Tara Brach

Every week, I hope these simple words may help you find some peace and happiness in your life. Whether it means embracing your fears, releasing some stress and anxiety or "radically accepting" yourself, may this blog invite you to find some moments to pause, breathe and nourish your heart and spirit. If you enjoy this Blog, please subscribe and share with others.
With loving blessings, Tara

Thursday, March 29, 2012

“Something is Wrong with Me”

When I was in college, I went off to the mountains for a weekend of hiking with an older, wiser friend of twenty-two. At one point, my friend described how she was learning to be “her own best friend.” A huge wave of sadness came over me, and I broke down sobbing—I was the farthest thing from my own best friend. 

I was continually harassed by an inner judge who was merciless, relentless, nit-picking, driving, often invisible but always on the job. I knew I would never treat a friend the way I treated myself, without mercy or kindness. My guiding assumption was, “Something is fundamentally wrong with me,” and I struggled to control and fix what felt like a basically flawed self.

Feeling not okay went hand in hand with deep loneliness. In my early teens I sometimes imagined that I was living inside a transparent orb that separated me from the people and life around me. When I felt good about myself and at ease with others, the bubble thinned until it was like an invisible wisp of gas. When I felt bad about myself, the walls got so thick it seemed others must be able to see them.

With my college friend it was different—I trusted her enough to be completely open. Over the next two days of hiking I began to realize that beneath all my mood swings, depression, loneliness and addictive behavior lurked that feeling of deep personal deficiency. I was getting my first clear glimpse into a core of suffering that I would re-visit again and again in my life. While I felt exposed and raw, I intuitively knew that by facing this pain I was entering a path of healing.

PhotoCredit: Shell Fischer
When some years later these longings drew me to the Buddhist path, I found there the teachings and practices that enabled me to directly face my feelings of unworthiness and insecurity. They gave me a way of seeing clearly what I was experiencing and showed me how to relate to my life with compassion. The teachings of the Buddha also helped undo my painful and mistaken notion that I was alone in my suffering, that it was a personal problem and somehow my fault.

Over the past twenty years, as a psychologist and Buddhist teacher, I’ve worked with thousands of clients and students who have revealed how painfully burdened they feel by a sense of not being good enough.

It doesn’t take much—just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work—to make us feel that we are not okay. When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.

Because our habits of feeling insufficient are so strong, awakening from the trance involves not only inner resolve, but an active training of the heart and mind. Through Buddhist awareness practices, we free ourselves from the suffering of trance by learning to recognize what is true in the present moment, and by embracing whatever we see with an open heart. This cultivation of mindfulness and compassion is what I call Radical Acceptance.

Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.

When we practice Radical Acceptance, we begin with the fears and wounds of our own life and discover that our heart of compassion widens endlessly. In holding ourselves with compassion, we become free to love this living world. This is the blessing of Radical Acceptance: As we free ourselves from the suffering of “something is wrong with me,” we trust and express the fullness of who we are.

I based this entry on my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: http://www.tarabrach.com

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reaching Across Years of Evolution

It’s quite interesting to me that from an evolutionary perspective, it was our vulnerability that gave rise to empathy and compassion. In order to care for our offspring, who came onto this planet very helpless, females first developed the capacity to emotionally read, resonate and respond with care. That ability then generalized to men, so men and women now have the same equipment. There is a growing understanding that all mammals have this wiring for empathy and compassion.

I’ll share with you the following story:

“One day I was walking through the Stanford University campus with a friend,” writes Fran Peavy, who is an activist. She says, “I saw a crowd of people with cameras and video equipment on a little hillside. They were clustered around a pair of chimpanzees. The male chimpanzee was running loose; the female chimpanzee was on a chain of about 25 feet long. It turns out the male was from Marine World, the female was being studied, and the spectators were trying to get them to mate. Now the male was eager. He grunted and grabbed the female’s chain and tugged. She whimpered and backed away. He pulled again. She pulled back. Watching the faces of these chimps, I, a woman,” Fran writes, “began to feel sympathy for the female. Suddenly the female chimp yanked her chain out of the male’s grasp. To my amazement she walked through the crowd, straight over to me and took my hand. Then she led me across the circle to the only other two women in the crowd, and she joined hands with one of them. The three of us stood together in a circle. I remember the feeling of that rough palm against mine. The little chimp had recognized us and reached across all the years of evolution to form her own support group.”

Photo Credit: Andrés Meneses
To me, this represents the hope of evolution. Our hope for peace and social justice on earth is a courageous presence with the difficulties we encounter. From that presence we can then reach out to each other, and across species to life everywhere. We get into this idea that we humans are different—from each other, from other life forms. In reality, we are of the earth. We are the earth. Let’s reach out to this earth, reach out to others with different sexual orientation, or different race, or different politics, or different bodily forms, and discover the vulnerability and the goodness that dwells in each Being. Reaching out, we discover that the light of the stars shines through us.

Be humble, for you are made of Earth
Be noble, for you come from the stars
—Serbian saying

For more information go to: http://www.tarabrach.com/

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Lion’s Roar

We typically think of our happiness as dependent on certain good things happening. In the Buddhist tradition, the word sukha is used to describe the deepest type of happiness that is independent of what is happening.  It has to do with a kind of faith, a kind of trust that our heart can be with whatever comes our way. It gives us a confidence that is sometimes described as the lion’s roar. It’s the confidence that allows us to say, “No matter what life presents me, I can work with it.”  When that confidence is there, we take incredible joy in the moments of our lives.  We are free to live life fully rather than resist and back off from a threat we perceive to be around the corner. 

For most of us, especially when our conditioning is strong, we spend many moments tensing against what’s about to happen. There is a sense that something is going to be too much to handle or that what is good won’t last.  We’re tensing even before anything actually happens.  Sadly, in those moments of tightening to protect ourselves, we can’t really enjoy the life that’s here.

We cultivate a heart that is ready for anything when we trust our belongingness to the Earth, our belonging to timeless loving presence. When such trust flowers, we find peace in the midst of this living-dying world. We can actually be here for the moment and cherish it, rather than resist what might happen.

Ajahn Cha, a wonderful teacher of many of the teachers in the West, would take a glass that he always drank out of, hold it up and say:

I love this glass. Do you see this? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably.  When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. 

Yet for me, the glass is already broken.  When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters I say “Of course.”

But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.

Can you imagine opening without resistance to the aliveness, change and loss that is inherent in this existence?  Can you imagine opening in this very moment to the pleasantness and pain, the changing flow of life?  It is that openness that awakens the lion’s roar.  It is that openness that allows us to live with a heart that is ready for anything.

For more information go to: http://www.tarabrach.com/

Friday, March 9, 2012

Is this Universe a Friendly Place?

Albert Einstein was said to have proclaimed that the most important question any of us can ever ask ourselves is: “Is this universe a friendly place?” It’s a powerful inquiry.

Another way to consider this question is: “Is there a fundamental goodness within humans?” Or, on a more personal level, you might ask yourself: “Do I trust that there is a fundamental, intrinsic goodness in my own being?”

In using the word “good,” I’m pointing to the original meaning of the word, which derives its definition from an Indo-European root that has to do with togetherness or gathering together, signifying in a very simple way a sense of belonging. According to the Buddhist teachings, it is out of a sense of belonging that we experience harmony, aliveness, and love—all of which are central to walking a spiritual path.

If when asking yourself this question you evaluate an egoic self, a personality who achieves and does good and bad things, your response will likely be shaky, and you’ll experience self-doubt.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
Yet, if you can begin to sense that your identity is much larger than your small egoic self, you can begin to have confidence in that basic goodness, and learn to recognize your intimate belonging—to the web of aliveness, love, and awareness itself. This doesn’t mean that you need to deny your personality, or the different tendencies you have; it just means that you can begin to trust that intuitive part of yourself that knows yourself as part of something larger.

You might also consider the flipside of that question: “What happens when I experience myself as having some fundamental flaw? What happens if I sense some basic wrongness or ‘not okayness’ in myself, humans, and life?”

Einstein had this to say about that question: If we believe that the universe is an unfriendly place—that there’s some basic wrongness—then we will use our technology, scientific discoveries, and natural resources to create bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness, and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly.

Don’t we sometimes do the same thing in our own lives? For instance, when we’re living out of a very egoic stance, when we’re really caught up in feeling separate and afraid, we don’t trust that others will care, understand, or want to cooperate, and we get defensive. The problem is, the more we mistrust, the more we invest our energy into producing walls and weapons.

But what happens if, instead, we intuit the goodness that is more fundamental than our fears? To quote Einstein again, he said that if we decide that the universe is a friendly place—that our deepest inclinations are loving—then we will use our technology, scientific discoveries, and natural resources to create tools and models for understanding the universe.

Now, translate “universe” to us. We are an expression of the universe. If we decide to trust in our goodness, then we will use our own personal resources to begin to understand our workings, along with what motivates us. And what are the tools for this understanding? Meditative presence. By pausing and deepening our attention, we come home to the awareness and love which express our deepest Being. This is the realization that brings our trust into full bloom, and allows us to live from it.

To quote from the Tibetan teachings:

            Oh, nobly born!
            Oh, nobly born!
            Oh, you of glorious origins,
            Remember your radiant, true nature.
            Remember the essence of mind.
            Trust it.
            Return to it.
            Know it as home.

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Monday, March 5, 2012

Praying from Presence Part II

This is Part II of a two-part series. To read Part I click here
When we are 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.  Our reaching out is a way of relieving ourselves of this pain of isolation.  Yet the bodhisattva's aspiration for awakening compassion radically deepens the meaning of prayer by guiding us to also turn inward.  We discover the full purity and power of prayer by listening deeply to the suffering that gives rise to it. Like a great tree, such prayer sinks its roots into the dark depths in order to reach up fully to the light. This is what I call praying from presence, or mindful prayer: We open wakefully to our suffering and allow ourselves to reach out in our longing for connection.  Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue writes: "Prayer is the voice of longing; it reaches outwards and inwards to unearth our ancient belonging." The more fully we touch our pain and longing, the more fully we are released into boundless, compassionate presence.
Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
Praying from presence awakens us from the imprisoning story of a suffering self.  Resisting pain only serves to solidify the notion that "I" am suffering.  When we perceive pain simply as pain, rather than "my pain," and hold it tenderly; we are no longer the beleaguered, suffering self.  The fear, shame, grief and longing no longer feel like a mistake or an oppressive burden.  We can begin to see their universal nature: this is not my grief, it is not my fear, it is not my longing.  It is part of the human experience and being willing to hold it tenderly is the doorway to compassion.
A beautiful Sufi teaching shows us how our pain is not personal, it is an intrinsic part of being alive:
Overcome any bitterness that may have come 
because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain 
that was entrusted to you. Like the Mother of the World,
 who carries the pain of the world in her heart, each one of us is part of her heart,
 and therefore endowed
 with a certain measure of cosmic pain.   
Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
Our sadness, fear and longing are universal expressions of suffering that are “entrusted to us,” and they can be prayerfully dedicated to the awakening and freedom of our hearts:  “Please…may this suffering awaken compassion. May this suffering awaken compassion.”  As we meet our pain with kindness instead of bitterness or resistance, our prayer is answered.  Our hearts become an edgeless sea of loving awareness with room not only for our own hurts and fears, but also for the pain of others.  Like the Mother of the World, we become the compassionate presence that can hold, with tenderness, the rising and passing waves of suffering.

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Friday, March 2, 2012

Praying from Presence Part I

In moments of desperation, no matter what we believe, we all tend to reach out in prayer to something or someone for help.  We might call out for relief from a migraine, beg to be selected for a job, pray for the wisdom to guide our child through a difficult time.  Maybe we whisper, "Oh please, oh please," and feel that we are asking "the universe" for help.  When we feel disconnected and afraid, we long for the comfort and peace that come from belonging to something larger and more powerful.

 But who exactly are we praying to? 
Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
I grew up Unitarian, and I remember how we used to joke about addressing our prayers "To Whom It May Concern."  This same question may come up for those of us who follow the path of the Buddha.  Students of Buddhist practice usually think of praying as peculiar to Christianity and other God-centered religions.  Beseeching someone or something greater than our small and frightened self seems to reinforce the notion of a separate and wanting self.  Yet while prayer does suggest a dualism of self and other, in my experience when we fully inhabit our longing, it can carry us to the tender and compassionate presence that is our own awakened nature. 

Some years ago I was suffering from a broken heart. I had fallen in love with a man who lived 2000 miles away, on the other side of the country.  Because we had very different desires about having a family and about where to live, we couldn’t weave our lives together and the relationship ended.  The loss was crushing—for many weeks I was swamped in obsessing about him, sobbing, overwhelmed with grief.  I stopped listening to the radio because classic rock songs often left me weeping.  I avoided romantic movies. I barely talked with friends about him because even saying his name out loud would freshly reopen the wound.
I accepted my grieving process for the first month or so, but as it went on and on, I started feeling ashamed of how big and dominating my sense of desolation was.  On top of that, I felt that something must be wrong with me for being such an emotional wreck.  The man was moving on, dating other people.  Why couldn’t I do the same?  I tried to wake up out of the stories, I tried mindfully letting the pain pass through, but I remained possessed by feelings of longing and loss.  I felt more excruciatingly lonely than I had ever felt in my life.
Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
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 is an embodiment of healing and compassion.  It is said that Kwan Yin hears the cries of this suffering world and responds with the quivering of her heart.  One morning, about a month into my meltdown, as I sat crying in front of the thanka, I found myself praying to Kwan Yin.  I felt crushed and worthless. Rilke’s words resonated deeply:
I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart—Oh let them take me now. Into them I place these fragments, my life…
 I wanted to be held in Kwan Yin’s compassionate embrace.
For a few days I prayed to Kwan Yin and did find some comfort in sensing her presence. But one morning I hit a wall.  What was I doing?  My ongoing ritual of aching and praying and crying and hating my suffering was not really moving me towards healing. Kwan Yin suddenly seemed like an idea I had 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. What felt most excruciating was that the suffering seemed endless and without purpose.

Even though it seemed like just another idealistic notion, I remembered that at times in my Buddhist practice, I had experienced suffering as the gateway to awakening the heart.  I remembered that when I had remained present with pain in the past, something had indeed changed—I opened to a more spacious and kind awareness.  Suddenly I realized that maybe I needed to stop fighting my grief and loneliness, no matter how horrible I was feeling or for how long it continued.  Only by experiencing the pain fully could I deliver “these fragments, my life” into Kwan Yin’s boundless compassion.
Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
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 was praying not for relief, but for the healing and freedom that naturally unfolds as we open to the bruised and broken places inside us. The moment I prayerfully let go into that depth of suffering, the change began. Now I could scarcely bear the searing pain of separation.  I was longing, not for a particular person but for love itself.  I was longing to belong to something larger than my lonely self.  The more fully I reached inward to the gnawing emptiness, instead of resisting or fighting it, the more deeply I opened to my yearning for the Beloved. As I let go into that yearning, the sweet presence of compassion arose.  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.
Stay tuned for Part II next week...

For more information visit: http://www.tarabrach.com/