Posts by Tara Brach

Letting life live through us

Many years ago, after several years of experiencing a long chronic illness, I attended a six-week Vipassana meditation retreat. Given my struggles with sickness, I looked forward to this time entirely dedicated to sitting and walking meditation.

I was out of my body and into my mind: “Whoa … I still really feel sick.” The first few days went smoothly. Yet, towards the end of the week, I started having stomach aches and felt so exhausted I could barely motivate myself to walk to the meditation hall. At this point it was a matter of making peace with discomfort. “Okay,” I figured a bit grudgingly, “I’m here to work with … unpleasant sensations.”

For the next twenty-four hours I noted the heat and cramping in my stomach, the leaden feeling in my limbs, and tried with some success to experience them with an accepting attention. But in the days that followed, when the symptoms didn’t go away, I found myself caught in habitual stories and sinking into a funk of fear, shame and depression. “Something’s wrong with me … with the way I’m living my life. I’ll never get better.” And under that, the deep fear: “I’ll never be happy.” The familiar trance threatened to take over, and I took that as a signal to deepen my attention.

On a clear and brisk afternoon at the beginning of the second week of retreat, I took off into the woods and walked until I found a patch of sun. Wrapping myself in a warm blanket, I sat down and propped myself against a tree. The ground, covered with leaves, offered a firm, gentle cushion. I suddenly felt at home in the simplicity of earth, trees, wind, sky, and was resolved to attend to my own nature—to the changing stream of sensations living through my body.

After taking some moments to release any obvious tension, I did a quick body scan, and noticed aches and soreness, a sinking feeling of tiredness. In an instant again I watched my mind contract with the idea that something really was wrong.

Taking a deep breath, I let go of these thoughts about sickness and just experienced the sheer grip of fear, which felt like thick hard braids of rope, tightening around my throat and chest. I decided that no matter what experience arose, I was going to meet it with the attitude of “this too.” I was going to accept everything.

As the minutes passed, I found I was feeling sensations without wishing them away. I was simply feeling the weight pressing on my throat and chest, feeling the tight ache in my stomach. The discomfort didn’t disappear, but something gradually began to shift. My mind no longer felt tight or dull but clearer, focused and absolutely open. As my attention deepened, I began to perceive the sensations throughout my body as moving energy—tingling, pulsing, vibrations. Pleasant or not, it was all the same energy playing through me.

As I noticed feelings and thoughts appear and disappear, it became increasingly clear that they were just coming and going on their own. Sensations were appearing out of nowhere and vanishing back into the void. There was no sense of a self owning them: no “me” feeling the vibrating, pulsing, tingling; no “me” being oppressed by unpleasant sensations; no “me” generating thoughts or trying to meditate. Life was just happening, a magical display of appearances.

As every passing experience was accepted with the openness of “this too,” any sense of boundary or solidity in my body and mind dissolved. Like the weather, sensations, emotions and thoughts were just moving through the open, empty sky of awareness.

When I opened my eyes I was stunned by the beauty of the New England fall, the trees rising tall out of the earth, yellows and reds set against a bright blue sky. The colors felt like a vibrant sensational part of the life playing through my body. The sound of the wind appeared and vanished, leaves fluttered towards the ground, a bird took flight from a nearby branch. The whole world was moving—like the life within me, nothing was fixed, solid, confined. I knew without a doubt that I was part of the world.

When I next felt a cramping in my stomach, I could recognize it as simply another part of the natural world. As I continued paying attention I could feel the arising and passing aches and pressures inside me as no different from the firmness of earth, the falling leaves. There was just pain … and it was the earth’s pain.

Each moment we wakefully “let be,” we are home. When we meet life through our bodies with Radical Acceptance, we are the Buddha—the awakened one—beholding the changing steam of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Everything is alive, the whole world lives inside us. As we let life live through us, we experience the boundless openness of our true nature.

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Rejecting the wanting self

adam-and-eve

“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions — Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian — teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly — and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl — “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” — the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures — delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification — need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Connecting with Our ‘Soul Sadness’

hands holding sad-looking withered leaves

>Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself — she was the parent, after all — she was also furious at him.

The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world — every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.

An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten, and her new partner, Jan, had moved in several years later. More often than not, it was Jan, not Marge, who went to PTA meetings and soccer games, Jan who was there when Micky got home from school. Recently, the stress had peaked when a new account increased Marge’s hours at work.

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“I wish I’d been there for him more,” she said. “I love him, I’ve tried, but now it is impossible to reach him. I’m so afraid he is going to create a train wreck out of his life.” I heard the despair in her voice. When she fell silent, I invited her to sit quietly for a few moments. “You might notice whatever feelings you’re aware of, and when you’re ready, name them out loud.” When she spoke again, Marge’s tone was flat. “Anger — at him, at me, who knows. Fear — he’s ruining his life. Guilt, shame — so much shame, for screwing up as a mother.”

