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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy For No Reason

For years I’d heard that qigong was an ideal meditation for physical healing, and when I first experimented with it, I did find that the practice helped me feel more embodied and energetically attuned. Qigong is based on a Chinese system of still and moving meditation. At its heart is the understanding that this world is made of chi, an invisible field of energy, the dynamic expression of pure awareness.

When my health hit a new low in the summer of 2009, I decided to explore the practice more deeply by attending a ten-day qigong healing retreat.

During the third day, I remember sitting at the retreat while our teacher was guiding us: “Send chi to the places that are in pain,” he was saying. “Imagine what these parts of you would be like if they were totally vital and strong, energetically flowing with the rest of your body.”

As I sat visualizing flowing streams of light bathing my hurting knees, I found myself becoming doubtful, judging some of the instructions as distinctly “un-Buddhist!” Here I was trying to manipulate my experience and create a happy, healthy body. Whatever happened to letting go of control and accepting life as it is? Wouldn’t all this directing of energy and visualization just make me more attached to being healthy? Given the realities of my illness, this seemed like a losing proposition.

Still, I’d paid my tuition and I kept on following the teachers’ instructions. The next morning I got up before dawn and did the practice on my own—connecting to the ocean of chi, bringing attention and energy to various parts of my body. After about half an hour, I went outside and started walking along a winding path through the Northern California countryside. Each step hurt. My knees ached, and there was stabbing in one of my hips.

“Now what?” I muttered grimly. “Am I supposed to send more chi to my body?”

Then I paused—the resentment toward my body caught my attention. As I looked more closely, the resentment quickly gave way to a familiar grief. Why couldn’t I just walk on this earth without feeling pain? Tears started to flow as I contacted the enormity of my frustration and longing. “I want to feel alive. I want to feel alive. Please. Please. May I feel fully alive.” Naming it opened me to what was behind the longing: I love life. Embedded in the grief, as always, was love. A voice inside me was repeating the words over and over, as a delicate, tingling warmth filled my heart.

I’d been holding back this love, holding back from fully engaging with life. It was a reaction to feeling betrayed by my body, a defense against more loss. But in my fear of being attached to health, I’d not allowed myself to feel the truth—I love life. Qigong wasn’t about fueling attachment, it was about fully embracing aliveness. At that moment I decided to stop holding back my love.

As I allowed the “I love life” feeling to be as full as it wanted, the “I” fell away. Even the notion of life fell away. What was left was an open radiant heart—as wide as the world.

This tender presence was loving everything: the soft streaks of pinks and grays in the sky, the smell of eucalyptus, the soaring vultures, the songbirds. It was loving the woman who was standing silently about two hundred feet away, also gazing at the colors of dawn. It was loving the changing painful and pleasurable sensations in this body. Now, sending chi to my knees made intuitive sense. It was awareness’s natural and caring response to its creation. “I” wasn’t loving life—awareness was loving life.

This experience led me to see and release a limiting and unconscious belief that I’d held for some time—a belief that the realm of formless awareness was more spiritual and valuable than the living forms of this world. This bias against the living world can be seen in many religious traditions. It emerges in some interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings as an insistence on guarding ourselves against the pleasures of the senses—beauty, lovemaking, music, play. It emerges in the superior status of monks over nuns, in valuing monastic life over family and lay life, and in the warnings against attachment in close personal relationships. I now believe this bias comes from fear and mistrust of life itself. For me, recognizing this in my own psyche was a gift.

We do not need to transcend the real world to realize our true nature and to live in freedom. In fact, we can’t. We are aliveness and we are the formless presence that is its source; we are embodied emptiness. The more we love the world of form, the more we discover an undivided presence, empty of any sense of self or other. And the more we realize the open, formless space of awareness, the more unconditionally we love the changing shapes of creation.

The Heart Sutra from the Buddhist Mahayana texts tells us: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is also form. Emptiness is not other than form, form is not other than emptiness.” We can’t separate the ocean from the waves. Our path is to realize the vast oceanness of our being, and to cherish the waves that appear on the surface.

During the final days of the retreat, my willingness to love life unfolded into a very deep, stable happiness. The happiness wasn’t reliant on things being a certain way—my moods and physical comfort went up and down. I was happy for no reason. This unconditioned happiness or well-being is a flavor of awakening. It arises when we trust our essence as awareness, and know that this entire living world is part of our heart. Being happy for no reason gave me a kind of confidence or faith that no matter what happened, everything would be fine.

