Searching for Her True Refuge: Being Happy For No Reason.
I drove 40 odd minutes to Great Falls, Virginia, one afternoon, to interview Tara Brach. The roads were windy, and she was one of the last houses mid all the trees. Her dog greeted me. The same dog I had heard her talk about in her podcasts that I listen to almost daily. It is odd to “know“ a person virtually and yet we had never met. I know she takes a walk every day. I know her generator is a problem. I know she has health issues. I know her mom lives on the property. I know because I listen to her almost daily online.
She teaches what all great teachers teach: Presence.
What I did not know is the kind heart I hear on my computer that speaks with compassion and wisdom is no different than the person I met. What I did not realize is that she is a poet in person, for when she speaks her words hang like ripe berries, and the fullness of their meaning infuses the moment.
So enjoy our interview. Her book, True Refuge, can be ordered now and is available January 22. Look for Jay Winston’s review as well here on elephant journal.
EL: How long have you been writing?
TB: Not that long really. I mean I wrote and published Radical Acceptance in 2003. I am not a natural writer. I work hard. I love it. I have to work hard and I get help. I have people who are good writers look at my work. I have learned a lot. I admire the craft deeply.
One of my favorite understandings is that we teach from the radiance of our own discovery. When I can open to the silence and stillness that is here, then words and ideas arise that express that discovery.
EL: We teach what we need to know.
TB: We teach from our own place, where the journey is. We teach what is alive for us, and that aliveness is the transmission. Otherwise we are packaging concepts that are canned.
EL: How did you get started?
TB: I started in with yoga. I was in the Kundalini Ashram in DC and Herndon, Virginia.
EL: How did that community work?
TB: Yogi Bhajan was the leader of the larger community. There we practiced Kundalini yoga, followed the Sikh religion, and the meditation was more focused on breath and mantra. When I started reading about Buddhism, it opened up meditation. The style I learned, and that I teach and write about is primarily Vipassana—also known as Insight Meditation, or mindfulness—are all the same domain of practice.
Instead of controlling attention as a way to evoke rapture or bliss or calm, the purpose of this practice is to awaken to reality, to our true nature.
With Buddhist mindfulness practice, the invitation is to come into relationship with all that is happening—the beauty, the sorrows, the mystery. It helps develop the capacity for equanimity, and a very pure uncontrived compassion and love. The pathway is to open to everything with a non-judging, clear, kind attention. But there is an important supportive role for the more directive practice of concentrating the mind that is part of learning Vipassana.
We have strong conditioning to leave the present moment and get lost in thought.
Concentration on the breath or mantra can help quiet the mind and steady our attention, especially if the mind is very active and distracted, it’s helpful to have an anchor—like the breath—to help us remember to come back into the present moment. As the mind begins to settle, it can sense spaces between thoughts and notice what is in the moment.
So the essential mindfulness practice is simply recognizing and allowing what is to be: breath, fear, sound…presence with whatever arises.
In summary: there is a supportive balance between more directive concentrative practice that trains the mind to maintain a steady attention on an object, and the open receptivity of mindful awareness.
The bottom line is, we need enough directive practice to be present.
EL: Can you tell me about types of directive or focused meditations?
TB: There are countless types: to direct meditation elicits positive wholesome qualities of body and mind. Metta (lovingkindness) meditation is directive. The process arouses a sense of openheartedness. Tonglen (taking in suffering, sending out space and loving blessings) is directive but it ends up opening up a sense of compassion. Directed-ness and the focused effort leads towards the end of a free heart and an open mind. It is almost like you are doing the prerequisite of establishing a quiet mind and gentle heart so you can really let go…
EL: Was it Jack Kornfield at a retreat who made meditation come alive? I am not sure why I have that name.
TB: Joseph Goldstein was my first teacher. Since, I have had many Vipassana teachers and I found each in different ways to be inspirations and guides. Rather than having one I found a good number that taught different aspects of the path to me. Jack was formative for me as he was the teacher that trained me in teaching. And now he is one of my best friends. We teach together a lot.
EL: Did you take the vows of Buddhism?