I asked her softly if it would be okay to take some time to investigate the shame. She nodded. “You might start by agreeing to let it be there, sensing where you feel it most in your body.” Again she nodded, and few moments later, put one hand on her heart and another on her belly. “Good,” I said. “Keep letting yourself feel the shame, and sense if there is something it wants to say. What is it believing about you, about your life?”

It was a while before Marge spoke. “The shame says that I let everyone down. I’m so caught up in myself, what’s important to me. It’s not just Micky, it’s Jan, and Rick (her ex-husband), and my mom, and … I’m selfish and too ambitious, I disappoint everyone I care about.”

“How long have you felt this way, that you’ve let everyone down?” I asked. She said, “As long as I can remember. Even as a little girl. I’ve always felt I was failing people, that I didn’t deserve love. Now I run around trying to achieve things, trying to be worthy, and I end up failing those I love the most!”

“Take a moment, Marge, and let the feeling of failing people, of being undeserving of love, be as big as it really is.” After a few moments she said, “It’s like a sore tugging feeling in my heart.”

“Now,” I said, “sense what it’s like to know that even as a little girl — for as long as you can remember — you’ve lived with this pain of not deserving love, lived with this sore tugging in your heart. Sense what that has done to your life.” Marge grew very still and then began silently weeping.

Marge was experiencing what I call “soul sadness,” the sadness that arises when we’re able to sense our temporary, precious existence, and directly face the suffering that’s come from losing life. We recognize how our self-aversion has prevented us from being close to others, from expressing and letting love in. We see, sometimes with striking clarity, that we’ve closed ourselves off from our own creativity and spontaneity, from being fully alive. We remember missed moments when it might have been otherwise, and we begin to grieve our unlived life.

This grief can be so painful that we tend, unconsciously, to move away from it. Even if we start to touch our sadness, we often bury it by reentering the shame—judging our suffering, assuming that we somehow deserve it, telling ourselves that others have “real suffering” and we shouldn’t be filled with self pity. Our soul sadness is fully revealed only when we directly and mindfully contact our pain. It is revealed when we stay on the spot and fully recognize that this human being is having a hard time. In such moments we discover a natural upwelling of compassion—the tenderness of our own forgiving heart.

When Marge’s crying subsided, I suggested she ask the place of sorrow what it longed for most. She knew right away: “To trust that I’m worthy of love in my life.” I invited her to once again place one hand on her heart and another on her belly, letting the gentle pressure of her touch communicate care. “Now sense whatever message most resonates for you, and send it inwardly. Allow the energy of the message to bathe and comfort all the places in your being that need to hear it.”

After a couple of minutes of this, Marge took a few full breaths. Her expression was serene, undefended. “This feels right,” she said quietly, “being kind to my own hurting heart.” Marge had looked beyond her fault to her need. She was healing herself with compassion.

Before she left, I suggested she pause whenever she became aware of guilt or shame, and take a moment to reconnect with self-compassion. If she was in a private place, she could gently touch her heart and belly, and let that contact deepen her communication with her inner life. I also encouraged her to include the metta (lovingkindness) practice for herself and her son in her daily meditation: “You’ll find that self-compassion will open you to feeling more loving.”

Six weeks later Marge and I met again. She told me that at the end of her daily meditation, she’d started doing metta for herself, reminding herself of her honesty, sincerity, and longing to love well. Then she’d offer herself wishes, most often reciting, “May I accept myself just as I am. May I be filled with loving-kindness, held in lovingkindness.” After a few minutes she’d then bring her son to mind: “I would see how his eyes light up when he gets animated, and how happy he looks when he laughs. Then I’d say ‘May you feel happy. May you feel relaxed and at ease. May you feel my love now.’ With each phrase I’d imagine him happy, relaxed, feeling held in my love.”

Their interactions started to change. She went out early on Saturday mornings to pick up his favorite “everything” bagels before he woke up. He brought out the trash unasked. They watched several episodes of The Wire together on TV. Then,” Marge told me, “a few nights ago, he came into my home office, made himself comfortable on the couch, and said nonchalantly, ‘What’s up, Mom? Just thought I’d check in.’”

“It wasn’t exactly an extended chat,” she said with a smile. “He suddenly sprang up and told me he had to meet some friends at the mall. But we’re more at ease, a door has reopened.” Marge was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “I understand what happened. By letting go of the blame—most of which I was aiming at myself—I created room for both of us in my heart.”