I returned home and jumped into a delicious daily ritual of meditation and qigong. During those first weeks I’d go to the river and scramble down through rocks and bushes to a secluded beach. Nourished by the sounds of rushing water, the firm sand and early morning air, I practiced presence in movement and stillness. You can probably imagine what came next. After I hurt my knee on the small incline down to the beach, I moved my practice to our deck. Some of the arm movements strained my neck so I had to minimize them. Then standing up started to strain my legs, so I began to practice in a chair. Then it rained for a week straight.

And yet, it was all really okay. More than okay. One of those wet mornings as I was sitting, my mind became very quiet. My attention opened gently and fully to the changing flow of experience—aching, waves of tiredness, fleeting thoughts, sounds of rain. Continuing to pay attention, I felt the subtle sense of aliveness (chi energy) that pervades my whole body. This aliveness was not solid, it was spacious, a dance of light. The more I opened to this aliveness, the more I could sense an alert inner stillness, the background inner space of pure being. And the more I rested in that stillness, the more vividly alive the world became.

After about thirty minutes I opened my eyes and looked at the lush fern that hangs in our bedroom, at its delicacy and grace. I was in love with the fern, with the particularity of its form (how did this universe come up with ferns?), and with the vibrancy and light of its being. In that moment, the fern was as wondrous as any glorious scene by the river. I was awareness loving my creation. And I was happy for no reason. I didn’t need to have things go my way. I was grateful for the capacity to enjoy life, just as it is.

Adapted from  True Refuge (2013)

Enjoy this talk on the Three Blessings of Awakening Consciousness



For more information: www.tarabrach.com 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Three Qualities of Awareness


About 2,600 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama (the soon-to-be Buddha) sat down under the bodhi tree, his resolve was to realize his true nature. Siddhartha had a profound interest in truth, and the questions “Who am I?” and “What is reality?” impelled him to look even more deeply within and shine a light on his own awareness.

As a Zen story reminds us, this kind of inquiry is not an analytic or theoretical exploration. One day a novice asks the abbot of the monastery, “What happens after we die?” The venerable old monk responds, “I don’t know.” Disappointed, the novice says, “But I thought you were a Zen monk.” “I am, but not a dead one!” The most powerful questions direct our attention to this very moment.

To practice this same sort of self-inquiry inspired by the Buddha, we can quiet the mind and ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware right now?” or “Who is listening?” Then we can look gently back into awareness to see what is true. Ultimately, we find that there is no way for the mind to answer the question—there is no “thing” to actually see or feel.

The point is simply to look, then to let go into the no-thing-ness that is here. The question “Who am I?” is meant to dissolve the sense of a searcher.

Yet, as you might discover, this isn’t what happens right away. First, we find all sorts of things we think we are, all our patterns of emotions and thoughts, our memories, the stories about who we take ourselves to be.

Our attention keeps fixating on elements of the foreground. Maybe we’ve contacted a feeling. But we keep inquiring. “Who is feeling that?” we ask, or “Who is aware of this?” And the more we ask, the less we find to land on. Eventually, the questions bring us into silence—there are no more backward steps. We can’t answer.

The discovery of no-thing, according to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, is “the supreme seeing.” It reveals the first basic quality of awareness: emptiness or openness. Awareness is devoid of any form, of any center or boundary, of any owner or inherent self, of any solidity.

Yet, our investigation also reveals that while empty of “thingness,” awareness is alive with wakefulness—a luminosity of continual knowing. Rumi puts it this way: “You are gazing at the light with its own ageless eyes.” Sounds, shapes, colors, and sensations are spontaneously recognized. The entire river of experience is received and known by awareness. This is the second basic quality of awareness: awakeness or cognizance.

If we let go and rest in this wakeful openness, we discover how awareness relates to form: When anything comes to mind—a person, situation, emotion—the spontaneous response is warmth or tenderness. This is the third quality of awareness: the expression of unconditional love or compassion. Tibetan Buddhists call this the “unconfined capacity of awareness,” and it includes joy, appreciation, and the many other qualities of heart.

When Siddhartha looked into his own mind, he realized the beauty and goodness of his essential nature and was free. The three fundamental qualities of our being—openness/emptiness, wakefulness, and love—are always here.

Gradually, we too can realize that this wakeful, tender awareness is more truly who we are than any story we’ve been generating about ourselves. Rather than a human on a spiritual path, we are spirit discovering itself through a human incarnation. As we come to understand and trust this, our life fills with increasing grace.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

Enjoy this talk on the Blessings of Awakening


For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Backward Step

Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa once opened a class by drawing a V on a large white sheet of poster paper. He then asked those present what he had drawn. Most responded that it was a bird. “No,” he told them. “It’s the sky with a bird flying through it.”

