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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Defending Against Loss

The Buddha taught that we spend most of our life like children in a burning house, so entranced by our games that we don’t notice the flames, the crumbling walls, the collapsing foundation, the smoke all around us. The games are our false refuges, our unconscious attempts to trick and control life, to sidestep its inevitable pain.

Yet, this life is not only burning and falling apart; sorrow and joy are woven inextricably together. When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world.

One of my clients, Justin, distracted himself from the loss of his wife, Donna, by armoring himself with anger. He’d met her in college, and married her right after graduation. Donna went on to law school and to teaching law; Justin taught history and coached basketball at a small urban college. With their teaching, passion for tennis, and shared dedication to advocating for disadvantaged youth, their life together was full and satisfying.

On the day that Justin received the unexpected news of his promotion to full professor, Donna was away at a conference, and caught an early flight back to celebrate with him. On her way home from the airport, a large truck overturned and crushed her car, killing her instantly.

Almost a year after her death, Justin asked me for phone counseling. “I need to get back to mindfulness,” he wrote. “Anger is threatening to take away the rest of my life.”

During our first call, Justin told me that his initial response to Donna’s death was rage at an unjust God. “It doesn’t matter that I always tried to do my best, be a good person, a good Christian. God turned his back on me,” he told me. Yet his initial anger at God had morphed into a more general rage at injustice and a desire to confront those in power. He’d always been involved with social causes, but now he became a lightning rod for conflict, aggressively leading the fight for diversity on campus, and publicly attacking the school administration for its lack of commitment to the surrounding community.

His department chairman had previously been a staunch ally; now their communication was badly strained. “It’s not your activism,” his chairman told him. “It’s your antagonism, your attitude.” Justin’s older sister, his lifelong confidant, had also confronted him. “Your basic life stance is suspicion and hostility,” she’d said. When I asked him whether that rang true, he replied, “When I lost Donna, I lost my faith. I used to think that some basic sanity could prevail in this world. But now, well, it’s hard not to feel hostile.”

The pain of loss often inspires activism. Mothers have lobbied tirelessly for laws preventing drunk driving; others struggle for legislation to reduce gun violence; gay rights activists devote themselves to halting hate crimes. Such dedication to change can be a vital and empowering part of healing. But Justin’s unprocessed anger had aborted the process of mourning. His anger might have given him some feeling of meaning or purpose, but instead he remained a victim, at war with God and life, unable to truly heal.

Loss exposes our essential powerlessness, and often we will do whatever’s possible to subdue the primal fear that comes with feeling out of control. Much of our daily activity is a vigilant effort to stay on top of things—to feel prepared and avoid trouble. When this fails, our next line of defense is to whip ourselves into shape: Maybe if we can change, we think, we can protect ourselves from more suffering. Sadly, going to war with ourselves only compounds our pain.

A few months after my first phone consultation with Justin, his seventy-five-year-old mother had a stroke. His voice filled with agitation as he told me about the wall he’d hit when he tried to communicate with her insurance company. They couldn’t seem to understand that her recovery depended on more comprehensive rehab. “There’s nothing I can do to reach this goddamned, heartless bureaucracy … nothing!”

Justin was once again living in the shadow of loss, and gripped in reactivity. We both agreed that this was an opportunity to bring mindfulness to his immediate experience. He began by quickly identifying what he called “pure, righteous anger” before pausing, and allowing it to be there. Then, after a several rounds of investigation, he came upon something else. “My chest. It’s like there’s a gripping there, like a big claw that’s just frozen in place. And I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked gently. After a long pause, Justin spoke in a low voice. “She’ll probably come through this fine, but a part of me is afraid I’m going to lose her too.”

We stayed on the phone as Justin breathed with his fear, feeling its frozen grip on his chest. Then he asked if he could call me back later in the week. “This is a deep pain,” he said. “I need to spend time with it.”

