Category Archives: Intent of the Day

The Backward Step

Grey sky, great egretTibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa once opened a class by drawing a V on a large white sheet of poster paper. He then asked those present what he had drawn. Most responded that it was a bird. “No,” he told them. “It’s the sky with a bird flying through it.”

How we pay attention determines our experience. When we’re in doing or controlling mode, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground—the bird, a thought, a strong feeling. In these moments we don’t perceive the sky—the background of experience, the ocean of awareness. The good news is that through practice, we can intentionally incline our minds toward not controlling and toward an open attention.

My formal introduction to what is often called “open awareness” was through dzogchen—a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Until then, I’d trained in concentration and mindfulness, always focusing on an object (or changing objects) of attention. In dzogchen, as taught by my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche, we repeatedly let go of whatever our attention fixates on and turn toward the awareness that is attending. The invitation is to recognize the skylike quality of the mind—the empty, open, wakefulness of awareness—and be that.

My first retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche loosened my moorings in a wonderful way. The more I became familiar with the presence of awareness, the weaker the foothold was for the feelings and stories that sustained my sense of self. Tensions in my body and mind untangled themselves, and my heart responded tenderly to whoever or whatever came to mind. I left that retreat, and later dzogchen retreats, feeling quite spacious and free.

I more recently learned of the work of Les Fehmi, a psychologist and researcher who for decades has been clinically documenting the profound healing that arises from resting in open awareness. In the 1960s researchers began to correlate synchronous alpha brain waves with profound states of well-being, peace, and happiness.

Fehmi, an early and groundbreaking leader in this research, sought strategies that might deepen and amplify alpha waves. Experimenting with student volunteers, he tracked their EEG readings as they visualized peaceful landscapes, listened to music, watched colored lights, or inhaled various scents. But it was only after he posed the question, “Can you imagine the space between your eyes?” that their alpha wave levels truly soared.  (note-I’m offering a link to a guided meditation that I’ve adapted from Fehmi’s work.)

He posed another: “Can you imagine the space between your ears?” The subjects’ alpha waves spiked again. Further experimentation confirmed the effects of what Fehmi termed “open focused attention.” The key was inviting attention to space (or stillness or silence or timelessness) and shifting to a nonobjective focus.

Narrowly focused attention affects our entire body-mind. Whenever we fixate on making plans, on our next meal, on judgments, on a looming deadline, our narrowed focus produces faster (beta) waves in the brain. Our muscles tense, and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released.  While necessary for certain tasks, as an ongoing state this stress constellation keeps us from full health, openheartedness, and mental clarity.

In contrast, open-focused attention rests the brain. With a sustained pause from processing information—from memories, plans, thoughts about self—brain waves slow down into synchronous alpha. Our muscles relax, stress hormone levels are lowered, blood flow is redistributed. No longer in fight-or-flight reactivity, our body and mind become wakeful, sensitive, open, and at ease.

You may have noticed the effect of open awareness when looking at the night sky and sensing its immensity. Or during the silence in the early morning before sunrise. Or when the world is still after a snowfall. We resonate with such moments because they connect us with the most intimate sense of what we are. We sense the depth of our being in the night sky, the mystery of what we are in the silence, the stillness. In these moments of objectless awareness there’s a wordless homecoming, a realization of pure being.

In practicing open awareness, I’ve found it helpful to think of existence—the entire play of sounds and thoughts and bodies and trees—as the foreground of life, and awareness as the background. In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called “the backward step.” Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step.

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.

You might pause for a moment and receive this living world. Let your senses be awake and wide open, taking everything in evenly, allowing life to be just as it is. As you notice the changing sounds and sensations, also notice the undercurrent of awareness—be conscious of your own presence.

Allow the experience of life to continue to unfold in the foreground as you sense this alert inner stillness in the background. Then simply be this space of awareness, this wakeful openness. Can you sense how the experiences of this world continues to play through you, without in any way capturing or confining the inherent spaciousness of awareness? You are the sky with the bird flying through; you are, as a traditional Tibetan saying teaches:

Utterly awake, senses wide open.

Utterly open, nonfixating awareness.

 Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

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Tara Brach: I’m Nothing, Yet I’m All I Can Think About


There is a lightWriting and speaking about the nature of awareness is a humbling process; as the third Zen patriarch said, “Words! The way is beyond language.” Whatever words are used, whatever thoughts they evoke, that’s not it! Just as we can’t see our own eyes, we can’t see awareness. What we are looking for is what is looking. Awareness is not another object or concept that our mind can grasp. We can only be awareness.

A friend who is a Unitarian minister told me about an interfaith gathering that she attended. It opened with an inquiry: What is our agreed-upon language for referring to the divine? Shall we call it God? “No way” responded a feminist Wiccan. “What about Goddess?” A Baptist minister laughed and said, “Spirit?” Upon which an atheist replied, “Nope.” Discussion went on for a while. Finally, a Native American suggested “the great mystery” and they all agreed. Each knew that whatever his or her personal understanding, the sacred was in essence a mystery.

Awareness, true nature, what we are—is a mystery. We encounter the same wordless mystery when someone dies. After his mother passed away, my husband Jonathan looked at me and said, “Where did she go?” I remember sitting with my father as he was dying—he was there, and then he wasn’t. His spirit, that animating consciousness, was no longer present in his body.

Nothing in this world of experience is more jarring to our view than death. It takes away all our conceptual props. We can’t understand with our minds what has occurred. Love is the same way. We talk endlessly about love, yet when we bring to mind someone we love and really investigate, “What is this love?”, we drop into the mystery. What is this existence itself, with all its particularity, its strange life forms, its beauty, its cruelty? We can’t understand. When we ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware?” and really pause to examine, we can’t find an answer.

Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “If everything … changes, then what is really true? Is there something behind the appearances, something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place? Is there something in fact we can depend on, that does survive what we call death?