As Marge was discovering, self-compassion is entirely interdependent with acting responsibly and caringly toward others. Forgiving ourselves clears the way for a loving presence that can appreciate the goodness of others, and respond to their hurts and needs. And, in turn, our way of relating to others affects how we regard ourselves and supports our ongoing self-forgiveness.

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

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Opening the gateway of love

As one of the American pioneers credited for bringing Eastern spirituality to the West, Ram Dass had more than four decades of spiritual training to help guide him when he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1997. Nonetheless, in the hours after his devastating stroke, he lay in a gurney staring at the pipes on the hospital ceiling, feeling utterly helpless and alone. No uplifting thoughts came to rescue him, and he was unable to regard what was happening with mindfulness or self-compassion. In that crucial moment, as he put it bluntly, “I flunked the test.”

I sometimes tell his story to students who worry that they too have “flunked the test.” They’ve practiced meeting difficulties with mindfulness, but then they encounter a situation where the fear or distress or pain is so great that they just cannot arouse presence. They’re often left with feelings of deep discouragement and self-doubt, as if the door of refuge had been closed to them.

I start by trying to help them judge themselves less harshly. When we’re in an emotional or physical crisis, we are often in trance, gripped by fear and confusion. At such times, our first step toward true refuge—often the only one available to us—is to discover some sense of caring connection with the life around and within us. We need to enter refuge through the gateway of love.

Ram Dass passed through this gateway by calling on Maharajji (Neem Karoli Baba),the Indian guru who had given him his Hindu name, and who’d died more than thirty years earlier. In the midst of his physical anguish, powerlessness, and despair, Ram Dass began to pray to Maharajji, who to him had always been a pure emanation of love. As he later wrote, “I talked to my guru’s picture and he spoke to me, he was all around me.” That Maharajji should be immediately “there,” as fully available as ever, was to Ram Dass pure grace. At home again in loving presence, he was able to be at peace with the intensity of the moment-to-moment challenge he was facing.

The gateway of love is a felt sense of care and relatedness—with a loved one, the earth, a spiritual figure, and ultimately, awareness itself. Just as a rose needs the encouragement of light, we need love. Otherwise, as poet Hafiz says, “We all remain too frightened.”

Today, researchers are discovering what happens in the brains of meditators when their attention is focused on lovingkindness or compassion, two primary expressions of love. Sophisticated brain scans show that the left frontal cortex lights, correlating strongly with subjective feelings of happiness, openness, and peace.

When I teach meditations for the heart, I often ask my students to visualize being held by a loved one and/or to offer gentle self-touch as part of the practice. Research shows that a twenty-second hug stimulates production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with feelings of love, connectedness, and safety. Yet, we don’t need to receive a physical hug to enjoy this benefit: Either imagining a hug, or feeling our own touch—on our cheek, on our chest—also releases oxytocin. Whether through visualization, words, or touch, meditations on love can shift brain activity in a way that arouses positive emotions and reduces traumatic reactivity. Where attention goes, energy flows: We have the capacity to cultivate an inner refuge of safety and love.

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

In assisting students and clients as they develop such a refuge, I often ask the following questions:

1. With whom do you feel connection or belonging? Feel cared for or loved? Feel at home, safe, secure?

Some people immediately identify an individual—a family member, friend, healer, or teacher—whose presence creates the feeling of “at home.” For others, home is a spiritual community, a twelve-step group, or a circle of intimate friends. Sometimes the feeling of belonging is strongest with a person who has died, as for Ram Dass with Maharajji, or with a person you revere but may never have met, such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. Many people feel drawn to an archetypal figure like the Buddha or Jesus, Kwan-yin (the bodhisattva of compassion), the Virgin Mary, or some other expression of the divine mother. I’ve also known a good number of people who feel comfort and belonging when they call to mind their dog or cat. I assure students that no one figure is more spiritual or elevated or pure than another as a focus. All that matters is choosing a source of safe and loving feelings.

2. When and where do you feel most at home—safe, secure, relaxed, or strong?

Some people find a sense of sanctuary in the natural world, while others feel more oriented and secure when they’re surrounded by the noise and vibrancy of a big city. Your safe space may be a church or temple, your office, or a crowded sports stadium. Some people feel most at home curled up with a book in bed—others when they’re working on a laptop at a busy coffee shop. Certain activities may offer a sense of ease or flow, from playing Ping-Pong to cleaning out a closet to listening to music. Even if you almost never feel truly relaxed and secure, you can build on any setting or situation where you are closest to feeling at home.

