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, November 28, 2012

Loosening the Grip of Core and Limiting Beliefs


I’ve gotten free of that ignorant fist that was pinching and 
twisting my secret self. 
The universe and the light of the stars come through me. 
—Rumi

Our core beliefs are often based on our earliest and most potent fears—we construct our strongest assumptions and conclusions about life from them. This conditioning is in service of survival. Our brains are designed to anticipate the future based on the past; if something bad happened once, it can happen again.

Our brains are also biased to encode most strongly the memories of experiences that are accompanied by feelings of endangerment. This is why even a few failures can instill feelings of helplessness and deficiency, which many later successes may not be able to undo. As the saying goes, “Our memories are Velcro for painful experiences and Teflon for pleasant ones!” We are very inclined toward building our core beliefs out of experiences of hurt and fear, and holding on to them (and the underlying fears) for dear life.

Imagine that you are a child trying to get your mother’s attention: You want her to look at your drawing, to get you a drink, to play a game with you. While she sometimes responds to your needs, at other times she explodes in anger at being disturbed. She yells at you to leave her alone and threatens to spank you.

Years later, you may not remember most of these incidents, but your brain registered her anger and rejection, and your hurt and fear. Over time, these encoded memories may constellate into negative beliefs about yourself and what you can expect from others: “I’m too needy . . . people won’t love me”; “If I bother someone, I’ll get punished”; or “Nobody really wants to spend time with me.”

The greater the degree of early life stress or trauma, the greater the conditioning, and the greater the likelihood of deeply entrenched fear-based beliefs. If you grew up in a war zone, your survival fears would ensure that you automatically distinguish between “us” and “them,” and you would easily classify “them” as bad and dangerous. If you were sexually abused as a child, any intimacy might seem dangerous, a setup for abuse. Alternately, you might be drawn to aggressive and domineering people, because the connection feels so familiar or even “safe.”

If you are an African American male, you might believe that you will be seen as inferior, held back no matter how hard you try, or unfairly targeted as a criminal. If you were poor and went hungry, you might believe that there will never be enough, that you will never be secure, no matter how rich you become.

Although they’re rooted in the past, our core beliefs feel current and true. The thoughts and feelings associated with them filter our experience of what is happening right now, and they prime us to respond in a certain way.
The Buddha taught that if your mind is captured by the fear and misunderstanding of limiting beliefs, “trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.” Traditional translations of Buddhist texts speak of the mind as “impure,” but this can be understood as “distorted,” “colored,” or “tainted.” As the Buddha put it, “With our thoughts we make the world.”

If we pay close attention, we can see how our beliefs about ourselves and the world give rise to the very behaviors and events that confirm them. If you believe that nobody will like you, you’ll behave in ways that broadcast your insecurities. When people pull away, your sense of rejection will confirm your belief. If you believe that others are waiting to attack or criticize you, you’ll probably act defensive or aggressive. Then when people push back, your fears will be justified.

We loosen the grip of these beliefs by training ourselves to recognize the fear-thinking in our minds.  In the moments of mindfully noting fear thoughts (you can mentally whisper “fear-thinking”) there is a little space between us and our beliefs. This space gives us the opportunity to discover that the thoughts and underlying beliefs are “real but not true.”  They are real- they are appearing, they come with a very real and painful experience of fear or hurt or shame in our bodies.  But they are interpretations of reality, mental images and soundbites we have produced that represent the world and entrap us in a confining trance. They are not truth itself.

If, rather than subscribing to beliefs as truth we can connect with the actuality of our present moment experience, we directly weaken this trance. We take refuge in presence by moving our attention from thoughts to the felt sense of our body’s experience. As we rest our attention in our moment to moment experience, our aliveness, intelligence and innate compassion naturally shine through.  Each time we move in this way from fear thoughts to our embodied experience, we are increasingly able to see past the confining stories we tell ourselves about our own unworthiness, badness, unlovableness.  They are real but not true.  With practice, the veil of beliefs that has confined our lives dissolves and our trust in our true nature guides us in living and loving fully.

