All posts by Tara Brach

About Tara Brach

Tara Brach is a leading western teacher of Buddhist meditation, emotional healing and spiritual awakening. She has practiced and taught meditation for over 35 years, with an emphasis on vipassana (mindfulness or insight) meditation. Tara is the senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. A clinical psychologist, Tara is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha and the upcoming book, True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, February 2013). Tara is nationally known for her skill in weaving western psychological wisdom with a range of meditative practices. Her approach emphasizes compassion for oneself and others, mindful presence and the direct realization and embodiment of natural awareness.

Reaching Out For Compassion

Rabindranath Tagore embarrassment of compassion fills your eyes rain on we lucky spaces between potential and the real take my hand and walk togetherAt a weekend workshop I led, one of the participants, Marian, shared her story about the shame and guilt that had tortured her. Marian’s daughter Christy, in recovery for alcoholism, had asked her mother to join her in therapy. As their sessions unfolded, Christy revealed that she’d been sexually abused throughout her teen years by her stepfather, Marian’s second husband.

The words and revelations Marian heard that day pierced her heart. “You just slept through my whole adolescence!” her daughter had shouted. “I was being violated and had nowhere to turn! No one was there to take care of me!” Christy’s face was red; her hands clenched tight. “I was afraid to tell you then, and now I know why. You can’t handle the truth. You can’t handle me. You never could. I hate you!”

As she watched her daughter dissolve into heaving sobs, Marian knew that what she’d heard was true. She hadn’t been able to handle her daughter’s involvement with drugs, her clashes with teachers, or her truancy and suspensions from school, because she couldn’t handle anything about her own life.

At this point, compassion for herself was not only impossible, Marian was convinced it would have been wrong: the horror that Christy endured was her fault; she deserved to suffer.

We’ve all harmed others and felt as if we were bad because of our actions. When we, like Marian, face the truth that we’ve hurt others, sometimes severely, the feelings of guilt and shame can tear us apart. Even when the damage isn’t so great, some of us still feel undeserving of compassion or redemption.

At times like these, the only way to find compassion for ourselves is by reaching out to something larger than the self that feels so small and miserable. We might for instance take refuge by calling on the Buddha, Divine Mother, God, Jesus, Great Spirit, Shiva, or Allah – reaching towards a loving awareness that is great enough to offer comfort and safety to our broken being.

As a Catholic, Marian had found moments of deep peace and communion with a loving God. But, in her despair, she now felt alone in the universe. Sure, God existed, but she felt too sinful and wretched to reach out to him.

Fearing she might harm herself, Marian sought counsel from an elderly Jesuit priest she had known in college. After she’d wept and told him her story, he gently took one of her hands and began drawing a circle in the center of her palm. “This,” he said, “is where you are living. It’s painful—a place of kicking and screaming and deep, deep hurt. This place cannot be avoided, let it be.”

Then he covered her whole hand with his. “But, if you can, try also to remember this: there is a greatness, a wholeness that is the kingdom of God, and in this merciful space, your immediate life can unfold. This pain is held always in God’s love. As you know both the pain and the love, your wounds will heal.

Marian felt as if a great wave of compassion was pouring through the hands of the priest and gently bathing her, inviting her to surrender into its caring embrace. As she gave her desperation to it, she knew she was giving herself to the mercy of God. The more she let go, the more she felt held. Yes, she’d been blind and ignorant; she’d caused irreparable damage, but she wasn’t worthless, she wasn’t evil. Being held in the infinite compassion of God, she could find her way to her own heart.

Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance. The priest wasn’t advising Marian to ignore the pain or to deny that she’d failed her daughter, but to open her heart to the love that could begin the healing.

Now, rather than being locked inside her tormenting thoughts, Marian could remember the possibility of compassion. When remorse or self-hatred would arise, she would mentally say, “Please hold this pain.” When she felt her anguish as being held by God, she could face it without being ripped apart or wanting to destroy herself.

Two weeks later, when she and her daughter met again in therapy, Marian admitted to Christy – still acting cold – that she knew she’d failed her terribly. Then, gently and carefully taking her daughter’s hand, Marian drew a soft circle in the center of her palm, and whispered the same words the priest had whispered to her.

Upon hearing these words, Christy allowed herself be held, wept, and surrendered into the unexpected strength and sureness of her mother’s love. There was no way either of them could bypass the raw pain of yet unhealed wounds, but now they could heal together. By reaching out and feeling held in God’s mercy, Marian had discovered the compassion that could hold them both.

