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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Tami Simon speaks with Tara Brach, an author, clinical psychologist, and the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. She’s the author of the Sounds True audio learning programs Radical Self-Acceptance and Meditations for Emotional Healing. She’s also the creator of a new, nine-week online course called Meditation and Psychotherapy beginning February 18 at SoundsTrue.com, which includes three live sessions with Tara Brach where she will answer participants' questions. (54 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to “Insights at the Edge.” Today I speak with Tara Brach. Tara is an author, clinical psychologist, and the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. She’s the author of the Sounds True audio learning programs Radical Self-Acceptance: A Buddhist Guide to Freeing Yourself from Shame and Meditations for Emotional Healing: Finding Freedom in the Face of Difficulty.
She’s also the creator of a new, nine-week online course called Meditation and Psychotherapy: An Online Training Course for Integrating Mindfulness into Clinical Practice. This is a nine-week course that begins on February 18 at SoundsTrue.com, and includes three live sessions with Tara Brach where she’ll be answering participants’ questions.
On this episode of “Insights at the Edge,” Tara and I spoke about why it’s hard to be compassionate toward ourselves, and what Tara calls the Trance of Unworthiness. We also spoke about how to find a true refuge no matter what difficulties we might be experiencing. Tara and I also discussed her new online course on Meditation and Psychotherapy, and the importance of therapists being trained in the practice of awareness and mindfulness. Here’s my conversation with Tara Brach.
Tara, I think of you as the self-acceptance lady, the self-acceptance expert, someone who has really studied this and put a lot of time and energy into cultivating self-acceptance and teaching people about it. And what I’d love to know is, why is this so hard? Why is treating ourselves even reasonably kindly, consistently, the way we would of course treat other people, why is it so hard when it comes to treating ourselves with that kind of love and compassion?
Tara Brach: Yes, it is so hard. And I think that the deepest truths are the ones that we forget the quickest. Which is, if we’ve turned against ourselves, we’re not going to be able to really be in love with our life and in love with the world. And yet we do this; it’s such a deep reflex.
And from as much as I can understand, it starts in an existential way, that incarnating, there’s a sense of—and it’s universal—a perception of separateness. And with that a sense of “Something’s wrong,” just a kind of existential “Something’s wrong.” And it’s like the primal mood of the separate self is fear, and then it gets exacerbated through our cultures and families.
And the more there’s been a kind of wounding, the more there’s that sense of “Something’s wrong, and I’ve got to defend myself, I’ve got to in some way protect myself.” And what happens with that “Something’s wrong” is it fixes itself on the self. It’s not just “Is something wrong?”; rather, it’s “Something’s wrong with me.” That’s the first conclusion that we make; it’s the kind of primal belief. And that’s a very deep one to unravel.
So then what happens is every time something’s challenging or difficult, and we have a sense of fear or sorrow or anger, we add what the Buddhists call the Second Arrow, which is “Not only is there this going on, but it’s my fault and it reflects badly on me.” So we keep on weaving ourselves into this kind of web of not-OK-ness. And I think it’s—pretty much with everyone I’ve met, there are those layers of it that just need to be seen and released for there to be any real freedom.
TS: Well, let’s go into that a little bit, because seeing it, releasing it, how does this unraveling actually work? I mean, it seems to me that often when we feel really bad about ourselves, you kind of get to the bottom and it’s like, “Yes, the bottom is that there is something wrong with me. OK.” Where do we go underneath that?
TB: Well, there are different places for bringing mindfulness. And often the starting place is that “something wrong” feeling has kind of a clutch or a grip or a sinking feeling in the body. And the more we bring an attention to that, the less we’re identified with it. So there is some way in which just noticing that it’s happening begins to loosen it.
But I also feel like we need to work with the beliefs, and sometimes that means— What I’ve found is that some people focus more on the belief of “I’m bad, I’m failing, I’m insufficient.” And then we need to get at where the emotions and the visceral senses are in the body. But many people are just sitting with this sinking feeling, and then it’s really, the question is, “Well, what are you believing?” And usually the belief is, “I’ve fallen short. Nobody will ever love me. I’ll never be able to have what I want.” And by beginning to name it, and name it consciously, and name it out loud, there is a beginning of dissolution of some of the identification with it.
