Posts by Tara Brach

“I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts.”

tara-brachOur mindfulness practice is not about vanquishing our thoughts. It’s about becoming aware of the process of thinking so that we are not in a trance—lost inside our thoughts. That’s the big difference. To train in becoming mindful of thoughts can help us to notice when your mind is actively thinking, either using the label “thinking, thinking,” or identifying the kind of thought—“worrying, worrying,” “planning, planning.” Then, becoming interested in what’s really happening right here. Coming home to the sensations in your body, your breath, the sounds around you, the life of the moment.

As our mindfulness practice deepens we become more aware of our thoughts. This offers us the opportunity to assess them and notice that much of the time our thoughts are not really serving us. Many thoughts are driven by fear and lock us into insecurity. During our residential meditation retreats, one of the biggest breakthroughs people share with us is:

“I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts.”

Training in mindfulness allows our minds to have a choice. At the moment in which you pause and realize that these thoughts are not really serving me, you have the option to come back to presence. This process of choosing becomes more powerful as you realize how thoughts can create suffering and separation. They create an “us” and a “them.” They create judgment and end up making us feel bad about ourselves.

In those moments when you’re lost in thought, what if you could pause and say, “OK, it is just a thought” That is revolutionary. That can change your life!

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Now, the key is that we approach this with a gentleness and kindness. Each time we recognize thinking and come back into the present moment with gentleness and kindness, we are planting a seed of mindfulness. We are creating a new habit—a new way of being in the world. We quiet down the incessant buzz of thoughts in our mind. We take refuge in what is true—the aliveness and tenderness and mystery of the present moment—rather than in the story line of our thoughts.

“Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.”— Wu Men

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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The sacred art of listening – nourishing loving relationships

Tara Brach

To listen is to lean in softly
With a willingness to be changed
By what we hear
-Mark Nepo

What happens when there’s a listening presence? When we’re fully in that listening presence, when there’s that pure quality of receptivity, we become presence itself. And whether you call that God or pure awareness or our true nature, the boundary of inner and outer dissolves and we become a luminous field of awakeness. When we’re in that open presence we can really respond to the life that’s here. We fall in love.

This state of listening is the precursor or the prerequisite to loving relatedness. The more you understand the state of listening– of being able to have the sounds of rain wash through you, of receiving the sound and tone of another’s voice– the more you know about nurturing a loving relationship.

In a way it’s an extremely vulnerable position. As soon as you stop planning what you’re going to say or managing what the other person’s saying, all of a sudden, there’s no control. You’re open to your own sadness, your own anger and discomfort. Listening means putting down control. It’s not a small thing to do.

We spend most of our moments when someone is speaking, planning what we’re going to say, evaluating it, trying to come up with our presentation of our self, or controlling the situation.

Pure listening is a letting go of control. It’s not easy and takes training. And yet it’s only when we can let go of that controlling that we open up to the real purity of loving. We can’t see or understand someone in the moments that we are trying to control what they are saying or trying to impress them with what we are saying. There’s no space for that person to just unfold and be who they are. Listening and unconditionally receiving what another expresses, is an expression of love.

The bottom line is when we are listened to, we feel connected. When we’re not listened to, we feel separate. So whether it’s the communicating between different tribes or religions, ethnicities, racial groups or different generations, we need to listen. The more we understand, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we trust and the more we trust, the more love can flow.

Isn’t it true to that to get to know the beauty and majesty of a tree
You have to be quiet and rest in the shade of the tree?
Don’t you have to stand under the tree?
To understand anyone, you need to stand under them for a little while
What does that mean?
Its mean you have to listen to them and be quiet and take in who they are
As if from under, as if from inside out.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2013). Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Emptiness Dancing

tara-brachThis entire living world–including these forms we call self– is a creative arising and dissolving of empty awareness. I love the Zen phrase “emptiness dancing,” because it recognizes the inseparability of formlessness and form, of the awake space of awareness and its expression in aliveness.

Sometimes, when I teach about the ultimate freedom of realizing selflessness and emptiness dancing, students ask if this means turning away from personal growth and service. Is this just another way to devalue the life we are living here and now? If we find inner freedom, will we still be interested in healing ourselves and our world?

Whenever these questions come up, I usually recall Mari, who started attending meditation classes when she realized she was burning out after working more than a decade as a fund-raiser for a large human rights group. At that time, the political environment had gotten increasingly nasty, rival factions were vying for control of the organization, donors were scarce, and she was questioning the ethics of some of her colleagues. When I met her, Mari had given notice and wanted nothing to do with politics or activism. She was done.

Over the next four years, Mari worked at a sporting-goods store, attended meditation classes and retreats, and found the time to reconnect with a former passion: bird-watching. After a meditation class, she told me, “It’s during those walks, during the early morning hours of watching and listening, that I come home to silence, to my own presence.” In that attentive silence, Mari’s love affair with birds deepened. “They are not something outside of me,” she told me, “they are part of my inner landscape.” As she grew more alarmed about habitat loss, though, Mari realized her activist life was not over.

