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Our guest tried a practice in Radical Acceptance, a Buddhist principle made popular by today’s expert, psychologist Tara Brach.
Sometimes, a setback in work or life can leave us feeling defeated and uninspired. Nadia Zafar is a neurobiology student who has been pursuing her PhD for the last 6 years. Recently, her lack of progress had her spiraling in thoughts of self-doubt and unworthiness. For our show, Nadia tried a practice rooted in the Buddhist principle of Radical Acceptance, called RAIN. By actively recognizing emotions without judgment, investigating them further, and then nurturing those sensations, she started to approach her negative and anxious thoughts from a place of self-compassion instead of blame. Later, Dacher speaks with Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach. She explains the elements of the practice that make it so effective, and how approaching situations from a place of acceptance helps disrupt our reactive instincts — opening up more space for awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.
When you come up against something challenging – you’re angry or frustrated or feeling any way about yourself, another person, or a situation – move through these steps. It might be helpful to sit somewhere you feel comfortable. Close your eyes for a few moments, and begin by taking a few deep, intentional breaths, to help settle the mind.
- Recognize what’s happening. For example, “I am getting caught up in anger right now.”
- Allow the emotion you recognize to be there: Accept that you are feeling the way you’re feeling. You may go a step further and forgive yourself for it, for example by saying to yourself, “Anger forgiven.”
- Investigate what’s underneath whatever you’re feeling by directing a gentle curiosity towards it. For example, where there is anger, there is something we care deeply about.
- Nurture: You might put your hand on your heart, remind yourself that many have struggled with the very thing you’re struggling with now, and send yourself a message of kindness and understanding.
Nadia Zafar is a 6th year neurobiology PhD student at the University of Toronto.
Tara Brach is a leading voice in the field of contemplative meditation practices.
Learn more about Tara and her work: https://www.tarabrach.com/
Read Tara’s book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha: http://tinyurl.com/4csarvmf
Follow Tara on Facebook: http://tinyurl.com/3arhy4uh
Follow Tara on Twitter: http://tinyurl.com/2drpvp6c
Follow Tara on Instagram: http://tinyurl.com/y743bkru
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Happiness Break: Radical Acceptance, With Tara Brach (The Science of Happiness Podcast): http://tinyurl.com/msf5ccde
Can Self-Awareness Help You Be More Empathic? http://tinyurl.com/5yh8z2s2
How Does Mindfulness Help Cultivate Self-Compassion? http://tinyurl.com/yuhwmja4
How to Bring Self-Compassion to Work with You: http://tinyurl.com/2a3mm6pf
Want to Change Your Life? Try Self-Compassion: http://tinyurl.com/2y2ryc6m
More Resources on Radical Acceptance:
Harvard - Greater self-acceptance improves emotional well-being: http://tinyurl.com/2ty58cbh
BBC - Why self-compassion – not self-esteem – leads to success: http://tinyurl.com/yj2zax8x
Ted - Dare to rewire your brain for self-compassion: http://tinyurl.com/yc2ru73p
Tell us about your experiences and struggles with accepting difficult situations. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
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Nadia Zafar: I'm a sixth year Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. My research is focused on neurobiology and regeneration in the central nervous system. My supervisor was giving a talk related to my research and they had asked for some of my data to include in the slides, and I remember feeling really excited. So I go to that seminar and I'm sitting there and as they're going through the talk, I just remember not being able to sit still.
There's people in here asking and answering questions that I hadn't even thought of. And I felt like I should not be here. I was looking back through my notes and I'm like, so much time has gone by and I feel like I haven't done anything. I was feeling very lost. And I found myself coming in less. I found myself coping in ways like, you know, eating a lot.
And I was just tired all the time. I didn't want to go to seminars or meet any of my peers. I was really kind of withdrawing from everyone. And even when I was working with my experiments, I would do one part, but I'd never be able to finish it because I was too afraid of what the results were going to be.