And there’s actually been research on this, Tami. I get so interested in the research these days. This one was in UCLA, I think, where when we can name it, when we can note what’s going on, in the moment of noting with awareness what’s happening, there is less believing in, less identifying with. There is actually a shift in emotion that happens with that, actually a release of some of the fight/flight mechanism.
So that’s a kind of long-winded way of saying that we bring presence to the constellation that’s happening, both to the fact of the belief and also to the feelings going on in the body.
TS: Now, interestingly, you’re going to be offering a new online course with Sounds True that’s on Meditation and Psychotherapy, and how these two different approaches can be integrated and can work together. And I’m curious: when we’re looking at something like a feeling of self-blame, any kind of sense that we’re not enough, what do you think the path of meditation can offer, and what do you think the path of psychotherapy offers? How do they come together, maybe where they have different strengths?
TB: Yes, one of the kinds of offerings of meditation is training the attention. So in psychotherapy, the therapist is helping direct attention to different circumstances, different situations, to look at patterns, look at what’s going on in the moment. Meditation actually trains us to then take that and continue on our own to have that kind of relationship with our inner life.
And I sometimes think of it as a kind of spiritual re-parenting, where all of us had some deficits in what we needed. If you asked an infant or a very young child, “What do you most need?” they need to be seen and also to be loved. And so we missed out on some of it. So what meditation does is it brings a mindful attention that lets us see what’s going on within our own being, and hold that with kindness. Those are the two wings of presence: to see what’s happening, and to have a quality of care about that.
And so that happens in the therapeutic setting, but we actually are training ourselves in meditation to be able to offer that inwardly. And I often teach therapists who are wanting to bring the skills of meditation into psychotherapy an acronym that can help them kind of systematically help to strengthen someone’s attention in that way. And the acronym I use is R.A.I.N., and it helps both the therapist and the client in systematically cultivating mindfulness.
The R stands for “Recognize,” and the A for “Allow.” So let’s say somebody’s caught in self-blame, and let’s say they’re feeling like they’ve—let’s say there’s a breakup in a relationship and they’re saying, “It’s my fault. I blew it. No one will ever love me again. I’m unlovable.” The R will be, “OK, so recognize right now the sense of shame, of failure.” And the A will be, “Allow it. Allow it to be here just for this moment.” So that’s the beginning of mindfulness: just to, without adding on anything, just to recognize and allow what’s going on.
And if you want to turn it into a kind of inquiry, the R is, “Well, what is happening right now?” And if you even ask that in this moment, “What is happening inside me right now?” that starts to develop the quality of recognition, which is key to mindfulness. And if you ask the question “Can I be with this?” or “Can I let this be?” that’s the A, the allowing. So we begin in introducing mindfulness into psychotherapy with this recognizing and allowing what’s happening. And sometimes the noting, the naming, is really powerful.
With the allowing, for some people, it’s very helpful to imagine it just like you’re bowing to what’s there. You’re just saying, “OK, I respect that in this moment, this is what’s here.” Or for some—I was teaching a weekend on compassion with Father Thomas Keating at one point, and his way of describing the allowing is to say, “I consent.” OK, so “I consent to this feeling of shame or of failure. In this moment, I consent. This is here right now.” It’s not like saying, “I believe my thoughts.” It’s just saying, “I’m allowing this experience.”
And then the I of R.A.I.N. is to begin to Investigate, because sometimes it’s such a tangle that, in a therapeutic setting, we can deepen mindfulness with the investigating. And that would be to start, as I was describing before, to investigate “Well, what am I believing?” “I’m believing that I’ve always failed” or “I’m believing that people will always reject me.” And then the investigation deepens: “Well, how does it feel to believe that?” “Oh, I feel this squeeze or this sinking feeling.” So that’s the I.
But the investigating, it’s a double I in R.A.I.N., because there’s also a quality of Intimacy, a kind of intimate attention where not only are we seeing, “OK, there’s a belief that I’m going to fail, and a feeling, a sinking feeling,” but it’s a kind of an intimate presence. And in a way there’s the kind of sense of “Well, what does this part of me need?” And often it needs to feel like it’s OK that this is happening, or it needs to feel kindness. So it may be that when I’m working with somebody and I get to the I, I might have them put their hand on their heart and just kind of send a message in of “I’m here” or “I’m accepting this” or “I care about this suffering.”