This inquiry turns us toward the timeless refuge of pure awareness. When we ask ourselves, “Is awareness here?” most of us probably pause, sense the presence of awareness, and say yes. Yet every day we restlessly pull away from this open awareness and immerse ourselves in busyness and planning. Our conditioning prevents us from discovering the peace and happiness that are intrinsic in taking refuge in awareness. Seeing how we paper over the mystery of who we are is an essential part of finding freedom.

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley called awareness “Mind at Large” and reminded us: “Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet.”

From an evolutionary perspective, our brain’s primary function is to block out too much information, and to select and organize the information that will allow us to thrive. The more stress we feel, the smaller the aperture of our attention. If we’re hungry, we obsess about food. If we’re threatened, we fixate on defending ourselves or striking first to remove the threat. Our narrowly focused attention is the key navigational instrument of the ego-identified self.

I saw a cartoon once in which a guy at a bar is telling the bartender: “I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about.” If you reflect on how often you are moving through your day trying to “figure something out,” you’ll get a sense of how the reducing valve is shaping your experience. And if you notice how many thoughts are about yourself, you’ll see how the valve creates a completely self-centered universe. It’s true for all of us!

This incessant spinning of thoughts continually resurrects what I often call our space-suit identity. Our stories keep reminding us that we need to improve our circumstances, get more security or pleasure, avoid mistakes and trouble. Even when there are no real problems, we have the sense that we should be doing something different from whatever we are doing in the moment. “Why are you unhappy?” asks writer Wei Wu Wei. “Because 99.9% of everything you do is for yourself … and there isn’t one.”

While we might grasp this conceptually, the self-sense can seem very gritty and real. Even single-cell creatures have a rudimentary sense of “self in here, world out there.” As Huxley acknowledges, developing a functional self was basic to evolution on our particular planet. But this does not mean the space-suit self marks the end of our evolutionary journey. We have the capacity to realize our true belonging to something infinitely larger.

If we fail to wake up to who we are beyond the story of self, our system will register a “stuckness.” It’s a developmental arrest that shows up as dissatisfaction, endless stress, loneliness, fear, and joylessness. This emotional pain is not a sign that we need to discard our functional self. It’s a sign that the timeless dimension of our being is awaiting realization. As executive coach and author Stephen Josephs teaches, “We can still function as an apparent separate entity, while enjoying the parallel reality of our infinite vast presence. We need both realms. When the cop pulls us over we still need to show him our license, not simply point to the sky.”

Most of us are too quick to reach for our license. If our sense of identity is bound to the egoic self, we will spend our lives tensing against the certainty of loss and death. We will not be able to open fully to the aliveness and love that are here in the present moment. As Sri Nisargadatta writes, “As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, you seem short-lived and vulnerable, and of course you will feel anxious to survive. But when you know yourself to be beyond space and time, you will be afraid no longer.”

Adapted from  True Refuge  (2013)

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Defending Against Loss

The One and Only EastThe Buddha taught that we spend most of our life like children in a burning house, so entranced by our games that we don’t notice the flames, the crumbling walls, the collapsing foundation, the smoke all around us. The games are our false refuges, our unconscious attempts to trick and control life, to sidestep its inevitable pain.

Yet, this life is not only burning and falling apart; sorrow and joy are woven inextricably together. When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world.

One of my clients, Justin, distracted himself from the loss of his wife, Donna, by armoring himself with anger. He’d met her in college, and married her right after graduation. Donna went on to law school and to teaching law; Justin taught history and coached basketball at a small urban college. With their teaching, passion for tennis, and shared dedication to advocating for disadvantaged youth, their life together was full and satisfying.

On the day that Justin received the unexpected news of his promotion to full professor, Donna was away at a conference, and caught an early flight back to celebrate with him. On her way home from the airport, a large truck overturned and crushed her car, killing her instantly.

Almost a year after her death, Justin asked me for phone counseling. “I need to get back to mindfulness,” he wrote. “Anger is threatening to take away the rest of my life.”

During our first call, Justin told me that his initial response to Donna’s death was rage at an unjust God. “It doesn’t matter that I always tried to do my best, be a good person, a good Christian. God turned his back on me,” he told me. Yet his initial anger at God had morphed into a more general rage at injustice and a desire to confront those in power. He’d always been involved with social causes, but now he became a lightning rod for conflict, aggressively leading the fight for diversity on campus, and publicly attacking the school administration for its lack of commitment to the surrounding community.

His department chairman had previously been a staunch ally; now their communication was badly strained. “It’s not your activism,” his chairman told him. “It’s your antagonism, your attitude.” Justin’s older sister, his lifelong confidant, had also confronted him. “Your basic life stance is suspicion and hostility,” she’d said. When I asked him whether that rang true, he replied, “When I lost Donna, I lost my faith. I used to think that some basic sanity could prevail in this world. But now, well, it’s hard not to feel hostile.”

The pain of loss often inspires activism. Mothers have lobbied tirelessly for laws preventing drunk driving; others struggle for legislation to reduce gun violence; gay rights activists devote themselves to halting hate crimes. Such dedication to change can be a vital and empowering part of healing. But Justin’s unprocessed anger had aborted the process of mourning. His anger might have given him some feeling of meaning or purpose, but instead he remained a victim, at war with God and life, unable to truly heal.

Loss exposes our essential powerlessness, and often we will do whatever is possible to subdue the primal fear that comes with feeling out of control. Much of our daily activity is a vigilant effort to stay on top of things—to feel prepared and avoid trouble. When this fails, our next line of defense is to whip ourselves into shape: Maybe if we can change, we think, we can protect ourselves from more suffering. Sadly, going to war with ourselves only compounds our pain.

