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, December 26, 2012

Which Wolf Are You Feeding?

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as many people feared an ongoing and vicious spiral of retaliation and global violence, a wonderful and well-known Cherokee legend went viral on the Internet: An old grandfather is speaking to his grandson about what causes the violence and cruelty in the world. “In each human heart,” he tells the boy, “there are two wolves battling one another—one is fearful and angry, and the other is understanding and kind.” The young boy then asks, “Which one will win?” His grandfather smiles and says, “Whichever one we choose to feed.”

It’s easy to feed the fearful, angry wolf. Especially if we’ve experienced great wounding, the anger pathway can become deeply ingrained in our nervous system. When our old sense of injury or fear is triggered, the intolerable heat and pressure of anger instantly surges through us. Our attention gets riveted on the feelings and thoughts of violation and all we want is revenge. Often before we have any sense of choice, the nasty comeback is out of our mouth, we’ve slammed a door, hit send on an ill-advised e-mail, put someone down behind his back.

Yet, we do have a choice. Meditations that train the heart and the mind directly deactivate the anger pathways that propel our habitual behaviors. While the limbic system acts almost instantaneously, we can develop a response from the frontal cortex—which includes the social centers involved with compassion—that interrupts and subdues the reaction. This is where cultivating mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is the “remembering” that helps us pause and recognize what’s happening in the present moment. Once we’ve paused, we can call on the higher brain centers to open new possibilities. We can soothe ourselves, recall another person’s difficulties and vulnerability, and remember our own goodness and strength. No matter how painfully we’re triggered by the world’s violence and insensitivity, we can direct our attention in ways that carry us home to our intrinsic sanity and good-heartedness. This awakening is our evolutionary potential: For the sake of our own inner freedom and the well-being of others, we can intentionally feed the understanding, kind wolf.

Often, our first instinct is to protect our wounds by armoring ourselves with hatred and blame. Forgiveness, which allows us to let go of this armor, becomes possible as we bring a full, compassionate presence to our underlying vulnerability. Such presence loosens our identification with the thoughts and feelings of anger, and uncovers a heart space that is naturally open, inclusive, and warm.

Yet, this seldom happens suddenly or irreversibly. If we’re resentful and at odds with someone, it can take many rounds of intentional presence with our own hurt or fear until our self-compassion opens us to more acceptance and understanding. And when our grievance expresses as full-blown hatred, or when we feel deeply violated, forgiveness can seem out of reach or even impossible.

Forgiveness can also seem like a bad idea. We may be afraid, for instance, that if we let go of blame, we’re betraying our own emotions and setting ourselves up for further injury. We may feel that if we forgive, we’re condoning a person’s hurtful behavior and not honoring our right to be respectfully treated. Maybe we feel that if we forgive someone, we’ll be stuck feeling that we are the ones to blame. These fears are understandable and need to be recognized, but they are based on a misperception.

Forgiveness means letting go of aversive blame; it means that we stop feeding the fearful, angry wolf. It does not mean that we dismiss our intelligence about who might hurt us or that we stop taking actions to protect ourselves and others from harm. We all need to be able to tell who might betray our confidences, take our money, misunderstand our intentions, and abuse us physically or mentally. And when someone threatens our own or others’ well-being, we need to find effective ways to communicate our concerns, set boundaries, and determine consequences for harmful actions. We can dedicate our lives to preventing harm, while still keeping our hearts free of aversive blame.

Essentially, forgiving means not pushing anyone, or any part of our own being, out of our heart. By this I mean that even if we decide that it’s unhealthy to ever see a certain person again, we still find a way to hold him or her with goodwill. Taking this kind of refuge in unconditional love is courageous and challenging. Choosing to feed the compassionate wolf means stopping the war—the blaming thoughts and punishing actions—and opening directly to the pain of our vulnerability.

People often tell me stories of great betrayal and wounding, and ask, “How can I possibly forgive her after she had that affair?” “How can I forgive him for physically abusing me as a child?” When we try to forgive someone prematurely, we usually succeed only in papering over our anger and underlying hurt. So, I encourage a shift in focus: “This isn’t the time for forgiving; it wouldn’t be possible or real at this point,” I might say. “Right now, what needs attention is the place inside you that is hurting and afraid. This is the time for offering a compassionate presence to your own heart.” Compassion for oneself is the very essence of a forgiving heart.