3. What events or experiences or relationships have best revealed to you your strength, your courage, your potential?

Sometimes what arises is a memory of a particularly meaningful experience—an artistic or professional endeavor, a service offered, an athletic feat—that was a source of personal gratification or accomplishment. Whatever the experience, it’s important to explore how it deepens our trust of ourselves.

4. What about yourself helps you to trust your goodness?

When we’re in the grip of trauma or very strong emotion, it may not be possible to reflect on goodness, our own or others’. But when the body and mind are less agitated, this inquiry can be a powerful entry to inner refuge. I often ask clients or students to consider the qualities they like about themselves—humor, kindness, patience, creativity, curiosity, loyalty, honesty, wonder. I suggest that they recall their deepest life aspirations—loving well, realizing truth, happiness, peace, serving others—and sense the goodness of their hearts’ longings. And I invite them to sense the goodness of their very essence, their experience of aliveness, awareness, and heart.

5. When you are caught in fear, what do you most want to feel?

When I ask this question, people often say that they just want the fear to go away. But when they pause to reflect, they often name more positive states of mind. They want to feel safe or loved. They want to feel valued or worthwhile. They long to feel peaceful, at home, or trusting. Or they want to feel physically held, embraced. The words that name our longings, and the images that arise with them, can become a valuable entry to inner refuge. Often the starting place is to offer ourselves wishes or prayers such as, “May I feel safe and at home.” Like offering the phrases in the classic lovingkindness mediation or placing a hand on the heart, expressions of self-care help us open to an experience of belonging and ease.

With each of these inquiries, as we tap into a nourishing memory, thought, prayer or feeling, the invitation is to deepen our attention to that felt experience. Neurons that fire together, wire together. The more we pay attention to the sense of another’s love, to a place that provides beauty and ease, to our own strengths and aspiration, the more we connect with the heartspace that will offer a healing refuge.

At the time of his stroke, Ram Dass had studied with, revered, and prayed to his guru, Maharajji, over a period of thirty years. The gateway to a vast loving presence was already open, and in his moment of great need, he could walk through it to healing. But I’ve seen time and again that the gateway of the heart is still available even for people have had little experience with inner training. All that is needed is the longing to heal and the willingness to practice. As poet Hafiz writes, “Ask the friend for love, ask him again … For I have found that every heart will get what it prays for most.”

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

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Suffering as a call to attention

“Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.” – Byron Katie

Can you imagine understanding, even loving, someone who belongs to a group of people responsible for killing your father, brother, or best friend? Can you imagine growing close to someone whose people have driven you from your home, humiliated your family, and turned you into a refugee in your own country?

Twenty-two teenage girls from Israel and Palestine were flown in to a camp in rural New Jersey, where they would live together in the face of these questions. As part of a program called Building Bridges for Peace, these young people were called upon to examine beliefs that seemed central to their identity, beliefs that had fueled estrangement, anger, hatred, and war.

Even though they had volunteered for the program, the girls were initially mistrustful of each other, and sometimes overtly hostile. One Palestinian teen drew a line in the sand right from the start: “When we’re here, who knows, maybe we’re friends. When we return, you are my enemy again. My heart is filled with hatred for the Jews.” In another exchange, an Israeli girl told a Palestinian: “You expect to be treated as a human being, but you don’t act like one. You don’t deserve human rights!”

Yet from this harsh beginning, some of the girls left camp having formed deep bonds, and for most, it became impossible to see each other as the enemy. What allowed for this change of heart? The girls contacted the truth of each other’s pain and the truth of each other’s goodness. Reality, when we let it in, dismantles the iron grip of our beliefs. As one Israeli girl put it, “If I don’t know you, it’s easy to hate you. If I look in your eyes, I can’t.”

The Buddha taught that ignorance—ignoring or misunderstanding reality—is the root of all suffering. What does this mean? He surely didn’t mean to deny the inevitable pains and losses in our lives, but he wanted his followers to grasp how their beliefs about what is happening—their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world—represented a contracted and fragmented view of reality. This distorted view, described by the Buddha as a dream, fueled the cravings and fears that confined their lives.

The Buddha also told an ancient teaching story that we still repeat to our children. A king instructs a group of blind men to describe an elephant. Each man feels one part of the elephant’s body—the tusk, leg, trunk, tail. Each gives a detailed—and very different—report about the nature of the elephant. Then they come to blows about who’s right. Each man is honestly describing his immediate and real experience, yet each misses the big picture, the whole truth.

Every belief we hold is a limited snapshot, a mental representation, and not reality itself. But some beliefs are more fear-based and injurious than others. Like the teens in Building Bridges, we may believe that certain people are evil. We may believe that we can’t trust anyone. We may believe that we’re fundamentally flawed and can’t trust ourselves.

