions, a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves, continue to cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our body. If we bring a steady attention to the immediate physical experience of an emotion, past sensations and stories linked to it that have been locked in our body and mind are “de-repressed.” Layers of historic hurt, fear or anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness. When we feel and release the past pain held in our body, we become increasingly free to meet our present feelings with a wakeful and kind heart. We discover, as Rumi writes, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”

For all of us, the path of befriending our experience requires great gentleness and patience. As I recognized on my trip to the mountains in college, the deep and persistent tendency to think that something is wrong with us is a prison that prevents us from living and loving fully. Yet as we learn to meet whatever arises in our body, heart and mind with Radical Acceptance we discover a precious freedom.  Rather than being identified as a defended and insufficient self, we come to trust what Buddhists call our Buddha nature—the awareness and love that are our true essence.
(This post was last modified: 06-17-2015, 10:26 AM by Unity.)
06-09-2015, 08:23 AM
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