Many people in my classes and workshops have said that when they stop feeding the angry wolf and instead open to their own vulnerability, it feels like a homecoming. As one person put it, “Instead of focusing on the person who hurt me, I started down a path of freeing myself.” We can either “get back” at someone and let the wound fester, or attend to self-healing. Feeding the angry wolf may come more easily, but learning to stay present with our inner life connects us with our goodness.

My first book, Radical Acceptance, came out soon after the United States launched the 1993 invasion of Iraq. As I traveled from city to city, many people asked me whether we were supposed to be radically accepting of our country’s militancy. “How can acceptance and activism go together?” they’d say. It’s a good question.

I often responded with my own story. In the weeks before the invasion, I read the newspapers with an increasing sense of agitation. I couldn’t stop thinking about the men in our administration who were responsible for what seemed an inevitable next step in the global escalation of violence. Just seeing their pictures in the paper would arouse huge waves of anger and hostility. Each day, I started becoming more and more aware of how creating an enemy in my mind was yet another form of violence.

So, I decided to start a newspaper meditation. I’d look at the headlines, read a bit, then stop. In that pause, I would witness my thoughts and allow myself to acknowledge my growing outrage. Then I’d investigate, letting the feelings express themselves fully. Almost every day, as I’d open to anger and feel its full force, it would unfold into fear—for our world. As I stayed in direct contact with the fear, it would unfold into grief—for all the suffering and loss. And the grief would unfold into caring about all those beings who were bound to suffer from our warlike actions.

My country was feeding the aggressive wolf, and the pain of that was heartbreaking. Sitting with the feelings that arose in my newspaper meditation left me raw and tender. It reminded me that under my anger and fear was caring about life. And it motivated me to act, not from an anger that focused on an enemy, but from caring.

Releasing the armor of anger—stopping the war and opening to vulnerability—takes tremendous courage and dedication, yet what makes it possible is our innate longing to be whole and loving and free.

Whether we are present with garden-variety blame, the aversion that arises from abuse, or the rage that is a legacy of historic injustice, we all have the capacity to step out of trance and come home to our awakened heart. It’s possible between people of different races after generations of violations, and it’s possible between family members who have been painfully estranged. Whatever your situation and history with others, it’s possible to decide to no longer push anyone out of your heart. You can’t will forgiveness, but you can be willing. If it is your sincere intention to forgive, the door is already open.

Adapted from True Refuge  (on sale January 2013)
 

Enjoy this talk on Forgiving Your Way to Freedom

For more information visit www.tarabrach.com



Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rejecting the Wanting Self


“We have been raised to fear…our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde
In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.
We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.
Most mainstream religions—Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian—teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.
Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.
A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.
Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly—and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.
The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”
To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl—“like a withering tree on a rock in winter”—the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.
I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures—delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification—need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.
Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.
As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.
Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)
Enjoy this audio podcast on: Sure Heart’s Release
For more information visit www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Connecting with Our ‘Soul Sadness’


Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself—she was the parent, after all—she was also furious at him.
The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world—every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.
An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten, and her new partner, Jan, had moved in several years later. More often than not, it was Jan, not Marge, who went to PTA meetings and soccer games, Jan who was there when Micky got home from school. Recently, the stress had peaked when a new account increased Marge’s hours at work.
“I wish I’d been there for him more,” she said. “I love him, I’ve tried, but now it is impossible to reach him. I’m so afraid he is going to create a train wreck out of his life.” I heard the despair in her voice. When she fell silent, I invited her to sit quietly for a few moments. “You might notice whatever feelings you’re aware of, and when you’re ready, name them out loud.” When she spoke again, Marge’s tone was flat. “Anger—at him, at me, who knows. Fear—he’s ruining his life. Guilt, shame—so much shame, for screwing up as a mother.”
I asked her softly if it would be okay to take some time to investigate the shame. She nodded. “You might start by agreeing to let it be there, sensing where you feel it most in your body.” Again she nodded, and few moments later, put one hand on her heart and another on her belly. “Good,” I said. “Keep letting yourself feel the shame, and sense if there is something it wants to say. What is it believing about you, about your life?”
It was awhile before Marge spoke. “The shame says that I let everyone down. I’m so caught up in myself, what’s important to me. It’s not just Micky, it’s Jan, and Rick (her ex-husband), and my mom, and . . . I’m selfish and too ambitious, I disappoint everyone I care about.”
“How long have you felt this way, that you’ve let everyone down?” I asked. She said, “As long as I can remember. Even as a little girl. I’ve always felt I was failing people, that I didn’t deserve love. Now I run around trying to achieve things, trying to be worthy, and I end up failing those I love the most!”
“Take a moment, Marge, and let the feeling of failing people, of being undeserving of love, be as big as it really is.” After a few moments she said, “It’s like a sore tugging feeling in my heart.”
“Now,” I said, “sense what it’s like to know that even as a little girl—for as long as you can remember—you’ve lived with this pain of not deserving love, lived with this sore tugging in your heart. Sense what that has done to your life.” Marge grew very still and then began silently weeping.
Marge was experiencing what I call “soul sadness,” the sadness that arises when we’re able to sense our temporary, precious existence, and directly face the suffering that’s come from losing life. We recognize how our self-aversion has prevented us from being close to others, from expressing and letting love in. We see, sometimes with striking clarity, that we’ve closed ourselves off from our own creativity and spontaneity, from being fully alive. We remember missed moments when it might have been otherwise, and we begin to grieve our unlived life.
This grief can be so painful that we tend, unconsciously, to move away from it. Even if we start to touch our sadness, we often bury it by reentering the shame—judging our suffering, assuming that we somehow deserve it, telling ourselves that others have “real suffering” and we shouldn’t be filled with self pity. Our soul sadness is fully revealed only when we directly and mindfully contact our pain. It is revealed when we stay on the spot and fully recognize that this human being is having a hard time. In such moments we discover a natural upwelling of compassion—the tenderness of our own forgiving heart.
When Marge’s crying subsided, I suggested she ask the place of sorrow what it longed for most. She knew right away: “To trust that I’m worthy of love in my life.” I invited her to once again place one hand on her heart and another on her belly, letting the gentle pressure of her touch communicate care. “Now sense whatever message most resonates for you, and send it inwardly. Allow the energy of the message to bathe and comfort all the places in your being that need to hear it.”
After a couple of minutes of this, Marge took a few full breaths. Her expression was serene, undefended. “This feels right,” she said quietly, “being kind to my own hurting heart.” Marge had looked beyond her fault to her need. She was healing herself with compassion.
Before she left, I suggested she pause whenever she became aware of guilt or shame, and take a moment to reconnect with self-compassion. If she was in a private place, she could gently touch her heart and belly, and let that contact deepen her communication with her inner life. I also encouraged her to include the metta (lovingkindness) practice for herself and her son in her daily meditation: “You’ll find that self-compassion will open you to feeling more loving.”
Six weeks later Marge and I met again. She told me that at the end of her daily meditation, she’d started doing metta for herself, reminding herself of her honesty, sincerity, and longing to love well. Then she’d offer herself wishes, most often reciting, “May I accept myself just as I am. May I be filled with loving-kindness, held in lovingkindness.” After a few minutes she’d then bring her son to mind: “I would see how his eyes light up when he gets animated, and how happy he looks when he laughs. Then I’d say ‘May you feel happy. May you feel relaxed and at ease. May you feel my love now.’ With each phrase I’d imagine him happy, relaxed, feeling held in my love.”
Their interactions started to change. She went out early on Saturday mornings to pick up his favorite “everything” bagels before he woke up. He brought out the trash unasked. They watched several episodes of The Wire together on TV. Then,” Marge told me, “a few nights ago, he came into my home office, made himself comfortable on the couch, and said nonchalantly, ‘What’s up, Mom? Just thought I’d check in.’”
“It wasn’t exactly an extended chat,” she said with a smile. “He suddenly sprang up and told me he had to meet some friends at the mall. But we’re more at ease, a door has reopened.” Marge was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “I understand what happened. By letting go of the blame—most of which I was aiming at myself—I created room for both of us in my heart.”
As Marge was discovering, self-compassion is entirely interdependent with acting responsibly and caringly toward others. Forgiving ourselves clears the way for a loving presence that can appreciate the goodness of others, and respond to their hurts and needs. And, in turn, our way of relating to others affects how we regard ourselves and supports our ongoing self-forgiveness.