Whenever we feel held by a caring presence, by something larger than our small frightened self, we too can begin to find room in our own heart for the fragments of our life, and for the lives of others. The suffering that might have seemed “too much” can now awaken us to the sweetness of compassion.

© Tara Brach

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photo by: Wonderlane

Committing to Presence for the Sake of Love

 Romantic Heart from Love SeedsJeff was convinced he’d fallen out of love with his wife, Arlene, and that nothing could salvage their twenty-six-year marriage. He wanted relief from the oppressiveness of feeling continually judged and found wanting. Arlene, for her part, was hurt and angry because she felt Jeff avoided any real communication or emotional intimacy. As a last-ditch effort, she convinced him to attend a weekend workshop for couples sponsored by their church. Much to their surprise, they both left with a glimmer of hope for their future together. The message they took away was “Love is a decision.” Their guides at the workshop had insisted that while we don’t always feel loving, love is here should we choose to awaken it.

Yet, back at home, when their old styles of attacking and defending were triggered, deciding on love seemed like an ineffectual mental maneuver. Discouraged, Jeff sought me out for a counseling session. “I don’t know how to get from point A to point B,” he declared. “Like when we were together yesterday . . . my mind told me to decide on love, but that didn’t make a difference . . . my heart was in lockdown. Arlene was blaming me for something, and all I wanted to do was get away from her!”

“Let’s take another look at what happened yesterday,” I suggested, then invited him to close his eyes, put himself back into the situation, and let go of his notions of who was right or wrong. “Just let yourself experience what it’s like in your body to feel blamed and want to get away.” Jeff sat still, his face tightening into a grimace. “Keep allowing the feelings to be there,” I said, “and find out what unfolds.”

Gradually, his face softened. “Now I’m feeling stuck and sad,” he said. “We spend so much time caught in this. I withdraw, often without knowing it . . . that hurts her . . . she gets upset . . . then I very consciously want to get away. It’s sad to be so trapped.”

He looked up at me. I nodded with understanding. “What would it be like, Jeff, if instead of pulling away during this kind of encounter, you were able to let her know exactly what you were experiencing?” Then I added, “And if she, too, without accusing you of anything, were able to report on her feelings?”

“We’d have to know what we were feeling!” he said with a small laugh. “We’re usually too busy reacting.”

“Exactly!” I said. “You’d both have to be paying attention to what’s going on inside you. And that runs counter to our conditioning. When we’re emotionally stirred up, we’re lost in our stories about what’s happening, and caught in reflexive behaviors—like blaming the other person or finding a way to leave. That’s why we need to train ourselves to pay attention, so that we’re not at the mercy of our conditioning.”

I went on to explain how the practice of meditation cultivates our capacity for presence, for directly contacting our real, moment-to-moment experience. This gives us more inner space and creativity in responding—rather than reacting—to our circumstances. When I suggested that he and Arlene might consider coming to my weekly meditation class, he readily agreed. They were both there the following Wednesday night, and a month later, they attended a weekend meditation retreat I was leading.

Some weeks after the retreat, the three of us spoke briefly after class. Arlene said that thanks to their meditation practice, they were learning how to decide on love: “We have to choose presence with each other, over and over and over,” she told me. “We have to choose presence when we’re angry, presence when we aren’t in the mood to listen, presence when we’re alone and running the same old stories about how the other is wrong. Choosing presence is our way of opening our hearts.”

Jeff nodded his agreement. “I realized that it’s not about getting from point A to point B,” he said with a smile. “It’s about bringing a full presence to point A, to the life of this moment, no matter what’s going on. The rest unfolds from there.”

Taking refuge in presence—choosing presence—requires training. When “point A” is unpleasant, the last thing we want to do is to stay and feel our experience. Rather than entrusting ourselves to the waves of experience, we want to get away, lash out, numb ourselves, do anything but touch what’s real. Yet, as Jeff and Arlene were realizing, these types of false refuges keep us feeling small and defended.

As I explore in my upcoming course on cultivating more conscious, vibrant relationships, only by deepening our attention and letting life be just as it is can we find real intimacy with ourselves and others. In more than thirty-five years of teaching meditation, I’ve seen it help countless people to deepen their capacity for loving, because if we are able to stay present, we can decide on love, and give it the space and attention it needs to ignite fully. When you are next in a conflict with a dear one, your might inquire, “What would it mean to decide on love? Can I commit to deepening presence for the sake of love?” Just the inquiry will draw you closer to your heart.