A few months after my first phone consultation with Justin, his seventy-five-year-old mother had a stroke. His voice filled with agitation as he told me about the wall he’d hit when he tried to communicate with her insurance company. They couldn’t seem to understand that her recovery depended on more comprehensive rehab. “There’s nothing I can do to reach this goddamned, heartless bureaucracy … nothing!”

Justin was once again living in the shadow of loss, and gripped in reactivity. We both agreed that this was an opportunity to bring mindfulness to his immediate experience. He began by quickly identifying what he called “pure, righteous anger” before pausing, and allowing it to be there. Then, after a several rounds of investigation, he came upon something else. “My chest. It’s like there’s a gripping there, like a big claw that’s just frozen in place. And I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked gently. After a long pause, Justin spoke in a low voice. “She’ll probably come through this fine, but a part of me is afraid I’m going to lose her too.”

We stayed on the phone as Justin breathed with his fear, feeling its frozen grip on his chest. Then he asked if he could call me back later in the week. “This is a deep pain,” he said. “I need to spend time with it.”

A few days later, he told me, “Something cracked open, Tara. Being worried about my mom is all mixed up with Donna dying. It’s like Donna just died yesterday, and I’m all broken up. Something in me is dying all over again . . .” Justin had to wait a few moments before continuing. “I wasn’t done grieving. I never let myself feel how part of me died with her.” He could barely get out the words before he began weeping deeply.


Whenever we find ourselves lacking control of a situation, there’s an opening to just be with what is.  Now that Justin had once again found himself in a situation he couldn’t control, he was willing this time to be with the loss he’d never fully grieved. Instead of rushing into a new cause, he spent the next couple of months focused on caring for his mom. He also spent hours alone shooting hoops, or hitting tennis balls against a wall. Sometimes he’d walk into his empty house and feel like he had just lost Donna all over again. It was that raw.

Justin had finally opened to the presence that could release his hill of tears. Six months later, during our last consultation, he told me that he was back in action. “I’m in the thick of diversity work again, and probably more effective. Makes sense . . . According to my sister, I’m no longer at war with the world.”

By opening to his own grief instead of armoring himself with anger, Justin was finally able to start the healing process. His grief had never gone away; it had just been hidden. Once he was willing to open to it and feel it, his own sorrow could show him the way home to peace. As Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue tells us:

All you can depend on now is that

Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.

More than you, it knows its way

And will find the right time

To pull and pull the rope of grief

Until that coiled hill of tears

Has reduced to its last drop.


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“Please Love Me”



Indian teacher Sri Nisargadatta writes, “The mind creates the abyss. The heart crosses over it.” Sometimes the abyss of fear and isolation is so wide that we hold back, unable to enter the sanctuary of presence, frozen in our pain. At such times, we need a taste of love from somewhere in order to begin the thaw.

This was true for a member of our sangha, Julia, as she received treatment for cancer. She was uncomplaining about her fatigue and pain, but as one of her friends, Anna, commented, “It feels like she’s barely there.”

Despite her determination to “just handle it myself,” Julia was increasingly dependent. Her friends organized themselves to bring her food, and one evening when Anna came with some soup, she found Julia curled up in bed, facing the wall. Julia thanked Anna weakly, told her she felt queasy, and asked her to leave the soup on the stove. She heard the door click, and drifted off for a while.

When she woke, Julia felt the familiar utter aloneness, the sense that she was locked in a dying body. She began crying softly, and then to her surprise felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Anna had shut the door, but rather than leaving had been sitting quietly by her side. Now the crying turned into deep sobs. “Go ahead, dear, just let it happen … it’s okay,” Anna whispered. Over and over, she told her, “It’s okay, we’re here together” as Julia gave in to the agony of held-back fear and grief.

After about twenty minutes, with interludes for tissues and water, Julia quieted. She was still a bit nauseated and felt weak from crying. But for the first time in as long as she could remember, she was profoundly at ease.

“Some shield I had put up between me and the world dissolved,” Julia told me the following week. “Even after Anna left, I could feel her care. The aloneness was gone.” But then, she went on, several days later the shield hardened again. She had an appointment with her oncologist, and he told her that the cancer had spread. “I guess I feel most isolated when I get scared.”

“Is the shield up now?” I asked. “Do you feel scared and isolated?” She nodded, “It’s not too intense because we’re together. But there’s a place inside that feels so afraid …”

“You might take some moments and pay attention to that place.” Julia sat back on the couch and closed her eyes. “Can you sense what that place in you most needs?”

Julia was quiet for what felt to be a long time. “It wants love. Not just my love, though … it wants others to care. It’s saying ‘Please love me.’”

“Julia, see if you can let that wanting, that longing for love, be as big as it wants to be. Just give it permission, and feel it from the inside out.” She nodded and sat quietly, eyebrows drawn, intent.

“Sense who you most want to feel love from . . . and when someone comes to mind, visualize that person right here and ask … say the words, ‘Please love me.’ You might then imagine what it would be like to receive love, just the way you want it.”

Julia nodded again and was very still. After a minute or two she whispered a barely audible, “Please love me,” and then again a little louder. Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. I encouraged her to keep going for as long as she wanted—visualizing anyone who came to mind as a possible source of love, saying “Please love me.”

I also suggested she imagine opening and allowing herself to receive the love. She continued, and soon was weeping as she said the words. Gradually her crying subsided, and she was just whispering. Then there were deep spaces of silence between her words. Her face had softened and flushed slightly, and she had a slight smile.

When she opened her eyes, they were shining. “I feel blessed,” she told me. “My life is entirely held in love.”