These beliefs all arise from the primary fear-based belief the Buddha identified: that we are separate from the rest of the world, vulnerable, and alone. Whether our beliefs arouse self-loathing, trap us in self-destructive addictions, ensnare us in conflict with a partner, or send us to war with an enemy, we’re suffering because we’re mistaken about reality. Our beliefs narrow our attention and separate us from the living truth of how things are. They cut us off from the full aliveness, love, and awareness that is our source.

The sage Sri Nisargadatta teaches “illusion exists . . . because it is not investigated.” If we are attached to untrue beliefs, it’s because we have not examined our thoughts. We have not met them with mindful investigation; we have not asked whether they truly represent our current, living experience of reality.

Suffering is our call to attention, our call to investigate the truth of our beliefs. For the teenage girls in Building Bridges, the call to investigate was the hatred tearing at the fabric of their lives and society.

For a parent, the call might be the stranglehold of worry about a child’s welfare. For a social activist, it might be exhaustion and despair in face of seemingly endless war and injustice. For a musician, it might be the disabling terror that accompanies performance. Wherever we feel most endangered, most separate, most deficient—that is where we need to shine the light of our investigation.

Adapted from True Refuge (for sale Jan, 2013).

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The opportunity of “the magic quarter-second”

In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.

Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity. This means that the more you think and rethink about certain experiences, the stronger the memory and the more easily activated the related feelings become.

For example, if a young girl asks her father for help and he either ignores her or reacts with irritation, the emotional pain of rejection may become linked with any number of thoughts or beliefs: “I’m not loved,” “I’m not worth helping,” “I’m weak for wanting help,” “It’s dangerous to ask for help,” “He’s bad. I hate him.”

The more the child gets this response from either parent—or even imagines getting this response—the more the impulse to ask for help becomes paired with the belief that she will be refused and the accompanying feelings (fear or hurt, anger or shame). Years later, she may hesitate to ask for help at all. Or, if she does ask, and the other person so much as pauses or looks distracted, the old feelings instantly take over: She downplays her needs, apologizes, or becomes enraged.

Unless we learn to recognize and interrupt our compulsive thinking, these ingrained emotional and behavioral patterns continue to strengthen over time. Fortunately, it’s possible to break out of this patterning.

Researcher Benjamin Libet discovered that the part of the brain responsible for movement activates a quarter-second before we become aware of our intention to move. There is then another quarter-second before the movement begins. What does this mean? First, it casts an interesting light on what we call “free will”—before we make a conscious decision, our brain has already set the gears in motion! But secondly, it offers us an opportunity.

Say you’ve been obsessing about having a cigarette. During the space between impulse (“I need to smoke a cigarette”) and action (reaching for the pack), there is room for choice. Author Tara Bennett-Goleman named this space “the magic quarter-second.” Mindfulness enables us to take advantage of it. 

By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we’re able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. For instance, if our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button.

The Buddha taught that to be free—not identified with or possessed by thoughts or feelings—we need to investigate each and every part of our experience with an intimate and mindful attention. The first step is pausing, making use of the magic quarter second, and the second, choosing to be present with our moment –to- moment experience.  We need to recognize the fear-based thoughts and the tension in our bodies with an accepting, curious and kind attention. The fruit of this presence is a capacity to release habitual reactivity, respond to our life circumstances with a wise heart and step out of the grip of oppressive emotions.

Adapted from True Refuge.

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Stepping out of obsessive thinking

Man leaping into water, doing a cannonball

I’d gone into therapy during my sophomore year in college, and remember the day I brought up my current prime-time fixation: how to stop binge eating. No matter how committed I felt to my newest diet plan, I kept blowing it each day, and mercilessly judged myself for being out of control. When I wasn’t obsessing on how I might concoct a stricter, more dramatic weight-loss program, I was getting caught up in food cravings.

My therapist listened quietly for a while, and then asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “When you are obsessing about eating, what are you feeling in your body?” As my attention shifted, I immediately noticed the painful, squeezing feeling in my chest. While my mind was saying “something is wrong with me,” my body was squeezing my heart and throat in the hard grip of fear.

In an instant I realized that when I was obsessing about food—craving it, wanting to avoid it—I was trying to escape from these feelings. Obsessing was my way of being in control. Then I realized something else. “It’s not just food” I told her. “I’m obsessing about everything.”

Saying it out loud unlocked something inside of me. I talked about how I obsessed about what was wrong with my boyfriend, about exams, about what to do for spring break, about when to fit in a run. I obsessed about what I’d tell her at our next therapy session. And most of all, my tireless inner critic obsessed about my own failings: I’d never change; I’d never like myself; others wouldn’t want to be close to me.