So that’s the R, the A, and the I. The N is Non-Identification. That when we bring those qualities of presence, of recognizing and allowing, when there’s a deepening with the investigation and the intimacy, that presence itself loosens the identification. And what people find is when they’ve been with themselves in that way, that what they are is really the awareness that’s paying attention, that kindness that’s holding the space. They no longer identify with the self that is failing or small.
So that’s a very nutshell summary of this acronym, which is really a training in presence, and which brings together the realms of meditation and psychotherapy for many people in a very powerful way.
TS: Mm-hmm. I’m curious now, Tara—I may get a little personal here, I hope that’s OK. But before the conversation started, when you and I were just speaking, you mentioned to me that you’ve been undergoing some health challenges. And I know from my own experience that sometimes whether it’s a health challenge or, as you mentioned, other challenges, that’s when this self-blame occurs, at least for me. This feeling of “This difficult thing has happened and it’s something outside of my control, but yet I feel somehow I am responsible for it.” And I’m curious if the R.A.I.N. process has helped you through your health challenges, and how you’ve worked with it?
TB: Yes, very much. Very much. It’s amazing to me, for myself when I’m feeling sick and with so many I’ve worked with, how we can be feeling miserable and then add onto that, “And somehow or other this is my fault, and it reflects badly on me.” And that happens to me all the time.
Part of what’s going on for me is I have connective-tissue difficulty, which means I injure myself easily. And every time I injure myself, there’s some part of me thinking, “Oh, there I go again. I was pushing it; I wasn’t tuning in, I wasn’t listening to my body.” So in some way I make myself “wrong” for the injury.
And then it goes even deeper than that, Tami, where when I’m feeling sick I end up getting very self-protective and irritable and grumpy and selfish, like what I want matters more than other people around me. And then I start really disliking myself for the self-absorption that comes with being sick. And that’s really painful, because there have been all these years of practice, and touching, feeling, many, many moments of real spaciousness and not having my attention fixated on self and what self needs and what self wants, and then to feel how much contraction there is with sickness and not liking the person I’ve become.
So what happens—and I’ll use this as the example because it’s pretty poignant—is that a few months ago, I went through quite a sick spell. And especially with my husband, I was aware of how I just felt like I was not being a nice person. And I remember one morning meditating, and it hit me like a tsunami how I had turned on myself. That here I was feeling miserable, and I was adding onto that this bad-personhood condemnation kind of thing. And so I just began doing R.A.I.N. so as to recognize and allow, “OK, I’ve really turned on myself.” And let it just be there, the sense of the aversion, kind of almost ashamed and embarrassed about myself. And so it was kind of like a pause, where I was just saying, “OK, allowing this to be here.”
And then I began to investigate and recognize in the investigation how much I had this ideal of who I should be at all moments, and how I was so far from it that I could barely stomach myself. And then with that, sensing this place in me that felt so ashamed. And then I kind of inquired, “What does this place most need?” And so much this sense of forgiving the humanness, just really a kindness toward the humanity that was here. So I began to offer a real, what I call an intimate presence, where (as I often teach to people) I just put my hand on my heart and I kind of varied the pressure until it was tender. So it was as if I was really communicating to my inner life: “It’s OK. This humanness is just part of the deal, and it’s really OK.” And so that was a Recognize, Allow, Investigate/Intimate kind of presence.
And the more I offered that kindness inward, the more the sense of who I was was no longer located inside this self that was falling short so horribly as a sick person. It was more that there was just a vast, tender awareness that was recognizing what was going on; it was as if there were waves that were coming and going, but I had returned to a kind of oceanness that felt like home.
So I’m glad you asked. I wouldn’t have thought to share that story, but it’s been such a teaching to me. Because it had been a long time since I had encountered such a distinctive self-aversion. I teach about it so much that I’m pretty alert to it, but I think between the fatigue and so on of illness I just kind of slipped into that trance. I call it the Trance of Unworthiness. And it was a powerful waking-up, a coming back to compassion, that I really valued.
TS: Now why do you call it a trance when unworthiness takes us over?