A few days later, he told me, “Something cracked open, Tara. Being worried about my mom is all mixed up with Donna dying. It’s like Donna just died yesterday, and I’m all broken up. Something in me is dying all over again . . .” Justin had to wait a few moments before continuing. “I wasn’t done grieving. I never let myself feel how part of me died with her.” He could barely get out the words before he began weeping deeply.

Whenever we find ourselves lacking control of a situation, there’s an opening to just be with what is.  Now that Justin had once again found himself in a situation he couldn’t control, he was willing this time to be with the loss he’d never fully grieved. Instead of rushing into a new cause, he spent the next couple of months focused on caring for his mom. He also spent hours alone shooting hoops, or hitting tennis balls against a wall. Sometimes he’d walk into his empty house and feel like he had just lost Donna all over again. It was that raw.

Justin had finally opened to the presence that could release his hill of tears. Six months later, during our last consultation, he told me that he was back in action. “I’m in the thick of diversity work again, and probably more effective. Makes sense . . . According to my sister, I’m no longer at war with the world.”

By opening to his own grief instead of armoring himself with anger, Justin was finally able to start the healing process. His grief had never gone away; it had just been hidden. Once he was willing to open to it and feel it, his own sorrow could show him the way home to peace. As Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue tells us:

All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

Adapted from True Refuge (January 2013)
Enjoy this podcast on the Fires of Loss
For more information: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

“Please Love Me”

Indian teacher Sri Nisargadatta writes, “The mind creates the abyss. The heart crosses over it.” Sometimes the abyss of fear and isolation is so wide that we hold back, unable to enter the sanctuary of presence, frozen in our pain. At such times, we need a taste of love from somewhere in order to begin the thaw.

This was true for a member of our sangha, Julia, as she received treatment for cancer. She was uncomplaining about her fatigue and pain, but as one of her friends, Anna, commented, “It feels like she’s barely there.”

Despite her determination to “just handle it myself,” Julia was increasingly dependent. Her friends organized themselves to bring her food, and one evening when Anna came with some soup, she found Julia curled up in bed, facing the wall. Julia thanked Anna weakly, told her she felt queasy, and asked her to leave the soup on the stove. She heard the door click, and drifted off for a while.

When she woke, Julia felt the familiar utter aloneness, the sense that she was locked in a dying body. She began crying softly, and then to her surprise felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Anna had shut the door, but rather than leaving had been sitting quietly by her side. Now the crying turned into deep sobs. “Go ahead, dear, just let it happen … it’s okay,” Anna whispered. Over and over, she told her, “It’s okay, we’re here together” as Julia gave in to the agony of held-back fear and grief.

After about twenty minutes, with interludes for tissues and water, Julia quieted. She was still a bit nauseated and felt weak from crying. But for the first time in as long as she could remember, she was profoundly at ease.

“Some shield I had put up between me and the world dissolved,” Julia told me the following week. “Even after Anna left, I could feel her care. The aloneness was gone.” But then, she went on, several days later the shield hardened again. She had an appointment with her oncologist, and he told her that the cancer had spread. “I guess I feel most isolated when I get scared.”

“Is the shield up now?” I asked. “Do you feel scared and isolated?” She nodded, “It’s not too intense because we’re together. But there’s a place inside that feels so afraid …”

“You might take some moments and pay attention to that place.” Julia sat back on the couch and closed her eyes. “Can you sense what that place in you most needs?”

Julia was quiet for what felt to be a long time. “It wants love. Not just my love, though … it wants others to care. It’s saying ‘Please love me.’”

“Julia, see if you can let that wanting, that longing for love, be as big as it wants to be. Just give it permission, and feel it from the inside out.” She nodded and sat quietly, eyebrows drawn, intent.

“Sense who you most want to feel love from . . . and when someone comes to mind, visualize that person right here and ask … say the words, ‘Please love me.’ You might then imagine what it would be like to receive love, just the way you want it.”

Julia nodded again and was very still. After a minute or two she whispered a barely audible, “Please love me,” and then again a little louder. Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. I encouraged her to keep going for as long as she wanted—visualizing anyone who came to mind as a possible source of love, saying “Please love me.”