© Tara Brach

Note: Coming soon  – an online course on cultivating more conscious, vibrant relationships.

Enjoy this talk on: The Dance of Relational Trance 

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photo by: epSos.de

Finding ‘True Refuge’ in the Face of Loss and Ego

true refugeKim, Seoku Jong, the reporter for the Kyungyang Shinmun, one of Korea’s major daily newspapers, recently interviewed me about my book True Refuge, which is now available in Korean. Since most of my readers won’t be able to read the article in Korean, I wanted to share the interview with you hear.

KSJ: How are you doing? Please tell us what interests you most these days.

TB: My mother, who lives with us, recently went into home hospice care. What interests me is that when we face the truth of mortality—that these lives can pass like a dream, that we will each lose those who are dear—what most matters is love. At the end of our lives, the question that will be central is, “Did I love well?” It’s clear that the more we remember to live this moment, here and now, in a loving, awake way, the more our lives will be truly aligned with our values and our heart.

I’m deeply saddened to be losing my mom – she is a wonderful being, filled with generosity, humor, and kindness. She meditates, as do my siblings, and by being together in the present moment, by loving without holding back, this time of sorrow is also a time of great beauty. This experience is, to me, possible throughout our lives. If we can remember what most matters to us, our lives will be vibrant, creative, loving, and beautiful.

KSJ: The world is full of suffering and it doesn’t seem to end. No one is free from suffering. Your book introduces to readers the moving stories of people who managed to heal themselves despite their wounds, and to a number of meditation methods that can be applied for the liberation from suffering. If you can briefly summarize the essence of True Refuge, what it would be?

TB:While the pain and loss that is part of life will continue, we each have the capacity to free ourselves from the suffering of feeling threatened, separate, or deficient. This becomes possible when we can see past our story of egoic self and contact the deeper truth and fullness of who we really are. The essence of each of us is loving presence – an awareness that is pure, wakeful, and boundless. This is our True Refuge. Those who have healed themselves with meditation have learned to pay attention in a way that has carried them home to loving presence, our true nature.

A key part of finding this True Refuge of loving presence is bringing a kind and mindful attention to all the expressions of our egoic self. We don’t find True Refuge by eliminating the ego; we come home when, like the ocean, we embrace all the waves that arise from our Being. In a very real way, this means embracing the aggression and defensiveness, the insecurities and hurts. What we don’t love controls us. Yet, as we enfold more and more of our experience in acceptance and love, we realize the freedom and vastness of our awakened heart.

KSJ: What is false refuge, and how is it different from True Refuge? And why is it so important to have True Refuge?

Being human is challenging. We’re aware of the dangers we face—rejection, failure, disease, loss, death—and our habit is to try to control whatever we can. A false refuge is a control strategy that might give temporary relief, but in the long run does not serve us. For example, we might overeat to soothe our anxiety or to feel some gratification, but we then feel ashamed or gain unhealthy weight. We might work very hard to prove ourselves worthy, but become overly busy and neglect our loved ones. We might brag or exaggerate to get others approval, but inwardly feel like a fake. All these false refuges actually take us farther from the experience of being at home with ourselves, secure in the essential goodness of who we are.

To be continued…

 

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photo by: DarkAura

Gift to the Soul: The Space of Presence

Photo Credit: Kalliope Kokolis
Photo Credit: Kalliope Kokolis

For many of us this is a season when it feels that we are going faster and faster. Everything’s racing, through school semesters, wrapping up work commitments, entering the holidays; the currents of life are in full tilt.

Given the time of year, one student fell into a period of intense stress resulting from a cycle of classes, studying, working and little sleep. He didn’t realize how long he had neglected to write home until he received the following note:

 Dear Son,
Your mother and I enjoyed your last letter.
Of course, we were much younger then and more impressionable.
Love,
Dad

As you know, it’s not just students. Some months ago a friend described getting caught in this state busy-ness while trying to get her daughter to school. She was busy getting things ready while her daughter was trying to show her something. Every time her daughter would call her over she would say, “Just hang on a moment. I’ll be there in a second.” After several rounds of this, the little four-year old came out of her room tired of waiting. She said to her mother, hands on hips:

“Why are you always so busy? What’s your name? Is it President O’mama or something?”