And that's where I noticed things were really going wrong. And I needed to figure out a way around this.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness. I'm Dacher Keltner. About 40% of graduate students feel anxious and depressed and 82% feel stressed out. The conditions of graduate school, long hours and uncertain future low pay they’re perfect recipe for burnout. Our guest today, Nadia Zafar, was definitely feeling burned out. Her academic challenges led to a persistent feeling of anxiety about everything and a nasty internal critic.
Of course, it's not just graduate students who go through this. So many of us feel overworked and overwhelmed at different points in our lives. So this week's practice is intended to help us recover from such anxiety and stress and self-criticism, paradoxically, by letting ourselves feel these states. It's based on the Buddhist principle of radical acceptance. And there's a growing body of literature showing that acceptance based practices like this one can be great resources for transcending and moving through the difficult emotions that are part of life, helping us foster self-care and reduce anxiety.
Later in the show, I speak with Tara Brach, one of the psychologists responsible for translating these Buddhist principles to our contemporary culture. More after these messages from our sponsors.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I'm Dacher Keltner. This week we're exploring a practice in radical acceptance called Rain, and we'll explain what that means in just a minute.
Our guest is Nadia Zafar, a sixth year Ph.D. student in neurobiology who, like so many graduate students, is dealing with a high level of stress and self-doubt. Nadia, thanks so much for taking a bit of time out of your busy day and joining us.
Nadia Zafar: Thanks for having me here.
Dacher Keltner: For our show, you tried one of my favorite practices of all time grounded in Buddhist philosophies, which is, you know, when you're feeling these hard emotions like you describe, Nadia, like being so self-critical or feeling like you're failing at your work or anxiety or shame.
First, you recognize almost from a third party perspective what you're feeling rather than just getting lost in it. You allow yourself to feel it. Then with curiosity, you investigate the feeling. You know, feelings so often have wisdom in them and you see what they're saying to you and you nurture them. Can you give us an example of how you tried this practice of radical acceptance?
Nadia Zafar: Yeah. So I think it was last week I had thawed some patient cell lines. And these are sort of very, I guess, precious samples. And I was supposed to, you know, look after them for a few days before I started working with them. And so a couple of days after I had taken them out of the freezer, I decided it was a weekend.
I wanted to take a break from the lab. I didn't go in. And when I went in the next day, they were completely overgrown and I started spiraling at that point. I had asked another tech in the lab to give me their opinion on what they thought, and they were like, I would have done X, Y, Z.
I just started to feel like, I disappointed myself. I failed on this one simple task that I had to do. You know, I was angry and I was frustrated that this was going to kind of push me back maybe one or two weeks.
Dacher Keltner: The first two steps of radical acceptance are just to recognize what's happening and then to allow the emotion just to unfold in some sense. We know that's good for you because just simple awareness, naming things, not suppressing emotions, the work of James Gross and others is good for us. So what was that like for you in this moment when your cells are spiraling out of control and you knew your scientific career is in the balance?
Nadia Zafar: I think I had to take a step back.
I went to my desk, got something to drink, and just kind of sit with that for a moment. And I feel like there's a fine balance between kind of letting that go too far to the point where I just like, I don't know, I'll just start from scratch or think about it tomorrow and kind of push it away.
And that's where like avoidance comes in, which has been a big problem for me. Yeah. So just kind of sitting through those emotions and then being able to work through them helped me go back later in the day and then work with those cells.
Dacher Keltner: The third step of radical acceptance is curiosity or investigation. You just observe your feelings in the situation and that starts to shine a light on things like you learn something about yourself - avoidance. What did you take from that?
Nadia Zafar: I think it helped put me in sort of an outsider's perspective rather than to be in my own head. So especially kind of writing things down after going through the process, I was able to really dive deeper into what that frustration was stemming from. And I didn't realize until afterwards that I – in that moment, I felt like this other person is thinking I'm not good enough.