After pouring all this out, my mind started scratching around again—this time for a new strategy for changing my obsessive self. When I started down that track, my therapist simply smiled and said kindly: “If you can notice when you’re obsessing and then feel what’s going on in your body, you’ll eventually find peace of mind.”

During the weeks that followed, I kept track of my obsessing. When I caught myself planning and judging and managing, I would note that I was obsessing, try to stop, and then ask how I was feeling in my body. Whatever the particular focus of my thoughts, I’d find a restless, anxious feeling—the same squeezing grip I had felt in my therapist’s office.

While I didn’t like my obsessing, I really didn’t like this feeling. Without being conscious of pulling away, I’d start distancing myself from the pain almost as soon as I’d contacted it, and the relentless voice in my head would take over again. Then, after a month or soof this, I had an experience that really caught my attention.

One Saturday night, after my friends and I had spent hours dancing to the music of a favorite band, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Inspired by the full moon and the scent of spring blossoms, I sat down on a bench for a few moments alone. Suddenly the world was deliciously quiet. Sweaty and tired, my body was vibrating from all that dancing. But my mind was still. It was big and open, like the night sky. And filling it was a sense of peace—I didn’t want anything or fear anything. Everything was okay.

By Sunday morning, the mood had vanished. Worried about a paper due midweek, I sat down to work at noon, armed with Diet Coke, cheese, and crackers. I was going to overeat, I just knew it. My mind started ricocheting between wanting to eat and not wanting to gain weight. My agitation grew. For a moment I flashed on the evening before; that quiet, happy space was like a distant dream. A great wave of helplessness and sorrow filled my heart. I began whispering a prayer: “Please … may I stop obsessing … Please, please.” I wanted to be free from the prison of my fear-thinking.

The taste of a quiet, peaceful mind I’d experienced the night before had felt like home, and it motivated me not long after to begin spiritual practice. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly free from the grip of obsessive thinking, but awakening from this mental trance has been slower than I initially imagined.

Obsessive thinking is a tenacious addiction, a way of running from our restlessness and fears. Yet, like all false refuges, it responds to mindful awareness—to an interested and caring attention. We can listen to the energies behind our obsessive thinking, respond to what needs attention, and spend less and less time removed from the presence that nurtures our lives.

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Planting ourselves in the universe

Here in this body are the sacred rivers: here are the sun and moon, as well as all the pilgrimage places. I have not encountered another temple as blissful as my own body.
—Tantric song

When I meet with people at retreats or in counseling sessions, some will tell me they feel numb, lost in thoughts, and disconnected from life. Others might tell me they are overwhelmed by feelings of fear, hurt, or anger. Whenever we are either possessed by our feelings or dissociated from them, we are in trance, cut off from our full presence and aliveness.

In Buddhist meditation training, awakening from trance begins with mindfulness of sensations. Sensations are our most immediate way of experiencing and relating to life. All our other reactions—to thoughts, to external situations, to people, to emotions—are actually in response to physical sensations. When we are angry at someone, our body is responding to a perceived threat. When we are attracted to someone, our body is signaling comfort or curiosity or desire. If we don’t recognize the ground level of sensation, we will continually be lost in the swirl of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that make up our daily trance.

One of the best instructions I’ve heard for meditation practice was given by Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa: “Do not do anything that takes you away from your body.” The body lives in the present. When you are aware of the body, you are connected with living presence—the one place where you can see reality, see what is actually happening. Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

This gateway to refuge was crucial to the Buddha’s own awakening. When Siddhartha Gautama took his seat at the base of the bodhi tree—the tree of awakening—he resolved to stay there until he found full freedom. He began his meditation by collecting his attention, quieting his mind, and “coming back” to a full and balanced presence. But then, as the story is told, the demon Mara appeared, accompanied by a massive army, and with many deadly weapons and magical forces at his disposal. Mara is a tempter—his name means “delusion” in Pali—and we can also see him as Gautama’s shadow self. Mara’s intent was to keep Gautama trapped in trance.

Throughout the night Mara hurled rocks and arrows, boiling mud and blistering sands to provoke Gautama to fight or flee, yet he met these attacks with a compassionate presence, and the missiles were all transformed into celestial flowers. Then Mara sent his daughters, “desire, pining, and lust,” surrounded by voluptuous attendants to seduce Gautama, yet Gautama’s mind remained undistracted and present. Dawn was fast approaching when Mara issued his final challenge—doubt. What proof, Mara asked, did Gautama have of his compassion? How could he be sure his heart was awakened? Mara was targeting the core reactivity that hooks and sustains the sense of small self—the perception of our own unworthiness.