Along with the speediness we have the sense that there is not enough time. It’s interesting to observe how often we are living with that perception. It is usually accompanied by a squeeze of anxiety:

“I’m not going to be prepared,” and a chain of insecurities. “There’s something around the corner that is going to be too much,” “I’m going to fall short,” “I won’t get something critical done.” There’s this sense that we’re on our way somewhere else and that what’s right here is not the time that matters. We’re trying to get to the point in the future when we’ve finally checked everything off our to-do list and we can rest. As long as this is our habit, we are racing toward the end of our life. We are skimming the surface, and unable to arrive in our life.

Thomas Merton describes the rush and pressure of modern life as a form of contemporary violence. He says:

“…to be surrendering to too many demands, too many concerns, is to succumb to the violence.”

When we’re speeding along, we violate our own natural rhythms in a way that prevents us from listening to our inner life and being in a resonant field with others. We get tight. We get small. We override our capacity to appreciate beauty, to celebrate, to serve from the heart.

Our mindfulness practice offers us the opportunity to pause and rediscover the space of presence. When we stop charging forward and open to what’s here, there’s a radical shift in our experience of being alive. As we touch into this space of Hereness, we access a wisdom, a love and a creativity that are not available when we’re on our way somewhere else.  We are home, in our aliveness and our spirit.

 © Tara Brach
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Lessons from kayaking: Finding a Way to Be With Fear

Leaving the Marina with Morro Rock in the background and the MorMost of us spend a lot of our lives tensed up in fear, or pushing against fear.
The fear might be fear of:
  • Something going wrong
  • Not being good enough
  • Not being loved
  • Losing something or someone we hold dear
What fears do you live with?
The key to being with fear is in contacting what is here now, rather than trying to push it away. Here’s a story from the river that helps us understand that.  In kayaking, you learn about what is called a keeper hole. It’s a swirl in the river that catches a boat or a body and pulls it down under the water.  You can drown because you get stuck in that swirling current and you can’t get out of it.  If you get caught in a keeper hole, the only way out is actually to dive right into the center, down as far and deep as you can, toward the bottom, because if you get to the bottom you can swim out the side of the swirl.
So you do the opposite of what your instincts tell you to do.  Your instinct, of course, is to fight your way to the surface.  But it won’t work; you’ll keep getting pulled into the hole.  No, you have to dive down into the hole.
It’s like that with fear.  Our instincts are to pull away, to ignore the fear, or to distract ourselves.  We naturally want to escape the pull, the uncomfortable sensation, of fear.  But the skillful way of dealing with fear, just like the keeper hole, is to go into the center of it.
The training in facing fear is to directly contact it…to lean right in.  This is not something to do if your fear is from trauma.  It could be too overwhelming.  If you are dealing with trauma, you might need someone to work with you on that fear.  So you might try finding a thought that brings up fear,  a mild or moderate fear, and letting yourself feel the sensation.  Breathe right into the place you feel the fear, really letting yourself experience it for a moment.  On the out breath, let the fear disperse into the vastness of space around you, or the ocean you are part of.  See and feel the fear moving out into that larger space.
When you are kayaking on the ocean, or on a large lake, you can sense yourself as part of that spaciousness.  Allow the fear to disperse into the spaciousness.  You might find that it is possible to be with the fear, rather than push it away, when you are aware of your oceanness.
© Tara Brach
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Absolute Cooperation with the Inevitable

Mystic Poppies.The modern-day mystic and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello once said: “Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable.” This statement struck a deep chord within me. It seems to me that what he meant was to be absolutely open to life as it is.

Think about the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean that flows from the tip of Florida up along the eastern seaboard. If you were to put a straw in the water, aligned with the Gulf Stream, it would move with the flow of water. The water moves through it and carries it along on the current. Everything is aligned; it’s total grace. Now, if it’s misaligned, and it’s not moving with the flow of water, it gets spun around and moves off course.

Aligning ourselves with the flow of aliveness is an essential part of our mindfulness practice. Like the straw, if we move out of alignment, we’re moving away, spinning about, in reaction…in some way unable to be one with the flow of grace. So we seek to stay aligned, letting the flow of life move through us.

What are some ways that we remove ourselves from the channel through which our life flows?