We met for the last time three weeks before Julia’s death. Anna had taken her to a park early that morning before anyone was around. They put down a blanket to meditate on, and Julia was able to make herself comfortable, leaning against a tree. “I don’t know how much more time I’ll have,” she told me, “so while we were quiet I did an inner ritual. I felt this precious life that I love and that I’m leaving—my friends, the whole meditation community, you … swing dancing, singing, the ocean … oh so much beauty, the trees …”

Tears welled up and Julia paused, feeling the grief as she spoke. Then she went on: “I could feel the solidness of the big oak that was supporting me, and sense its presence. I started praying … I said ‘Please love me.’ Immediately love was here. It flooded me, this knowing of being related, of being the same aliveness, the same one consciousness. Then the grasses and bushes, the birds, the earth and clouds … Anna, anyone I thought of … each being was loving me and we were united in that consciousness. I was love, I was a part of everything.”

Julia was quiet for a while. Then she said slowly, “Do you know what I’m finding, Tara? When you accept that you are dying … and you turn toward love, it’s not hard to feel one with God.”

We sat silently, savoring each other’s company. Then our conversation meandered; we talked about dogs (she loved my poodle and insisted she be with us when we met) and wigs and wigs on dogs getting chemo and an upcoming retreat. We were lighthearted and deeply comfortable. We hugged several times before she left. Julia’s realization of oneness was embodied as a generous, deeply sweet love. In sharing her wisdom and in expressing that love, she gave me her parting gift.

Whether grieving the loss of our own life, or another’s, we each have the capacity to see past the veils of separation. If our hearts are willing, grieving becomes the gateway to loving awareness, the entry into our own awakened nature.

Adapted from True Refuge (January 2013)

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Prayer in the Face of Difficulty

Happy Deepavali

Ask the friend for love

Ask him again

For I have found that every heart

Will get what it prays for most.



When offered with presence and sincerity, the practice of prayer can reveal the source of what your heart most deeply longs for—the loving essence of who you are. Perhaps without naming it as prayer, in times of great need and distress you may already spontaneously experience the act of doing so. For instance, you might find yourself saying something like, “Oh please, oh please” as you call out for relief from pain, for someone to take care of you, for help for a loved one, for a way to avoid great loss.

If so, I invite you to investigate your experience of prayer through mindful inquiry, asking yourself questions such as: What is the immediate feeling that gave rise to my prayer? What am I praying for? Whom or what am I praying to? The more aware you become of how you pray spontaneously, the more you might open to a more intentional practice. Below are some guidelines I offer my students for deepening their inquiry:


1. Posture for prayer: You might begin by asking yourself, If I bring my palms together at my heart, do I feel connected with my sincerity and openness? What happens if I close my eyes? If I bow my head? Find out whether these traditional supports for prayer serve you. If they don’t, explore what other positions or gestures feel the most conducive to openheartedness.

2. Arriving: Even when you’re in the thick of very strong emotion, it’s possible and valuable to pause and establish a sense of prayerful presence. After you’ve assumed whatever posture most suits you, allow yourself to come into stillness, then take a few long and full breaths to collect your attention. After a while, as your breath resumes its natural rhythm, take some moments to relax any obvious tension in your body. Feel yourself here, now, with the intention to pray.

3. Listening: With the intention of fully contacting your felt experience, bring a listening attention to your heart, and to whatever in your life feels most difficult right now. It might be a recent or impending loss, or a situation that summons hurt, confusion, doubt, or fear. As if watching a movie, focus on the frame of the film that’s most emotionally painful. Be aware of the felt sense in your body—in your throat, chest, belly, and elsewhere. Where are your feelings the strongest? Take your time, allowing yourself to fully contact your vulnerability and pain.

You might even imagine that you could inhabit the most vulnerable place within you, feeling it intimately from the inside. If it could express itself, what would it communicate? Buried inside the pain, what does this part of you want or need most? Is it to be seen and understood? Loved? Accepted? Safe? Is your longing directed toward a certain person or spiritual figure? Do you long to be held by your mother? Recognized and approved of by your father? Healed or protected by God? Whatever the need, let yourself listen to it, feel it, and open to its intensity.

4. Expressing Your Prayer: With a silent or whispered prayer, call out for the love, understanding, protection, or acceptance you long for. You might find yourself saying, “Please, may I be better, kinder, and more worthy.” Or you might direct your prayer to another person or being: “Daddy, please don’t leave me.” “Mommy, please help me.” “God, take care of my daughter, please, please, let her be okay.” You might feel separate from someone and call out his or her name, saying, “Please love me, please love me.” You might long for your heart to awaken and call out to the bodhisattva of compassion (Kwan-yin), “Please, may this heart open and be free.”
As you express your prayer in words, while staying in direct contact with your vulnerability and felt sense of longing, your prayer will continue to deepen. Say your prayer several times with all the sincerity of your heart. Find out what happens if you give yourself totally to feeling and expressing your longing.

5. Embodying Prayer: Often our particular want or longing isn’t the full expression of what we actually desire. Similarly, the object of our longing, the person we call on for love or protection, may not offer what we truly need. Rather, these are portals to a deeper experience, an opening to a deeper source.

As you feel your wants and longing, ask yourself, “What is the experience I yearn for? If I got what I wanted, what would it feel like?”

Use you imagination to find out. If you want a particular person to love you, visualize that person hugging you and looking at you with unconditional love. Then, let go of any image of that person and feel inwardly that you are being bathed in love. If you want to feel safe, imagine that you are entirely surrounded by a protective presence, and really feel that peace and ease filling your every cell. Whatever you’re longing for, explore what it would be like to experience its pure essence as a felt sense in your body, heart, and mind. Finally, discover what happens when you surrender into this experience, when you become the love or peace that you’re longing for.

6. Throughout the Day: While your formal exploration of prayer can create the grounds for weaving shorter prayers into your life, remembering to pray in the midst of daily activities can help you become aligned with the kindness and wisdom of your heart. Here are some suggestions

    • At the beginning of the day, set your intention by asking yourself, What situations, emotions, or reactions might be a signal to pray?
    • Before praying, take a moment to pause, breathe, and relax. While it is helpful to become still, there’s no need to assume a particular posture.
    • Pay attention to your body and heart, contacting the felt sense of your emotions. What are you most longing for? What most matters in this moment, and in your life, to open to—to feel and trust?
    • Mentally whisper your prayer. The words might come spontaneously, or you might express a prayer you’ve already discovered that’s alive and meaningful to you.