Gautama did not try to use a meditative technique to prove himself. Rather, he touched the earth and asked it to bear witness to his compassion, to the truth of what he was. In response, the earth responded with a shattering roar, “I bear you witness!” Terrified, Mara and his forces dispersed in all directions.

In that instant of acknowledging his belonging to the earth, Gautama became the Buddha—the awakened one—and was liberated. By claiming this living wholeness, he dissolved the final vestiges of the trance of separation.

For us, the story of the Buddha’s liberation offers a radical and wonderful invitation. Like the Buddha, our own healing and awakening unfolds in any moment in which we take refuge in our aliveness—connecting with our flesh and blood, with our breath, with the air itself, with the elements that compose us, and with the earth that is our home. Whenever we bring our presence to the living world of sensation, we too are touching the ground.

In the early part of the last century, D. H. Lawrence found himself in a society devastated by war, a landscape despoiled by industrialism, and a culture suffering from a radical disconnect between mind and body. Written in 1928, his words have lost none of their urgency:

It is a question, practically of relationship. We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. … For the truth is, we are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs, we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal, sources which flow eternally in the universe. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.

When we disconnect from the body, we are pulling away from the energetic expression of our being that connects us with all of life. By imagining a great tree uprooted from the earth, we can sense the unnaturalness, violence, and suffering of this severed belonging. The experience of being uprooted is a kind of dying.

Some people tell me about the despair of not really living, of skimming the surface. Others have the perpetual sense of a threat lurking around the corner. And many speak of being weighed down by a deep tiredness. It takes energy to continually run away from pain and tension, to pull away from the life of the present moment. Roots in the air, we lose access to the aliveness and love and beauty that nourish our deepest being. No false refuge can compensate for that loss.

Yet, like the Buddha touching the ground, we can reclaim our life and spirit by planting ourselves again in the present. This begins by connecting with the truth of what’s happening in our body. Then, when we’re finally in direct contact with the felt sense of that aliveness in our own being, we can fully experience this mysterious field of aliveness we call home.

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The radiant awareness living through us

Sometimes you hear a voice through
the door calling you, as fish out of
water hear the waves, or a hunting
falcon hears the drum’s ‘Come Back, Come Back’.
This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you …
—Rumi

Soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha set out to share his teachings with others. People were struck by his extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. One man asked him who he was. “Are you a celestial being or a god?” “No,” responded the Buddha. “Are you a saint or sage?” Again the Buddha responded, “No.” “Are you some kind of magician or wizard?” “No,” said the Buddha. “Well then, what are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

I often share this story because it is a reminder that what might seem like an extraordinary occurrence — spiritual awakening — is a built-in human capacity. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha’s birth name) was a human being, not a deity. When Buddhists take refuge in the historical Buddha, whose name literally means “one who is awake,” they are drawing on the inspiration of a fellow human who was able to realize his inner freedom.

Like us, Siddhartha experienced bodily pain and disease, and, like us, he encountered inner distress and conflict. For those who follow the Buddha, reflecting on his courageous investigation of reality, and his awakening to a timeless and compassionate presence, brings confidence that this same potential lies within each of us.

In a similar way we might reflect on Jesus or on teachers and healers from other traditions. Any spiritually mature, openhearted human being helps us trust that we too can awaken. You may have already touched upon this outer refuge with a caring and wise teacher or mentor.

My eighty-six-year-old aunt, a specialist in childhood blood diseases, traces her love of nature and her determination to be a doctor to a science class in junior high school. Very few women entered medical school at that time, but her teacher, a woman of passionate intellect, conveyed a pivotal message: “Trust your intelligence and let your curiosity shine!”

An African American friend who leads corporate diversity trainings found refuge and inspiration in his minister, a leader in the civil rights movement and an exemplar of generosity, humor, and wisdom.

I found refuge in my first meditation teacher, Stephen: His great love of meditating, and his own unfolding clarity and kindness, helped awaken my devotion to the spiritual path.

We respond to our mentors because they speak to qualities of heart and mind, qualities of awareness, that are already within us. Their gift is that they remind us of what is possible and call it forth. Much in the same way, we are drawn to spiritual figures that help connect us with our inner goodness.

About ten years ago I began experimenting with a simple self-guided meditation. I would call on the presence of the divine mother (the sacred feminine) and over the next minute or so, I would begin to sense a radiant openness surrounding me. As I imagined the mind of this awakened being, I could sense vastness and lucidity.

Then, as I imagined the heart of the divine mother, that openness filled with warmth and sensitivity. Finally, I’d direct my attention inward, to see how that tender, radiant, all-inclusive awareness was living inside me. I’d feel my body, heart, and mind light up as if the sunlit sky was suffusing every cell of my body and shining through the spaces between the cells.

