Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Assuming radical responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds is one of the commitments practitioners resolve to keep. It is a privilege to assume. Radical responsibility is a concept coined by Fleet Maull, a meditation teacher and management consultant. He is CEO and director of the Prison Mindfulness Institute. His backstory informed his insight. It was in prison- sentenced for cocaine trafficking- that he developed insight and took responsibility for what he had done.
"I was sitting in a county jail cell in Missouri facing a possible life sentence," he told an interviewer. "I’d finally hit a wall. Everything that I had not been dealing with hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d let down my teacher, my community, myself, but the most devastating part was what I’d done to my family, my son and his mom. I’d left them with nothing... Practice became my lifeline. I knew from the minute I got locked up that I had to pursue it with great seriousness. I began to sit two, three, four hours a day.
I had an experience early on in the county jail that proved to be quite valuable. I was meditating on my bunk one night—I must have been sitting for several hours—and I suddenly noticed that my mind wasn’t moving. It was just completely clear and stable. I was aware of all the noise and commotion surrounding me, but my mind wasn’t being pulled by any of it. I’d had many experiences like this in intensive meditation retreats, but never in the midst of such chaos. I really saw for the first time that this could be workable. I had a practice. I was scared to death of what lay ahead, but I knew I could survive. I eventually came out of the darkness, determined to mature in my practice and to eradicate any kind of negativity from my life.
Meditation opens you to pain and your own vulnerability, but it also brings peace of mind. Prisons are chaotic and stressful. There’s hardly any place where you can find quiet. To be able to experience some kind of peace is a tremendous relief. More importantly, practice offers freedom. If you sit down to meditate, you see that there’s a continuum of thoughts, mental formations, moods, emotions, impulses, behaviors, consequences. And most prisoners have been living consequences their whole lives, wondering how they got there. Even if they understand something about the pattern, they’ve felt helpless to change it. Suddenly, through meditation, they actually see this process. They catch themselves in the midst of some negative habitual pattern. They’ve been driven by impulsive behavior and suffering its consequences, then suddenly they see they have choices. That’s incredibly powerful."
Assuming radical responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and actions is a powerful practice that demands ruthless honesty and intense self-awareness and self-compassion. Without self-compassion, the practice descends to self-hatred and self-criticism. Radical responsibility is the yang balanced by the yin of self-compassion.
Accountability is an act of self-respect. In this practice, we assume responsibility for that which we can control, for that which is within our circle of influence. Working within our circle of influence is one of the 7 habits of effective people- as identified by Stephen Covey. Within the circle of influence are those things we can do something about- our own thoughts, actions, words, behaviors. Pandemics, market fluctuations, macroeconomic policies, foreign conflicts, natural disasters, the feelings or actions of others fall outside of our circle. Many berate themselves for conditions that are beyond their control to influence. They may feel shame or guilt for externalities they could not control, influence, or change- the death or illness of a loved one, the outsourcing of a job, a partner's choice to divorce or separate, a parent's addiction, macroeconomic factors that limit opportunity, the betrayal of a friend who abuses one's trust, etc.
Even if a person's circle is severely constricted as was the life of Fleet Maull during his incarceration, one still has a degree of control. Dr. Frankl was a neuropsychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He chronicled his experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps. Any philosophy that could stand up to the horrors of the internment camps is worthy of attention.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.
The root word of responsibility is response. The suffix ability refers to one's capacity to respond. I am not responsible for what another person thinks, says, or does. But I am responsible for what I think, say, do... or don't do. As a prisoner, my choices may be severely limited. Even under extreme duress, however, we have the freedom of choice, the freedom to choose our own response. Stripped of clothing, imprisoned, starved, beaten with the butt ends of rifles, prisoners still made choices: whether to curse or forgive, whether to share or steal, whether to aid or abuse fellow prisoners, whether to give hope or spread fear, whether to resist or surrender, oppose or assent, comply or dissimulate; whether to love or hate. Their physical bodies were beaten, starved, marched, and worked. These stresses would have affected their emotional and cognitive states such that a prisoner's choice points would be extremely limited. Yet, there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision.
How we respond to events is a choice. The event may not be of our choosing, but how we respond is where our responsibility lies. "My responses represent who I am, who I want to be, and how I will someday be remembered," writes Rachel Macy Stafford in Only Love Today. "I am my response. I am my response to my child's mismatched outfit and the crumpled report card at the bottom of her backpack. I am my response to my spouse who returned from the store without toilet paper but remembered the tailgate snacks. I am my response to my anxious parent who repeats the same worries and insists on giving me coupons I do not need. I am my response to my co-worker with sad eyes and frequent absences. I am my response to my 15-minutes-late hairdresser with a sick child. I am my response to my neighbor with heart-heavy problems and little family support. I am my response to the irate driver who cut me off and made an obscene gesture in front of my children. I am my response to the waitress who got my order wrong. I am my response to myself when I forgot the one thing I most needed to do today. I am my response to spilled coffee, rain-soaked shoes, and middle-of-the-night throw ups. My responses are not perfect … they are not always ideal … I am human after all. But if I strive to offer responses underlined with grace, understanding, kindness, empathy, and care, that is something."
In Above the Line, Coach Urban Meyer, calls it the R-Factor. In his formula for optimizing performance, E+R=O. Events (E) plus our response to those events (R) influences the outcome (O). "If what you're doing doesn't work, change it. Don't blame the E, choose a better R. Don't hold on to what's holding you back."
It is important to acknowledge our interdependence and limitations. The crop depends on the weather. Our inner growing depends on conditions. If, for example, my mother abused drugs while I was in utero, my cognitive functioning and health might be severely compromised. I might not have the faculties to understand a word written here or its import. To what extent is a child with Down's Syndrome responsible for their actions, thoughts, or words? To what extent is a man stricken with Alzheimer's disease responsible for his actions, thoughts, or words?
Seen this way, assuming radical responsibility is not a capacity all can exercise. That I can, is a privilege and a power. Assuming radical responsibility for our finances, our relationships with ourselves and others, our health, our careers, and our emotions demands maturity, creativity, honesty, courage, and discipline. It can be overwhelming to assume full responsibility for our lives, but in doing this, we grow.
In the next video, David Goggins, ultra-athlete and former Navy-Seal, expresses more forcefully the transformative power of radical responsibility. Mr. Goggins was invited to the Stanford campus to participate in a study on resilience. His ability to self-regulate and change physiological processes was top down. In the video below, Mr. Goggins explains his mindset and offers many actionable steps people can take to meet their goals.
Assuming radical responsibility is a mindset; it's a disciplined approach to life. I grow from the practice. When I find myself defaulting to excuses, blame, criticism (of myself or others), judgment, jealousy, resentment, or bitterness, radical responsibility acts as an alarm. It alerts me, pointing me back to accountability. I may not have chosen the conditions, but I can choose my response to the conditions. I may suffer a setback, a failure, a closed door- but I can still choose my attitude. I report to myself. How am I relating to the hurt, the disappointment, the pain, the inner critic? How coherent and integrated am I? How am I interpreting the externality, the event, the experience? What are my options? What have others whom I respect said, done, or thought when faced with adversity? These are some examples of the dialectic between the strong and weak parts of the self. Radical responsibility is not violent suppression, self-censure, or self-criticism, but an allowing, an opening to all facets of the self and choosing the most appropriate energy to speak or act from in any given set of circumstances. It is respectful. It is radical because, at its core, the practice is an act of self-love.