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Releasing the Barriers to Love: An Interview with Tara Brach

What is the role of radical acceptance in intimate relationships?

Tara Brach, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, lecturer and popular teacher of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. She is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, and True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. On December, 4, Tara will be leading a three-day retreat at The Garrison Institute in New York, with her husband, Jonathan Foust, called "Releasing the Barriers To Love: A Pathway to Conscious Relationships. In preparation for this retreat, I spoke to this extraordinary teacher about the barriers to love and the role of radical acceptance in intimate relationships.

MM: I wanted to discuss love’s shadows and the beliefs and feelings that separate people from one another in love relationships. Do you believe it’s possible to have human relationships without attachment?

TB: I think it’s possible to have experiences of love without attachment, but I think part of our conditioning is to grasp at times, especially when there are unmet needs. It’s part of our nervous system to hold on to where we think those needs will be met.

MM: How can we work with that without creating suffering for the other?

TB: There’s healthy attachment, like with a mother and child. It’s biologically part of our survival. If attachment then carries forward in a way that’s not healthy, we need to let it be there without making it wrong and bring as compassionate and honest attention to it as possible. Honor that this is part of being human, but it’s important to know when it’s getting in the way. When I’m attached, I find that I don’t see the other person as clearly because I’m more caught up in what I’m wanting.

When I watch that attachment happening, I see the beliefs that I have around it. If somebody’s not paying attention to me in a certain way, in my mind, it means they don’t love me or they don’t respect me. Bringing awareness to the beliefs that are underneath the attachment and bringing awareness to the way my body and heart are tightening, helps me wake up and re-inhabit a larger space of being. Holding on and pushing away might be going on but I’m freer to respond in a healthy way.

MM: A tenderness is created rather than a separation, which happens a lot in love when we feel we’re not being paid attention to.

TB: That’s exactly right. If I’m judging the attachment, myself, or another person, then I create separation. But if I can forgive the attachment in myself and open to the vulnerability that’s underneath it, then rather than fixating on another person to satisfy my need, I’m actually going right to where the needs come from and able to bring a real healing.

The mistake we make is that when we’re feeling another person is not treating us in the way that makes us feel secure and loved, we fixate our attention on that person and what’s wrong with them. We also fixate on what’s wrong with us. Instead, we can bring forward two wings of awareness: the wing of mindfulness (noticing what’s going on inside us) and the wing of kindness (compassion to what's going on inside us). Then, we actually begin to heal the wounded place that’s the source of the attaching and the judging.

MM: I’d like to talk about healthy detachment rather than disassociation. There’s a misunderstanding in spiritual circles that detachment of the disinterested kind, of the chilly kind, is actually our goal. What is the difference between healthy detachment and disassociation?

TB: It’s a really good question and I’m glad you’re bringing it up. A lot of times in spiritual communities, detachment is considered to be an expression of being spiritually evolved when often, we have want and fear around being in relationship with each other.

The fear side can have us pull away and protect us, but it's really a withdrawal, a disassociation, a cutting off. Rather than the word detachment, I usually use the word non-attachment. That can be wholesome when we care and are completely engaged with each other but are not attached to things being a certain way. I’m not attached to you responding to me, affirming me, or I’m not attached to you paying attention to me in a certain way. That non-attachment gives us the freedom to be exactly who we are.

MM: This is connected to the misunderstanding of desire in spiritual circles, where they are often vilified, instead of the clinging and craving that cause suffering. I don’t actually know how you can have a love relationship without desire, not simply sexual desire, but in the true meaning of Eros.

TB: I think of desire as the essence that brings forth the whole universe. If it weren’t for desire, the formless would not have come into form and engage creatively. This longing to express and celebrate life is innate and quite beautiful. Where desire ends up causing suffering is when it fixates. When desire for a certain person’s attention becomes an “I have to have” kind of grasping, then identity gets organized around needing that and it becomes very solid and sticky. That causes suffering because we’re not inhabiting the fullness of who we are, we’re fixated and contracted on life being a certain way.

MM: As a teacher and therapist you must hear a lot of stories about intimacy gone wrong. In your experience, what are some of the misunderstandings about intimacy that cause suffering?

TB: Our greatest longing is to be intimate. We want to be in open, loving communion with each other and our greatest fear is intimacy. That it won’t work and we’ll be rejected. I speak a lot about what I call “the trance of unworthiness” which is really epidemic in our culture, this sense of “I’m not enough,” or “something’s wrong with me.” Most of us have some level of it because our culture has all these standards (handed down through our families) of what it means to be okay.