As we explored this together in a counseling session, Mari began to trust that this time around, things would be different. So, she agreed to fund-raise for an environmental group, even while knowing that there would be conflicting egos within this organization, and that she would inevitably have bouts of discouragement. Mari had found refuge; she knew she could reconnect with the awareness that gives rise to birds and trees, to egos and discouragement, to the entire play of life. She could remember the wisdom of emptiness dancing, and serve this imperfect world.

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti, who wrote a book called Emptiness Dancing, suggests that as we move through the day, we ask: “How is emptiness or awareness experiencing this (eating, walking outside, showering, talking)?” I also like to ask myself, “How is this empty, awake heart experiencing what’s happening?”

It’s illuminating to step out of our story of self, and simply receive sensations, feelings, and sounds from the perspective of heart and awareness. We’re not in opposition to anything, or resisting or evaluating anything; we’re just letting life flow through us.

Whenever I pay attention like this, I’m not at all removed from life. Rather, without the self-focus, I become part of the flow of aliveness. Just as the river knows how to flow around rocks, I can then respond intuitively to life’s unfolding. I’m more spontaneous in the moment, more naturally clear and caring in my response to what’s around me. I’ve seen this happen with others too. Whether we’re serving or savoring, whenever there’s an awareness of emptiness dancing, we become wholehearted in how we live. This is true even in the face of inevitable loss.

A few years ago, I read a memorable story about violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perlman had polio when he was a young child, and at each of his performances he makes a slow entrance on crutches, sits down, unclasps the braces on his legs, then prepares to play. He did this as usual at a 1995 performance at Lincoln Center in New York. On this occasion, however, he’d only played the first few bars when one of the strings on his violin broke. The whole audience could hear the crack when it snapped. What will happen next, they wondered. Will he have to put on his braces, make his way across the stage, find another violin?

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

He sat still, closed his eyes, and paused. Then he signaled for the conductor to begin again. Perlman reentered the concerto, playing with an unimaginable passion, power, and purity. Perhaps some of those watching could sense him modulating, changing, reconfiguring the piece in his head, so deep was his immersion in creating. When he finished there was an awed silence. Then came the outburst of applause as people rose and cheered from every corner of the hall.

Perlman smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, and raised his bow to quiet the crowd. Then he spoke, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone. “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

Recently I was disappointed to learn that this story has been called into question, but the message stays with me. We weigh down our lives with memories of how it used to be and fears of what we have yet to lose. Yet when we surrender into the living moment, we, like Perlman, become emptiness dancing—a part of the creative flow. We respond with a tender heart to our world’s pain and beauty. We make music with what we have left.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

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Happy for no reason

tara-brachFor 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.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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.

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The three qualities of awareness

tara-brachAbout 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.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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)

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The backward step: resting in pure being

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-I’m offering a link to a guided meditation that I’ve adapted from Fehmi’s work.)

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)

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I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about

tara-brachWriting 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.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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.”

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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.

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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.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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)

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Softening the heart and sitting with anger…

wildcat snarling

One evening after my Wednesday night meditation class, Amy, a member of our D.C. meditation community, asked if we might talk for a few minutes about her mother, a woman she often referred to as “a manipulative, narcissistic human.” Amy’s mother had recently been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and as the only local offspring, Amy had become her mother’s primary caretaker. So, there she was, spending hours a day with a person she’d been avoiding for decades. “I can’t stand myself for having such a hard heart,” Amy confessed.

Amy and I agreed to meet privately to explore how she might use her practice to find more freedom in relating to her mother. At our first session, she told me difficult early childhood memories had recently been emerging. In the most potent of these, Amy was three years old. Her mom yelled upstairs that she’d prepared a bath for her and that she should get in the tub. But when Amy went into the bathroom, what she found was a couple of inches of lukewarm water. What had flashed through her three-year-old mind then was: “This is all I’m going to get. No one is taking care of me.”

Amy’s mom had always been preoccupied with her own dramas, perpetually reacting to perceived slights from friends, struggling against weight gain, and berating her husband for his shortcomings. Little attention was paid to the physical or emotional needs of Amy or her siblings. “She doesn’t care about anyone except herself,” Amy told me. “She’s a self-centered bitch … it really pisses me off. I got gypped out of having a mother, and now I’m here catering to her.” As she was speaking I asked her to pause, and investigate what she was most aware of in the moment. After a long silence, Amy said “There’s so much rage, I can barely contain it.”