Adapted from True Refuge (January 2013)

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Stop Comparing Yourself to Others… Be Your Own Valentine

LOVE - going to be used to be a OGQ background for HD phonesStop comparing yourself to others.

There are 7-billion people on this planet… and only ONE you.

YOU have ZERO competition in being yourself.

Gandhi is taken.

Buddha’s been done.

Bruce Lee has already had his fun.

Your true SELF is brighter than the sun.

You being YOU will make you the only One.

You are one of a kind – a unique, amazing, divine creation born to express your gifts with the world.

Your mere presence on this planet makes a difference, and who you ARE is the gift.

Yet we sometimes forget this. Thinking we should be something other than we are. That we must be…

…more successful

…more knowledgeable

…more skinny

…more nice

…more enlightened

…more like Gandhi or Mother Theresa.

The list can be exhausting and endless.

When in fact the very things that make you YOU, are the very things that make YOU YOU. And what makes You uniquely YOU is the very thing that makes you special.

Comparing yourself to others is futile for there is really no comparison. It only ends up killing your creativity and aliveness leaving you feeling terrible. We often think everyone else is living the dream life, and that we might be failing or falling behind. This is far from reality.

The goal in life is not to be successful by someone else’s standard but by your own authentic heart’s measure.  Everyone has a different destiny and life path. You never really can know what that is for others. To look at someone else from the outside is not a true representation of what they are really going through at their level of fulfillment.

So, today let go of looking over there at someone else and comparing yourself to them.

You are not them.

You are not meant to be them.

You are you.

…and you were meant to be YOU!

The more you honor your uniqueness and the perfection of your life’s journey, the more you see your true self. The more you see your true self, the more beauty you will find within yourself to celebrate.

To succeed at being somebody that you are not (but think you need to be) is still a failure.  But to love who you are and courageously be that fully is a life well lived.

The easiest thing is in fact to be who you are, but we forget.

I invite you to be your very own Valentine and love yourself deeply.

So, give yourself a gift today.

Stop comparing yourself to others.

Set yourself free.

Happy Valentine’s day.



P.S. If you feel ready to fall in love with yourself and access your power join me on a life-changing journey!! July 4-15, 2013! If you feel moved APPLY NOW!

P.P.S. I would love to hear your comments about what you most love about yourself? Tell me!!!


Meeting Our Edge and Softening

The road to the blue

It’s another morning, another day of having to live inside a hurting body inherited from a little known, rare genetic condition. I try not to think of how it used to be. I can let go of the younger me, the one who won a yoga Olympics by holding wheel pose for more than eighteen minutes. I can let go of the woman who ran three miles on most days, who loved to ski and Boogie Board, bike and play tennis.

But what about just being able to wander the hills and woods around our home? What about walking along the river? So much has been taken away, and I’m losing strength on all fronts, because most ways of strengthening the muscles injure my joints.

“Sweetheart, just soften.” I found that kindness made all the difference. When I returned home, the stories and fears about the future were still there. The controller would come and go. But I had a deeper trust that I could meet my life with an open and present heart.

Getting sick, getting closer to death, can unravel our identity as a good, worthy, dignified, or spiritual person. It puts us face-to-face with the core identity of what I call “the controller”—the ego’s executive director, the self we believe is responsible for making decisions and directing the course of our lives. The controller obsessively plans and worries, trying to make things safe and okay, and it can give us at least a temporary sense of self-efficacy and self-trust.

Yet, great loss can unseat the controller, which we often scramble to resurrect by getting busy, blaming others, blaming ourselves, or trying to fix things. Even so, if we are willing to let there be a gap, if we can live in presence without controlling, healing becomes possible.

My controller can hold loss at bay for months at a time. If I can keep doing things—teaching, serving our community, counseling others—the ground stays firm under my feet. But some years ago, right before our winter meditation retreat, my body crashed. I landed in the hospital, unable to teach, or for that matter to read, walk around, or go to the bathroom without trailing an IV.

I remember lying on the hospital bed that first night, unable to sleep. At around 3 a.m., an elderly nurse came in to take my vitals and look at my chart. Seeing me watching her, she leaned over and patted me gently on the shoulder. “Oh dear,” she whispered kindly, “you’re feeling poorly, aren’t you?”

As she walked out tears started streaming down my face. Kindness had opened the door to how vulnerable I felt. How much worse would it get? What if I wasn’t well enough to teach? Should I get off our meditation community’s board? Would I even be able to sit in front of a computer to write? There was nothing about the future I could count on.

Then a verse from Rumi came to mind: Forget the future … I’d worship someone who could do that … If you can say “There’s nothing ahead,” there will be nothing there. The cure for the pain is in the pain.

I began to reflect on this, repeating, There’s nothing ahead, there’s nothing ahead. All my ideas about the future receded. In their place was the squeeze of raw fear, the clutching in my heart I had been running from. As I allowed the fear—attended to it, breathed with it—I could feel a deep, cutting grief. “Just be here,” I told myself. “Open to this.”

The pain was tugging, tearing at my heart. I sobbed silently (not wanting to disturb my roommate), wracked by surge after surge of grief. This human self was face to face with its fragility, temporariness, and inevitability of loss.

Yet as my crying subsided, a sense of relief set in. It wasn’t quite peace—I was still afraid of being sick and sidelined from life—but the burden of being the controller, of thinking I could manage the future or fight against loss, was gone for the moment. It was clear that my life was out of my hands.

