When we don’t make anything “wrong”

Sometimes when I talk about Radical Acceptance, I like to tell the story about Jacob, a man who at almost seventy and in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s disease attended a 10-day retreat I was leading.

A clinical psychologist by profession and a meditator for more than twenty years, Jacob was well aware that his faculties were deteriorating. On occasion his mind would go totally blank; he would have no access to words for several minutes and become completely disoriented. He often forgot what he was doing and usually needed assistance with basic tasks—cutting his food, putting on clothes, bathing, getting from place to place.

A couple of days into the retreat, Jacob had his first interview with me. These meetings, which students have regularly with a teacher while on retreat, are an opportunity to check in and receive personal guidance in the practice. During our time together Jacob and I talked about how things were going both on retreat and at home. His attitude towards his disease was interested, sad, grateful, even good-humored.

Intrigued by his resilience, I asked him what allowed him to be so accepting. He responded, “It doesn’t feel like anything is wrong. I feel grief and some fear about it all going, but it feels like real life.” Then he told me about an experience he’d had in an earlier stage of the disease.

Jacob had occasionally given talks about Buddhism to local groups and had accepted an invitation to address a gathering of over a hundred meditation students. He arrived at the event feeling alert and eager to share the teachings he loved. Taking his seat in front of the hall, Jacob looked out at the sea of expectant faces in front of him … and suddenly he didn’t know what he was supposed to say or do. He didn’t know where he was or why he was there. All he knew was that his heart was pounding furiously and his mind was spinning in confusion.

Putting his palms together at his heart, Jacob started naming out loud what was happening: “Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost.” For several more minutes he sat, head slightly bowed, continuing to name his experience. As his body began to relax and his mind grew calmer, he also noted that aloud. At last Jacob lifted his head, looked slowly around at those gathered, and apologized.

Many of the students were in tears. As one put it, “No one has ever offered us teachings like this. Your presence has been the deepest dharma teaching.”

Rather than pushing away his experience and deepening his agitation, Jacob had the courage and training simply to name what he was aware of, and, most significantly, to bow to his experience. In some fundamental way he didn’t create an adversary out of feelings of fear and confusion. He didn’t make anything wrong.

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.

, , ,

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you so much for this. I am feeling that this really speaks to me at the moment. I am facing some health worries which are dragging me down through fear; I have family worries,worry about my unstable state of mind and unacceptable thoughts and also angst with a family member – all of which leaves me feeling trapped and terribly stressed and anxious. My stomach is tied up in knots, I wake with headaches in the morning and I’m tearful and resentful about so much. I am fighting what is, rather than accepting and embracing it. I am pushing away my experiences and the effort is exhausting me. I can see what I am doing; the question is, how to be, differently?

  • What a wonderful teaching story. Radical acceptance is so present when I realize that ALL my suffer is caused by my wanting things to be different than the way they are… Grasping and aversion. Part of my dharma practice is watching wants or dislikes arise and patiently watching them pass away. Most of the time I am successful, but there is chocolate in the world. May you be happy and have peace of mind today.

  • Jude puts my exact feelings down as if i have written them myself. my 87year old mother broke her leg last week and is also suffering from Alzheimers/dementia ?
    I have been feeling very stressed, depressed.etc
    Having to accept AND embrace the suchness of the way it is. Understanding an compasion to all folk out there in similar life situations, Thank you wildmind and the WWW. Denis

  • Chris Hughes
    March 4, 2018 8:51 pm

    Could the idea of acceptance be the basis of a guided meditatation to help people with Alzheimer’s? Instead of fearfully clinging to the wreckage of their mind, could they be encouraged to let go. After all, Buddhism teaches that we are not our mind.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.