How we pay attention determines our experience. When we’re in doing or controlling mode, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground—the bird, a thought, a strong feeling. In these moments we don’t perceive the sky—the background of experience, the ocean of awareness. The good news is that through practice, we can intentionally incline our minds toward not controlling and toward an open attention.

My formal introduction to what is often called “open awareness” was through dzogchen—a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Until then, I’d trained in concentration and mindfulness, always focusing on an object (or changing objects) of attention. In dzogchen, as taught by my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche, we repeatedly let go of whatever our attention fixates on and turn toward the awareness that is attending. The invitation is to recognize the skylike quality of the mind—the empty, open, wakefulness of awareness—and be that.

My first retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche loosened my moorings in a wonderful way. The more I became familiar with the presence of awareness, the weaker the foothold was for the feelings and stories that sustained my sense of self. Tensions in my body and mind untangled themselves, and my heart responded tenderly to whoever or whatever came to mind. I left that retreat, and later dzogchen retreats, feeling quite spacious and free.

I more recently learned of the work of Les Fehmi, a psychologist and researcher who for decades has been clinically documenting the profound healing that arises from resting in open awareness. In the 1960s researchers began to correlate synchronous alpha brain waves with profound states of well-being, peace, and happiness.

Fehmi, an early and groundbreaking leader in this research, sought strategies that might deepen and amplify alpha waves. Experimenting with student volunteers, he tracked their EEG readings as they visualized peaceful landscapes, listened to music, watched colored lights, or inhaled various scents. But it was only after he posed the question, “Can you imagine the space between your eyes?” that their alpha wave levels truly soared. (NOTE: here is a link to a downloadable guided meditation that I've adapted from Fehmi's work, titled, "Inner Space: Gateway to Open Awareness" - http://www.tarabrach.com/audioarchives-guided-meditations.html.)

He posed another: “Can you imagine the space between your ears?” The subjects’ alpha waves spiked again. Further experimentation confirmed the effects of what Fehmi termed “open focused attention.” The key was inviting attention to space (or stillness or silence or timelessness) and shifting to a nonobjective focus.

Narrowly focused attention affects our entire body-mind. Whenever we fixate on making plans, on our next meal, on judgments, on a looming deadline, our narrowed focus produces faster (beta) waves in the brain. Our muscles tense, and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released.  While necessary for certain tasks, as an ongoing state this stress constellation keeps us from full health, openheartedness, and mental clarity.

In contrast, open-focused attention rests the brain. With a sustained pause from processing information—from memories, plans, thoughts about self—brain waves slow down into synchronous alpha. Our muscles relax, stress hormone levels are lowered, blood flow is redistributed. No longer in fight-or-flight reactivity, our body and mind become wakeful, sensitive, open, and at ease.

You may have noticed the effect of open awareness when looking at the night sky and sensing its immensity. Or during the silence in the early morning before sunrise. Or when the world is still after a snowfall. We resonate with such moments because they connect us with the most intimate sense of what we are. We sense the depth of our being in the night sky, the mystery of what we are in the silence, the stillness. In these moments of objectless awareness there’s a wordless homecoming, a realization of pure being.

In practicing open awareness, I’ve found it helpful to think of existence—the entire play of sounds and thoughts and bodies and trees—as the foreground of life, and awareness as the background. In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called “the backward step.” Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step.

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.

You might pause for a moment and receive this living world. Let your senses be awake and wide open, taking everything in evenly, allowing life to be just as it is. As you notice the changing sounds and sensations, also notice the undercurrent of awareness—be conscious of your own presence.

Allow the experience of life to continue to unfold in the foreground as you sense this alert inner stillness in the background. Then simply be this space of awareness, this wakeful openness. Can you sense how the experiences of this world continues to play through you, without in any way capturing or confining the inherent spaciousness of awareness? You are the sky with the bird flying through; you are, as a traditional Tibetan saying teaches:

Utterly awake, senses wide open.
Utterly open, nonfixating awareness.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)
Enjoy this talk on Wise Investigation

For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I’m Nothing, Yet I’m All I Can Think About

Writing and speaking about the nature of awareness is a humbling process; as the third Zen patriarch said, “Words! The way is beyond language.” Whatever words are used, whatever thoughts they evoke, that’s not it! Just as we can’t see our own eyes, we can’t see awareness. What we are looking for is what is looking. Awareness is not another object or concept that our mind can grasp. We can only be awareness.
 