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)


For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Opening the Gateway of Love



As one of the American pioneers credited for bringing Eastern spirituality to the West, Ram Dass had more than four decades of spiritual training to help guide him when he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1997. Nonetheless, in the hours after his devastating stroke, he lay in a gurney staring at the pipes on the hospital ceiling, feeling utterly helpless and alone. No uplifting thoughts came to rescue him, and he was unable to regard what was happening with mindfulness or self-compassion. In that crucial moment, as he put it bluntly, “I flunked the test.”

I sometimes tell his story to students who worry that they too have “flunked the test.” They’ve practiced meeting difficulties with mindfulness, but then they encounter a situation where the fear or distress or pain is so great that they just cannot arouse presence. They’re often left with feelings of deep discouragement and self-doubt, as if the door of refuge had been closed to them.

I start by trying to help them judge themselves less harshly. When we’re in an emotional or physical crisis, we are often in trance, gripped by fear and confusion. At such times, our first step toward true refuge—often the only one available to us—is to discover some sense of caring connection with the life around and within us. We need to enter refuge through the gateway of love.

Ram Dass passed through this gateway by calling on Maharajji (Neem Karoli Baba), the Indian guru who had given him his Hindu name, and who’d died more than thirty years earlier. In the midst of his physical anguish, powerlessness, and despair, Ram Dass began to pray to Maharajji, who to him had always been a pure emanation of love. As he later wrote, “I talked to my guru’s picture and he spoke to me, he was all around me.” That Maharajji should be immediately “there,” as fully available as ever, was to Ram Dass pure grace. At home again in loving presence, he was able to be at peace with the intensity of the moment-to-moment challenge he was facing.

The gateway of love is a felt sense of care and relatedness—with a loved one, the earth, a spiritual figure, and ultimately, awareness itself. Just as a rose needs the encouragement of light, we need love. Otherwise, as poet Hafiz says, “We all remain too frightened.”

Today, researchers are discovering what happens in the brains of meditators when their attention is focused on lovingkindness or compassion, two primary expressions of love. Sophisticated brain scans show that the left frontal cortex lights, correlating strongly with subjective feelings of happiness, openness, and peace.

When I teach meditations for the heart, I often ask my students to visualize being held by a loved one and/or to offer gentle self-touch as part of the practice. Research shows that a twenty-second hug stimulates production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with feelings of love, connectedness, and safety. Yet, we don’t need to receive a physical hug to enjoy this benefit: Either imagining a hug, or feeling our own touch—on our cheek, on our chest—also releases oxytocin. Whether through visualization, words, or touch, meditations on love can shift brain activity in a way that arouses positive emotions and reduces traumatic reactivity. Where attention goes, energy flows:  We have the capacity to cultivate an inner refuge of safety and love.

In assisting students and clients as they develop such a refuge, I often ask the following questions:
 
1. With whom do you feel connection or belonging? Feel cared for or loved? Feel at home, safe, secure?

Some people immediately identify an individual—a family member, friend, healer, or teacher—whose presence creates the feeling of “at home.” For others, home is a spiritual community, a twelve-step group, or a circle of intimate friends. Sometimes the feeling of belonging is strongest with a person who has died, as for Ram Dass with Maharajji, or with a person you revere but may never have met, such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. Many people feel drawn to an archetypal figure like the Buddha or Jesus, Kwan-yin (the bodhisattva of compassion), the Virgin Mary, or some other expression of the divine mother. I’ve also known a good number of people who feel comfort and belonging when they call to mind their dog or cat. I assure students that no one figure is more spiritual or elevated or pure than another as a focus. All that matters is choosing a source of safe and loving feelings.

2. When and where do you feel most at home—safe, secure, relaxed, or strong?

Some people find a sense of sanctuary in the natural world, while others feel more oriented and secure when they’re surrounded by the noise and vibrancy of a big city. Your safe space may be a church or temple, your office, or a crowded sports stadium. Some people feel most at home curled up with a book in bed—others when they’re working on a laptop at a busy coffee shop. Certain activities may offer a sense of ease or flow, from playing Ping-Pong to cleaning out a closet to listening to music. Even if you almost never feel truly relaxed and secure, you can build on any setting or situation where you are closest to feeling at home.