I felt that they're going to judge me. They're going to think I'm not capable of doing this. How could I make a mistake like this? But that's not really what was happening. You know, they were trying to offer their support and they were saying that we could, you know, try it again if need be. So just trying to tell myself that, like, nobody's judging me.
This was the first time I worked with these kind of patient lines, so I wouldn't know what to look for to begin with. So I had to kind of be more easy on myself. And that helped kind of talk me down a little bit.
Dacher Keltner: I mean, it's interesting how just observing the feelings, just trying to take a stance of curiosity to the hardest of feelings makes us take this other perspective on our subjective states. You know, we look at it from another person's eyes. And then the fourth step you've already talked about is nurturing, self-compassion. Why did self-compassion in particular in nurturing, speak to you?
Nadia Zafar: I think, to be honest, I had to, like, force it onto myself. I wasn't accepting it very easily.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. Why do you think that is?
Nadia Zafar: I, I guess it kind of leads into my thoughts of, like, I don't deserve to feel that way. Like, I messed up. Why should I, you know, let myself think it's okay for doing this and just not feeling like I'm doing enough or I'm good enough or I shouldn't be here.
So I think it just feeds to all of that. So I didn't really want to listen to it, but kind of telling myself that over and over. I think that was what put the brakes on my whole spiraling process. When you're going through all of this, your mind becomes your worst kind of enemy and the things standing in the way of your recovery.
Dacher Keltner: I mean, you've taken us on quite a tour Nadia, of the benefits and the challenges of radical acceptance. Is there anything else that you learned in doing this practice during graduate school?
Nadia Zafar: Something that I kind of tacked on that I kind of heard about a few days ago was the way you look at anxiety. I view it as a negative thing. It hinders me. It stops me from getting where I need to go and causes me a lot of pain and anguish. But anxiety isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's your body trying to tell yourself that you should be cautious of something, and it's when it gets out of control that it's a problem. So drawing that line I felt was easier to do when I was sitting in that acceptance state and as well the nurturing one where I was telling myself, you know, the feelings that you're feeling are normal. Look at your mind and you're feelings more positively and understanding that it's trying to protect you. It's coming from a good place and kind of realized that, okay, it's not the end of the world. You can keep going.
Dacher Keltner: Thank you so much for being on our show. It's been so full of insight.
Nadia Zafar: Thank you so much.
Dacher Keltner: How is it that simply pausing to be aware of our negative feelings can have such a transformative effect?
Tara Brach: in Buddhist psychology, the real freedom comes from shifting from being identified with the self who is failing or wanting or whatever it is, to being the awareness that's aware of that. And I think often of the metaphor of ocean and waves that if you trust the ocean, you're not going to be afraid of the waves.
Dacher Keltner: After the break, we'll learn about the principles behind the rain technique from Tara Brock, a Buddhist meditation teacher, psychologist and author of the seminal book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.
Welcome back to the Science of Happiness. I'm Dacher Keltner. We've been talking about the power of acceptance to regain calm and clarity when faced with turbulent emotions. I'm joined now by Tara Brach, who's been fusing Buddhist teachings with Western psychology for decades. Thanks for joining us today, Tara.
Tara Brach: I'm so glad we're doing this, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner: You know, it's interesting in the scientific literature, acceptance is gaining a lot of currency right now. There's a lot of new work coming out of Berkeley and in response, showing acceptance of stress and negative emotions helps people find peace and calm and freedom. And I'm curious how you started to first formulate this idea of radical acceptance in your work as sort of this opening or pathway to greater health or well-being or understanding?
Tara Brach: Well, it was really, really personal. I was on a camping trip with a friend, and she was talking about becoming her own best friend. And I realized with this kind of shock of how I was completely the opposite, I was entirely down on myself or, you know, my body, my weight, my personality and my way of relating to others. I mean, just everything. I was the harsh critic.
