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, July 31, 2012

Lost in the Pursuit of Substitutes

Ever since I was a teen, my drive to be productive has been a key strategy of what I often refer to as my “wanting self.” When I feel insecure, producing—whether it’s a finished article, a stack of paid bills or a clean kitchen—is my most readily accessible device for feeling worthwhile. This producing isn’t simply the natural urge to be creative and contribute to the mix of life, it’s energized by fears of inadequacy and the need to prove myself.

When I’m caught in this strategy, I turn to English Breakfast tea to give me the boost I think I need to remain productive throughout the day and often into the night. The price is that I become speedy, impatient and distant from those I love. I get disconnected from my body as I relentlessly urge myself onward to get yet another thing done. Feeling self-centered and bad about myself for workaholism doesn’t slow me down. “Getting one more thing out of the way” seems the most reliable way to get what I want—to feel better. 

At a psychotherapy conference I attended, I saw a poster that struck home. In it two homeless men are sitting on a park bench. One is saying to the other, “I used to have a private jet, condo in Aspen and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company … then I switched to decaf.”

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
It’s not hard to understand why our substitutes are so attractive. Even if they don’t address our deepest needs, they prop us up and for a time keep getting us the goods that give us those momentary pleasant sensations. Our efforts in pursuit of substitutes preoccupy and distract our attention enough to shield us for a time from the raw sensations of feeling unloved or unworthy. Accomplishing things does temporarily stave off my feelings of inadequacy. Yet underneath, my wanting self urges me on, fearful that without being productive I’ll lose everything, like the executive who switched to decaf.

While having a job is usually necessary to meet our basic survival needs, where and how we work is also a key domain for substitute gratification: work becomes an indirect means for trying to win love and respect. We might find what we do entirely meaningless, we might hate or resent our job, yet still hitch our desire for approval and connection to how well we perform.

This strategy delivers the goods through money or power, through the strokes we get for our diligence and competence, through the satisfaction of “getting something done.” But we can get lost in these substitutes, soothing and covering over our unmet needs, overlooking the fact that they will never satisfy our deepest longings. 

Even when we are engaged in activities that are meaningful to us, that are creatively and spiritually gratifying, they can be “co-opted” and used to satisfy the unmet needs of the wanting self. This happens to me most often when I’m preparing talks or workshops for meditation groups or writing articles on Buddhist practice. When I remain aware that the Buddhist teachings are precious to me and I love sharing them with others, I can throw myself into what I’m doing with enormous passion. When anxiety or frustration arises, I’m able to meet it with acceptance.

But sometimes that voice of insecurity and unworthiness arises, and I listen to it. Suddenly writing or preparing a presentation is linked to winning or losing love and respect and my entire experience of working shifts. The wanting self takes over. While I always intend to give a wholehearted effort, now that effort is wrapped in fear. I’m anxiously striving to be “good enough” and to reap the rewards. My love for what I do is clouded over when working becomes a strategy to prove my worth.

We are unable to give ourselves freely and joyfully to any activity if the wanting self is in charge. And yet, until we attend to the basic desires and fears that energize the wanting self, it will insinuate itself into our every activity and relationship.

D.H. Lawrence tells us that “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like ... men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes ….” When we are motivated by immediate gratification to do “just what we like,” we will feel continuously driven: No amount of productivity or consuming or recognition can break through the trance of unworthiness and put us in touch with the “deepest self.”

As Lawrence points out, to do what the deepest self likes “takes some diving.” To listen and respond to the longing of our heart requires a committed and genuine presence. The more completely we’re caught in the surface world of pursuing substitutes, the harder it is to dive.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Monday, July 23, 2012

Freedom Finds us When We Pause

“Temporary nirvana.” 

This is how contemporary Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahan Buddhadasa describes the precious interludes between all our “doing;” those times when we pause, and are not grasping after our experience, or resisting it. He writes that without such moments of inner freedom, “… living things would either die or become insane. Instead, we survive because there are natural periods of coolness, of wholeness and ease. In fact, they last longer than the fires of our grasping and fear. It is this that sustains us.”

We incline ourselves toward this healing freedom by practicing to pause again and again. At the very moment when we’re about to lash out in verbal outrage, we can stop. When we feel anxious, instead of turning on the TV or making a phone call or mentally obsessing, we can sit still and feel our discomfort or restlessness. In this pause we can let go of thinking and doing, and we become intimate with what is happening in our body, heart and mind.

Pausing as a technique may feel unfamiliar, awkward or at odds with our usual way of living. But actually there are many moments—showering, walking, driving—when we release our preoccupations and are simply aware and letting life be.

We may pause at seeing the new green in spring; or in the supermarket we may pause to gaze at the freshness of an infant’s face. When we finally understand a problem we’ve been grappling with, our pause may be a sigh as our body and mind relax. At the end of a long day, we may experience a natural pause when we lie down in bed and let everything go.