 
3. What events or experiences or relationships have best revealed to you your strength, your courage, your potential?

Sometimes what arises is a memory of a particularly meaningful experience—an artistic or professional endeavor, a service offered, an athletic feat—that was a source of personal gratification or accomplishment. Whatever the experience, it’s important to explore how it deepens our trust of ourselves.

4. What about yourself helps you to trust your goodness?

When we’re in the grip of trauma or very strong emotion, it may not be possible to reflect on goodness, our own or others’. But when the body and mind are less agitated, this inquiry can be a powerful entry to inner refuge. I often ask clients or students to consider the qualities they like about themselves—humor, kindness, patience, creativity, curiosity, loyalty, honesty, wonder. I suggest that they recall their deepest life aspirations—loving well, realizing truth, happiness, peace, serving others—and sense the goodness of their hearts’ longings. And I invite them to sense the goodness of their very essence, their experience of aliveness, awareness, and heart.
 

5. When you are caught in fear, what do you most want to feel?

When I ask this question, people often say that they just want the fear to go away. But when they pause to reflect, they often name more positive states of mind. They want to feel safe or loved. They want to feel valued or worthwhile. They long to feel peaceful, at home, or trusting. Or they want to feel physically held, embraced. The words that name our longings, and the images that arise with them, can become a valuable entry to inner refuge. Often the starting place is to offer ourselves wishes or prayers such as, “May I feel safe and at home.” Like offering the phrases in the classic lovingkindness mediation or placing a hand on the heart, expressions of self-care help us open to an experience of belonging and ease.
 

With each of these inquiries, as we tap into a nourishing memory, thought, prayer or feeling, the invitation is to deepen our attention to that felt experience.  Neurons that fire together, wire together.  The more we pay attention to the sense of another’s love, to a place that provides beauty and ease, to our own strengths and aspiration, the more we connect with the heartspace that will offer a healing refuge.


At the time of his stroke, Ram Dass had studied with, revered, and prayed to his guru, Maharajji, over a period of thirty years. The gateway to a vast loving presence was already open, and in his moment of great need, he could walk through it to healing. But I’ve seen time and again that the gateway of the heart is still available even for people have had little experience with inner training. All that is needed is the longing to heal and the willingness to practice. As poet Hafiz writes, “Ask the friend for love, ask him again . . . For I have found that every heart will get what it prays for most.”

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)
For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com
 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

SUFFERING: The Call To Investigate Beliefs

“Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.” - Byron Katie

Can you imagine understanding, even loving, someone who belongs to a group of people responsible for killing your father, brother, or best friend? Can you imagine growing close to someone whose people have driven you from your home, humiliated your family, and turned you into a refugee in your own country?

Twenty-two teenage girls from Israel and Palestine were flown in to a camp in rural New Jersey, where they would live together in the face of these questions. As part of a program called Building Bridges for Peace, these young people were called upon to examine beliefs that seemed central to their identity, beliefs that had fueled estrangement, anger, hatred, and war.

Even though they had volunteered for the program, the girls were initially mistrustful of each other, and sometimes overtly hostile. One Palestinian teen drew a line in the sand right from the start: “When we’re here, who knows, maybe we’re friends. When we return, you are my enemy again. My heart is filled with hatred for the Jews.” In another exchange, an Israeli girl told a Palestinian: “You expect to be treated as a human being, but you don’t act like one. You don’t deserve human rights!”

Yet from this harsh beginning, some of the girls left camp having formed deep bonds, and for most, it became impossible to see each other as the enemy. What allowed for this change of heart? The girls contacted the truth of each other’s pain and the truth of each other’s goodness. Reality, when we let it in, dismantles the iron grip of our beliefs. As one Israeli girl put it, “If I don’t know you, it’s easy to hate you. If I look in your eyes, I can’t.”

The Buddha taught that ignorance—ignoring or misunderstanding reality—is the root of all suffering. What does this mean? He surely didn’t mean to deny the inevitable pains and losses in our lives, but he wanted his followers to grasp how their beliefs about what is happening—their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world—represented a contracted and fragmented view of reality. This distorted view, described by the Buddha as a dream, fueled the cravings and fears that confined their lives.