I noticed this happening the other day when I was driving home. I have my own accustomed speed, and the person in front of me was going much, much, much slower. You know what that is like, don’t you? Now, I wasn’t in a rush to get somewhere. I wasn’t on my way to the airport to catch a plane, but it didn’t matter. I was driving at a speed that felt really different from my preferred speed. I was experiencing impatience and anxiety, and it was building. Everything in me was leaning forward. I felt like I couldn’t be okay unless the situation changed.

So I paused, mentally. I recognized that I had a demand that something be different than it was at the moment, and I tried to let go of it. This example is a small thing, but this happens in many ways, some small and some much larger, in our human experience. We get caught in feeling that happiness is not possible unless things change. Consequently, we cause ourselves tremendous unhappiness, because we’re demanding that things be different.

It’s interesting to notice how this happens. I think it arises from our social conditioning about what brings happiness. We are led to believe that we need certain things to be happy: “If I can get this job,” “If I can earn this much money,” “If I can buy a house in that neighborhood,” then I will be happy. Or we might think, if only I were healthier, or thinner, or if my boss quit so I could have a different boss, or if I had a different spouse…and on and on.

We wait for things to be different in order to feel okay with life. As long as we keep attaching our happiness to the external events of our lives, which are ever changing, we’ll always be left waiting for it.

What if we were to pause and align ourselves with the current?
What if we moved with the flow of what is?
What would that mean for you in your life, right now?

Aligning with what is here is a way of practicing presence. It allows us to respond to our world with creativity and compassion.

What is actually happening is that we’re opening to the universal intelligence, the universal love that can flow through us when we’re aligned. When the straw is aligned with the current, the Gulf Stream flows through it. When we’re aligned with the flow of our lives, there’s a universal wisdom and love that flows through us, which is our true nature.

© Tara Brach

Adapted from Radical Acceptance  (2003)

Enjoy this talk on: Absolute Cooperation with the Inevitable

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photos by: hipea & h.koppdelaney

Lift Yourself Up with a Gesture of Kindness

almost mayThe next time you find yourself in a bad mood, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “What is my attitude toward myself right now? Am I relating to myself with judgment … or with mindfulness, warmth, and respect?”

Typically, you’ll find that when you’re anxious, lonely, or depressed, you’re also down on yourself in some way, and that undercurrent of feeling deficient or unworthy is what’s keeping you cut off from your own aliveness, as well as your feeling of connection with others.

The way of healing and homecoming begins with what I call “a gesture of kindness.” You might for instance put your hand on your heart—letting the touch be tender—and send a message inwardly. It might be “It’s okay, sweetheart.” Or  “I care about this suffering.” Or, “I’m sorry and I love you.”  Often, it’s simply,  “This, too.”

Sometimes, this gesture of kindness includes saying “yes” to whatever’s going on—the yes meaning, “This is what’s happening, it’s how life is right now … it’s okay.”

If you’re really down on yourself, you can also say “Forgiven, forgiven.” Not because there’s something wrong to forgive, but because there’s some judgment to let go of.

As you offer yourself this gesture of kindness, take some moments to stay with yourself, to keep yourself company. Allow whatever most wants attention to surface, and sense that you are the loving presence that can include and embrace whatever’s arising.

Then, see if you can widen your attention, and notice what or who else is floating in your heart space. Perhaps you’ll intentionally offer a gesture of kindness to a friend who’s struggling with disappointment, a family member dealing with illness, or a teen caught in self-doubt.

As you continue to practice offering yourself and others this gesture of kindness, you will discover that this response to life becomes increasingly spontaneous and natural.  In time, you’ll recognize it as the most authentic expression of who you are.

—Tara Brach,  Labor Day Weekend, 2013

Enjoy this short talk on Dedicating to Kindness

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The Radical Transformation From Self-judgment to Compassion

Way of the heartWe were three days into a weeklong meditation retreat when one of my students, Daniel, came in to see me for his first interview. He plopped down in the chair across from me, and immediately pronounced himself The Most Judgmental Person In The World.

“Whatever I’m thinking or feeling when I meditate … I end up finding something wrong with it. During walking practice or eating, I start thinking I should be doing it better, more mindfully. When I’m doing the loving-kindness meditation, my heart feels like a cold stone.” Whenever Daniel’s back hurt while he was sitting, or whenever he got lost in thought, he’d rail at himself for being a hopeless meditator.