A friend who is a Unitarian minister told me about an interfaith gathering that she attended. It opened with an inquiry: What is our agreed-upon language for referring to the divine? Shall we call it God? “No way” responded a feminist Wiccan. “What about Goddess?” A Baptist minister laughed and said, “Spirit?” Upon which an atheist replied, “Nope.” Discussion went on for a while. Finally, a Native American suggested “the great mystery” and they all agreed. Each knew that whatever his or her personal understanding, the sacred was in essence a mystery.
 
Awareness, true nature, what we are—is a mystery. We encounter the same wordless mystery when someone dies. After his mother passed away, my husband Jonathan looked at me and said, “Where did she go?” I remember sitting with my father as he was dying—he was there, and then he wasn’t. His spirit, that animating consciousness, was no longer present in his body.
 
Nothing in this world of experience is more jarring to our view than death. It takes away all our conceptual props. We can’t understand with our minds what has occurred. Love is the same way. We talk endlessly about love, yet when we bring to mind someone we love and really investigate, “What is this love?”, we drop into the mystery. What is this existence itself, with all its particularity, its strange life forms, its beauty, its cruelty? We can’t understand. When we ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware?” and really pause to examine, we can’t find an answer.
 
Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “If everything … changes, then what is really true? Is there something behind the appearances, something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place? Is there something in fact we can depend on, that does survive what we call death?”
 
This inquiry turns us toward the timeless refuge of pure awareness. When we ask ourselves, “Is awareness here?” most of us probably pause, sense the presence of awareness, and say yes. Yet every day we restlessly pull away from this open awareness and immerse ourselves in busyness and planning. Our conditioning prevents us from discovering the peace and happiness that are intrinsic in taking refuge in awareness. Seeing how we paper over the mystery of who we are is an essential part of finding freedom.
 
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley called awareness “Mind at Large” and reminded us: “Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet.”
 
From an evolutionary perspective, our brain’s primary function is to block out too much information, and to select and organize the information that will allow us to thrive. The more stress we feel, the smaller the aperture of our attention. If we’re hungry, we obsess about food. If we’re threatened, we fixate on defending ourselves or striking first to remove the threat. Our narrowly focused attention is the key navigational instrument of the ego-identified self.
 
I saw a cartoon once in which a guy at a bar is telling the bartender: “I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about.” If you reflect on how often you are moving through your day trying to “figure something out,” you’ll get a sense of how the reducing valve is shaping your experience. And if you notice how many thoughts are about yourself, you’ll see how the valve creates a completely self-centered universe. It’s true for all of us!
 
This incessant spinning of thoughts continually resurrects what I often call our space-suit identity. Our stories keep reminding us that we need to improve our circumstances, get more security or pleasure, avoid mistakes and trouble. Even when there are no real problems, we have the sense that we should be doing something different from whatever we are doing in the moment. “Why are you unhappy?” asks writer Wei Wu Wei. “Because 99.9% of everything you do is for yourself … and there isn’t one.”
 
While we might grasp this conceptually, the self-sense can seem very gritty and real. Even single-cell creatures have a rudimentary sense of “self in here, world out there.” As Huxley acknowledges, developing a functional self was basic to evolution on our particular planet. But this does not mean the space-suit self marks the end of our evolutionary journey. We have the capacity to realize our true belonging to something infinitely larger.
 
If we fail to wake up to who we are beyond the story of self, our system will register a “stuckness.” It’s a developmental arrest that shows up as dissatisfaction, endless stress, loneliness, fear, and joylessness. This emotional pain is not a sign that we need to discard our functional self. It’s a sign that the timeless dimension of our being is awaiting realization. As executive coach and author Stephen Josephs teaches, “We can still function as an apparent separate entity, while enjoying the parallel reality of our infinite vast presence. We need both realms. When the cop pulls us over we still need to show him our license, not simply point to the sky.”
 
Most of us are too quick to reach for our license. If our sense of identity is bound to the egoic self, we will spend our lives tensing against the certainty of loss and death. We will not be able to open fully to the aliveness and love that are here in the present moment. As Sri Nisargadatta writes, “As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, you seem short-lived and vulnerable, and of course you will feel anxious to survive. But when you know yourself to be beyond space and time, you will be afraid no longer.”
 
Adapted from  True Refuge  (2013)
 
Enjoy this talk on awareness:
 
For more information visit: www.tarabrach.com