TB: You know, when I’m teaching, I’ll often say, “Well, how many of you judge yourself, and feel like you judge yourself too much?” And most everybody will raise their hand. But then when we start exploring what’s not seen, and trance is whatever is—
You know, because we’re living in a smaller domain than the truth, the reality of things is that people do not see how much the sense of falling short, of not being who we want to be, affects every moment. So that in any moment that we’re aversely judging ourselves, feeling down on ourselves, then in those moments we can’t really be intimate with other people because there’s going to be some way that we feel we have to present to get approval.
And we’re not really going to be able to relax and sense any wonder or awe in what’s right here in the world, because there’s that sense of “I’m not OK; I need to be different,” the squeeze of that. And we’re not able to take risks because it’s too dangerous. In the deepest way, we’re just not able to live wholeheartedly because we’re contracted inside a story about ourselves. So in that way I feel like it’s one of the most deep and pervasive trance states that we live in.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now I want to track back for a second, because you’ve introduced this second I in R.A.I.N.: in addition to investigating, we’re being intimate. And this is where I’m curious, where potentially the psychotherapeutic relationship comes in. Because it seems to me that there’s something about another person being with us that allows potentially a kind of dropping into a greater feeling of intimacy. I’m wondering what you think about that, from your experience?
TB: Yes, each piece of R.A.I.N. actually is in a way made possible and deepened through the therapeutic relationship. We co-recognize: you know, a therapist sometimes points out things, we sometimes realize them ourselves. So the recognizing, it’s kind of co-mindfulness. The allowing, when a therapist basically notices what’s going on and says, “Well, let’s slow down here and let’s make some room for this.” That’s a support in the allowing; the therapist is co-investigating.
And for sure, Tami, probably the most important thing is the heart space. Because you can’t really investigate and see clearly what’s going on in the moment if there’s not a quality of care. What happens is if there’s a background of judgment or nonacceptance, it flavors everything so you can’t actually see what’s going on. Acceptance is what makes it possible. So the therapist’s acceptance and care and compassion actually allow the investigation to go really deep.
TS: And I guess part of what I’m curious about is whether or not you believe certain aspects of our sense of unworthiness can heal in relationship with another person, with the therapist, in a way that perhaps would take a lot longer or maybe never even be touched if we were simply working on our own. What do you think about that?
TB: Yes. I think we were wounded in relationship, and that the mirroring in relationship is integral to coming to realize our own essential goodness. So whether it’s a lover or a therapist or a friend, we need our relational life as much as we need to cultivate the capacity to see our own goodness. And I don’t think of them as one more than the other; they’re absolutely interrelated and both essential.
TS: And so in Buddhism, before we had psychotherapy, that function was performed by the community or by the teacher-student relationship? Or how do you see that?
TB: In both, yes. In Buddhism—and I love this kind of paradigm—it’s been described as our healing comes by taking the Three Refuges. And one of the refuges that we’re talking about here is really this refuge in presence and what’s happening in the present moment. And this is where we’re learning to really pay attention to the moment-to-moment truth of what we’re experiencing. And one of the refuges is called dharma, or truth, and it’s what really is happening: the path. It is the experience that is real.
And then another refuge in the Buddhist tradition is refuge in sangha, our spiritual friends, the community of those who are awakening. And in the West, in contemporary spiritual culture, we really think of that as our relational field, those whom we’re involved with. And so the teacher, our friends that we meditate with, our parents, anyone that we’re in relationship with, can be part of that realization that we’re not separate, and that reminder of the goodness that’s here.
Then the third gateway to refuge in the Buddhist tradition is refuge in awareness itself, refuge in our Buddha nature. And that refuge is revealed through the other two refuges. I mean, when we’re paying attention to what’s here in the present moment, what we discover is the awakeness and emptiness and vastness of our awareness itself. And when we take refuge in each other, we discover that consciousness and presence that’s really the Oneness that unites us. And we can learn to turn our attention directly toward awareness, and realize that that story of a separate, small self that we were believing in was a story.
So typically in the therapeutic process, the refuge of presence (and with the present-moment experience) and in the relational field are the two major gateways, but it can be all three.
TS: I guess this is another aspect of what I was trying to get at with my question, which is: do you believe that psychotherapy, sort of from Freud and beyond, has contributed something to human development, human unfolding, even a potential depth of liberation that we didn’t have pre-psychotherapy?