He confessed that he even felt awkward coming in for our interview, afraid he’d be wasting my time. While others weren’t exempt from his barrage of hostility, most of it was directed at himself. “I know that Buddhist teachings are based on being compassionate” he said bitterly, “but it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever rub off on me.”

Like Daniel, being hard on ourselves is familiar to many of us. We often distance ourselves from emotional pain—our vulnerability, anger, jealousy, fear—by covering it over with self-judgment. Yet, when we push away parts of ourselves, we only dig ourselves deeper into the trance of unworthiness.

Whenever we’re trapped in self-judgment, like Daniel, our first and wisest step towards freedom is to develop compassion for ourselves. If we’ve injured someone and are embroiled in guilt and self-recrimination, compassion for ourselves allows us to find a wise and healing way to make amends. If we’re drowning in grief or sorrow, arousing compassion helps us remember the love and connection in our life. Rather than pushing them away, we free ourselves by holding our hurting places with the unconditional tenderness of compassion.

When I asked Daniel how long he’d been so harsh on himself, he paused for several moments. “For as long as I can remember,” he said. From an early age, he’d joined his mother in relentlessly badgering himself, ignoring the hurt in his heart. As an adult, he’d treated his heart and body with impatience and irritation. Even in the face of a tormenting divorce and a long bout of chronic back pain, Daniel hadn’t been able to acknowledge the intensity of his suffering. Instead, he’d criticized himself for having screwed up the marriage, for not having the sense to take proper care of himself.

I asked Daniel to tell me what happened in his body when he was judging himself so harshly, and he immediately pointed to his heart, saying it felt bound by tight metal cords. I asked if he could feel that right in this moment. To his surprise, Daniel heard himself saying, “You know, this really hurts.” I then gently asked him how he felt about this aching. “Sad,” he responded softly, his eyes welling up with tears. “It’s hard to believe I’ve been carrying this much pain for so long.”

I suggested he put his hand on his heart, on the place where he most felt the most discomfort, then asked if he might send a message to the pain: “How would it feel for you to say, ‘I care about this suffering’?” Daniel glanced at me, then looked down again: “Strange, I think.” I encouraged him to give it a try by whispering the words softly. As he did, repeating the phrase slowly two more times, Daniel’s shoulders began to shake with quiet sobbing.

Like it did for Daniel, offering ourselves such care might feel strange and unfamiliar—or even downright embarrassing—at first. It might trigger a sense of shame about being needy, undeserving, or self-indulgent. But the truth is that this revolutionary act of treating ourselves tenderly can begin to undo the aversive messages of a lifetime.

Over the next few days, whenever Daniel became aware of judging himself or others, he’d check in with his body to see where he was feeling pain. Usually he’d find his throat, heart, and stomach tightened in fear, his chest heavy and sore. With a very gentle touch, Daniel would place his hand on his heart and say, “I care about this suffering.” Because he was sitting in the front of the meditation hall, I noticed his hand was almost permanently resting there.

One afternoon, Daniel came to tell me about something that had happened earlier that day. During meditation, a scene had arisen in his mind of being at his mother’s house, engaged in an angry exchange with her. As he tried to explain why it wasn’t irresponsible for him to take a week off to meditate, he could hear her disdainful reply: “You lazy bum, why don’t you do something worthwhile with yourself.”

This was the same sort of demeaning message that in his youth had made him want to shrivel up and disappear. He felt his chest filling with the heat and pressure of rage, and in his mind heard himself shouting, “You bitch, you don’t understand! You’ve never understood. Can’t you just shut up for one minute and see who I am!!”

The pain of anger and frustration was like a knife stabbing his heart, and he was about to launch into a familiar diatribe at himself for being such a wimp, for not standing up to her, for being a meditator filled with such hatred. Instead, he placed both hands on his heart and whispered over and over, “I care about this suffering. May I be free from suffering.”

After a few minutes, the stabbing anger subsided. In its place, he could feel warmth spreading through his chest, a softening and opening around his heart. Feeling as if the vulnerable part of him was listening and taking comfort, Daniel said, “I’m not leaving you. I’m here, and I care.” Throughout the rest of the retreat, Daniel practiced like this, and some of the most painful knots—the wounds of his young, anguished self—slowly began to release.

When he came in for his final interview, Daniel’s whole countenance was transformed. His edges had softened, his body was relaxed, his eyes bright. In contrast to his former awkwardness, Daniel seemed glad to be with me, and told me that while the judgments and self-blame had continued some, they were not so unrelentingly cruel.