Most of us grow up with a sense of “I’m not intelligent enough.” It’s such a sad thing that in the West we worship a certain kind of left-brain intelligence. Our kids go to school and they come out feeling not intelligent, not desirable, not attractive or appealing to others. And if they get into loving relationships, they’re afraid they’ll be found wanting, won’t have the looks or body shape our culture deems worthy. Many of us feel we’re falling short and if we start feeling close to another person, that we’ll be found out and rejected.

The main thing going on around intimacy is that we've developed a lot of strategies so we’ll be a desirable package. I sometimes call this our “spacesuit self” because we come into an environment that is difficult and challenging, where we’re told to be different. We’re told to jump over hoops to be loved and appreciated, so we have to develop spacesuit strategies to get approval and create ways to avoid being judged.

The sad thing about it is that we get identified with our spacesuit, our egoic strategies and we lose touch with the authentic being that we are. In intimate relationships, if we start trying to be more real, it’s very scary. We’re so used to presenting ourselves and getting approval according to our achievements that it’s difficult to be authentic and trust that we’ll be accepted just as we are.

MM: What’s the role of space in intimacy—the importance of maintaining space between lovers, or anyone, in relationships?

TB: People have to find their rhythm. Some people have need for more contact and time together and some people need more space. Allowing another to be as they are is more what I think of as “space.” The space to express yourself and know that you’re going to be accepted. That’s more where I go than with the actual physical logistics of how much time you have together and how much time you have apart.

MM: That’s more what I was thinking, because we have this romantic myth that to be in love means to be joined at the hip, but that doesn’t actually create intimacy, does it?

TB: No, it really is more energetic. Telling each other the truth and being who we are, and having space for the other person’s vulnerability in being who they are, allows us to move in a kind of dance together that’s very fluid and graceful. If there’s a demand of being together in a certain way, those expectations and judgements take away from that space and create an edginess and a cramped-ness to the relationship.

MM: Andrew Solomon has a wonderful line in The Noonday Demon. He writes: “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” Do you think that’s true?

TB: My understanding is that to love, we need to be able to totally surrender to the living/dying nature of this world. Everything we love goes. So to be able to grieve that loss, to let go, to have that grief be absolutely full, is the only way to have our heart be full and open. If we’re not open to losing, we’re not open to loving. I think of depression as the mechanism that pushes down the pain of that loss. It tries to distance us from the loss but it lowers our whole energy level. I think that’s a pervasive way we end up responding to loss or the anticipation of loss. Natural but not necessary.

MM: And what role does surrender play in love?

TB: Ongoing. Every moment. We are continually experiencing the conditioning to hold on, tighten, or resist. When we experience stress, the nervous system tries to control things. Part of waking up is discovering what we are beyond that controlling organism. Discovering a richer quality of being-ness means to keep surrendering and letting go of resistance.

In this moment as we’re communicating, there is a tightening around “Is this the best question to ask?” or “Am I being understood?” To open in a loving way is to let awareness notice that tightening. I’m doing this as I’m speaking with you, noticing “Am I saying this right?” It’s being aware of self-consciousness as a kind of contraction and then surrendering to it. Notice it fully, fully include it in awareness and then relax to open and become that awareness. Then you are no longer identified as that self that’s trying to answer a question. Once we open to awareness, love flows naturally.

MM: One last question, Tara. How do you work with someone who fears the risk of love to such an extent that they are afraid to put their toe in the water? What can you recommend?

TB: All of us, unless we’re completely awake, have a degree of that. We tense against love and hold on in a way that doesn’t let it flow. When that’s really strong, the key piece to freeing our hearts is self-compassion.

I mentioned earlier the two wings of awareness. The first step is recognizing the fear of getting close to others—this honest witnessing of where it is in the body, where it is in your beliefs.

The other wing regards what’s seen with kindness and compassion. I often concretize that Mark, by placing my hand on my heart. This is for anyone reading this who wants to explore it. Recognize the thought, “Afraid of loving,” then gently put your hand on your heart to send a message of kindness.

It’s the beginning of opening to love. Even if there’s not much feeling of compassion toward oneself, just say, “It’s okay, sweetheart,” or “I’m sorry and I love you.” Even going through the motions is a way of establishing a new relationship with our inner life that is caring and tender, versus one that is judging, distancing or ignoring. This is the beginning of being capable of intimacy with others.

The two wings of mindfulness and kindness will begin to open the heart to more connection with our world.

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