Before I die, I want to be completely free to be my authentic self in every moment of my life. I want to be transparent, with absolutely nothing to hide, nothing to protect, nothing to fear, expressing whatever is true for me in the moment. This, to me, would be complete freedom. I’d be free from all internal limitations, all my “neuroses.” Does this sound appealing to you? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be free from all the ways we hold ourselves back, and instead trust that however we are in this moment is exactly right, and enough? We’d be free to be our true full and amazing selves, and the potential impact on the world would be amazing.
To grow toward this essential goal requires radical self-acceptance: the ability to recognize and accept whatever we’re experiencing in the moment, no matter how difficult or painful it is. I’ve learned that, paradoxically, by truly accepting whatever I’m feeling in the moment—like grumpiness, anxiety, or sadness—the feeling organically transforms, and I often learn more about myself in the process. I’ve been working with this process for some years now, and I’m happy to say I’m way more comfortable living in my own skin. I’ve learned this through the help of some very wise teachers along the way, and the great good fortune of discovering the practice of mindfulness.
Fear of Coming Out
Coming out, or more accurately fear of coming out, was the catalyst for realizing self-acceptance had to be the path for me. When I discovered I was in love with a woman, my children were little and I was ending my marriage to my high school sweetheart. Although I was a dedicated feminist by then and was struggling with conditioned gender oppression, the surprise of falling in love with a woman both blew my mind and was deeply liberating. At the same time I was terrified by the prospect of being so different from the norm, afraid I might lose my kids in a custody battle, and afraid everyone, in general, would turn against me. Growing up, I had always struggled with feeling I didn’t belong. I suffered from terrible shyness, and believed I just wasn’t how I was supposed to be. I longed to be “normal,” whatever that was. But discovering my new sexuality confirmed that I indeed wasn’t normal after all. And, in my heart of hearts, I realized I was truly lesbian. This was my first act of radical self-acceptance, and I felt substantial relief. However, I didn’t want to live my life in a self-imposed prison, confined to hiding my sexuality by living in shame and fear. So I planted the seed of committing to learn how to free myself from these restraints, heal my own limiting conditioned patterns and beliefs, and learn how to accept myself completely.
Mindfulness Begets Self-acceptance
Since then, through intrapersonal work and my profession of psychotherapy, the most potent fertilizer I found for watering the seeds of self-acceptance is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of compassionate awareness, and the root intention, as taught by the Buddha some 2,600 years ago, is to free our minds from the habits of conditioning so that we can access our true nature and see reality clearly. It’s a profoundly radical and revolutionary practice! Mindfulness trains your mind to be your friend instead of your bully.
The basic view is that our true nature as human beings is wise, kind, compassionate, generous, and loving. It’s like the blue sky, which is always here, spacious and stable, regardless of the weather. But through conditioning, we develop habitual ways of viewing, believing, and reacting to what’s happening in our world. We unconsciously develop ideas about ourselves and reality; beliefs about how life’s supposed to be. These habits and views shape our minds, and consequently our brains, and distort our experience of reality. We get caught up in the “weather” of our conditioning and the emotional storms that pass through, and we lose connection with the blue sky, our true nature. It’s like we put on a pair of sunglasses at some very early age, and get so used to wearing them that we never take them off. Everything we experience is filtered and distorted through those colored lenses. This creates neural patterns in the brain that become our default programming and the autopilot we all drop into when we’re not fully present.
Habits, Patterns, and Conditioning
We develop these habits and patterns through our families of origin, societal messages, and our experiences growing up. For sure, some of these habits and views do serve us well, like believing in equality, treating each other respectfully, brushing our teeth, and making sure we eat enough veggies every day. But some, like internalized homophobia, sexism, racism, and gender conditioning, cause us enormous suffering. They lead to painful beliefs like, “I’m not good enough,” or “There’s something wrong with me,” or “I’ll never belong,” to name a few. I prefer to call these kinds of conditioned beliefs “pretends,” or more accurately, “lies,” which we acquire unconsciously as we’re trying to make sense out of our world growing up. Until we become aware of these beliefs, they have the hidden power to run a good portion of our lives, causing us to be stuck in very painful, limiting patterns.
Mindfulness is a method for being able to take off those old sunglasses and see clearly what is actually going on. It’s a way to poke holes through the cloud cover of our conditioning and access our blue-sky nature. With practice, these painful habits begin to weaken and lose their power. Neuroscience tells us that mindfulness literally changes the neural grooves in the brain, and little by little we become more able to access our authentic self. Practicing mindfulness changes the brain, which in turn changes the mind.
