January 24, 2013

Gimme Shelter: Finding True Refuge with Tara Brach.

A couple years ago, I went to this group sit with a local sangha and, wouldn’tcha know it, just as I’m settling in for45 minutes of silent meditation, somebody puts on a CD! I’m thinkin’ what?!

Forty five minutes of sitting listening to somebody talking about stuff?! You call that meditation?! It’s like going to a concert and having the performer come out and say “you’re all just gonna sit in silence instead of hearing music!” It was an outrage!

 And yet, being a mellow meditating kinda dude, I decided to sit there with my irritation and maybe, just maybe, actually pay attention to what the gentle voice on the CD was talking about. As it turned out, it was somebody named Tara Brach, talking about mindfulness in such an intelligent, generous, insightful, good-humored, manner I thought wow, whoever the hell Tara Brach is, she’s awesome!

Some time afterwards, I read her first and, then, only book Radical Acceptance, which mixed the best of Eastern thought with Western psychology, with a deeply personal touch, free of dogma, metaphysics, or bogus affirmations to explain just what it means to radically accept (which, as it turned out, was somewhat very different from what I expected). Before long, I was heading up to Kripalu for a weekend workshop with her. It was incredible…in, y’know, a touchy-feely, healing-used-as-an-adjective kinda way I wouldn’t wanna go into too much detail about for fear of ruining the carefully cultivated rugged and curmudgeonly image of the yoga cynic.

Ultimately, the thing about Tara Brach is that she just seems like an incredibly wise woman who makes no pretense of being a wise woman. If you’re looking for someone to stand there with a glow around her and say I’m totally spiritual and have it all figured out, she’s probably  not your cup of soma.

…as poet Danna Faulds puts it, “Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain.*

She begins her new book, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, with a description of a miserable family trip to the shore. Basically, she was hating her life because of health problems that kept her home alone while everyone else went to the beach. Later she discusses times in the not-too-distant past when she’s felt pissed off at everybody around her and even behaved like a jerk. Notably, these are not before I got all spiritual stories. No, they’re about the famous author who’s published a bestselling book and led lots of workshops and retreats, but is still down here in the trenches with the rest of us. This book is not about finding a path to some kind of mythically perfect life, but strategies for dealing with the lives we’ve got (where, y’know, people do stuff like putting on CDs when you wanna meditate).

The most liberating meditation practice is to stop controlling and to let things be as they are.

Central to these strategies are consenting to rather than fighting circumstances, which is similar to radical acceptance. This is a concept that’s easily misunderstood; I know because I’ve misunderstood it, myself. Basically: it doesn’t mean apathy. It doesn’t conflict at all with working for a better future. In fact, it might be useful in working for a better future in a calm and clear-sighted manner rather than retreating into comfortable illusion.**

She goes beyond this, however, to finding the “true refuge” of the book’s title in what she calls “presence”—ultimately, letting go of our countless forms of inner resistance and “false refuge” to be fully there with whatever we’re dealing with. This, of course, goes against all of our protective instincts. The point however, is that we can’t run away from our pain; we’re going to experience it, no matter what, so we might as well face it head on. And it’s in this that we, paradoxically, find liberation from it.

When we identify with a small self, we are perceiving ourselves as a cluster of ocean waves, not recognizing that we are made of ocean. When we realize our true self is ocean, the familiar pattern of waves—our fears and defensiveness, our wants and busyness—remains a part of us, but it does not define us.

And yet this is not the kind of tough-guy stoicism that grits its teeth and says “I can take it.” Instead, it involves a lot of self-compassion, a lot of inner work, a lot of meditation. Central to this is one of those magical acronyms, kind of like the BRFWA (Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow) I learned at Kripalu, RAIN: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Non-Identification (which, as an acronym, gets points for brevity and forming an actual word, but loses them for the sloppy three-verbs-and-an-abstract-noun grammatical arrangement).

Like an ocean with waves on the surface, feel yourself as the tender, wakeful openness that includes arising and passing sensations, emotions, thoughts. Can you sense how who you are is not identified by or hitched to any particular wave of fear or anger or hurt? Can you sense how the waves on the surface belong to your experience, but cannot injure or alter the measureless depth and vastness of your being?

