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

Monday, May 28, 2012

When We Don’t Make Anything “Wrong”

Sometimes when I talk about Radical Acceptance, I like to tell the story about Jacob, a man who at almost seventy and in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s disease attended a 10-day retreat I was leading.

A clinical psychologist by profession and a meditator for more than twenty years, Jacob was well aware that his faculties were deteriorating. On occasion his mind would go totally blank; he would have no access to words for several minutes and become completely disoriented. He often forgot what he was doing and usually needed assistance with basic tasks—cutting his food, putting on clothes, bathing, getting from place to place.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
A couple of days into the retreat, Jacob had his first interview with me. These meetings, which students have regularly with a teacher while on retreat, are an opportunity to check in and receive personal guidance in the practice. During our time together Jacob and I talked about how things were going both on retreat and at home. His attitude towards his disease was interested, sad, grateful, even good-humored.

Intrigued by his resilience, I asked him what allowed him to be so accepting. He responded, “It doesn’t feel like anything is wrong. I feel grief and some fear about it all going, but it feels like real life.” Then he told me about an experience he’d had in an earlier stage of the disease.

Jacob had occasionally given talks about Buddhism to local groups and had accepted an invitation to address a gathering of over a hundred meditation students. He arrived at the event feeling alert and eager to share the teachings he loved. Taking his seat in front of the hall, Jacob looked out at the sea of expectant faces in front of him … and suddenly he didn’t know what he was supposed to say or do. He didn’t know where he was or why he was there. All he knew was that his heart was pounding furiously and his mind was spinning in confusion.

Putting his palms together at his heart, Jacob started naming out loud what was happening: “Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost.” For several more minutes he sat, head slightly bowed, continuing to name his experience. As his body began to relax and his mind grew calmer, he also noted that aloud. At last Jacob lifted his head, looked slowly around at those gathered, and apologized.

Many of the students were in tears. As one put it, “No one has ever offered us teachings like this. Your presence has been the deepest dharma teaching.”

Rather than pushing away his experience and deepening his agitation, Jacob had the courage and training simply to name what he was aware of, and, most significantly, to bow to his experience. In some fundamental way he didn’t create an adversary out of feelings of fear and confusion. He didn’t make anything wrong.

We practice Radical Acceptance by pausing and then meeting whatever is happening inside us with this kind of unconditional friendliness. Instead of turning our jealous thoughts or angry feelings into the enemy, we pay attention in a way that enables us to recognize and touch any experience with care. Nothing is wrong—whatever is happening is just “real life.” Such unconditional friendliness is the spirit of Radical Acceptance. 

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Sacred Pause

In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.

The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?

Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on a retreat or to spend time in nature or to take a sabbatical. We may pause in a conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart. In a pause we simply discontinue whatever we are doing—thinking, talking, walking, writing, planning, worrying, eating—and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and, often, physically still.

A pause is, by nature, time limited. We resume our activities, but we do so with increased presence and more ability to make choices. In the pause before sinking our teeth into a chocolate bar, for instance, we might recognize the excited tingle of anticipation, and perhaps a background cloud of guilt and self-judgment. We may then choose to eat the chocolate, fully savoring the taste sensations, or we might decide to skip the chocolate and instead go out for a run. When we pause, we don’t know what will happen next. But by disrupting our habitual behaviors, we open to the possibility of new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears.

Of course there are times when it is not appropriate to pause. If our child is running towards a busy street, we don’t pause. If someone is about to strike us, we don’t just stand there, resting in the moment—rather, we quickly find a way to defend ourselves. If we are about to miss a flight, we race toward the gate. But much of our driven pace and habitual controlling in daily life does not serve surviving, and certainly not thriving. It arises from a free-floating anxiety about something being wrong or not enough. Even when our fear arises in the face of actual failure, loss or even death, our instinctive tensing and striving are often ineffectual and unwise.

Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.

Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. Pausing in a fit of anger, or when overwhelmed by sorrow or filled with desire, may be the last thing we want to do. Pausing can feel like falling helplessly through space—we have no idea of what will happen. We fear we might be engulfed by the rawness of our rage or grief or desire. Yet without opening to the actual experience of the moment, Radical Acceptance is not possible.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible. 

