By Luis S R Vas
Tara Brach talks about the wisdom of pausing to arrive at the present moment
Tara Brach, PhD, has been practising meditation since 1975 and leads Buddhist meditation retreats at centres throughout North America. She is a clinical psychologist and the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.
Tara spent 10 years living in an ashram where she practised and taught kundalini yoga and concentrative (breath and mantra) meditations. After being introduced to Buddhist meditation, she attended a number of silent Vipassana retreats led by Joseph Goldstein and other senior teachers. She went on to participate in a five-year Buddhist teacher training programme under the guidance of Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
Subsequently, she received training in Dzogchen from Tsoknyi Rinpoche and has incorporated elements of Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism into her daily practice and teaching.
Tara founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) in 1998 and serves as its senior teacher. Along with a growing number of dedicated community leaders, Tara has guided IMCW into one of the largest and most active Buddhist centres on the East Coast. Her Wednesday night class at the River Road Unitarian Church attracts over two hundred people each week, and serves as a gateway to many spiritual seekers.
In addition to teaching Buddhist meditation classes and retreats, Tara travels widely, giving talks at conferences, as well as leading workshops and teaching courses. She often draws on her psychological training as well as Buddhist teachings and practices to help participants address difficult emotions and harmful behaviours.
Tara has written numerous articles, and recorded hundreds of talks that are available through IMCW, Dharma Seed Tape Library and Sounds True. An engaged Buddhist, her themes often address the suffering of our world, and the compelling need to respond to violence and injustice by practising compassion in action. In this spirit, Tara helped found the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 2002.
“You can’t remove fear,” Tara Brach says, “but you can find balance and freedom in the midst of it.” A self-described Type A personality in recovery, Brach has been practising meditation for 30 years, and now teaches others how Buddhist meditation can help them work through anxiety and live in the present.
Brach lives in Bethesda with her partner, Jonathan Foust, a former president of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts who now teaches and offers mind-body therapies.
“The Chinese word for ‘busyness’ also means ‘heart-killing’,” she says. “The more anxious we get, the more uncomfortable we are with ourselves and the more we speed up our lives. When I am rushing around like that, it is impossible to be genuinely empathetic with someone else – to pay close attention and really listen. In Washington, we keep checklists and feel great crossing things off. However, in that process, we are always on our way somewhere – we are not arriving in our lives. Buddhism teaches us how to pause and arrive in the present moment.”
What happens if you do not have time to pause, with all the emails, phone messages, and deadlines?
“At the end of our lives, each of us will look back and wonder what really mattered. It will not be ‘busyness’. It will be that we were able to love and be intimate with others, that we enjoyed beauty and were creative in some manner. That we lived our lives fully. The ‘busyness’ in Washington is pursuing some accomplishment, commodity, or recognition we think we want. We race to the end of our lives. Then at the finish line, we realise we have skimmed the surface.”
But isn’t there satisfaction in accomplishment?
“Sure. However, to be productive in a way that is genuinely gratifying requires elements of creativity, wholehearted presence, goodwill – the sense that what you are doing serves others. Accomplishing for the sake of accomplishing is often driven by feeling not good enough. Being on a treadmill where fear drives our ‘busyness’ goes against a life based on loving and being loved, being present in each moment, and not having to prove yourself.”
How does one make that transition?
“For me, through Buddhist meditations that train me in mindfulness and compassion. I always used to feel I was never doing enough. I had to keep producing to feel better about myself. Feeling unworthy is the deepest and most pervasive suffering in our society. Feeling inadequate or broken keeps us from being intimate with others and can drive us toward addiction. Needing to soothe ourselves leads to compulsive overeating, drugs, or alcohol. I was an overeater for years. Being addicted, and feeling ashamed of it, drives more addictive behaviour. Buddhist practice helps release this shame. That is why the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step programme works so well with Buddhist practice – especially the 11th step, which talks about the importance of prayer and meditation. In my classes, there are many Twelve Steppers. What I teach helps them quieten their minds and get in touch with the emotions underlying addiction. By learning to accept themselves and trust their basic goodness, they begin to loosen addiction’s grip.
“The Buddha described how we all want to be happy, but our habit is to fixate on happiness substitutes – finding the right partner, getting a raise or dream house, losing weight. These can never deliver lasting happiness because everything is impermanent. It is like being thirsty and drinking salt water – we keep needing something else to feel okay, but instead of discovering true happiness, we chase after substitutes, seeking the next fix.
“Research reveals a ‘happiness set point,’ or default position, in the brain. Things that we anticipate will make us happy can do so for a few months, but then everyone returns to his or her set point. Meditation has the capacity to change that set point.”
What is it that you call ‘the sacred pause’?
“We are wired to think that we are always on our way somewhere – the next thing to ask, say, or do. We frequently worry about what will go wrong. We can break this process once we learn to pause and bring a gentle, mindful attention to what is happening inside us. We need to reconnect with the life of our bodies, to feel our hearts. That is the sacred pause. At any time, we can take a few breaths, relax, and pay attention. Most people keep speeding up to drown out their anxiety. They stay lost in thought, dissociated from the body. Being brave enough to pause, entails feeling that anxiety in our bodies. But we also find some space of presence and kindness underneath it.”
When do you pause?
“I start each morning with yoga and then practise meditation for 45 minutes. It quietens my mind and reconnects me with my heart. Then throughout the day, I take pauses. After hanging up the phone, I will not immediately go on to something else. I will sit still and feel my body and breath, maybe for 30 seconds. I then re-enter the day with a refreshed presence.”
Just what are we radically accepting?
“The psychologist Carl Rogers said, ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’ Acceptance means we are accepting the actuality of what is happening inside us – hurt, anger, fear, shame. Such honest presence with our experience is a precondition for healing and change. After it come wisdom and compassion.”
So there is no diminution of striving or improvement?
“Yes, there is, I don’t strive as much. However, I now work with more energy and creativity. Much of our striving is wasteful. It exhausts us and disconnects us from inner wisdom. It’s impossible to reach your deeper intelligence and intuition when your mind is racing along.”
What are the big lessons you’ve learnt?
“To stop thinking that happiness can come from chasing after fleeting pleasures and running away from discomfort and difficulty. Such a life prevents us from discovering the aliveness, tenderness, and beauty that arise when we are fully here now. Even when our lives seem terrible – with the diagnosis of a malignancy or the loss of a loved one – living in the present with deep awareness can reawaken our compassion and wisdom. It also gives us confidence that we can handle whatever happens.”
Your grand lessons of life?
“If at any moment I stop and ask myself what I really care about, my life becomes aligned. It does not matter what I am in the midst of doing. If I reflect on what is important, I will remember to pause, relax, and open my heart.”
Another of Brach’s practices makes a great deal of sense and is very accessible to anyone:
“Sometimes the easiest way to appreciate ourselves is by looking through the eyes of someone who loves us. A friend told me that when he sees himself through the eyes of his spiritual teacher, he remembers how deeply devoted he is to seeking the truth. One of my clients realises he is lovable when he remembers how his grandfather used to delight in his boyish curiosity and inventiveness. Sometimes seeing ourselves through the eyes of a close friend can help us to remember our good qualities. We do not have to limit our appreciators to the human world. I once saw a bumper sticker that said: ‘Lord, help me to see myself the way my dog sees me…’ The practice of looking through the eyes of one who loves us can be a powerful and surprisingly direct way to remember our beauty and goodness.”
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