I also suggested she imagine opening and allowing herself to receive the love. She continued, and soon was weeping as she said the words. Gradually her crying subsided, and she was just whispering. Then there were deep spaces of silence between her words. Her face had softened and flushed slightly, and she had a slight smile.

When she opened her eyes, they were shining. “I feel blessed,” she told me. “My life is entirely held in love.”

We met for the last time three weeks before Julia’s death. Anna had taken her to a park early that morning before anyone was around. They put down a blanket to meditate on, and Julia was able to make herself comfortable, leaning against a tree. “I don’t know how much more time I’ll have,” she told me, “so while we were quiet I did an inner ritual. I felt this precious life that I love and that I’m leaving—my friends, the whole meditation community, you … swing dancing, singing, the ocean … oh so much beauty, the trees …”

Tears welled up and Julia paused, feeling the grief as she spoke. Then she went on: “I could feel the solidness of the big oak that was supporting me, and sense its presence. I started praying … I said ‘Please love me.’ Immediately love was here. It flooded me, this knowing of being related, of being the same aliveness, the same one consciousness. Then the grasses and bushes, the birds, the earth and clouds … Anna, anyone I thought of … each being was loving me and we were united in that consciousness. I was love, I was a part of everything.”

Julia was quiet for a while. Then she said slowly, “Do you know what I’m finding, Tara? When you accept that you are dying … and you turn toward love, it’s not hard to feel one with God.”

We sat silently, savoring each other’s company. Then our conversation meandered; we talked about dogs (she loved my poodle and insisted she be with us when we met) and wigs and wigs on dogs getting chemo and an upcoming retreat. We were lighthearted and deeply comfortable. We hugged several times before she left. Julia’s realization of oneness was embodied as a generous, deeply sweet love. In sharing her wisdom and in expressing that love, she gave me her parting gift.

Whether grieving the loss of our own life, or another’s, we each have the capacity to see past the veils of separation. If our hearts are willing, grieving becomes the gateway to loving awareness, the entry into our own awakened nature.

Adapted from TrueRefuge (January 2013)
Enjoy this talk on Wholehearted Living
For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Prayer in the Face of Difficulty

Ask the friend for love
Ask him again
For I have found that every heart
Will get what it prays for most.
- Hafiz

When offered with presence and sincerity, the practice of prayer can reveal the source of what your heart most deeply longs for—the loving essence of who you are. Perhaps without naming it as prayer, in times of great need and distress you may already spontaneously experience the act of doing so. For instance, you might find yourself saying something like, “Oh please, oh please” as you call out for relief from pain, for someone to take care of you, for help for a loved one, for a way to avoid great loss.

If so, I invite you to investigate your experience of prayer through mindful inquiry, asking yourself questions such as: What is the immediate feeling that gave rise to my prayer? What am I praying for? Whom or what am I praying to? The more aware you become of how you pray spontaneously, the more you might open to a more intentional practice. Below are some guidelines I offer my students for deepening their inquiry:

1. Posture for prayer: You might begin by asking yourself, If I bring my palms together at my heart, do I feel connected with my sincerity and openness? What happens if I close my eyes? If I bow my head? Find out whether these traditional supports for prayer serve you. If they don’t, explore what other positions or gestures feel the most conducive to openheartedness.

2. Arriving: Even when you’re in the thick of very strong emotion, it’s possible and valuable to pause and establish a sense of prayerful presence. After you’ve assumed whatever posture most suits you, allow yourself to come into stillness, then take a few long and full breaths to collect your attention. After a while, as your breath resumes its natural rhythm, take some moments to relax any obvious tension in your body. Feel yourself here, now, with the intention to pray.

3. Listening: With the intention of fully contacting your felt experience, bring a listening attention to your heart, and to whatever in your life feels most difficult right now. It might be a recent or impending loss, or a situation that summons hurt, confusion, doubt, or fear. As if watching a movie, focus on the frame of the film that’s most emotionally painful. Be aware of the felt sense in your body—in your throat, chest, belly, and elsewhere. Where are your feelings the strongest? Take your time, allowing yourself to fully contact your vulnerability and pain.