On the third day I was walking around the perimeter of the cardiac unit, jarred by how weak I felt, how uncertain about my future. Then, for the ten-thousandth time, my mind lurched forward, anticipating how I might reconfigure my life, what I’d have to cancel, how I could manage this deteriorating body. When I saw that the controller was back in action, I returned to my room and wearily collapsed on the raised hospital bed. As I lay there, the circling thoughts collapsed too, and I sank below the surface, into pain.

I was immersed in the very thing I had been running from. Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa taught that the essence of a liberating spiritual practice is to “meet our edge and soften.” My edge was right here, in the acute loneliness, despair about the future, and grip of fear. I knew I needed to soften and open. I tried to keep my attention on where the pain was most acute, but the controller was still there, holding back. It was as if I’d fall into a black hole of grief and die.

Then, gently, tentatively, I started encouraging myself to feel what was there and soften. The more painful the edge of grief was, the more tender my inner voice became. At some point I placed my hand on my heart and said, “Sweetheart, just soften … let go, it’s okay.” As I dropped into that aching hole of grief, I entered a space filled with the tenderness of pure love. It surrounded me, held me, suffused my being. Meeting my edge and softening was a dying into timeless loving presence.

In the remaining days, whenever I recognized that I’d tightened into anxious planning and worry, I noted it as “my edge.” Then I repeated to myself:

Consciously grieving loss is at the very center of the spiritual path. In small and great ways, each of our losses links us to what we love. It’s natural that the controller arises: We will seek to manage the pain of separation in whatever way we can. Yet, as we awaken, we can allow our sorrow to remain faithful to itself. We can willingly surrender into the grieving. I’ve found that by honoring the pain for what has passed away, we are free to love the life that is here.

Adapted from True Refuge (Jan. 2013)

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photo by: SergioTudela

Ear of the Heart

String of heartsMost of us consider listening a great virtue. We love having others listen to us with interest and care, and we hope to be good listeners ourselves. But for most of us, listening is hard. To listen well, we must become aware of the mental static that runs interference: our emotional reactivity; all the ways we interpret (and misinterpret) each other; our haste to prepare a response; how we armor ourselves with judgment.


Learning to listen involves stepping out of our incessant inner dialogue, and using what St. Benedict called the “ear of the heart.” This deep listening offers a compassionate space for healing and intimacy.


One of my meditation students, Kate, discovered the power of listening in her relationship with her mother, Audrey, a wealthy, successful, brilliant, and yet narcissistic woman. Those who knew Audrey well kiddingly referred to her as “the center of the known universe.” A well-known writer, Audrey treated other people as orbiting satellites, audiences to regale with stories; their role was to let her shine in her own reflected light.


Audrey could be lively and charming when holding forth, but she was exhausting to be around. As soon as they could, both of her daughters settled on the opposite coast. Kate’s older sister rarely returned for visits, and while Kate came for holidays, she kept her stays brief. Their step-dad loved his wife, but he and Audrey had drifted into a routine that lacked intimacy. Some of Audrey’s friends still tolerated being a captive audience, but as she aged she became increasingly isolated.


Kate came to one of my Conscious Relationship workshops to focus on her marriage, not on her mother. Yet, by the time she left, she’d become acutely aware of her mother’s woundedness, and of the possibility that deep listening might lead to healing. Her inspiration was the image of a fountain.


During the workshop, we envisioned our inner life and spirit as a fountain that becomes clogged with unprocessed hurts and fears. As we ignore our painful feelings or push them away, they impede our flowing aliveness and obscure the pure awareness that is our source. By not listening to our inner life, we cut ourselves off from reality. What remains is a diminished self, an unreal other.


However, when we confide in someone and they listen to us, really listen, the debris naturally begins to dissolve, and the fountain of aliveness is again free to flow. And, when we really listen to another, we help them come home to this same aliveness.


It’s important to remember that this process takes time. As we begin to listen, we often come face to face with the distasteful tangles—the jealousy or self-consciousness or anger that have been clogging the fountain. The conversation might seem superficial or dull, nervous or self-absorbed.


Yet, a dedicated listener hangs in there without getting lost in resisting or judging. This unconditional presence can be a healing balm that gradually helps the speaker’s tangled defenses relax so that his or her natural vitality and spirit can emerge. Perhaps you’ve noticed this when someone is really listening to you. You feel calmer, whole, “more like yourself”—more at home. Like an unclogged fountain, the deeper waters of humor, intelligence, creativity, and love begin to flow.


Kate left the workshop with the intention of experimenting, and when an opportunity to attend a professional training session near her mother’s home presented itself, she decided it was time to try deep listening with her. She made arrangements to stay for ten days, her longest visit with her mother since she’d left for college.


Now, Kate really listened during their time together. As we’d practiced, she listened inwardly to her own tension without judgment when she felt resistance, then reopened to whatever her mother was saying. In the same way, when she felt unimportant, impatient, bored, or judgmental, she brought mindfulness and kindness to her own experience. By doing so, she was able to bring that same open and clear space of presence to her mother.


Kate admitted that at first, it was hard. “I had a panicky sensation,” she told me. “It was like I would drown if I didn’t get away, if I didn’t find a way to have some of my own space. She takes up so much room!”


Yet, Kate found that if she kept a sense of humor about it, she could breathe, forgive her own reactions, and keep coming back. Then she would coach herself to deepen her presence: “Now … what is happening? My mother is talking, and I am quiet. There is endless time. I hear it, every word. And what is beyond the word? . . . I hear who she is.”


As Kate listened for what was behind her mother’s words, it got easier for her. She began to hear desperation, as if her mother was insisting over and over, “I’m here, I matter.” Taking in her mother’s pain, Kate felt her heart soften with care.


Through her own quiet, steady presence, Kate communicated, “You are here, you matter.” And her mother started to relax. Kate knew this, because there were longer pauses between the stories and commentary—her mother sat back more in her chair, looked out the window, slowed down, and seemed more reflective.