I’ve come to see that through this meditation, I was exploring the movement from outer refuge to inner refuge.By regularly contacting these facets of sacred presence within me, I was deepening my faith in my own essential being.

Realizing who we are fulfills our human potential. We intuit that we are more mysterious and vast than the small self we experience through our stories and changing emotions. As we learn to attend directly to our own awareness, we discover the timeless and wakeful space of our true nature.

This is the great gift of following a spiritual path: coming to trust that you can find a way to the true refuge of your own loving awareness, your own perfect Buddha nature. You realize that you can start right where you are, in the midst of your life, and find peace in any circumstance. Even at those moments when the ground shakes terribly beneath you—when there’s a loss that will alter your life forever—you can still trust that you willfind your way home. This is possible because you’ve touched the timeless love and awareness that are intrinsic to who you already are.

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Meditating daily … no matter what

Even after practicing and teaching meditation for more than 35 years now, I truly understand that sustaining a regular practice can be challenging. During the twelve years I lived in an ashram, for instance, I had others to practice with each day. With that kind of support, creating the time for daily meditation became a given in my life. It wasn’t as easy after I left. Within a year I gave birth to my son, Narayan, and found myself with a new infant and an increasingly erratic schedule.

One morning, I woke up feeling particularly ornery, and, after I snapped at Narayan’s father for forgetting something at the supermarket, he recommended that I take some time to meditate. I handed the baby over, plunked down in front of my little altar, and immediately dissolved into tears.

I missed the rhythm of my practice. I missed making regular visits to myself! In those moments, with the sun flooding through the windows, and the background sounds of my husband chatting away to Narayan, I made a vow. No matter what, I’d create time each day to come into stillness and pay attention to my experience. But there was a “back door”: How long I sat didn’t matter.

Ever since, I have made the time. I usually meditate thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning, but there have been days, especially when Narayan was young, when it didn’t happen. Instead, I’d sit on the edge of my bed right before going to sleep, and would intentionally relax my body, opening to the sensations and feelings that were present. Then, after a few minutes, I would say a prayer and climb under the covers.

As my body has changed and long sittings have become more difficult, I’ll often do a standing meditation. Still, the commitment to daily practice “no matter what” has been one of the great supports of my life.

For some people I know, my approach is a setup for self-punishment. Something happens—a bad cold, falling asleep early, simply forgetting—and the promise has been broken. The bottom line is to enjoy, not stress over, a meditation practice. As Julia Child famously said, “If you drop the lamb, just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” If you miss practice for a day, a week, or a month, simply begin again. It’s okay.

So, how long should you practice? Between fifteen and forty-five minutes works for many people. If you are new to meditation, fifteen minutes may seem like an eternity, but that impression will change as your practice develops. If you meditate each day, you will experience noticeable benefits (less reactivity, more calm) and you’ll probably choose to increase your practice time. Whatever the length, it’s best to decide before beginning and have a clock or timer nearby. Then, rather than getting entangled in thoughts about when to stop, you can fully give yourself to the meditation.

Many contemplative traditions recommend setting a regular time of day to meditate—usually early in the morning, because the mind is calmer on waking than it is later in the day. However, the best time for you is the time you can realistically commit to on a regular basis. Some people choose to do two short mediations, one at the beginning of the day and one at the end.

If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your daily meditation. Choose a relatively protected and quiet place where you can leave your cushion (or chair) so that it is always there to return to. You may want to create an altar with a candle, inspiring photos, statues, flowers, stones, shells—whatever arouses your sense of beauty, wonder, and the sacred. This is certainly not necessary, but it can help create a mood and remind you of what you love.

Unless you feel enriched by meditation, you will not continue. It’s hard to feel enriched if you get mechanical, if you practice out of guilt, if you judge yourself for not progressing, or if you lock into the grim sense that “I’m on my own.” One of the best ways to avoid these traps is to practice with others. You might look for an existing meditation class with a teacher, or find a few friends who are interested in sharing the experience together.

If you are able, attending a weekend or weeklong residential retreat will deepen your practice as well as your faith in your own capacity to become peaceful and mindful. This is a wonderful time to be practicing meditation! Meditators have a growing pool of resources—CDs, books, podcasts, teachers, and fellow meditators—to support and accompany them as they walk this path.

The most important thing to remember is your commitment to practice “no matter what,” even if it’s for just a few moments out of your day. As one of my students put it recently, “Just having those moments to be quiet is a gift to my soul.” It is a gift to the soul. Stepping out of the busyness, stopping our endless pursuit of getting somewhere else—even if it’s just one minute at a time—is perhaps the most beautiful offering we can make to our spirit.

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