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When We Stop Running

Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was the son of a wealthy king who ruled over a beautiful kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas. At his birth, the king’s advisors predicted that he would either forego the world and become a holy man or he would be a great king and ruler. Siddhartha’s father was determined to have his son to follow in his own footsteps. Knowing that seeing the pain of the world would turn the prince towards spiritual pursuits, he surrounded him with physical beauty, wealth and continuous entertainment. Only kind and beautiful people were allowed to care for him.

Of course the king’s project to protect his son from the suffering of life failed. As the traditional story tells it, when Siddhartha was twenty-nine, he insisted on taking several excursions outside the palace walls with his charioteer, Channa. Realizing his son’s intent, the king ordered his subjects to prepare for the prince by cleaning and beautifying the streets, and hiding the sick and poor.

But the gods, seeing this as the opportunity to awaken Siddhartha, had other plans. They appeared to him in the guise of a sick person, an old person and a corpse. When Siddhartha realized that such suffering was an intrinsic part of being alive, his comfortable view of life was shattered. Determined to discover how human beings could find happiness and freedom in the face of such suffering, he left the luxurious palaces, his parents, his wife and son. Setting forth in the dark of the night, Siddhartha began his search for the truths that would liberate his heart and spirit.

Most of us spend years trying to cloister ourselves inside the palace walls. We chase after the pleasure and security we hope will give us lasting happiness. Yet no matter how happy we may be, life inevitably delivers up a crisis—divorce, death of a loved one, a critical illness. Seeking to avoid the pain and control our experience, we pull away from the intensity of our feelings, often ignoring or denying our genuine physical and emotional needs.

Because Siddhartha had been so entranced by pleasure, the path of denial at first looked like the way to freedom. He joined a group of ascetics and began practicing severe austerities, depriving himself of food and sleep, and following rigorous yogic disciplines. After several years Siddhartha found himself emaciated and sick, but no closer to the spiritual liberation he yearned for. He left the ascetics and made his way to the banks of a nearby river. Lying there nearly dead, Siddhartha cried out “Surely there must be another way to enlightenment!” As he closed his eyes, a dreamlike memory arose.

It was the annual celebration of the spring plowing, and his nurses had left him resting under a rose apple tree at the edge of the fields. Sitting in the cool shade of the tree, the child watched the men at work, sweat pouring down their faces; he saw the oxen straining to pull the plough. In the cut grasses and the freshly overturned soil, he could see insects dying, their eggs scattered.

Sorrow arose in Siddhartha for the suffering that all living beings experience. In the tenderness of this compassion, Siddhartha felt deeply opened. Looking up he was struck by how brilliantly blue the sky was. Birds were dipping and soaring freely and gracefully. The air was thick with the sweet fragrance of apple blossoms. In the flow and sacred mystery of life, there was room for the immensity of joy and sorrow. He felt completely at peace.

Remembering this experience gave Siddhartha a profoundly different understanding of the path to liberation. If a young, untrained child could taste freedom in this effortless and spontaneous way, then such a state must be a natural part of being human. Perhaps he could awaken by stopping the struggle and, as he had done as a child, meeting all of life with a tender and open presence.

What conditions had made this childhood experience of profound presence possible? If we look at our own life, we see that such moments of presence often occur in times of stillness or solitude. We have stepped outside the normal rush and into the openness and clarity of a “time out of time.”

Had Siddhartha been around the distracting chatter of the nurses or playing games with the other children, he would not have been so attentive and open to his deeper experience. In the moments of pausing and resting under the rose apple tree, he was neither pursuing pleasure nor was he pushing away the suffering of the world. By pausing, he had relaxed into a natural wakefulness and inner freedom.

Inspired by his childhood experience, Siddhartha began his final search for lasting freedom. After bathing himself in the river, he accepted the sweet rice offered to him by a village maiden, and then slept a sleep with wondrous dreams. When he awoke, refreshed and strengthened, he once again sought solitude under a tree—known now as the Bodhi Tree—and resolved to remain in stillness there until he experienced full liberation.

The image of the Buddha seated under the Bodhi Tree is one of the great mythic symbols depicting the power of the pause. Siddhartha was no longer clinging to pleasure or running away from any part of his experience. He was making himself absolutely available to the changing stream of life. This attitude of neither grasping nor pushing away any experience has come to be known as the Middle Way, and it characterizes the engaged presence we awaken in pausing.

The practice of Radical Acceptance begins with our own pause under the Bodhi Tree. Just as the Buddha willingly opened himself to all parts of himself, we too can stop running, pause, and make ourselves available to whatever life is offering us in each moment—including the unfaced, unfelt parts of our psyche. In this way, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we “keep our appointment with life.”

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Running Away Deepens the Trance

A traditional folk tale tells the story of a man who becomes so frightened by his own shadow that he tries to run away from it. He believes that if only he could leave it behind, he would then be happy. The man grows increasingly distressed as he sees that no matter how fast he runs, his shadow never once falls behind. Not about to give up, he runs faster and faster until finally he drops dead of exhaustion. If only he had stepped into the shade and sat down to rest, his shadow would have vanished.

Our own personal shadow is made up of those parts of our being that we experience as unacceptable. Our families and culture let us know early on which qualities of human nature are valued and which are frowned upon. Because we want to be accepted and loved, we try to fashion and present a self that will attract others and secure our belonging.

And yet, when we inevitably express our natural aggression or neediness or fear—parts of our emotional makeup that frequently are taboo—the significant people in our life tend to react to us. Whether we are mildly scolded, ignored or traumatically rejected, on some level we are hurt and pushed away.

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
The shadow then becomes a force in our psyche as we regularly exile the emotions that could elicit rejection from others. We might bury and forget our childlike excitement; ignore our anger until it becomes knots of tension in our body; cover our fears with endless self-judgment and blame. Our shadow is rooted in shame, bound by our sense of being basically defective.

The more deeply we feel flawed and unlovable, the more desperately we run from the clutches of the shadow. Yet by running from what we fear, we feed the inner darkness.

Whenever we reject a part of our being, we are confirming to ourselves our fundamental unworthiness. Underneath “I shouldn’t get so angry” lies “There’s something wrong with me if I do.” Like being stuck in quicksand, our frantic efforts to get away from our badness sink us deeper. As we strive to avoid the shadow, we solidify our identity as a fearful, deficient self.

For many of us, when our particular place of insecurity or woundedness is touched, we easily regress into the fullness of trance. At these times there seems to be no choice as to what we feel, think, say or do. Rather, we "go on automatic," reacting in our most habitual way to defend ourselves, to cover over the rawness of our hurt.

Yet, the very behaviors we use to keep us from pain only fuel our suffering. Not only do our escape strategies amplify the feeling that something is wrong with us, they stop us from attending to the very parts of ourselves that most need our attention to heal. As Carl Jung states in one of his key insights, the unfaced and unfelt parts of our psyche are the source of all neurosis and suffering.

The good news is that when we can learn to feel and face the fear and shame we habitually avoid with compassion, wisdom, and courage, we can begin to awaken from trance; we can begin to free ourselves to respond to our circumstances in ways that bring genuine peace and happiness.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Friday, May 4, 2012

Unfolding the Wings of Acceptance

When we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, we do not clearly recognize what is happening inside us, nor do we feel kind. Our view of who we are is contorted and narrowed and our heart feels hardened against life. As we lean into the experience of the moment—releasing our stories and gently holding our pain or desire—Radical Acceptance begins to unfold. 

The two parts of genuine acceptance —seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion—are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free. 
The wing of clear seeing is often described in Buddhist practice as mindfulness. This is the quality of awareness that recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience. When we are mindful of fear, for instance, we are aware that our thoughts are racing, that our body feels tight and shaky, that we feel compelled to flee—and we recognize all this without trying to manage our experience in any way, without pulling away. 

Our attentive presence is unconditional and open—we are willing to be with whatever arises, even if we wish the pain would end or that we could be doing something else. That wish and that thought become part of what we are accepting. Because we are not tampering with our experience, mindfulness allows us to see life “as it is.” This recognition of the truth of our experience is intrinsic to Radical Acceptance: We can’t honestly accept an experience unless we see clearly what we are accepting.

The second wing of Radical Acceptance, compassion, is our capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what we perceive. Instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child. Rather than judging or indulging our desire for attention or chocolate or sex, we regard our grasping with gentleness and care. Compassion honors our experience; it allows us to be intimate with the life of this moment as it is. 

The two wings of clear seeing and compassion are inseparable; both are essential in liberating us from the trance. They work together, mutually reinforcing each other. If we are rejected by someone we love, the trance of unworthiness may ensnare us in obsessive thinking, blaming the one who hurt us, believing that we were jilted because we are defective. We may feel caught in a relentless swing between explosive anger and wrenching grief and shame. The two wings of Radical Acceptance free us from this swirling vortex of reaction. They help us find the balance and clarity that can guide us in choosing what we say or do. 

If we were to bring only the wing of mindfulness to our process of Radical Acceptance, we might be clearly aware of the aching in our heart, the flush of rage in our face; we might clearly see the stories we are telling ourselves—that we are a victim, that we will always be alone and without love. 

But, we might also compound our suffering by feeling angry with ourselves for getting into the situation in the first place. This is where the wing of compassion joins with mindfulness to create a genuinely healing presence. Instead of pushing away or judging our anger or despondency, compassion enables us to be softly and kindly present with our open wounds. In the same way, mindfulness balances compassion. If our heartfelt caring begins to bleed over into self-pity, giving rise to another storyline—we tried so hard but didn’t get what we so dearly wanted—mindfulness enables us to see the trap we’re falling into.  

Both wings together help us remain in the experience of the moment, just as it is. 
When we do this, something begins to happen—we feel freer, options open before us, we see with more clarity how we want to proceed. Radical Acceptance helps us to heal and move on, free from unconscious habits of self-hatred and blame. 

Gradually, as we let go of our stories of what is wrong with us, we can begin to touch what is actually happening with a clear and kind attention. We release our plans or fantasies and arrive openhanded in the experience of this moment. Whether we feel pleasure or pain, the wings of acceptance allow us to honor and cherish this ever-changing life, as it is. 

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Accepting Absolutely Everything

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” 
Carl Rogers 

Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the Washington D.C. National Zoo. For most of those years her home was in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, a pond and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment. But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve by twelve feet was worn bare of grass.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness and dissatisfaction. Like Mohini, we grow incapable of accessing the freedom and peace that are our birthright. We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small. Even if we were to win millions of dollars in the lottery or marry the perfect person, as long as we feel not good enough, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the possibilities before us. Unlike Mohini, however, we can learn to recognize when we are keeping ourselves trapped by our own beliefs and fears. We can see how we are wasting our precious lives.

The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything we are feeling about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. By accepting absolutely everything, what I mean is that we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment, without trying to control or judge or pull away. I do not mean that we are putting up with harmful behavior—our own or another’s. Nor do I mean that we are confirming the truth of a negative belief, such as “I am a loser.”

Rather, this is an inner process of accepting our actual, present-moment experience. It means feeling sorrow and pain without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it.

Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance. If we are holding back from any part of our experience, if our heart shuts out any part of who we are and what we feel, we are fueling the fears and feelings of separation that sustain the trance of unworthiness. Radical Acceptance directly dismantles the very foundations of this trance.

Since non-acceptance is the very nature of the trance, we might wonder how, when we feel most stuck, we take the first step out of it. It can give us confidence to remember that the Buddha nature that is our essence remains intact, no matter how lost we may be. The very nature of our awareness is to know what is happening. The very nature of our heart is to care. Like a boundless sea, we have the capacity to embrace the waves of life as they move through us. Even when the sea is stirred up by the winds of self-doubt, we can find our way home. We can discover in the midst of the waves, our spacious and wakeful awareness.