Without being aware of it, many of us grow up with the belief that we have to be perfect in order to be lovable, accepted, and successful. I certainly got that message and fully internalized it. I thought I had to be not only “normal” but also “perfect.” So my mind developed tenacious habits of judgment and criticism. I constantly assessed myself, comparing myself to others, and felt inadequate and not good enough. This created habits of overworking, feeling like I was never doing enough, always wondering what others were thinking about me and assuming they disapproved. My relationship to myself was rigid, correcting, and downright mean. As I was waking up to this, I realized the cruel things I said to myself were things I would never ever say to anyone else. Of course, all this trying to be perfect and normal served to keep me locked in the habit of shyness, and created lots of self-loathing and anxiety, all of which I worked to keep under the surface so no one would see how really imperfect I was. I felt like a fraud and lived in fear of being found out at any moment. Whenever I’d catch a sense of how painful all this was, I’d flee as fast as I could, using whatever distractions would work to get away from the discomfort: have a smoke, a drink, go shopping, eat something, start a new project, pay attention to someone else. So round and round I’d go, perpetually caught in the “bad weather” of these painful beliefs and patterns. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Openness and Curiosity Validates and Dissipates Negative Conditioning
But inherent in mindfulness is the view that whatever you’re experiencing is valid and worthy of your attention, simply because that is what’s happening right now. So you accept whatever you notice—like feeling anxious, angry, sad, disappointed, lonely, ashamed, or shy—no matter how messy or uncomfortable it feels—and you open to it with lots of curiosity and kindness, letting it be here, giving it a lot of space, refraining from judging it and taking it so personally. This radical acceptance of experience naturally allows the wisdom of your true nature to come through, and you’re able to respond to yourself with more kindness and skill.
When I first began mindfulness, I’d practice noticing the habit of nasty criticizing with lots of curiosity. As soon as I recognized that my mind just thought, “Geez, Mare, you’re being so stupid. Everyone thinks you’re lame!” I’d then say to myself, “Isn’t that interesting!” I’d notice how this habitual judgment felt in my body: I’d feel the painful knot in my belly and how closed my heart felt. I’d practice noticing all of this with acceptance and kindness, letting it be there, not fighting with myself. Then I’d see that in doing this, the nasty judgment and painful feelings would simply dissipate on their own. Amazing. And along with this relief, there was room for my wisdom to shine through, and I’d often spontaneously think, “Actually, I’m enough, just the way I am in this moment. I’m learning to believe that I am okay.” Gradually, with practice, the habit of automatically condemning myself has greatly lessened, and I’ve become more and more accepting of myself. Along the way I’ve also seen through the tyranny of perfection, and continue to practice letting it go. As for my pattern of shyness, mindfulness has been alchemical medicine. I’ve completely changed my relationship to it, and when it arises now it’s not a big deal. I used to hate the feeling and myself for being shy, and I’d do everything I could to try to stop being that way. All this resistance, though, only kept me stuck and frozen in it. Now when shyness arises, which is way less often, I first note it, “Ah, here’s shyness.” Then I bring curiosity to it: “What’s it like right now? What exactly am I thinking? Imagining?” “What’s the sensation like in my body?” I open to it. I stand steady with my experience, letting it be just as it is. I cradle the uncomfortable sensation in my awareness, relaxing around it, and I offer compassion to myself because it is truly painful. Then, at some point, the feeling simply dissolves on its own, because shyness, too—like every experience—is impermanent.
This is how mindfulness works for all of our experiences, whether they are deeply conditioned or not. When we can turn toward and open to exactly what we’re experiencing in the moment, see into it very directly, clearly, honestly with our open and kind heart, without resisting or being swept away but staying steady and present, the experience just naturally shifts and changes on its own. This is the power of radical acceptance through mindfulness.
Acceptance Requires Courage
Clearly, this requires courage, because we’re practicing accepting ourselves, no matter what. It’s a kind of spiritual warriorship, a deep commitment to not turn against ourselves. But what’s great is that you actually cultivate fearlessness little by little as you practice, so as you grow more courageous you’re naturally more willing to risk being your full and wonderful self. Mindfulness develops a kind of inner stability and security, so you can gradually cultivate the confidence and freedom to be your true self.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for about 23 years now, and teaching classes for 15 years. This past winter I offered a class for LGBTQ folks. Over and over I’ve been witness to people experiencing amazing benefits from the practice. It’s become the main modality I use in psychotherapy because it’s so effective and empowering for transforming our conditioned painful patterns. Although it’s best learned and cultivated through a daily meditation practice, mindfulness is meant to be lived moment-to-moment. When we can bring it to being fully present when we’re hugging our friend, or really seeing the incredible beauty of the sunset, or enjoying that piece of fabulous chocolate, or the pleasure of kissing our sweetie goodnight, beyond freeing us from our limiting patterns, mindfulness truly deepens and enriches our lives.
Trust that Each of Us Is Enough
I hope I’m brave enough to grow into complete internal freedom long before I die so I can relax and enjoy being myself just as I am, wherever I am. And isn’t this what we all want, what we all yearn for: to be fully and authentically ourselves, just as we are, including all our sparkles, quirks, and dark places? And within that, to be able to rest in the trust and knowing that we are enough, just as we are in this moment? This is the ultimate freedom, the freedom that only we can create within ourselves.
I invite us all to be big and brave and go for this: to stretch for radical self-acceptance and to explore mindfulness as a path. As we transform these old habits, our inherent wisdom, kindness, and compassion naturally shine through. The more we can each take personal responsibility for freeing ourselves from our conditioned limitations, the more we naturally benefit those around us and can offer real help to this dear, poor, suffering world in which we live.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be peaceful and joyful.
May you trust and accept yourself.
May you live with ease and kindness.