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.
Blessings,
Tara

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Undoing All the Doings


Meditation students often ask me what will help them remember presence in the thick of things. My first response: “Just pause.” My second response: “Pause again, take a few conscious breaths, and relax.”

Our lives are constantly tumbling into the future, and the only way back to here and now is to stop doing and just be. Even a few moments of un-doing, of suspended activity, a mini-meditation of just being still, can reconnect you with a sense of aliveness and caring. That connection will deepen if, during those moments, you intentionally establish contact with your body, breathe, and relax.

A game I often play with myself is to see if I can spontaneously remember to pause in situations I usually charge right through. Washing the dishes. Walking from my office to the kitchen. Moving through e-mails. Eating popcorn.

Pausing is a wonderful and radical way of plucking myself out of virtual reality and discovering myself once again at the hub, awake, open, and here. A deliberate meditative pause helps us to savor the often-forgotten goodness and beauty that is within and around us.

One of my clients, Frances, experienced first-hand how the power of pausing and relaxing in the midst of all the doing in her life could actually change her experience of it. It began with the hurt and disappointment she felt when her two daughters chose to spend a holiday with their father (her ex-husband) rather than going on a trip with her.

“You’re no fun, Mom, you don’t know how to relax” one had said. When she protested, they pointed out that she was “all business” and was even grim about setting up vacation activities.

Frances recognized herself in their words. The oldest of five, she had prematurely become the caretaker of her siblings when her own mother had grown ill. “I don’t know how to play,” she confessed sadly. “I’m much more comfortable staying busy, getting things done.”

Shaken by what she felt to be her daughters’ rejection, Frances began a daily practice of meditation to learn how to relax. But when she met with me for guidance, her stiff posture and tightly knitted brows let me know that her approach to meditation was as grim as her approach to the rest of life.

I suggested that she find a beautiful place to walk and do some of her meditation practice there. Her assignment was still to wake up from thoughts when she became aware of them; but rather than the breath, her home base was all of her senses. She would become aware of the pressure of her feet on the earth, the images and smells and sounds of the natural world. I asked her to pause anytime something struck her as beautiful or interesting and to offer that experience her full attention.

When we met several months later, Frances gave me a meditation report: “Tara,” she said, “my walks are one long linger!” She went on to tell me about the pleasure she was finding in other parts of life—eating a peach slowly and savoring its texture and flavor, taking long hot showers, and increasingly, during sitting meditation, simply relaxing with the movement of her breath.

Most importantly, Frances was experiencing her daughters in a new way, appreciating one’s infectious laugh, the other’s grace. “I’m enjoying them,” she said smiling, “and they seem not to mind hanging out with me!” Frances was discovering the blessing of choosing presence—becoming intimate with the life that is right here, right now.

As Frances was discovering, all of our purposeful “doings” in meditation (naming our experience, mindfully scanning through the body, or focusing on the breath) can help us to pause and open ourselves to the life of the moment. Yet, because we can get so hooked by the need to do something more, we can help ourselves most deeply by our intention to let go.

For me, I sometimes remind myself of a line from poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Let everything happen to you: the beauty and the terror . . .
Feel free to experiment with your own self-reminders. What word or phrase helps you to stop pedaling, to relax your habitual doing and simply be?

Hindu teacher Swami Satchidananda was once asked by a student if he needed to become a Hindu to go deeply into the practice of yoga. Satchidananda’s response was, “I am not a Hindu, I am an undo.”

Just so, when meditation frees us, it does not turn us into something better or different, nor does it get us somewhere. Rather, meditation allows for an undoing of our controlling behavior, an undoing of limiting beliefs, an undoing of habitual physical tensing, an undoing of defensive armoring, and ultimately, an undoing of our identification with a small and threatened self.

By undoing all the doings, we discover the vast heart and awareness that is beyond any small-self identity; the heart and awareness that gives us refuge in the face of any life situation. This is the gift of meditation practice—we find we can trust who we most deeply are.



Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)

For more information on Tara Brach go to: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beyond the Defended Self


During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong. 

In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: we’d just printed three thousand of them; I’d screwed up big time.

Although my mind scrambled to solve the problem, the weight of failure sat like a big stone in my chest. At the end of our meeting I began an apology: “This was my responsibility,” I said in a low monotone, “and I’m really sorry for messing up . . .” Then as I felt the others’ eyes on me, I felt a flash of anger and the words tumbled out: “But, you know, this has been a huge amount of work and I’ve been totally on my own.” I could feel my eyes burning, but I blinked back the tears. “It would have been nice if someone had been available to proofread . . . maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t have happened.”

For the rest of the week I was trapped in self-disgust. Hour after hour my mind replayed every recent incident that highlighted my flaws: I’d lied to get out of a social obligation, exaggerated the size of my yoga classes to another teacher, gossiped to feel more like an insider. Instead of generosity and selfless service, my focus was on my own spiritual progress. Once again I found myself facing what I most disliked about myself: insecurity and self-centeredness. I felt disconnected from everyone around me, stuck inside a self I didn’t want to be.

Because my self-doubts seemed so “unspiritual,” I didn’t talk about them with anyone. At work I was all business. I withdrew from the casual banter and playfulness at group meals, and when I did try to be sociable, I felt like an imposter. Several weeks later, the women in our ashram decided to form a sensitivity group where we could talk about personal challenges. I wondered whether this might be an opportunity for me to get more real.

At our opening meeting, as the other women talked about their stress at work, about children and health problems, I felt my anxiety build. Finally, when there was a pause in the conversation, my confession came pouring out. “I know I do a lot of yoga and teach a lot of classes, that it looks like I’m a helpful, caring person . . . That may be true in some ways, but it’s also a front. What I’m covering up, what I don’t want anyone to see, is how self-centered I am, how selfish and judgmental.” After pausing and glancing around at the solemn faces, I took the real plunge. “This is hard to say, but . . . I don’t trust that I’m a good person, and that makes it hard to really feel close with anyone.”

Directly after the meeting, I retreated quickly to my room, curled up in fetal position on my futon and cried. By naming my experience out loud, I had stripped away a layer of the small self’s protection. Feeling raw and exposed, I started mentally berating myself for having said anything. I told myself I should get up right that moment and do some yoga. Instead, I began trying to figure out what really had gone wrong, what was making me feel so bad about myself.

Suddenly I realized that this inner processing was yet more of the same. I was still trying to control things by figuring them out, by trying more practice, by trying to manage how others might see me. Recognizing these false refuges stopped me in my tracks—I didn’t want to stay stuck. An inner voice asked, “What would happen if, in this moment, I didn’t try to do anything, to make anything different?” I immediately felt the visceral grip of fear and then a familiar sinking hole of shame—the very feelings I had been trying to avoid for as long as I could remember. Then the same inner voice whispered very quietly, a familiar refrain: “Just let it be.”

I stretched out on my back, took a few full breaths, and felt the weight of my body supported by the futon. Again and again my mind tried to escape into reviewing what I’d said hours earlier, or rehearsing what else I could say to explain myself. Again and again the intention to “let it be” brought me back to the fear and shame I was experiencing. Sometime during the night, lying there alone in the darkness, these emotions gave way to grief. I was struck by how much of my life—my aliveness and loving—was lost when I was caught in feelings of unworthiness. I let myself open to that fully too, sobbing deeply, until the grief gradually subsided.

I got up, sat on my cushion in front of my small meditation altar, and continued to pay attention. My mind quieted naturally and I became increasingly aware of my own inner experience—a silent presence suffused with tenderness. This presence was a space of being that included everything—waves of sadness, the feeling of my drying tears, the sounds of crickets, the humid summer night.