You might even imagine that you could inhabit the most vulnerable place within you, feeling it intimately from the inside. If it could express itself, what would it communicate? Buried inside the pain, what does this part of you want or need most? Is it to be seen and understood? Loved? Accepted? Safe? Is your longing directed toward a certain person or spiritual figure? Do you long to be held by your mother? Recognized and approved of by your father? Healed or protected by God? Whatever the need, let yourself listen to it, feel it, and open to its intensity.

4. Expressing Your Prayer: With a silent or whispered prayer, call out for the love, understanding, protection, or acceptance you long for. You might find yourself saying, “Please, may I be better, kinder, and more worthy.” Or you might direct your prayer to another person or being: “Daddy, please don’t leave me.” “Mommy, please help me.” “God, take care of my daughter, please, please, let her be okay.” You might feel separate from someone and call out his or her name, saying, “Please love me, please love me.” You might long for your heart to awaken and call out to the bodhisattva of compassion (Kwan-yin), “Please, may this heart open and be free.”

As you express your prayer in words, while staying in direct contact with your vulnerability and felt sense of longing, your prayer will continue to deepen. Say your prayer several times with all the sincerity of your heart. Find out what happens if you give yourself totally to feeling and expressing your longing.

5. Embodying Prayer: Often our particular want or longing isn’t the full expression of what we actually desire. Similarly, the object of our longing, the person we call on for love or protection, may not offer what we truly need. Rather, these are portals to a deeper experience, an opening to a deeper source.

As you feel your wants and longing, ask yourself, “What is the experience I yearn for? If I got what I wanted, what would it feel like?”

Use you imagination to find out. If you want a particular person to love you, visualize that person hugging you and looking at you with unconditional love. Then, let go of any image of that person and feel inwardly that you are being bathed in love. If you want to feel safe, imagine that you are entirely surrounded by a protective presence, and really feel that peace and ease filling your every cell. Whatever you’re longing for, explore what it would be like to experience its pure essence as a felt sense in your body, heart, and mind. Finally, discover what happens when you surrender into this experience, when you become the love or peace that you’re longing for.

6. Throughout the Day: While your formal exploration of prayer can create the grounds for weaving shorter prayers into your life, remembering to pray in the midst of daily activities can help you become aligned with the kindness and wisdom of your heart. Here are some suggestions:

·      At the beginning of the day, set your intention by asking yourself, What situations, emotions, or reactions might be a signal to pray?
·      Before praying, take a moment to pause, breathe, and relax. While it is helpful to become still, there’s no need to assume a particular posture.
·      Pay attention to your body and heart, contacting the felt sense of your emotions. What are you most longing for? What most matters in this moment, and in your life, to open to—to feel and trust?
·      Mentally whisper your prayer. The words might come spontaneously, or you might express a prayer you’ve already discovered that’s alive and meaningful to you.

Adapted from True Refuge (January 2013)
Enjoy this talk on: Finding Freedom in Difficult Moments

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Meeting Our Edge and Softening

Photo Credit: Sergio Tudela 
It’s another morning, another day of having to live inside a hurting body inherited from a little known, rare genetic condition. I try not to think of how it used to be. I can let go of the younger me, the one who won a yoga Olympics by holding wheel pose for more than eighteen minutes. I can let go of the woman who ran three miles on most days, who loved to ski and Boogie Board, bike and play tennis.

But what about just being able to wander the hills and woods around our home? What about walking along the river? So much has been taken away, and I’m losing strength on all fronts, because most ways of strengthening the muscles injure my joints.

Getting sick, getting closer to death, can unravel our identity as a good, worthy, dignified, or spiritual person. It puts us face-to-face with the core identity of what I call “the controller”—the ego’s executive director, the self we believe is responsible for making decisions and directing the course of our lives. The controller obsessively plans and worries, trying to make things safe and okay, and it can give us at least a temporary sense of self-efficacy and self-trust.