We can also purposefully pause during regular activities. I often pause before getting out of my car and simply feel what is going on inside me. Sometimes after I hang up the phone, I’ll just sit at my desk, breathing, listening, not doing the next thing. Or I might stop cleaning the house for a moment and simply listen to the music I’d put on to keep myself company. We can choose to pause on the top of a mountain or in a subway, while we are with others or meditating alone.

The pauses in our life make our experience full and meaningful. The well-known pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked, “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” His response was immediate and passionate, “I handle notes no better than many others, but the pauses—ah! That is where the art resides.”

Like a rest note in a musical score, the pure stillness of a pause forms the background that lets the foreground take shape with clarity and freshness. The moment that arises out of the pause can, like the well-sounded note, reflect the genuineness, the wholeness, the truth of who we are.
Pausing is also the gateway to Radical Acceptance. In the midst of a pause, we are giving room and attention to the life that is always streaming through us, the life that is habitually overlooked. It is in this rest that we realize the natural freedom of our heart and awareness. This is not something we need to look for; it’s right here. We need only commit ourselves to arriving, here and now, with wholehearted presence—and it naturally finds us.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Finding Your Querencia in the Pause

In bullfighting there is an interesting parallel to what I call the art of pausing, as a place of refuge and renewal. It is believed that in the midst of a fight, a bull can find his own particular area of safety in the arena. There he can reclaim his strength and power. This place and inner state are called his querencia. As long as the bull remains enraged and reactive, the matador is in charge. Yet when he finds querencia, he gathers his strength and loses his fear. From the matador’s perspective, at this point the bull is truly dangerous, for he has tapped into his power.

The experience of one of my clients, Laura, provides a good example of how we can all learn to face our own matadors by courageously learning to pause in order to harness the strength of our querencia.

In the beginning of our therapy sessions, Laura had begun referring to her mother as “the dragon” because of the incinerating burn of her words. At one meeting we did a guided visualization, and Laura imagined herself involved in a struggle with a real dragon. She saw herself crawling on the ground, dodging behind boulders, climbing and hiding in tree branches. Reptilian and ferocious, the dragon found her everywhere she hid. Avoiding its eyes, Laura continually struggled to escape from its fiery breath. Immersed in this drama, she told me she felt weak and exhausted from her efforts to escape, and much too small to fight back.

I suggested to Laura that she could face her mother’s attacks from a place of inner strength by learning how to pause. When fear or rage surged up in her, she could stop all outward activity and simply pay attention to what she was experiencing inside her. I let her know that if she could pause instead of shouting or storming out of painful encounters, she would, in time, find her own querencia, and be able to respond to her circumstances in a more balanced and effective way.

Learning how to do this is not easy work. When we first practice pausing, we can easily be swept away into the raw feelings that have been dictating our behavior for so many years. It is important to ease in gradually, and, if possible, with the support of others. Practicing by imagining a recent or likely situation is useful. Yet if we get caught in a charged situation, a good way to begin is to take a “time out” and find a quiet, safe place to practice the pause. It always helps to start with a few deep breaths, consciously relaxing the body and mind.

After several weeks of practicing like this in our therapy sessions, Laura came in one day and told me that something had genuinely shifted. At a dinner with her family, her mother had started demanding to know when she was going to start looking for a new job. Before Laura had a chance to respond, her mother leaned forward, her voice sharp and derisive. “Don’t tell me. I know. You’re just waiting for it to drop into your lap … like manna from heaven.” As if Laura’s silence were a green light to continue, her mother broadened the attack: “So, are you planning to have Phil support you all your life?”

Heart pounding loudly, Laura paused and took a few deep breaths. She felt searing heat in her chest, as if she had been stabbed, and everything in her wanted to scream out in rage. But instead, she simply said, “I don’t know, Mom,” and sat back in her chair. “Right” her mother retorted, perhaps surprised to receive so little fuel for her fire, and turned away to talk with Laura’s brother.

Laura didn’t know what would happen next. As she continued in the pause, she felt her body trembling and shaking. Her chest felt like it was about to burst open. She noticed the confusion of stories swirling through her mind: “Laura the one who screws up,” “Laura the raging maniac.”

In the midst of this turmoil she heard an inner voice whisper, “This feels horrible … and I can handle it.” Since she had felt this agitation many times in our therapy sessions, she knew it was bearable and wouldn’t last. As Laura relaxed she felt a spaciousness slowly opening in her chest and throat. The sharp hurt began dissolving, and in its place a profound sense of sorrow arose. As she allowed all these feelings to unfold, she felt as if she were gently caring for the wounded places inside her. 

No longer trapped inside a trance of unworthiness, Laura could now imagine some choices. She could stay for the rest of the evening, or go home. She could confront her mother and tell her why she hadn’t found a job, or she could let the incident slide. Whatever her response, it would now arise from a fresh way of responding to her own self. Pausing had enabled Laura to accept everything she was feeling, and she was left with a surprising warmth and kindness.

When she looked at her mother, Laura felt a upsurge of tenderness. She saw a woman ensnared in her own insecurity, words tumbling out of control, hands tightened into fists. By the time they parted later that evening, she was actually able to look her mother in the eye, touch her arm, smile.

Laura had faced the dragon, both in her mother and in herself. Underneath her mother’s fiery exterior she had found a wounded person. Similarly, Laura’s dragon had been guarding her own vulnerability, her fear of being bad, her shame. Under the layers of sharp scales she had found her own soft and kind heart. By tapping into her own querencia, Laura could now act from a place of strength, compassion, and balance.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke expresses a deep understanding of the dragons all of us face: “How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races—the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Radical Acceptance of Desire

When I was first introduced to Buddhism in a high school World Studies class, I dismissed it out-of-hand. This was during the hedonistic days of the late ‘60s, and this spiritual path seemed so grim with its concern about attachment and, apparently, anti-pleasure. Buddhism seemed to be telling me to stop seeking after romantic relationships, forego having good times with friends, avoid the highs of marijuana and give up my adventures in nature. In my mind, freedom from desire would take the fun out of life.

Years later I would realize that the Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away, and that relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving. 

I first saw a glimpse of this possibility many years ago in what might be considered the hotbed of desire: romantic relationship. I’d been divorced for several years, and had met a man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. In our few casual encounters something had clicked and I was infatuated.

In the midst of the typical rush and excitement of such connections, I left for a weeklong meditation retreat. In the six years that I had been practicing Buddhist meditation, I’d attended a number of such retreats and loved the states of clarity and presence I touched there. But this time, instead of settling into even a semblance of mindful presence, my immediate and compelling draw was to the pleasures of fantasy. I was in the throes of a full-blown “Vipassana Romance,” as such fantasies have come to be known.

In the silence and austerity of retreat, the mind can build a whole erotic world around a person we barely know. Often the object of a VR is another meditator who has attracted our attention. In the time span of a few days we can mentally live through a whole relationship—courting, marrying, having a family together. I’d brought my fantasy person with me from home, and this industrial strength VR withstood all my best strategies for letting go and returning to the here and now.

I tried to relax and direct my attention to the breath, to note what was happening in my body and mind. I could barely complete two cycles of mindful breathing before my mind would once again return to its favorite subject. Then, with a stab of guilt, I’d remember where I was. Sometimes I’d look around and take in the serenity and dignity of the meditation hall. I’d remind myself of the freedom and joy of remaining present, and of the suffering that arises from living in stories and illusions.

This didn’t make a dent—the fantasies would take off again almost immediately. Hoping to get out of my head, I tried doing longer walking meditations on the snowy paths surrounding the retreat center. As my mind churned relentlessly onward, I felt self-indulgent and ashamed of my lack of discipline. Most of all I was frustrated because I felt I was wasting precious time. This retreat was an opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, and there I was, caught up in wanting and off in the future.

After several days I had a pivotal interview with my teacher. When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?” I was startled into understanding. For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Her question pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience. She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind. I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it. 

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food, sex, love, freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena. While this isn’t easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force, and remain free in its midst. 

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Saying Yes To Life As It Is

Zen teacher Ed Brown is a brilliant cook and founder of the Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, famous for its natural foods cuisine. But during Ed’s early days as a cook at the Tassajara mountain retreat center, he had a problem. No matter what recipes or variations in ingredients he tried, he couldn’t get his biscuits to come out right. 

His unreachable standard, as he discovered, was set years earlier—growing up he had “made” and loved Pillsbury biscuits.

Finally one day came a shifting-into-place, an awakening: not “right” compared to what? Oh, my word, I’d been trying to make canned Pillsbury biscuits! Then came an exquisite moment of actually tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some (previously hidden) standard.  They were wheaty, flakey, buttery, “sunny, earthy, real.” They were incomparably alive, present, vibrant—in fact much more satisfying than any memory.

These occasions can be so stunning, so liberating, these moments when you realize your life is just fine as it is, thank you.  Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product made it seem insufficient.  Trying to produce a biscuit—a life—with no dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger was so frustrating.  Then savoring, actually tasting the present moment of experience—how much more complex and multi-faceted.  How unfathomable…

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying Yes to our entire imperfect and messy life. With even a glimmer of that possibility, joy rushes in.

Yet when we’ve been striving to make “Pillsbury Biscuits” for a lifetime, the habits of perfectionism don’t easily release their grip. When mistrust and skepticism creep in, we might be tempted to back down from embracing our life unconditionally.

It takes practice, learning to bounce back each time we’re dragged down by what seems to be wrong.  But as Ed points out, when we stop comparing ourselves to some assumed standard of perfection, the “biscuits of today,” this very life we are living right now, can be tasted and explored, honored and appreciated fully.

When we put down ideas of what life should be like, we are free to wholeheartedly say Yes to our life as it is.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com