TB: Yes, I do. I think that even while the relational field is considered one of the three major gateways to freedom in the Buddhist tradition, I think the actual manifestation and the way it’s been unfolded in the West has had a lot more depth and subtlety and emphasis in a way that got overlooked. Or maybe wasn’t a match for other cultures. But I think—I’ll just speak for our culture—the deliberate process of being involved with another person or other people, and speaking what’s true and having it held with a tender presence, and having others mirror back what they see, is integral to healing and is not developed in the Asian spiritual traditions.
TB: Is that kind of what you were getting at?
TS: Yes, that is kind of what I’m getting at. And I wonder specifically what you think that offers people? Like what can come from being involved, working with a therapist, that you won’t get if you just pursue a meditative path?
TB: Well, let me speak to when there’s been trauma, because huge numbers of us have been traumatized. It’s so underestimated in this culture.
TS: And how do you define “trauma”?
TB: Trauma is when we have encountered an out-of-control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love, where we get caught in this looping of fear. And then post-traumatic stress is when it’s as if we’re in past time; we’re back in that looping of fear. And whether it’s the birth trauma many people have had, or an accident, or a sudden unexpected loss, we’ve encountered a lot of trauma in our lives.
And so when we get caught in post-traumatic stress, when we get caught in that kind of fear, it is not the time to go by ourselves and meditate and try to bring presence to the fear, for most of us, OK? Maybe for some people, it can be workable. But the alchemy of healing when we’ve been traumatized is that we do have to reexperience where the wound or the fear is in our body.
But we need added resources at that time. So in other words, the very definition of trauma is you’re cut off from your resourcefulness; you don’t have it. And so it’s by being with safe others, people who can become a kind of resource, who can help to give us a sense of safety or love that we actually develop what Western psychology calls affect tolerance. We develop this space that we can then reenter, reexperience what we need to reexperience and have it transformed, to have our relationship to it transformed.
And in the early days of meditation retreats and so on, everybody was given the same instructions: whatever was coming up, just note it, notice it, see what’s happening, open to it, feel it in your body. And for some people, where there was trauma there was re-traumatizing, because they did not have the added resources necessary to digest and metabolize and transform through that experience. So that’s kind of one of the areas that it’s clearly essential to have the accompaniment and the guidance of a therapist. And when I’m working with people, the first thing I’ll do is explore with them how in addition to me and my presence, they can cultivate some inner sense of safe refuge. But that precedes the different, more traditional meditative skills of coming into the body and feeling what’s going on.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now I just want to unpack a little bit what you were saying here. You said the first step in healing trauma is that we have to be able to reexperience it. Why is that so?
TB: That’s not the first step; that’s what ultimately the alchemy of healing trauma is, that we have to contact where it’s living in our body. But what happens is it gets kind of frozen in our body, cut off from the rest of our functioning, but it’s still there and it’s still in a way sending a message to our whole nervous system of “Something’s inherently not OK and can go wrong at any moment. And if I get even a little tip that something’s about to go wrong, something similar to whatever went wrong, even if it looks and sounds like it a little bit, all the old feelings of really deep, deep danger come up.”
So it’s locked in there, and we need a way to re-contact the place in us that’s afraid, but with enough new resources. We need to add on to what’s there; we need to add a sense of safety, a sense of empowerment, a sense of love, a sense that it can be different, so that we develop a new relationship to it. And this really is identical to learning theory: that the way learning happens is we have the same experience, but with an additional piece to it that then gives it a new context, a new relationship to the world. So we create new neural patterns around an old experience, in other words.
TB: Does that context it in a helpful way?
TS: Yes. I think so. What you’re saying is we have to be able to touch that hidden part within us with enough safety, so that whatever has been hidden or frozen can come up. And you mentioned that you help your clients develop that safety so they experience it not just sitting with you, but inside themselves. Can you give us a sense of how you do that?
TB: Sure, sure. And just to say that one of the teachings that always struck me is from Carl Jung: he describes that nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on the environment, and especially on the children, than the unlived life of the parents. And there’s this notion of unlived life that has to do with trauma, where trauma happens. It’s kind of a life that happens, but we freeze and are unable to digest it or live it. It’s that the unfilled, unseen parts of our psyche get locked in there. So the process of healing is one of re-contacting that unlived life—living it through, but to live it through we need to have some of what we didn’t have when we were traumatized, which is some sense of safety, of support, and so on.