Several days before Kate was scheduled to leave, her mother began to tell her that she felt alone and unappreciated. Kate was able to respond with sincerity, gentleness, and honesty. “Mom,” she said, “it’s because you don’t listen to people.”


Her mother froze, but to Kate’s surprise, didn’t get defensive. Kate had been so truly present, and had offered such uncritical sympathy, that a trust had emerged—this was not an attack, but a caring reflection of truth.


Her mother wanted to know more: “Please tell me, I need to know.” And Kate told her. She explained how it had been for her sister, for their dad, and now, for her step-dad. “When you don’t listen, people feel like they don’t matter, that they’re not known. And it’s true—you can’t know them if you don’t listen. You can’t be close.”


Audrey looked at her daughter with a sorrow and understanding that pierced Kate’s heart. And in that moment, something changed. Maybe the pain of alienation had broken through her defenses, or maybe this was simply her time, but Audrey started to listen.


Others noticed, too. After her sister’s next visit with her mother, she told Kate, “For the first time in my life I felt like I was a real person to her … that I existed!” The change was most poignant with Kate’s stepfather, who began to enjoy the long dinners and evening walks that had been abandoned shortly after their marriage.


Audrey was no longer speaking to demand the world’s attention. She was speaking and listening in order to belong with other people, to share their lives. Because Kate had listened and let her heart be touched, her mother’s fountain had begun to unclog. Her life could once again flow from its source.

Adapted from  True Refuge (2013)

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photo by: aussiegall

Why It’s Important to Enjoy the Art Around Us

If I were to ask you, “What subject matter in school is deemed most important?” What would your answer be? Math, science or art?

Sunny Blossom (Toan Lam)

Art? Doing this for a living was never even an option in my household — it was a taboo subject. “Be a doctor, lawyer or engineer,” my parents would ingrain in my brain. In my parents’ eyes, the definition of success were those professions, in that order: doctor, lawyer, then engineer. I chose the fourth – failure (in the eyes of my immigrant parents, journalism seemed like failure).

Power Light (Toan Lam)

Reading and writing, my passions, were not as revered as mathematics and science. I would read everything out loud. In the shower, I would read shampoo bottles – “Rinse, lather, repeat.” I remember what brought me joy was acting out the characters while reading my favorite childhood books. It’s no coincidence that I became a journalist, founder of Go Inspire Go (we use the art of storytelling to inspire action) and college instructor.

Rainbow Drops Coit Tower & Telegraph Hill (Toan Lam)

That’s why this GIG Spark, produced by high school student Aaron Long resonated with me on many levels, personally, professionally and even spiritually.

Through Aaron’s GIG Spark, he wants to inspire us to look around and enjoy the art around us in San Francisco. Don’t live there? No problem; Aaron wants you to look around and enjoy a tree, some street art or something that catches your eye.

Water Cloud Reflections/Aquatic Park (Toan Lam)

How did he do this? In a creative way, of course! Find out how he inspired folks in his community to be present and enjoy the art around them through this GIG Spark (Lesson on Compassion) submission. His goal is to inspire you to notice (and enjoy) the art that surrounds you.

Gigster: Aaron Long
Where: San Francisco
Spark: Notice the Art Around You


Like many GIG Spark videos, this seems fun on the surface and it is. But on a deeper level, being creative isn’t nurtured in our society. I recently discovered this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. Specifically, he speaks about the importance of creating an educational system that nurtures creativity. This TED video is full of inspirational gems.


I often wonder what I would be doing had I not pursued my passion work. One thing’s for sure – if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be as fulfilled and full of joy. Special thanks to Aaron for being aware and inspiring presence in this adventure we call life.

City Dew Drops (Toan Lam)

Take action:
1. Stop wherever you are. Look around and take a deep breath. Enjoy one thing around you.
2. Get creative. Like to bake or paint? Do it, then give it away to someone in need. Small things like this make anyone’s day.
3. Nurture the artistic talents in a child’s life.

We hope this video inspires you to be present and enjoy the art around you — and use your power to help others. I’ve been practicing enjoying the art around me by taking pictures on my Go Inspire Go Instagram account. I always snap cool scenes and things that inspire me because I want to share it with our viewers (tagged with an inspirational message).

Be You Naturally (Toan Lam)

Note: Thanks to Mom: who turned over a new leaf and supports endeavors — because she feels my passion for GIG. Also, I know (and feel) that my father, who on his death bed told me, “You’re wasting your life, you need to quit that reporting stuff and become a doctor,” has had a change of heart and is somewhere above, looking down and smiling at me. Smiling because I followed my heart and chose to redefine his definition of “failure.” Thanks to my parents for taking the risk — to uproot their successful lives — so my siblings and I could redefine the American Dream. No. 4 ain’t so bad!

Bay City Chain Scape (Toan Lam)

GIG Spark was developed to create compassion through the exercise of brainstorming, problem solving and experiencing the joy of using your power to help others. Rachel shares her thoughts about what this particular experience meant to her:

“Something GIG Spark taught me? Don’t stop yourself from doing something just because you think it’s not going to change anything. Whether what you do is monumental or small, whether it affects a million people or just one person, what’s important is that you did something. It’s human nature to resist change, but at least you presented a chance to plant a seed of change in someone’s mind.”

Copollalights (Toan Lam)

About Go Inspire Go (GIG):

GIG is about inspiring small actions that ripple out to meaningful changes. As we’ve experienced, the ripples continue to billow out, one story, one person, one act at a time.

FEELING INSPIRED? Make your own GIG Spark and share with us. We may share it with the world.

As part of GIG’s mission to inspire our viewers to discover their power, we developed GIG Spark: A Lesson on Compassion. The goal is to spark action in everyone that witnesses your good deed. We want you to identify a problem in your community and be the change by capturing your action in a short 1-1:30 minute video. Use your passion and creativity to produce a GIG Spark and inspire viewers with your story!