Adapted from True Refuge  (on sale January 2013)


Enjoy this talk on self-compassion from my youtube channel:
For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Self-Forgiveness and Making Amends


We are deeply imprinted by the suffering we have caused others. This imprint is sometimes felt as shame, guilt, or remorse, and it is our heart’s sensitivity calling us to attention. In the Buddhist teachings, such sensitivity can be intelligent and healthy—it plays an important role in awakening and freeing our hearts.

In contrast to our habit of beating up on ourselves, healthy shame is the signal that we have strayed from our deepest life values—it draws attention to a contracted, diminished sense of self—and it can energize us to realign with our hearts. Similarly, guilt focuses attention on our unskillful actions and can lead us to admitting our mistakes and making amends however we are able.

Self-forgiveness is often not even possible, and certainly cannot be complete, until we have in some way made amends to those we’ve injured. Making amends is not for the sake of satisfying an external standard of morality. Rather, it is an expression of our belonging to the world and to our own hearts.

The urge to make amends arises when we have had the courage to face the reality of our impact on others. It arises when our hearts yearn to relieve their suffering or when we dedicate ourselves to not causing further suffering. Even if someone is no longer alive or an active part of our lives, it is possible to acknowledge the truth of his or her hurt and to offer him or her our wishes, prayers, and remorse.

As we intentionally take responsibility for our actions, the harsh grip of self-aversion loosens, and we come home to a sense of connectedness, peace, and ease. This healing is very close to the Christian and Jewish process of atonement. By atoning for our errors, we make possible reconciliation—with God, with the injured other, and with our own heart and being.

I came upon a beautiful illustration of this healing process in the book Offerings at the Wall, which includes a selection of some of the ninety thousand letters and mementos that veterans and their loved ones have left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 1989, a worn photograph of a young Vietnamese man and a little girl was placed at the wall, along with the following letter:

Dear Sir,
For twenty-two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I'll never know . . . Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained . . . So many times over the years I’ve stared at your picture and your daughter. I suspect each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. I have two daughters of my own now. I perceive you as a brave soldier, defending his homeland. Above all else I can now respect the importance life held for you. I suppose that is why I am able to be here today. It is time for me to continue the life process and release the pain and guilt. Forgive me sir.

The man who wrote the letter, Richard Luttrell, had faced the enormity of what it means to take a life, and the reality of how important life is to each of us. By letting himself feel the pain of his guilt, by looking again and again at his own fearful, reactive self—at the person who had been trained to kill—Richard had faced his own human frailty. In acknowledging this and asking for forgiveness, he was seeking to make amends and free his heart.

I had shared this story many times with students when in 2009 I discovered that Luttrell’s journey to forgiveness had not ended with this poignant note. Through a fellow vet, the picture had made its way back to him, and upon receiving it, he made a decision: He was going to find the daughter in the picture, and return the photo to her. Richard traveled to Vietnam, found her and her brother, and introduced himself through an interpreter. “Tell her this is the photo I took from her father’s wallet the day I shot and killed him and I’m returning it.”

With his voice breaking, he asked for her forgiveness. The young woman burst into tears and fell into Richard’s arms, sobbing. Later her brother explained that he and his sister believed that their father’s spirit lived on in Richard, and that on that day, it had returned to them.

For all of us, the starting place of healing is reconciliation with our own heart. Whether we are unable to forgive ourselves for what seems a major wrongdoing, or we have locked into chronic self-judgment, we are at war, cut off from our own tenderness, our own spirit. If we can see past our faults to our human vulnerability, we are on the path of reconciliation. Our self-compassion will naturally lead to caring about others, and perhaps, as for Richard, to an experience of love and connectedness we never imagined possible. 

Enjoy this guided meditation on Forgiveness

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com