So one element of that safety, that container, is the therapist and the therapeutic relationship. And then the therapist can very intentionally help the client to find whatever else gives a sense of safety. So for instance, I worked some time ago with a woman who was abused by her uncle when she was a young girl, for many years, without her parents knowing it. And then she had many repeatedly different relationships with men who abused her. And when she came to see me, her boyfriend was very aggressive, and when he’d get aggressive, when he’d get belittling or whatever, she’d freeze.
And so she came to work with me, and one of the first things that happens with trauma—just the way you and I were talking about with my own health—is that added to the feeling of being traumatized and afraid is a sense of self-aversion for all the ways that we then act. So for her, it was a sense of being weak, a sense of shame for having attracted the same pattern. She was down on herself for the way she would drink when she would get anxious; she had a whole laundry list.
So one of the first pieces of therapy really had to do with recognizing that Second Arrow, how she was in that trance of “How bad I am,” and beginning to just, through my way of relating to her and inviting her to even consider the possibility of forgiving herself for all the ways that out of that wounding she ended up trying to take care of herself, find some relief. That was one piece.
But the main piece, Tami, really the first six or eight months of the therapy, was, “OK, when you start feeling scared, what can give you a sense of safety, or of feeling loved or OK?” And we talked about where she felt it at all in her life, anywhere. And I do that—that’s one of the questions I ask people, is “Where do you feel any sense of well-being?” Because if I can find that, then whatever the constellation that is in them, we can then strengthen those neural pathways.
And so for her, she felt a sense of ease and acceptance and comfort with her sister and with her best friend, and then also with me. And so we did a kind of meditative process where she practiced just bringing up the three of us in her mind and imagining us around her, creating a circle of light, as kind of her spirit allies, creating a safe space for her, a loving, safe space. And we did it a lot of times, where she would just call on this not just when she was scared, but when she was feeling OK, just so she could get used to visualizing and imagining and calling on that kind of a healing, safe space.
And then for another number of months, we would practice where she would just get in touch a little bit, you know, have a memory and just tap in a little bit to where she would get afraid, and then call on the three of us to be with her in that. So she’d imagine kind of going in and out of where she was afraid, until she started getting some facility with contacting these fearful parts of her, the memories and the places in her body that she felt when she’d feel isolated or scared, and then calling on her safe refuge. So we practiced that a lot, and gradually she felt a little stronger in it.
And interestingly, the time that she got really challenged was when she had a breakup with her partner and he was very, very threatening. She went over and spent the night at her friend’s house, but it kicked off a lot of trauma. Her friend had fallen asleep, and she just kept on calling on us, and calling on us, and feeling like something in her was ripping apart. But she just kept on calling us; it was a prayer, really: “Please be with me. Please hold me. Please protect me.” And she was shaking, and it was really, really scary. But she felt like she—something split open, and she really felt like she was resting in a loving presence that was holding her and could hold the fear. So that the ocean was bigger than the waves; she was in a place of wholeness. And that way she discovered, she recovered her soul; she felt like she had lost her soul to these men, and she recovered it.
So this was actually happening because, as with any R.A.I.N. process, she had brought such a profound, intimate attention—and calling on us helped to strengthen that intimate presence—until there was really a shift in her sense of her own identity.
TS: I love that story, and I can really feel it as you’re describing this woman and how she was able to contact this sense of a safe place. I’m curious how being a meditator, how meditating could help in the development and contact of a safe space. You’ve described it in this instance in terms of helping someone through a psychotherapeutic process, through working with you, to find that. But how does meditation help with that?
TB: I think for any of us, we can ask ourselves, “When is it that I feel most loved or safe or protected in some way?” And then invoke it. So when I work with people and I ask that question, some people will say, “Well, I feel it when I remember Jesus. When I remember the love of Jesus or Mother Mary.” There is a story of the Dalai Lama, of a man who was very frightened and went to him and asked him for a meditation. He said, “Imagine that you are resting in the heart of the Buddha.” And for some people, when I say, “What gives you that sense?” they’ll say, “My dog. Imagining and feeling my dog’s presence.” And for some people, it’s being in nature. So we ask ourselves, “What reminds me, what reconnects me with a sense of really being taken care of?”