What can YOU do?

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Learning To See Past The Mask

Photo Credit: kelleypopkorn

My friend Richie and I met when we were juniors in college. A shy, thoughtful African American man, he was known for carrying his camera everywhere, listening as others poured out their stories to him, and running through the snow wearing gym shorts. We’d lost touch after graduation, yet nearly fifteen years later, he called and asked to consult with me on an upcoming visit to Washington, D.C.

Now a photojournalist living in New York, Richie had recently married Carly, a Caucasian woman he’d met at a meditation class, and he wanted to talk with me about her family. “I knew what I was getting into … country club, conservative, the whole nine yards … but I had no idea it would be this hard.”

“From the start,” he told me when we met, “Sharon [his mother-in-law] was dead set against me and Carly getting together.” While Carly’s father seemed willing to support his daughter’s choice, her mother had fought the marriage vehemently. “She warned Carly that we were too different, that we’d end up divorced and miserable. Well,” he said grimly, “we love each other deeply, but she’s succeeding in making us miserable.”

On their third and most recent visit, Sharon had refused to attend a community theater production with them. She later told Carly she couldn’t bear to encounter her friends from the club: “As soon as I’d turn my back, they’d start gossiping about you and Richie.” At dinner Sharon ignored Richie’s compliments about the salmon, and gave vague, noncommittal responses to his questions about a recent trip to Italy. When Carly confronted her mother privately upstairs, Sharon acknowledged her behavior. “I admit it, I’m being awful. But I can’t help it, Carly. He’s a good person, an intelligent person, but you’re making a terrible mistake.”

Carly wanted to stop visiting—they could just skip Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said—but Richie insisted on hanging in there. “It’s not that I’m trying to martyr myself,” he told me. “Sharon’s a racist, self-centered asshole, and it might do her some good if Carly refused to go home. I’d be gratified. I’m way pissed. But something in me feels like she’s reachable.”

As part of his meditation practice, Richie had recentlytaken “bodhisattva vows” with his teacher. These express a basic commitment to let whatever arises in our life awaken compassion, and to dedicate ourselves to actively bringing this compassion to all beings. For Richie, these vows had a very specific meaning. “I don’t want to give up on anyone, give up on who they can be,” he told me. But Richie knew that before he could approach Sharon, he needed to connect withhis own anger, and what was behind it.

“That’s what I wanted us to focus on, Tara,” he said. “I wouldn’t be so pissed if I didn’t feel insecure. It’s that basic issue of being worthy—she’s telling me I’m not worthy enough for her daughter.”

“Is that feelingfamiliar?” I asked.

“Oh yeah. This has been the kind of thing I’ve told myself ever since my dad left. Back then it was that I’m not enough to make my mom happy.” He sat quietly for a few moments then went on. “I thought I was supposed to fill his shoes and I couldn’t. She was always depressed, always anxious.”

Richie sat back in the chair, deflated. “It’s always this same feelingthat I’m the kid who can’t make the grade, who doesn’t deserve good things.  And it didn’t help going to that vanilla college of ours …” he flashed me a smile, “or working in a white profession. I know this unworthiness thing’s in the culture, Tara … but that kid still feels like he’s young, and just not cutting it.”

“As you pay attention, can you sense what that kid who feels unworthy most wants from you?”

He was quiet, then nodded. “He just wants me to see him, to notice him and to be kind.”

“What happens if you offer your kindness inward?” I asked.For a few minutes Richie sat silently, then said: “I guess this part of me needs some reassurance, some care. Just now I felt like I was looking through a camera at this kid who was failing at an impossible task. There’s no way he could make things okay for his mother.”

We talked about their upcoming Thanksgiving visit, and how Sharon might activate his insecurities. Richie came up with a plan: “I’m bringing my camera. I’ll keep my eye on the kid inside, and on Sharon, both of us with kindness.”

I heard from Richie again right after Thanksgiving weekend. Sharon had treated him with polite formality—everyone else was family, he was a guest. “But I kept imagining I was looking at her through a camera viewfinder,” he told me, “and I saw she was in pain. Behind that coldness was a scared, tight heart.” He had a freeing realization: “It isn’t really me she’s afraid of. It’s of Carly being unhappy.”

A day or so later he e-mailed me two standout photos, both of Sharon. Carly’s sister had just had a baby, and he’dcaught Sharon cradling her new granddaughter, looking down adoringly at the infant. The other was of a playful moment when her husband had pulled her down to sit with him and she’d toppled over on him. Richie took the shot just as they were looking at each other and laughing.

Then came Christmas. Early on Christmas Eve, Carly’s dad (playing Santa) placed two boxes in front of Richie. Sharon had ordered some socks for him online (too large) and had wrapped a box of chocolates (he rarely ate sugar). Sometime later, Sharon opened her gift from Richie. She found the two photos he’d taken weeks earlier, simply and elegantly framed. Sharon started trembling, then sobbing. Her husband and Carly came over to see what was wrong. There were the pictures of Sharon with her granddaughter and her husband, looking radiant, loving, and happy. And here she was weeping. When she calmed down, she still couldn’t speak and she waved everyone on to continue the gift giving.

Richie had truly “seen” Sharon—her vulnerability and spirit, and he’d expressed his careby mirroring her goodness. It took another year and a half for her to tell him what those gifts had meant to her, and to apologize. But because he hadn’t given up on her, a thaw had begun. She too was able to see more truly, and come home to her heart. The following evening Carly’s sister asked Richie for a lesson in swing dancing, and he showed her some steps to the jazzmusic on his iPod. She caught on quickly, and the others applauded as she and Richie spun happily around the living room. Carly glanced over at her mom, who was standing behind the others in the doorway. She was watching with a slight smile, her eyes wet with tears.

Adapted from True Refuge (Jan. 2013)
[vimeo 54815099 w=459 h=344]

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