Tara Brach, Ph.D. is one of my very favorite teachers. A leading western teacher of Buddhist meditation, emotional healing, and spiritual awakening (whose talks are downloaded free nearly 200,000 times each month by people in more than 150 countries), Brach is a practicing clinical psychologist and the founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C., having practiced and taught meditation for over 35 years. She is the author of two remarkable books, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha and True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. I spoke to Brach recently about the integration of mindfulness practice in therapy, and the importance of compassionate presence to the healing process.
Click here to listen to the podcast of our talk. http://www.markmatousek.com/conversation-tara-brach/
Mark Matousek: In your first book, Radical Acceptance, you emphasize that the belief that something is wrong with us is a “deep and tenacious suffering.” How does non-acceptance help to prolong our suffering?
Tara Brach: When we’re non-accepting, we tighten against things as they are. This very tightening separates us from our own wholeness and the wholeness of the universe. It’s the contraction that actually fuels suffering. Of course, we're conditioned to tighten against what’s unpleasant. It's part of what our nervous system does in order to survive. Though it goes against our conditioning, it’s helpful to learn to tolerate what’s there even though everything in us is saying, pull away, push it away, get away. The training of mindfulness is to pause and sense if it’s possible for us to stay with or be with what’s arising versus going into the habitual programmed reaction. As we can.
MM: You're saying that we shouldn't force ourselves to open?
TB: Exactly right. One of the misunderstandings about mindfulness is that it’s always good (when something difficult arises) to stay with it. But for many of us, it’s too much. If there’s been trauma, it can be re-traumatizing to have that same experience of pain or helplessness arise without being able to do deal with it. It's overwhelming. Many of us have to develop other resources and strengths before we can fully open to life just as it is.
An example of that would be if somebody has been abused and remembers something that brings up real panic or terror. It could take weeks, months, a real stretch of time, in the companionship of a therapist, religious figure or deity, or somebody in your life that you really trust, to develop the neural pathways that help to create a sense of safety. That is essential. You have to feel safe enough to be able to open to what’s really difficult. There’s a kind of warming up to being able to tolerate what’s there.
MM: When I work with writing students, they often stumble on scary material that they were not expecting. Would you say that it’s best to have a therapist nearby when doing deeply introspective work?
TB: Probably. I’ve seen people work with trauma and get good enough guidance ahead of time to be able to navigate (their fears) but, in general, the answer is yes. Most of our wounding is in relationships; we’re creatures that belong in tribes and clans and that is where our safety comes from. There’s tons of research that shows that our fear levels go down when we feel accompanied. Having a therapist creates a container that can reduce fear enough so that it’s possible to be with what’s there; also to help the person to develop the resources so that they can step out of the intensity when they need to.
MM: I sometimes wonder whether repeating painful stories is harmful or helpful.
TB: Writing about your story can be part of healing or it can be part of re-traumatizing. It can go either way. On the healing side, our stories often give us access to where we’re holding the fear, the hurt, the grief, in our body. If you can hold it lightly, reminding yourself of the story but staying open to the embodied experience, then there can be healing. To my mind, the transformation comes from being able to enter into the body and feel where the woundedness is being held. But story can also be a portal into a woundedness that’s too much to tolerate. This is one of the challenges of recycling through the same narrative and the same beliefs. Unless there is an explicit intention to come into the lived experience, the felt sense of the woundedness, there really is no transformation.
MM: What about reframing the story? Isn’t that part of the healing process?
TB: What do you mean by reframing?
MM: As a memoirist writing about personal experience, I've sometimes been struck by, “Whoa, is that what I really believe? Is that what I really think happened?” That moment brings insight.
TB: That’s a beautiful point. Inquiry can help you unpack assumptions that have been burdening you for decades. One of the phrases I really like from Tsoknyi Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher, is “real but not true.” It’s real in the sense that it’s a real belief. It’s really what’s in my mind, it brings up real feelings, but that doesn’t mean it’s the truth.
MM: Don't we grow in proportion to facing the truth? I’m fascinated by the connection between telling the truth and waking up. Between adversity and enlightenment.
TB: In terms of evolution, when any species or creature encounters a real challenge, that challenge draws on its greatest resources to adapt. The adaptation, growth, strength, creativity, and flexibility wouldn’t have happened unless the individual encountered something challenging. Many spiritual traditions teach that it’s our suffering that awakens our compassion. Of course, there are many people who hit a wall and suffer and don’t have an awakening. So grace is involved -- but also training. Rather than react by tightening up and acting out of fear when we encounter difficulty, we can train ourselves to pause instead. I call it the sacred art of pausing. Choosing presence instead of moving forward in reactivity.
There’s an acronym I use a lot that many people find helpful. When we encounter difficult situations, our tendency is to go into old habits of flight, fight, freeze, defend, protect, prove, and so on. If we pause, instead, and use the acronym R.A.I.N., we can change this pattern. The 'R' is to just recognize what is happening right here. The 'A' is to allow it, to let it be there for a bit, not to try to make it go away. Just to pause. The ‘I’ is to investigate with intimate intention and kindness. And the 'N' stands for not identified. Rather than being the fearful person or the victim, there’s a sense of resting in a space of attentiveness and kindness that’s really quite free. If we can pause when something comes up and bring these qualities of presence, it allows us to lighten up and rest in a larger sense of our own being.
MM: How is creativity linked to transformation and healing?
TB: Sometimes I think of our minds in terms of (that metaphor of) a TV set. We spend most of our time lost in thoughts that are shaping our reality. When we step out of the conceptual mind, when we reenter our senses, it’s like we’ve opened into the atmosphere where universal energies of intelligence and love can flow through us. Creativity is the universal energy that flows through us. Rather than thinking we’re the TV set, we open ourselves to the whole field of being and become available for insight, for creativity, and for love. When creative energies are flowing through us, we can dress them in thoughts, of course. That’s fine. For instance, Albert Einstein describes his discovery of some of the basic principles of physics in terms of having mystical insights, pure creativity that would happen in a flash. Then he’d spend the next ten years articulating his insights using that brilliant mind of his. There’s an important distinction to be made between living in a conceptual reality and opening to that more intuitive field of intelligence.
MM: Opening to that field is also healing.
TB: Absolutely, because the field we’re opening to is the wholeness of our being, the fullness of who we are. And who we are is not what we think. We live inside a narrative that’s very narrow and forget the depth and dimension of our being. As we heal, we discover a much more mysterious quality of presence, tenderness, openness, and aliveness that’s way beyond any sense of the egoic self. One palliative caregiver who’s been with thousands of people says that the biggest regret of the dying is, “I didn’t live true to myself. I lived according to others’ expectations.” That is a deep recognition of how we can spend decades living inside a very limited sense of ourselves. Psychological healing and what we call the spiritual path is all about unfolding. Waking up to realize the full dimension of who we are.
MM: And that takes practice?
TB: A lot of practice. There’s a prayer that comes from the Buddhist tradition, which is, “May whatever arises serve the awakening of wisdom and compassion. May whatever’s going on in our lives, whatever circumstances, may they serve." We cultivate the commitment to love life no matter what. This helps to deepen our trust that the challenges and adversity we encounter actually strengthen our being and open our hearts. If we're willing to pay attention.
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