No longer imprisoned by constantly feeling like something was wrong with him, Daniel was beginning to notice the world in new ways—other students seemed more friendly; the acres of forest were an inviting, magical sanctuary; the dharma talks stirred up a childlike fascination and wonder. He felt energized and somewhat bewildered by the fresh sense of possibility in his life. By holding himself with a compassionate presence, Daniel was becoming free to participate more fully in his world.

Like Daniel, whenever we’ve become addicted to judging and mistrusting ourselves, any sincere gesture of care to the wounded places can bring about radical transformation. Our suffering then becomes a gateway to the compassion that can free our heart. When we become the holder of our own sorrows, our old roles as judge, adversary, or victim are no longer being fueled. In their place we find not a new role, but a courageous openness, and a capacity for genuine tenderness—not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)

Enjoy this talk on: Cultivating Compassion

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Lessons from the Bodhisattva: Feel Your Pain and Awaken to Healing

into the glare of the sunsetAlthough not always highlighted in the West, prayer and devotion are a living stream in Buddhism. The earnest wishes expressed in the practices of lovingkindness and compassion—May I be happy, May You be free from suffering—are forms of prayer. The aspiration to find refuge in the Buddha (or Buddha “awakened” nature) is an expression of devotion to truth and freedom.

When we’re suffering and turn to prayer, no matter what the apparent reasons for our pain, the basic cause is always the same: we feel separate and alone. John O’Donohue, in his book Eternal Echoes, writes:“Prayer is the voice of longing; it reaches outwards and inwards to unearth our ancient belonging.” This is a beautiful description of what I call mindful prayer. We reach not just outward to know our belonging, but with mindful prayer we also turn inward and listen deeply to the suffering that is giving rise to our prayer. When we are willing to touch the pain of separation—the loneliness, the fear, the hurt— our longing carries us to the tender and compassionate presence that is our awakened nature.

I experienced the transforming power of mindful prayer some years ago when I was suffering from a broken heart. I’d fallen in love with a man who lived 2000 miles away, and because we couldn’t weave our lives together, the relationship ended. The loss was crushing, and while I accepted my grieving process for the first month or so, as it went on and on I felt more excruciatingly lonely than I’d ever felt in my life.

In the room where I meditate, I have a Tibetan scroll painting (called a thanka) of the bodhisattva of compassion. Known as Tara in Tibet and Kwan Yin in China, she’s an embodiment of healing and compassion. One morning, as I sat crying in front of the thanka, feeling crushed and worthless, I found myself praying to Kwan Yin, wanting to be held in her compassionate embrace.

For a while, this seemed to help. Yet one morning, I hit a wall. What was I doing? My ongoing ritual of aching, praying, crying, and hating my suffering was not really moving me towards healing. Kwan Yin suddenly seemed like an idea I’d conjured up to soothe myself. Yet without having her as a refuge, I now had absolutely nowhere to turn, nothing to hold on to, no way out of the empty hole of pain.

At that moment, even though it seemed like just another concept, I remembered that, for the aspiring bodhisattva, suffering is the trusted gateway to awakening the heart. I remembered that when I’d remained present with pain in the past, something had indeed changed. I suddenly realized that maybe this situation was about really trusting suffering as the gateway. Maybe that was the whole point—I needed to stop fighting my grief and loneliness, no matter how horrible I was feeling or for how long it continued.

I recalled the bodhisattva’s aspiration: “May this suffering serve to awaken compassion” and began quietly whispering it inside. As I repeated the prayer over and over, I could feel my inner voice grow less desperate, more sincere. I knew it was true—I could awaken to the love I yearned for by directly touching the fullness of this suffering. The moment I let go into that truth, the change began.

That day in my meditation room, as I let the loneliness cut more deep, scarcely able to bear the searing pain of it, I realized that I was longing—not for a particular person, but for love itself. I was longing to belong to something larger than my lonely self.

As I let go into the yearning, I distinctly sensed Kwan Yin as a radiant field of compassion surrounding me, cherishing my hurting, vulnerable being. As I surrendered into her presence, my body began to fill with light. I was vibrating with a love that embraced the whole of this living world—it embraced my moving breath, the singing of birds, the wetness of tears and the endless sky.