Yet, great loss can unseat the controller, which we often scramble to resurrect by getting busy, blaming others, blaming ourselves, or trying to fix things. Even so, if we are willing to let there be a gap, if we can live in presence without controlling, healing becomes possible.

My controller can hold loss at bay for months at a time. If I can keep doing things—teaching, serving our community, counseling others—the ground stays firm under my feet. But some years ago, right before our winter meditation retreat, my body crashed. I landed in the hospital, unable to teach, or for that matter to read, walk around, or go to the bathroom without trailing an IV.

I remember lying on the hospital bed that first night, unable to sleep. At around 3 a.m., an elderly nurse came in to take my vitals and look at my chart. Seeing me watching her, she leaned over and patted me gently on the shoulder. “Oh dear,” she whispered kindly, “you’re feeling poorly, aren’t you?”

As she walked out tears started streaming down my face. Kindness had opened the door to how vulnerable I felt. How much worse would it get? What if I wasn’t well enough to teach? Should I get off our meditation community’s board? Would I even be able to sit in front of a computer to write? There was nothing about the future I could count on.

Then a verse from Rumi came to mind: Forget the future … I’d worship someone who could do that … If you can say “There’s nothing ahead,” there will be nothing there. The cure for the pain is in the pain.

I began to reflect on this, repeating, There’s nothing ahead, there’s nothing ahead. All my ideas about the future receded. In their place was the squeeze of raw fear, the clutching in my heart I had been running from. As I allowed the fear—attended to it, breathed with it—I could feel a deep, cutting grief. “Just be here,” I told myself. “Open to this.”

The pain was tugging, tearing at my heart. I sobbed silently (not wanting to disturb my roommate), wracked by surge after surge of grief. This human self was face to face with its fragility, temporariness, and inevitability of loss.

Yet as my crying subsided, a sense of relief set in. It wasn’t quite peace—I was still afraid of being sick and sidelined from life—but the burden of being the controller, of thinking I could manage the future or fight against loss, was gone for the moment. It was clear that my life was out of my hands.

On the third day I was walking around the perimeter of the cardiac unit, jarred by how weak I felt, how uncertain about my future. Then, for the ten-thousandth time, my mind lurched forward, anticipating how I might reconfigure my life, what I’d have to cancel, how I could manage this deteriorating body. When I saw that the controller was back in action, I returned to my room and wearily collapsed on the raised hospital bed. As I lay there, the circling thoughts collapsed too, and I sank below the surface, into pain.

I was immersed in the very thing I had been running from. Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa taught that the essence of a liberating spiritual practice is to “meet our edge and soften.” My edge was right here, in the acute loneliness, despair about the future, and grip of fear. I knew I needed to soften and open. I tried to keep my attention on where the pain was most acute, but the controller was still there, holding back. It was as if I’d fall into a black hole of grief and die.

Then, gently, tentatively, I started encouraging myself to feel what was there and soften. The more painful the edge of grief was, the more tender my inner voice became. At some point I placed my hand on my heart and said, “Sweetheart, just soften … let go, it’s okay.” As I dropped into that aching hole of grief, I entered a space filled with the tenderness of pure love. It surrounded me, held me, suffused my being. Meeting my edge and softening was a dying into timeless loving presence.

In the remaining days, whenever I recognized that I’d tightened into anxious planning and worry, I noted it as “my edge.” Then I repeated to myself: “Sweetheart, just soften.” I found that kindness made all the difference. When I returned home, the stories and fears about the future were still there. The controller would come and go. But I had a deeper trust that I could meet my life with an open and present heart.

Consciously grieving loss is at the very center of the spiritual path. In small and great ways, each of our losses links us to what we love. It’s natural that the controller arises: We will seek to manage the pain of separation in whatever way we can. Yet, as we awaken, we can allow our sorrow to remain faithful to itself. We can willingly surrender into the grieving. I’ve found that by honoring the pain for what has passed away, we are free to love the life that is here.

Adapted from True Refuge (Jan. 2013)

Enjoy this talk on No Mud, No Lotus
For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com