Part of the process of softening our hearts includes learning to recognize and allow whatever we’re feeling—even intense rage. But this isn’t always simple, or easy. When I asked Amy if she could allow the rage to be here, she shook her head. “I’m afraid if I really make space for this rage, it will destroy every relationship I have. I’ve already hurt people I love.”

When anger is buried, like Amy’s was, the energy gets converted and expressed in many different ways. Yet, anger is a natural survival energy that wants our attention, that needs to be allowed to be felt. However, “allowing” doesn’t mean we let ourselves be possessed by our anger. Rather, we allow when we acknowledge the stories of blame without believing them, and when we let the sensations of anger arise, without either acting them out or resisting them.

I encouraged Amy to check in with her fear. Was it willing to let this rage be here? Could the fear step aside enough so that she could be present with this rage? Amy nodded. Now, she could begin to investigate the emotional energy beneath the blame. I knew that for her to do this, she’d first need to step outside of the seductive sway of her resentful stories. We’d talked about the stories, respecting them as windows into her pain. But the anger also lived deeper in her body—in a place beyond thought. The next step was for Amy to widen and deepen her attention so she could fully contact these embodied energies.

I asked Amy to notice what she was feeling in her body, and she closed her eyes and paused. “It’s like a hot pressured cauldron in my chest,” she said. What would happen, I asked, if she said yes to this feeling, and allowed the heat and pressure to be as intense as it wanted. “It wants to explode,” Amy said. Again, I encouraged her to let be, to allow her experience just as it was.

Amy was absolutely still for some moments. “The rage feels like it is bursting flames, like a windstorm spreading in all directions,” she said. “It’s blasting through the windows of this office.” In a low voice, she went on: “It’s spreading through the East Coast. Now it’s destroying all life forms, ripping through the continent, oceans, earth.” She continued, telling me about the rage’s fury, how it was spreading through space. Then she became very quiet. Speaking in a soft voice, she finally said, “It’s losing steam,” before sitting back on the couch and letting out a tired sigh. “Now there’s just emptiness. No one is left in the world. I’m utterly alone, lonely.” In a barely audible whisper, she said, “There’s no one who loves me, no one that I love.”

Amy began weeping. Inside the rage, she’d found an empty place, a place that felt loveless. Now what was revealing itself was grief: grief for the loss of love in her life. When I asked what the grieving part of her most needed, she knew right away: “To know that I care about this pain, that I accept and love this grieving place.” I guided her to gently place her hand on her heart, and offer inwardly the message her wounded self most needed. She began repeating the phrase, “I’m sorry, I love you.” This wasn’t an apology. Rather, it was a simple expression of sorrow for her own hurt.

As Amy whispered the phrase over and over, she began rocking side to side. “I’m seeing the little girl in the bath,” she said, “and feeling how uncared for she feels, how alone. I’m holding her now, telling her ‘I’m sorry, I love you.’” Then, after a few minutes, Amy sat upright and looked at me with a fresh openness and brightness. “I think I understand,” she said. “I’ve been angry for so long that I abandoned her—the inner part of me—just like my mom abandoned that three-year-old.” She paused,then continued. “I just have to remember that this part of me needs love. I want to love her.”

Offering a compassionate and clear attention to her vulnerability had connected Amy with a vastness of being that could include her pain. This natural awareness is the fruition of an intimate attention. When we’re resting in this presence, we’re inhabiting the refuge of our own awakened heart and mind.

Some weeks later, Amy read me her morning’s journal entry: “There is more room in my heart.” The night before, after her mother had complained for the third time that her soup still wasn’t salty enough, Amy felt the familiar rising tide of irritation and resentment. She sent the message “I’m sorry, I love you” inwardly to herself, giving permission to the annoyance, to the edginess in her own heart. She felt a softening, a relaxing of tension. Looking up, she was struck by her mother’s grim, dissatisfied expression. Then, just as she’d learned to inquire about herself, the thought came:“What is my mom feeling right now?” Almost immediately, she could sense her mother’s insecurity and loneliness. Imagining her mother inside her heart, Amy again began offering caring messages. “I’m sorry,” she whispered silently, “I love you.”

She found herself feeling genuine warmth toward her mother, and the evening was surprisingly pleasant for both of them. They joked about her mom doing a “mono diet” of potato chips, went online and ordered a bathrobe, and had fun watching The Daily Show together.

At our last meeting Amy told me how, several days earlier, her mother had woken up in the morning hot and sweaty. Amy took a cool cloth to her mother’s forehead and cheeks, arms and feet. “Nobody’s ever washed me,” her mom had said with a wistful smile. Amy immediately remembered the little girl in the bathtub, and felt tears in her eyes. She and her mom had both gone through much of life feeling neglected, as if they didn’t matter. And right now, each in her own way was tasting the intimacy of care. They looked at each other and had a moment of uncomplicated love. It was the first such moment Amy could remember, one she knew she’d cherish long after her mom was gone.

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