In this open space thoughts again bubbled up —the memory of being defensive at the staff meeting and my subsequent attempts to offer a real apology; then a flash forward to me teaching the yoga class I’d scheduled for the following morning, trying to project a positive, confident energy. This time, as these scenes came into view, I felt like I was witnessing a character in a play. The character was continually trying to protect herself, but in the process, she was disconnecting more and more from herself, from authenticity, from the potential sustenance of feeling connected to others. And in each scene, I saw her perpetually “doing” in order to feel better about herself, “doing” in order to avoid pain, “doing” in order to avoid failure.

As I sat there watching this play, I had, for the first time, a compelling sense that this character wasn’t really “me.” Her feelings and reactions were certainly familiar, but they were just ripples on the surface of what I really was. In the same way, everything happening at that moment—the thoughts, the sensations of sitting cross-legged, the tenderness, the tiredness—were part of my being but could not define me. My heart opened. How sad to have been living in such a confined world; how sad to have felt so driven and so alone!

That night by my altar, an old sense of self was falling away. Who was I, then? In those moments I sensed that the truth of what I was couldn’t be contained in any idea or image of self. Rather, it was the space of presence itself—the silence, the wakeful openness—that felt like home. A feeling of gratitude and reverence filled me that has never entirely left.

Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)
For more information on Tara Brach go to: www.tarabrach.com

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You Are Not Your Space Suit Self


Whatever came from being
is caught up in being, drunkenly
forgetting the way back.
- Rumi


We are born with a beautiful open spirit, alive with innocence and resilience. But we bring this goodness into a difficult world.

Imagine that at the moment of birth we begin to develop a space suit to help us navigate our strange new environment. The purpose of this space suit is to protect us from violence and greed and to win nurturance from caretakers who, to varying degrees, are bound by their own self-absorption and insecurities. When our needs aren’t met, our space suit creates the best defensive and proactive strategies it can. These include tensions in the body and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and shame; mental activity such as judging, obsessing, and fantasizing; and a whole array of behavioral tactics for going after whatever is missing—security, food, sex, love.

Our space suit is essential for survival, and some of its strategies do help us become productive, stable, and responsible adults. And yet the same space suit that protects us can also prevent us from moving spontaneously, joyfully, and freely through our lives.

This is when our space suit becomes our prison. Our sense of who we are becomes defined by the space suit’s “doings,” its strengths and weaknesses. We become identified with our skill in problem-solving or communicating; identified with our judgments and obsessions; identified with our anxiety and anger. “Identified” means that we think we are the space suit! It appears to us that we actually are the self who possesses the anxiety and anger; we are the self who judges; we are the self whom others admire; we are the self who is special or imperfect and alone.

When we become fused with the space suit, we begin living in what I call trance, and our sense of who we are is radically contracted. We have forgotten who is gazing through the space-suit mask; we have forgotten our vast heart and awareness. We have forgotten the mysterious presence that is always here, behind any passing emotion, thought, or action.

Living in trance is like being caught in a dream, and while we are in it we are cut off from our own moment-to-moment experience, disconnected from this living world. We have left home—our awareness and aliveness—and become unknowingly confined in a distorted fragment of reality.

We each have our own styles of leaving home—our space-suit strategies to cope with the pain of unmet needs. Yet waking up is a universal process. Slowly or quickly, we come to see that we’ve been living in a contracted and often painful reality. We want to reconnect with our innocence, our basic goodness. We want to know the truth of who we are. Our sincere longing turns us toward a path of true refuge, a place where we can finally feel safe enough to step out of our protective suit, and experience the freedom of natural presence.



Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)
For more information on Tara Brach go to: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Entrusting Yourself to the Waves


I was drawn to my first Buddhist mindfulness retreat during a time when my son, Narayan, was four, and I was on the verge of divorce. During a slow, icy drive through a winter snowstorm on the way to the retreat center, I had plenty of time to reflect on what most mattered to me. I didn’t want a breakup that would bury the love I still shared with my husband; I didn’t want us to turn into uncaring, even hostile, strangers. And I didn’t want a breakup that would deprive Narayan of feeling secure and loved. My deep prayer was that through all that was happening, I’d find a way to stay connected with my heart.

Over the next five days, through hours of silent meditation, I cycled many times through periods of clarity and attentiveness, followed by stretches when I was swamped in sleepiness, plagued by physical discomfort, or lost in a wandering mind. Early one evening I became inundated by thoughts about the upcoming months: Should my husband and I hire lawyers or a mediator to handle the process of divorce? When should we move to separate residences? And, most importantly, how should I be there for our son during this painful transition?

As each anxious thought surfaced, I wanted to really dig in and work everything out in my mind. Yet something in me knew I needed to stay with the unpleasant feelings in my body. A verse from Ryokan, an eighteenth-century Zen poet, came to mind: “To find the Buddhist law, drift east and west, come and go, entrusting yourself to the waves.” The “Buddhist law” refers to the truth of how things really are. We can’t understand the nature of reality until we let go of controlling our experience. There’s no way to see clearly what’s going on if on some level we’re attempting to ignore or bypass the stormy weather.

During the last few days of the retreat I tried to let go, over and over, but felt repeatedly stymied by my well-worn strategy for feeling better—figuring things out. Now Ryokan’s verse was rife with possibility: Perhaps I could entrust myself to the waves. Perhaps the only way to real peace was by opening to life just as it was. Otherwise, behind my efforts to manage things, I’d always sense a lurking threat, something right around the corner that was going to cause trouble.

My old habits didn’t give up easily, though. As soon as I’d contact some tightness in my chest, I’d flip right back into worrying about my son’s new preschool, carpooling, or about how to find a baby-sitter with more flexible hours. Then I’d become hypercritical, harshly judging myself for “wasting” my retreat time. Gradually, I recognized that my heart was clenched tight, afraid to let the intensity of life wash through me. I needed help “entrusting.”

Each afternoon, the teachers had been leading us in a lovingkindness meditation. I decided to try weaving this into my sitting. The classical form of the meditation consists of sending loving prayers to ourselves and widening circles of other beings. I began to offer kind wishes to myself: “May I be happy and at ease; may I be happy and at ease.” At first, repeating the words felt like a superficial mental exercise, but soon something shifted. My heart meant it: I cared about my own life, and becoming conscious of that caring softened some of the tightness around my heart.

Now I could more easily give myself to the waves of fear and sorrow, and simply notice the drifting thoughts and physical sensations—squeezing and soreness—that were coming and going. Whenever the worries that had been snagging me appeared, I sensed that they too were waves, tenacious ones that pressed uncomfortably on my chest. By not resisting, by letting the waves wash through me, I began to relax. Rather than fighting the stormy surges, I rested in an ocean of awareness that embraced all the moving waves. I’d arrived in a sanctuary that felt large enough to hold whatever was going on in my life.

After my retreat, I returned home with the intention of taking refuge in presence whenever I was irritated, anxious, and tight. I was alert when the first flare-up occurred, a week later. My ex-husband called to say he couldn’t take care of Narayan that evening, leaving me scrambling to find a baby-sitter. “I’m the breadwinner, and I can’t even count on him for this!” my mind sputtered. “Once again he’s not doing his share, once again he’s letting me down!”

But when I was done for the day, I took some time to pause and touch into the judgment and blame lingering in my body, and my righteous stance softened. I sat still as the blaming thoughts and swells of irritation came and went. Underneath the resentment was an anxious question: “How will I manage?” As I let the subterranean waves of anxiety move through me, I found a quiet inner space that had more breathing room—and more perspective.

Of course I couldn’t figure out how the future would play out. The only time I had was right now, and this moment was okay. From this space I could sense my ex-husband’s stress about finding a new place to live, working out our schedules, and, more deeply, adapting to a different future than he had imagined. This helped me feel more tolerant and kind. It also revealed the power of entrusting myself to the waves. My husband and I continue to be dear friends. With him and in countless instances with others, this gateway to presence has reawakened me to a space of loving that feels like home. 





Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)
For more information on Tara Brach go to: www.tarabrach.com