The Buddha also told an ancient teaching story that we still repeat to our children. A king instructs a group of blind men to describe an elephant. Each man feels one part of the elephant’s body—the tusk, leg, trunk, tail. Each gives a detailed—and very different—report about the nature of the elephant. Then they come to blows about who’s right. Each man is honestly describing his immediate and real experience, yet each misses the big picture, the whole truth.

Every belief we hold is a limited snapshot, a mental representation, and not reality itself. But some beliefs are more fear-based and injurious than others. Like the teens in Building Bridges, we may believe that certain people are evil. We may believe that we can’t trust anyone. We may believe that we’re fundamentally flawed and can’t trust ourselves.

These beliefs all arise from the primary fear-based belief the Buddha identified: that we are separate from the rest of the world, vulnerable, and alone. Whether our beliefs arouse self-loathing, trap us in self-destructive addictions, ensnare us in conflict with a partner, or send us to war with an enemy, we’re suffering because we’re mistaken about reality. Our beliefs narrow our attention and separate us from the living truth of how things are. They cut us off from the full aliveness, love, and awareness that is our source.

The sage Sri Nisargadatta teaches “illusion exists . . . because it is not investigated.” If we are attached to untrue beliefs, it’s because we have not examined our thoughts. We have not met them with mindful investigation; we have not asked whether they truly represent our current, living experience of reality.

Suffering is our call to attention, our call to investigate the truth of our beliefs. For the teenage girls in Building Bridges, the call to investigate was the hatred tearing at the fabric of their lives and society.

For a parent, the call might be the stranglehold of worry about a child’s welfare. For a social activist, it might be exhaustion and despair in face of seemingly endless war and injustice. For a musician, it might be the disabling terror that accompanies performance. Wherever we feel most endangered, most separate, most deficient—that is where we need to shine the light of our investigation.
 
Adapted from True Refuge  (for sale Jan, 2013)


For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Opportunity of “The Magic Second Quarter”

In the book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.

Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity. This means that the more you think and rethink about certain experiences, the stronger the memory and the more easily activated the related feelings become.
For example, if a young girl asks her father for help and he either ignores her or reacts with irritation, the emotional pain of rejection may become linked with any number of thoughts or beliefs: “I’m not loved,” “I’m not worth helping,” “I’m weak for wanting help,” “It’s dangerous to ask for help,” “He’s bad. I hate him.”

The more the child gets this response from either parent—or even imagines getting this response—the more the impulse to ask for help becomes paired with the belief that she will be refused and the accompanying feelings (fear or hurt, anger or shame). Years later, she may hesitate to ask for help at all. Or, if she does ask, and the other person so much as pauses or looks distracted, the old feelings instantly take over: She downplays her needs, apologizes, or becomes enraged.
Unless we learn to recognize and interrupt our compulsive thinking, these ingrained emotional and behavioral patterns continue to strengthen over time. Fortunately, it’s possible to break out of this patterning.

Researcher Benjamin Libet discovered that the part of the brain responsible for movement activates a quarter-second before we become aware of our intention to move. There is then another quarter-second before the movement begins. What does this mean? First, it casts an interesting light on what we call “free will”—before we make a conscious decision, our brain has already set the gears in motion! But secondly, it offers us an opportunity.

Say you’ve been obsessing about having a cigarette. During the space between impulse (“I need to smoke a cigarette”) and action (reaching for the pack), there is room for choice. Author Tara Bennett-Goleman named this space “the magic quarter-second.” Mindfulness enables us to take advantage of it. 
By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we’re able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. For instance, if our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button.
The Buddha taught that to be free—not identified with or possessed by thoughts or feelings—we need to investigate each and every part of our experience with an intimate and mindful attention. The first step is pausing, making use of the magic quarter second, and the second, choosing to be present with our moment –to- moment experience.  We need to recognize the fear-based thoughts and the tension in our bodies with an accepting, curious and kind attention. The fruit of this presence is a capacity to release habitual reactivity, respond to our life circumstances with a wise heart and step out of the grip of oppressive emotions.
 
Adapted from True Refuge (Bantam, Jan., 2013)

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com