Dissolving into that warm and shining immensity, I no longer felt any distinction between my heart and the heart of Kwan Yin. All that was left was an enormous tenderness tinged with sadness. The compassionate Beloved I had been reaching for “out there” was my own awakened being.

Whenever we pray, we might begin by reaching out, and in that way remember the warmth and safety of connectedness. Yet, we ground our prayer by reaching inward to the raw feelings of loneliness and fear. Like a great tree, mindful prayer sinks its roots into the dark depths in order to reach up fully to the light. When the pain is deep, the more fully we touch it, the more fully we release ourselves prayerfully into boundless, compassionate presence.

Enjoy this talk on Lovingkindness

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Can You Medicate Meditation?

Drugs Make Me HappyThe use of anti-depressants by those involved in meditation practice is a very hot topic. Students often ask me things like, “If I take Prozac, isn’t that as good as giving up? Aren’t I admitting that meditation doesn’t work?”

Those who’ve been advised by a doctor to consider medication tell me they are afraid of becoming dependent on it, afraid they’ll never function again without it. Some wonder if taking medication doesn’t directly undercut the process of spiritual awakening.

They ask, “Don’t medications numb the very experiences we are trying to unconditionally accept? Wouldn’t liberation be impossible if we were on medication?” One student even quipped, “It’s hard to imagine the Buddha reaching for Prozac while under the Bodhi Tree.”

It’s true that some of the most widely used anti-depressants can create a sense of distance from acute fear, and a degree of emotional numbing. It’s also possible to become at least psychologically dependent on any substance that provides relief.

Yet, for some people, no matter how hard they try something else is needed to engender safety and bring anxiety to a manageable level. Whether the cause is life trauma or genetic predisposition, the brain chemistry and nervous system of some people lead to intolerably high levels of fear. For them prescribed medication for depression and anxiety may provide additional—and possibly critical—aid in finding the safety that enables them to trust others and to pursue spiritual practices.

At least for a period of time, in these cases medical intervention may be the most compassionate response.

I’ve seen students who were utterly incapacitated by anxiety and fear finally able to face it with mindfulness and lovingkindness once they started on medications. As a psychiatrist friend says, medications make it possible for some people to “stop anxiously doing, and just sit there.”

Medication and meditation can work together. As medications shift the biological experience of fear, mindfulness practice can help undo the complex of reactive thoughts and feelings that sustain it.

One of my meditation students, Seth, a composer and pianist, took anti-depressants after struggling unsuccessfully for years with debilitating anxiety, shame and depression. Seth dreaded performances and the expectation of perfection that surrounded them. He told me, “Knowing how to write and play music is my life. When I feel like I’m blowing it, I lose it completely. I feel totally worthless.”

When Seth began taking anti-depressants his fear level dropped significantly. The familiar stories and self-judgments would still arise, but because the fear was less intense, he was able to see that his thoughts were just thoughts, not the truth about how things were. Gradually, as Seth deepened his meditation practice, he became familiar with a new and different sense of himself. Rather than rejecting himself as sick and broken, he began wanting to care for and comfort himself.

After two years, Seth decided to stop taking anti-depressants. While his fear had decreased, he had also lost a certain degree of his natural sensitivity and empathy, and his libido was diminished. Within a few months of discontinuing the medication, Seth began to experience once again waves of acute fear and, at times, oppressive depression. But now when the old stories made their appearance, he could note them mindfully rather than getting lost in them.

Taking medication had driven a wedge into the trance of fear, and it no longer was so engulfing. While Seth’s emotions were still intense, his fear wasn’t fueled by overwhelming self-judgment and shame. He no longer identified himself as a broken person. Perhaps from time to time he might seek relief again from medications, but Seth now had a strength to his spiritual practice and a faith in himself that gave him a genuine sense of inner freedom.

There are no absolute recipes for working with this issue of taking medications. In making choices on our path, it’s important to ask ourselves whether or not they will serve awakening and freedom. Our best answers are found by honestly looking into our intentions.

For instance: What is our intention in doing therapy, in taking medication or doing a particular style of meditation? Are we using meditation as a way of escaping from painful relationships or unwanted responsibilities? Do we truly intend to face and accept fear? Are our choices helping us relax and become more kind?

As we honestly explore these questions, we can experiment through our practice to discover which of our choices are the most compassionate, and will best bring an end to our suffering.

Enjoy this talk on Finding the Juice Inside Fear

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

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