“When we put down ideas of what life should be like, we are free to wholeheartedly say yes to our life as it is.”
No matter how hard you try to be the best version of yourself, you will always have instances where fear, self-doubt, malice, or temptation rear their head and come to knock you off your pedestal. What if, instead of trying to push away and resist those demons, you acknowledged and invited them to have tea?
In Buddhism, Mara is the personification of all the evil thoughts that the Buddha-to-be experiences on his night of reaching enlightenment. Mara attacks and the Buddah “wins” by not taking the bait and fighting but by seeing that Mara is as much a part of life as any other experience. Maybe most importantly, Mara is never defeated, coming back to cause trouble consistently for the Buddha. Each time, instead of fighting, he sees Mara and invites them to sit with him for tea, paying them the same care and attention that they would do for any friend. After sitting a while, Mara would simply leave.
Treating all of your “real life” experiences with an equal amount of attention and friendliness is “the spirit” of Radical Acceptance and the subject of the fourth chapter of the book of the same name by Tara Brach (reading as part of my amplify goals this month). Practicing unconditional friendliness comes after we’ve explored the trance of unworthiness (Chapter 1), how Radical Acceptance can break that trance (Chapter 2), and how pausing is the foundation of Radical Acceptance (Chapter 3).
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 recognize and touch any experience with care. Nothing is wrong—whatever is happening is just “real life.” Such unconditional friendliness is the spirit of Radical Acceptance.
Inevitably, we all will have thoughts that are troubling and uncomfortable, and the work here is to see those clearly rather than ignore them and push them away. By acknowledging what is happening through inquiry and by naming your thoughts and feelings, one can diminish the power that they have and see them more clearly for what they are.
“We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.”Pema Chödrön
Inquiry is the first step to inviting Mara to tea, and is about first noticing what is going on inside you. A deceptively hard task and one that is easy to skip over.
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?”
Inquiry is not a kind of analytic digging—we are not trying to figure out, “Why do I feel this sadness?” This would only stir up more thoughts. In contrast to the approach of Western psychology, in which we might delve into further stories in order to understand what caused a current situation, the intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment.
Noting is another tool for noticing what is happening inside of you, and is about naming what you are recognizing inside you (”I’m feeling afraid, fear, tight, etc) without judgment or trying to make it go away.
Like inquiry, noting is an opportunity to communicate unconditional friendliness to our inner life. If fear arises and we pounce on it with a name, “Fear! Gotcha!” we’re only creating more tension. Naming an experience is not an attempt to nail an unpleasant experience or make it go away. Rather, it is a soft and gentle way of saying, “I see you, Mara.” This attitude of Radical Acceptance makes it safe for the frightened and vulnerable parts of our being to let themselves be known.
By naming the forces of Mara when they arise, we are no longer possessed or driven by them. Even the very act of relating to them with friendliness rather than fear diminishes their power.
Once you have noticed and noted your experience, it becomes possible to say yes to that experience and create the space for friendliness towards yourself.
Reflecting that I, like the Buddha, was inviting Mara to tea, I intended not only to accept what I was feeling but to actively welcome it. I began to offer the yes with a softer, more friendly tone. I even smiled from time to time—my whole drama started to seem silly. My body and mind grew steadily lighter and more open. Even the pressure in my sinuses began to ease up. The dark cloud of “no” was replaced by the expansive sky of a “yes” that had endless room for grouchiness and irritation.
Saying yes isn’t about approving of angry thoughts, acting on harmful impulses, or getting rid of unpleasant feelings. It is about leaving the space for our full experience to “express and move through us.”
There are many ways of sending the message of yes to our inner life. We can whisper, “It’s okay” or even a welcoming “Hello”—silently or softly out loud—in response to a painful emotion. Yes might also be an image or gesture. A friend of mine mentally visualizes herself bringing her palms together and bowing to what has appeared. When she feels the grip of anxiety, anger or guilt, she imagines bowing to it with a sense of genuine respect.
Thich Nhat Hanh calls his practice of yes “smile yoga.” He suggests bringing a slight but real smile to our lips many times throughout the day, whether we are meditating or simply stopping for a red light. “A tiny bud of a smile on your lips,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, “nourishes awareness and calms you miraculously . . . your smile will bring happiness to you and to those around you.” 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. A smile is the yes of unconditional friendliness that welcomes experience without fear.
Be friendly to your experiences, even the painful parts. Next time they visit, invite them to tea!
Practice saying yes
There are several guided meditation exercises at the end of this chapter but I particularly liked “the power of yes”.
Bring to mind a current situation that elicits a reaction of anger, fear or grief. It may be a rift with your partner, the loss of a loved one, a power struggle with your child, a chronic illness, a hurtful behavior that you now regret.
In order to see firsthand what happens when you resist experience, begin by experimenting with saying no.
As you say no, notice what this resistance feels like in your body. Do you feel tightness, pressure? What happens to the painful feelings as you say no? What happens to your heart? Imagine what your life would be like if, for the next hours, weeks and months, you continued to move through the world with the thoughts and feelings of no.
This time let yourself be the Buddha under the bodhi tree, the Buddha inviting Mara to tea. Direct a stream of the word yes at your experience. Agree to the experience with yes. Let the feelings float, held in the environment of yes.
For my previous entries on Radical Acceptance, see the following: