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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Learning to Recognize Our Strategies

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
Whenever we find ourselves caught in what I call “the trance of unworthiness,” many of us tend to reflexively do whatever we can to avoid the raw pain of feeling unworthy. Each time our deficiencies are exposed—to ourselves or others—we tend to react, anxiously trying to cover our nakedness, like Adam and Eve after the fall. Over the years, we each develop a particular blend of strategies designed to hide our flaws and compensate for what we believe is wrong with us.
Here are a few that are common; do you see yourself in any?

1. We embark on one self-improvement project after another
We strive to meet the media standards for the perfect body and looks by coloring out the grays, lifting our face, being on a perpetual diet. We push ourselves to get a better position at work. We exercise, take enriching courses of study, meditate, make lists, volunteer, take workshops. Certainly any of these activities can be undertaken in a wholesome way, but so often they are driven by anxious undercurrents of “not good enough.” Rather than relaxing and enjoying who we are and what we’re doing, we are comparing ourselves with an ideal and trying to make up for the difference.

2. We hold back and play it safe rather than risking failure
Playing it safe requires that we avoid risky situations—which covers pretty much all of life. We might not take on leadership or responsibility at work, we might not risk being really intimate with others, we might hold back from expressing our creativity, from saying what we really mean, from being playful or affectionate.

3. We withdraw from our experience of the present moment
We avoid our wildness and passion, our fear and shame, because we feel powerless in the face of their force. We buffer our raw experience by incessantly judging it or interpreting it through stories we tell ourselves about what is happening. While there are infinite variations in the material, we keep certain themes going: what we have to do, what has not worked out, what trouble might lie ahead, how others are viewing us, how others are (or are not) meeting our needs, how others are interfering or letting us down.

There’s an old joke about a Jewish mother who sends a telegram to her son: “Start worrying, details to follow.” Because we live in a free-floating state of anxiety, we don’t even need a problem to set off a stream of disaster scenarios. Living in the future creates the illusion that we are managing our life and steels us against personal failure.

4. We keep busy

Staying occupied is a socially sanctioned way of remaining distant from our pain. How often do we hear that someone who has just lost a dear one is “doing a good job at keeping busy”? If we stop we run the risk of plunging into the unbearable feeling that we are alone and utterly worthless. So we scramble to fill ourselves—our time, our body, our mind. We might buy something new or lose ourselves in mindless small talk. As soon as we have a gap, we go on-line to check our e-mail, we turn on music, we get a snack, watch television—anything to help us bury the feelings of vulnerability and deficiency lurking in our psyche.

5. We become our own worst critics
The running commentary in our mind reminds us over and over that we always screw up, that others are managing their lives so much more efficiently and successfully. Often we take over where our parents left off, pointedly reminding ourselves of our flaws. As cartoonist Jules Feiffer puts it: “I grew up to have my father’s looks, my father’s speech patterns, my father’s posture, my father’s walk, my father’s opinions and my mother’s contempt for my father.” Staying on top of what is wrong with us gives us the sense that we are controlling our impulses, disguising our weaknesses and possibly improving our character.

6. We become hypersensitive to the failings of others
There is a saying that the world is divided into people who think they are right. The more inadequate we feel, the more we want to feel right and that others are wrong. We get angry at those who do not recognize our talents or treat us with the respect we want. We get angry and impatient when another’s incompetence threatens to make us look bad and sully our reputation. When things go wrong and we already feel inadequate, admitting our faults makes us too uncomfortable. Blaming others temporarily relieves us from the weight of failure.

The painful truth is that all of these strategies simply reinforce the very insecurities that sustain the trance of unworthiness. The more we anxiously tell ourselves stories about how we might fail or what is wrong with us or with others, the more we deepen the grooves—the neural pathways—that generate feelings of deficiency. Every time we hide a defeat we reinforce the fear that we are insufficient. When we strive to impress or outdo others, we strengthen the underlying belief that we are not good enough as we are.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t compete in a healthy way, put wholehearted effort into work or acknowledge and take pleasure in our own competence. But when our efforts are driven by the fear that we are flawed, we deepen the trance of unworthiness.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Growing Up Unworthy

In their book, Stories of the Spirit, Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman tell this story:

A family went out to a restaurant for dinner. When the waitress arrived, the parents each gave their orders. Immediately, their five-year-old daughter piped up with her own: “I'll have a hot dog, french fries and a Coke.” “Oh no you won't,” interjected the dad, and turning to the waitress he said, “She'll have meat loaf, mashed potatoes, milk.” Looking at the child with a smile, the waitress said, “So, hon, what do you want on that hot dog?” When she left, the family sat stunned and silent. A few moments later the little girl, eyes shining, said, “She thinks I'm real.”

Most of the clients that come to see me are very aware of the qualities of an ideal parent. They know that when parents are genuinely present and loving, they offer their child a mirror for his or her goodness. Through this clear mirroring a child develops a sense of security and trust early in life, as well as the capacity for spontaneity and intimacy with others.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
When my clients examine their wounds, they recognize how, as children, they did not receive the love and understanding they yearned for. Furthermore, they are able to see in their relationships with their own children the ways they too fall short of the ideal—how they can be inattentive, judgmental, angry and self-centered.

Our imperfect parents had imperfect parents of their own. Fears, insecurities and desires get passed along for generations. Parents want to see their offspring make it in ways that are important to them. Or they want their children to be special, which in our competitive culture means more intelligent, accomplished and attractive than other people. They see their children through filters of fear (they might not get into a good college and be successful) and filters of desire (will they reflect well on us?).

As messengers of our culture, parents usually convey to their children that anger and fear are bad, that their natural ways of expressing their wants and frustrations are unacceptable. In abusive situations the message is, “You are bad, you are in the way, you are worthless.” But even in less extreme situations, most of us learn that our desires, fears and views don’t carry much weight, and that we need to be different and better if we are to belong.

The Buddha, who had his own imperfect, flawed parents, looked deeply into his own suffering more than twenty-five hundred years ago, and his amazing insight was that all suffering or dissatisfaction arises from a mistaken understanding that we are a separate and distinct self. This perception of “selfness” imprisons us in endless rounds of craving and aversion. When our sense of being is confined in this way, we have forgotten the loving awareness that is our essence and that connects us with all of life.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
What we experience as the “self” is actually an aggregate of familiar thoughts, emotions and patterns of behavior. The mind binds these together, creating a story about a personal, individual entity that has continuity through time. Everything we experience is subsumed into this story of self and becomes my experience. “I am afraid,” “This is my desire.”

The Thai meditation master and writer Ajahn Buddhadasa refers to this habit of attaching a sense of self to our experience as “I-ing” and “My-ing.” We interpret everything we think and feel, and everything that happens to us, as in some way belonging to or caused by a self.

Our most habitual and compelling feelings and thoughts define the core of who we think we are. If we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, we experience that core as flawed. When we take life personally by I-ing and My-ing, the universal sense that “something is wrong” easily solidifies into “something is wrong with me.”

It’s sometimes helpful to remember that wanting and fearing are actually natural energies, part of evolution’s design to protect us and help us to thrive. But what happens when our caretakers and larger society react to these emotions and fail to mirror our essential goodness? What if others fail to see we are real? In these life circumstances, our wants and fears become the core of our identity, and we lose sight of the fullness of our being. We become identified with, at best, only a sliver of our natural being—a sliver that perceives itself as incomplete, at risk and separate from the rest of the world.

If our sense of who we are is defined by feelings of neediness and insecurity, we forget that we are also curious, humorous and caring. We forget about the breath that is nourishing us, the love that unites us, the enormous beauty and fragility that is our shared experience in being alive. Most basically, we forget the pure awareness, the radiant wakefulness that is our Buddha nature.

Taken from my book Radical Acceptance 2003 

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Friday, April 13, 2012

Imperfection Is Not Our Personal Problem

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
After graduating from college, I moved into an ashram, a spiritual community, and enthusiastically devoted myself to the lifestyle for almost twelve years. I felt I had found a path through which I could purify myself and transcend the imperfections of my ego—the self and its strategies. We were required to awaken every day at three-thirty A.M., take a cold shower, and then from four until six-thirty do a sadhana (spiritual discipline) of yoga, meditation, chanting and prayer. By breakfast time I often felt as if I were floating in a glowing, loving, blissful state. I was at one with the loving awareness I call the Beloved and experienced this to be my own deepest essence. I didn’t feel bad or good about myself, I just felt good.

By the end of breakfast, or a bit later in the morning, my habitual thoughts and behaviors would start creeping in again, and those ever-recurring feelings of insecurity and selfishness would let me know I was falling short. Unless I found the time for more yoga and meditation, I would often find myself feeling once again like my familiar small-minded, not-okay self. Then I’d go to bed, wake up and start over again.

While I touched genuine peace and openheartedness, my inner critic continued to assess my level of purity. I mistrusted myself for the ways I would pretend to be positive when underneath I felt lonely or afraid. While I loved the yoga and meditation practices, I was embarrassed by my need to impress others with the strength of my practice. I wanted others to see me as a deep meditator and devoted yogi, a person who served her world with care and generosity. Meanwhile, I judged other people for being slack in their discipline, and judged myself for being so judgmental. Even in the midst of community, I often felt lonely and alone.

I had the idea that if I really applied myself, it would take eight to ten years to release all my self-absorption and be wise and free. Periodically I would consult teachers I admired from various other spiritual traditions: “So, how am I doing? What else can I do?” Invariably, they would respond, “Just relax.” I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, but I certainly didn’t think it could be “just relax.” How could they mean that? I wasn’t “there” yet.

Chogyam Trungpa, a contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher, writes, “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.” What I brought to my spiritual path included all my needs to be admired, all my insecurities about not being good enough, all my tendencies to judge my inner and outer world. The playing field was larger than my earlier pursuits, but the game was still the same: striving to be a different and better person.

In retrospect, it is no surprise that my self-doubts were transferred intact into my spiritual life. Those who feel plagued by not being good enough are often drawn to idealistic worldviews that offer the possibility of purifying and transcending a flawed nature. This quest for perfection is based in the assumption that we must change ourselves to belong. We may listen longingly to the message that wholeness and goodness have always been our essence, yet still feel like outsiders, uninvited guests at the feast of life.

What has helped me the most since then is to remember that imperfection is not our personal problem—it is a natural part of existing. We all get caught in wants and fears, we all act unconsciously, we all get diseased and deteriorate. Yet, when we relax about imperfection, we no longer lose our life moments in the pursuit of being different and in the fear of what is wrong.

The renowned seventh-century Zen master Seng-tsan taught that true freedom is being “without anxiety about imperfection.” This means accepting our human existence and all of life as it is.

So, while the trance of feeling separate and unworthy is an inherent part of our conditioning as humans, the good news is that so too is our capacity to awaken. We free ourselves from the prison of trance as we stop the war against ourselves and, instead, learn to relate to our lives with a wise and compassionate heart. When we learn to cultivate and embrace our lives with what I call Radical Acceptance—accepting all the different and varied parts of ourselves—we begin to rediscover the garden: a forgotten but cherished sense of wholeness, wakefulness, and love.

Taken from my book Radical Acceptance 2003 

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Monday, April 9, 2012

“My religion is kindness”

One of the wonderful teachings of the Dalai Lama, something he says quite regularly, is “My religion is kindness.” When we hear that, it resonates, because it points to something at the core of all spiritual and humanistic paths. If we just dedicated our lives to kindness, to the qualities of friendliness and care, we would be directly serving peace on earth. We’d be serving social justice and the healing of our environment. Imagine it—the world that would emerge if we all commited ourselves to cultivating kind hearts.

Love, and its expressions in compassion, generosity and joy, is innate to us. We can either stay in our habitual conditioning and have these qualities be latent, only partially expressed, or as we wake up, we can become more intentional about having them flourish.