And for myself, especially with the health struggles I’ve been in, and facing, like everybody faces at times, a real sense of “Wow, this body is not going to make it for that long, it’s not going to make it forever,” and all the fear and aloneness that comes up in that, what I do is I say to myself, “Well, what is it I most—what can I turn to? If I had three minutes to live, what would I most want to remember? What would I most want to connect with that would take care of it all?”
And for me, it’s loving presence, like if I can in some way remember loving presence. And then I’ll ask other people or myself, “Well, what would that really be like? Those are just words.” And for me, there’s a sense of light and warmth, and a sentience that’s inside me and around me but aware of this life that’s right here. So it’s kind of a sense of a presence that is aware of me and loves me, but when I really sense that loving and awareness right here, it’s bathing me with light.
And if I then go into it even more deeply, the light’s coming from inside me, too, and then there’s a merger into it. So in a sense the prayer, the calling on that loving presence, is a bridge from the longing to the belonging. It’s like it starts out dualistic: when we need something, we feel like we need it from outside. It starts out with a sense of duality. But if we imagine it and call on it, then we find that we’re really calling on our awakened heart. It’s already here.
So that’s a process, Tami, that I teach a lot of people And we might call it “prayer” or “mindful prayer” or “meditation,” but it’s really calling on the refuge that we really long for: imagining it, and then experiencing it.
TS: I love that. It seems in many ways that this could be even a shortcut to the R.A.I.N. technique, to just go directly, to pray directly for that loving refuge.
TB: The challenge to that is that unless there’s a lot of presence, there’s not access to it. So you have to have a certain amount of presence to feel the longing and to pray, and then that in turn deepens presence. And I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently on prayer, because more and more I’m feeling the power of it in my own life. And I’m aware that it’s entirely based on presence.
TS: Explain what you mean by that, by “it’s entirely based on presence.” I’m not sure I’m following you. It seems like most people, even when they don’t have much presence—they’re in a ditch or whatever—they can come up with a prayer.
TB: Well, this power of the prayer correlates with the depth to which we feel the longing. So if it’s a reflexive “Oh, help me! Oh, help me!” that’s really natural and really human. But if we can be really present with the longing so that we immerse into it, then we drop into it, we feel into it, so that there’s a sense of “What am I really longing for? What’s really this longing? What do I really, really want?” Initially prayer is for relief: “Just give me relief.” But what am I really, really wanting?
Well, for me, initially it’s like “Take this pain away” or “Reassure me that I’m going to live longer” or whatever it is. But what I’m really longing for, if I get in touch with it deeply, Tami, is I want to trust my belonging. I want to trust belonging to love, belonging to awareness. That’s the longing. And those words don’t even count; I have to feel it viscerally, like “Please, please” in a very deep way. And when I feel it that deeply and then when I reach out toward it, it’s already there.
And another way to understand this is that to long for something, you have to have internal knowledge of it. And it’s only if you inhabit the longing that you settle back into its source. In other words, if I’m longing for love, I have to already know about love; it already has to be what I am on some level. So the longing is like this current that carries me home to what I already am, back to presence. Unless I’m really present with the longing, there’s not that kind of immersion in it.
TS: It sounds to me like what you’re saying is that the deeper we can contact what it is we’re really looking for, then the deeper we can discover it.
TB: That’s right; that’s exactly right. If you really know what you’re looking for, you’re already there. You’re already in it. And I want to share something John O’Donohue said, because he really says it beautifully. He says, “Prayer is the voice of longing. It reaches outwards and inwards to unearth our ancient belonging.”
TB: So there’s a way in which we have to really go inward, inward, inward to the source. It’s a kind of tracing back the longing to its source. And then one way that I sometimes frame it to myself is, “Isn’t it true that what I’m longing for is already here?” Because if I really pay attention to here, it’s embedded in here. It’s embedded in the longing that’s here.
TS: Hmm. Beautiful. Now, Tara, I’m so glad that you’re teaching this new online course with Sounds True, Meditation and Psychotherapy: Integrating Mindfulness into Clinical Practice. And I’m particularly happy about this because I would love for more and more therapists to be using mindfulness and meditation in their practice. And I’m a big fan of therapy, as maybe you can tell from this conversation—I’ve been in therapy many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many years and have found it tremendously helpful.