One thing that’s particularly gratifying in Tara’s writing is her generous tone: words like “prayer” and “spiritual” are used a lot, but, ultimately, there’s nothing in here that requires any metaphysical beliefs. Even as religious traditions are often brought up, her version of “interfaith” includes agnostics and atheists. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn, she  has extensive backgrounds in both Buddhism and western psychology and intertwines the best of each tradition in a manner that’s pragmatic and nearly seamless.

As such, while she mostly works from Eastern traditions, she shows an understanding of trauma, anxiety, and depression that is often sorely missing from the one-sized-all approaches of traditional schools of meditation, with the refreshing humility to make clear that what she’s offering here may, in many cases, need to be supplemented by therapy, and that many traditional Buddhist techniques may not be appropriate for people dealing with trauma.***

I have to be careful, here, because it seems all too easy to describe this in a way that would make me, if I were reading this review, turn away from something that sounds horribly new-agey, touchy-feely, self-helpy, total-crappy. The thing is, a lot of that typical touchy-feely new-agey self-helpy kinda subject matter is here, but dealt with in a far more nuanced, mindful, thoughtful approach, without the absurd generalizations and affirmations.

Yes, forgiving yourself no matter what is important, but, no, that doesn’t mean you should go through life as a happy sociopath doing whatever you want without guilt or shame. Yes, always thinking as opposed to feeling can be a problem, but that doesn’t mean she’s advocating the kind of mindlessness that leads people to run away from reality into new age fantasy worlds (or put “reality” in quotation marks, like the academics do). Rather, she acknowledges the value of analytical thought, more specifically defining obsessive thinking about the small self as the problem. And, notably, she points out that feeling isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, either.

What True Refuge is ultimately about is awareness. What awareness means, exactly, is what its words circle around throughout, using the best of modern psychology, evoking countless religious traditions, quoting lots of poems, and giving a wealth of real-life stories, without every quite zeroing in and defining. This is intentional.

Whatever words are used, whatever thoughts they evoke, that’s not it! Just as we can’t see our own eyes, we can’t see awareness. What we are looking for is what is looking. Awareness is not another object or concept that our mind can grasp. We can only be awareness.

At times, she might go too far for the religiously inclined in secularizing the “sacred” (Father = awareness, Son = living reality/truth, Holy Spirity = love), and, in one significant place, goes to the opposite extreme and seems to define the indefinable as something that sounds traditionally theistic enough to irritate a yoga cynic. But, then, she tells a story like this one, and we’re friends again:

One day a novice asks the abbot of the monastery, “What happens after we die?” The venerable old monk responds, “I don’t know.” Disappointed, the novice says, “But I thought you were a Zen monk.” “I am, but not a dead one!”

There’s a particular intimacy to her writing, here and elsewhere, as she refers to her son and husband by their first names, with the assumption that we’re all friends, here.  And, most importantly, that intimacy never feels fake or forced. What we get here is someone courageously putting herself forward, warts and all, and encouraging us to step our of our false refuges to do the same.****

We can’t separate the ocean from the waves. Our path is to realize the vast oceanness of our being, and to cherish the waves that appear on the surface.



* all quotations are from True Refuge. 

** An example I’ve come up with: Martin Luther King couldn’t have fought injustice if he hadn’t been willing to acknowledge it, first—calmly accept that it was happening rather than denying it and turning away in disgust.

*** I’ve personally read and heard remarks about depression  from some of the most revered figures in the yoga world, as well as less-revered writers for Elephant Journal, that were shocking in their recklessness and ignorance, revealing that the celebrated guru in question knew nothing about the subject, and wasn’t even aware that it’s not a simple synonym for sadness. I don’t care how enlightened you think you are, telling people you’ve never met to quit taking antidepressants is not only stupid but incredibly dangerous.

**** god, I’m sounding touchy-feely, aren’t I? What can I say? Tara Brach brings that out in me…

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