One of the promises of Buddhism and most other spiritual traditions, is that we have the capacity to awaken our hearts. There are ways to train our attention so that we actually feel tenderness and responsiveness in a visceral way. Our physiology has the ingredients that allow us to wake up. The frontal cortex has the structures to feel empathy and compassion and bonding. We have the mirror neurons that help us have that feeling of “I understand where you are.” We have the chemical oxytocin that enables us to feel our connection with others.
So what blocks us from cultivating these capacities?  We spend many moments of our day in a trance that arises from the perception of separateness and a feeling that something is wrong. This experience gives rise to the emotions of fear, shame and anger.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
When caught in the trance of separation, the limbic system and the more primitive parts of our brain are overriding the parts of our brain that need to be activated to feel love. Survival emotions are there for a good reason. We need to scan our environments and respond when there is danger. We are pre-disposed to remember painful things, the wounding that happened, and not to remember the pleasant moments from our past. We are like Velcro for the negative experiences and Teflon for the good. Yet we can lock in to an ongoing sense of “something is wrong” and chronic emotional reactivity. Often, when we grow up in difficult family or social circumstances,  we develop a nervous system that has a hard time with intimacy, because we’re fixated on detecting what might go wrong and protecting ourselves. We spend many moments in judgment and reactivity, defending ourselves or being aggressive in order to control what feels to be a threatening world.
We begin to awaken from trance when we notice the patterns of thoughts and emotions that keep us feeling separate, unsafe and deficient.
You might take a few moments to reflect on several encounters you have had recently. As you scan each, notice if you wanted to appear a certain way, to prove anything. Sense if you wanted to get something—such as approval--from that person. How did you want that person to experience you? Were you trying to avoid being judged for something?  Was there an underlying belief that you were inadequate, or that the other was threatening to you? Were you trying to get that person to be different in some way? What was the quality of intimacy in your interaction?

Perhaps you find that you were fully present. Rather than wanting anything from the person, rather than wanting to protect yourself or for that person to be different, your were just attentive and available, appreciating the moment and the person. What was the quality of intimacy in your interactions?

As we deepen our longing and our commitment to waking up our hearts, the first step is noticing, with curiosity: What’s my pattern? Is there an agenda?  Are there beliefs that keep me feeling distant and endangered? If there is a gentleness and interest in your inquiry, whatever is revealed will guide you in becoming increasingly present with others.

When we’re together, paying attention is the most basic and profound expression of love. In a moment when you offer attention-- real listening, real presence – in that moment the heart naturally opens. This is the most basic training in awakening our hearts: Mindful attention. Just being there. It often starts with being aware of our own experience, and that extends to the capacity to offer our attention to others. When we arrive in this space of presence, we come home to the intrinsic caring that expresses our deepest nature.  Like the Dalai Lama, we discover "my religion is kindness."

Taken from my book Radical Acceptance 2003 

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Monday, April 2, 2012

Everybody Has Buddha Nature

You will be walking some night…
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one…   Wendell Berry

Over a decade ago a small group of Buddhist teachers and psychologists from the United States and Europe invited the Dalai Lama to join them in a dialogue about emotions and health. During one of their sessions, an American vipassana teacher asked him to talk about the suffering of self-hatred. 

A look of confusion came over the Dalai Lama’s face. “What is self-hatred?” he asked. As the therapists and teachers in the room tried to explain, he looked increasingly bewildered. Was this mental state a nervous disorder? he asked them. When those gathered confirmed that self-hatred was not unusual but rather a common experience for their students and clients, the Dalai Lama was astonished. How could they feel that way about themselves, he wondered, when “everybody has Buddha nature.”  

While all humans feel ashamed of weakness and afraid of rejection, our Western culture is a breeding ground for the kind of shame and self-hatred the Dalai Lama couldn’t comprehend.

Because so many of us grew up without a cohesive and nourishing sense of family, neighborhood, community or “tribe,” it is not surprising that we feel like outsiders, on our own and disconnected. We learn early in life that any affiliation—with family and friends, at school or in the workplace—requires proving that we are worthy. We are under pressure to compete with each other, to get ahead, to stand out as intelligent, attractive, capable, powerful, wealthy. Someone is always keeping score.

After a lifetime of working with the poor and the sick, Mother Teresa’s surprising insight was: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging." In our own society, this disease has reached epidemic proportions. We long to belong and feel as if we don’t deserve to.

D.H. Lawrence described our Western culture as being like a great uprooted tree with its roots in the air. “We are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs,” he wrote, “we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal.”

Buddhism offers a powerful response to our individual and societal predicament. The Buddha taught that this human birth is a precious gift because it gives us the opportunity to realize the love and awareness that are our true nature. As the Dalai Lama pointed out so poignantly, we all have Buddha nature.

As we rediscover the truth of this goodness, we begin to awaken from our trance of unworthiness. Instead of living from separateness, we affirm our innate belonging by bringing loving presence to each other, to our moments, to the beauty and pain that is in our world. This is our practice, our path. As Lawrence goes on to say, “We must plant ourselves again in the universe.” 

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

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