And yet, often when I talk to people, people who live in different parts of the country, they say, “Well, that’s great, Tami. You can find a fabulous therapist there in Boulder, but I can’t find the kind of person who has enough sophistication and depth to really help me.” And I think to myself, “Yes, I wonder what percentage of therapists out there are really operating at a deep-enough level that I would find them effective?” And I’m just curious what your thoughts are about that, what your thoughts are about the evolution within the psychotherapeutic field of more and more people being trained in meditation and mindfulness, and kind of where you think the field’s going?
TB: I can say personally that I get more requests than I can possibly tell you for referrals to therapists who know how to draw on meditative strategies. Like, continual requests. And the invitations I get the most of nowadays are to come and teach therapists about meditation, how to integrate it. So it feels like, in my realm, a real happening.
And I think of meditation as integral to the evolution of consciousness and very much being recognized in the West as—being valued in the West for just that reason, which is that it’s all about learning to pay attention. And therapy is fantastic about bringing a loving and intelligent attention to what’s going on within us. And if therapists can then bring to that these tools that actually train people how to bring a real—to empower them to pay attention themselves in an ongoing way, then it gets integrated in a kind of dimensionality that is really, really powerful.
So I think it’s happening. I think it’s already going on. There’s a reason why almost every major psychotherapy conference in the country has many, many workshops on something to do with mindfulness or meditation. I mean, it’s in the culture.
TS: And what do you see, if you could have it your way in terms of the future of the practice of psychotherapy, what kinds of therapists do you think we would be seeing active in the world? What would their training be? How would they approach therapy?
TB: I can’t imagine a good training in how to do therapy that didn’t include training people in both—and I didn’t really go through it in this particular conversation, but having the skills of how to stabilize the mind, quiet the mind, open the mind to what’s happening in the moment, and reach out toward love. You know, all these skills would be considered an integral part of the training in psychotherapy.
So in a larger way, Tami, it would be to honor that more and more people are recognizing that what they want on the planet isn’t to rerun their patterns of being a separate self, striving, busy, and on their way to kind of more small-minded goals. There’s more and more of a yearning to recognize the depths of who we are. And whether we call it the human-potential movement or spiritual transcendence, people want to be all that they can be. And therapy, the therapy that we’re evolving toward in our culture, my hope is that therapists would be really dedicated to both exploring their own process and awakening themselves in these ways, and really holding a space for people to discover all the dimensions of their being.
TS: I love that. I mean, personally I have this feeling that the profession of being a psychotherapist is one of the most sacred professions if it was approached in the way that you’re describing.
TB: It is. It’s the shaman of our culture. It’s the priests of our culture in a way that is not burdened by a lot of the overlays and confusions that come with religion. So I’m right there with you.
TS: Yes, OK. And just one final question, Tara. You mentioned that you’ve been doing a lot of writing, and one of the topics that clearly you’re writing about is prayer and longing. And I’m curious what else you’ve been writing about.
TB: Well, I’m writing a book right now called True Refuge. And the premise is that when we get stressed, when we get afraid, when we encounter or approach loss—which every one of us is—our habit is to go toward what I call “false refuge.” And that’s just all the different ways we try to control and manage our lives. And to really let those times be an opportunity to discover the possibility of profound love and freedom, and how to do that.
And it talks about three gateways to a fearless heart, some of which we’ve talked about, really: the gateway of how to turn toward presence with what’s right here, to turn toward love and our sense of relatedness. And really the profound investigation into awareness itself: who are we?
TS: Tara, thank you so much. I always love speaking with you. So refreshing.
TB: It’s the same. Thank you, Tami.
TS: Tara Brach will be hosting a new, nine-week online course with Sounds True called Meditation and Psychotherapy: An Online Training Course for Integrating Mindfulness into Clinical Practice. And that begins at SoundsTrue.com on February 18, and will feature three live sessions with Tara, where she will be with participants answering questions they have about the whole field of meditation and psychotherapy, and the online training course that she has created.
Tara is also the author of two audio programs with Sounds True, one called Radical Self-Acceptance and the other a program on Meditations for Emotional Healing.
Thanks, everyone, for listening. SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.