And that became the sense of what I call the trance of unworthiness, just realizing I was living in the clutch of self aversion. And there was something about seeing that that let me know that something else was possible. And that's in this moment of awareness. We inhabit a larger space and we realize, okay, I'm stuck. But there's something else.
Dacher Keltner: You've written about one of the root causes of suffering is our ruminating tendencies or self-critical tendencies. How does this radical acceptance shift these thought patterns, do you think? What have you observed?
Tara Brach: Yeah, you know, we believe our thoughts. So there's a real deep wisdom in the instructions to don't believe your thoughts and don't believe your thoughts and don't believe your thoughts.
In Buddhist psychology, the real freedom comes from shifting from being identified with the self who is failing or wanting or whatever it is to being the awareness that's aware of that. Tenderness and openness, but it's not hooked by it. And I think often of the metaphor of ocean and waves that if you trust your the ocean, you're not going to be afraid of the waves.
And so radical acceptance is in a way, it's a training to not be lost inside the waves of thought. It's a training to keep coming back again and again to that sea of awareness and see the thought waves but not buy in. And the more times that we do that and this is the beauty of meditation, that even if, you know, we might practice and not feel completely unstuck, we gradually begin to trust the who we are versus the narrative that we've been telling ourselves.
Dacher Keltner: You make a strong argument for the fundamental need of pausing, you know, that these contemplative practices, rain meditation, loving kindness approach, really need pausing to precede it. How did you get to that idea that this is almost the first step in the contemplative life is to pause?
Tara Brach: Immediately I think of Viktor Frankl, who said In between the stimulus and the response, there is a space.
And in that space is your power and your freedom. Most of our moments are lived in a stimulus react kind of mode. We're kind of rolling into the future, reacting. If we can recognize that and say, let's just take a short time out here. What that allows us to do is make what I call the U-turn, where we can circle it back and say, what's going on inside me?
And we can do the rain practice. We can get in touch with what's underneath. There's always something we care about. There's some vulnerability. And then when we reconnect, we can be speaking from a deeper, more whole and more awake place. So the pause gets the chance to break habitual patterning and deepen our attention. And that creates space and lets everything loosen up.
And in that space, and this is something that I discover more and more. Once we create space for what's here, it fills with tenderness.
Dacher Keltner: Well, what is it about the mind? I mean, I know this is critical to definitions of mindfulness that once you have this accepting, spacious awareness, there is this kindness that emerges. Why does this kindness emerge, do you think?
Tara Brach: Yeah. You know, in meditation training, you can cultivate kindness and it's always and already here it's intrinsic to our nature, whether it's kindness or we're talking about compassion or all flavors of love. It's intrinsic. So in the moments that you unclench or unhook what's already there is free to come into awareness and fill the space of awareness.
When the reactive patterning goes on and you're feeling the doubt underneath and behaving out of it, which is never as graceful and gracious as it could be. In those moments, it's very hard to remember how to come back to center. And rain gives us a kind of shortcut. It gives us a clear set of steps and the impact of these four steps is to deepen presence in a way that we're not so hooked.
We're not identified so much as the doubting, and we're more resting in a kind and awake presence. And when awareness, when pure awake, open awareness sees – becomes cognizant of a wave of experience, there's a natural tenderness. That awareness, that space of awareness is more the truth of who we are than the story in our mind. And that's where the liberation is.
Dacher Keltner: Thank you. Tara Brach. What a privilege it is to have this time with you and to hear your wisdom and to think about the rain approach. It's been uplifting, and I'm so moved and grateful for your work. So thanks for being on our show.
Tara Brach: Oh It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: On our next episode of The Science of Happiness, we're revisiting a favorite episode where we explore how our experience of time can depend on what we're doing and how we're feeling.
Bryant Terry: I decided that I needed to be very intentional about carving out time to spend with both of my daughters separately, to give them some love. And it did feel like just time was melting away because we were being so present with each other.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. Our executive producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound design is from Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios and our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. And our executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.