TB: The Western teachers who teach Vipassana come thru the Theraveda lineage but there is an increasingly fruitful mixing of the streams. Not just Buddhism but all the different expessions: Sufi poets, Native Americans. I cannot say I am a Theraveda Buddhist.
With Buddhism, the teachings are perennial wisdom truths. I am guided by them because they have the most comprehensive methods on how to meditate.
I don’t feel called to affiliate with one group over another. I love Tibetan Buddhism, and Mahayana, Rumi and Hafiz. I love the Christian and Jewish mystics, Advaita, nature based shamanism and many traditions beyond these…
EL: Did you go to the Fielding Institute to earn your graduate degree to practice therapy?
TB: I went there because it is well respected yet progressive and flexible. I knew I would be able to explore meditation and its application to psychological transformation. I knew I would be able to do the weave there. My dissertation is on the effect of meditation on binge eating.
EL: Can we take this back to True Refuge, your book?
TB: There are three gateways to waking up out of the egoic self. They are archetypal. As described in Buddhism the three gateways are: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Refuge in the Buddha, or Buddha nature is refuge in the awakened heart and mind.
There is an outer expression wherever we see awakened being.
If I reflect on you—your sentience, clarity—it reminds me of my nature. The inner way is to contemplate awakeness, openness, stillness…and see who looks through these eyes, the formless and timeless. In a way this is the most challenging to directly attend to, to start here with awakened nature.
EL: How is that?
TB: I went on a retreat. They asked: Do you trust you are a Buddha? Then I started thinking of myself: a neurotic human identified with ego. Buddha nature seems out there: an idealized story. Yet the deepest truth of who we are is this awake openness. This empty, radiant heart. That realization takes time to unfold.
In True Refuge I start with Dharma, truth (the truth of the present moment.) We start waking up when we pay attention to the present moment. Dharma means truth or path or the way: it is the momemt to moment experience we contact when we pause and become mindful of sensations and sound.
Those moments when we allow life to be just as it is we can perceive truth, reality.
Most of the time we have a veil, a total interface. Usually it is a veil of concepts, ideas about the moment.
EL: We are in relationships to thoughts. Thoughts are there. We think they are truth.
TB: We mistake thoughts for reality. We spend most of our day in thoughts. We believe thoughts are the real thing. We take thoughts about ourselves seriously. We are the center of the universe. The point is not that we need to get rid of them—we can’t…and they are necessary to surviving and thriving. Just that they are not reality itself. We need to step out and enter the living flow of universe.
EL: And from Dharma you go?
TB: Dharma to Sangha. but it is all interrelated. The moment we are outside of thoughts and in touch with truth, we touch the awareness perceiving the truth.
When we perceive the gap between thoughts, awareness shines through.
But quieting the thoughts and looking into awareness often requires a real softening and opening of the heart—this gives us a sense of safety and allows us to relax and entrust ourselves to reality! So I frequently go from truth of present moment to love. It we have been really wounded we cannot stay with truth of present moment. It hurts too much.
EL: We cannot stay with love either because it hurts too much.
TB: But we can find pathways to experience of loving to soften and melt and find safely. This is what I explore in the section of the book called “Gateway of the Heart.” We each have pathways home…for some it is love of mother or friend or dog, for some, it is imagining ourselves in the arms of the Buddha or the divine mother. As we get familiar with connecting with love, with feeling belonging, we arrive in an openness that actually has room for the life that is here.
The real source of suffering is un-lived life.
We had experiences that were too much when they happened so they get locked in our body because we dissociated. We get disembodied. They’re still controlling us from down under and we regularly experience unworthiness and fear. A key inquiry I address in True Refuge is how we come into our body to digest and open that. I tell stories to help people find ways to live the un-lived life.
EL: In your audio program I reviewed, Releasing the Grip of Fear, you teach us to find a safe way in to come back to raw emotion and be present with the experience.
TB: We need resources to have strength and help with feeling safe to be with difficult experience. It is not always possible to be present with what is….in my book I give lots of stories of people who were traumatized and how they find a way back home.
EL: Also, for trauma, people don’t always know it happened. Meditation may not be a way in…
TB: Certainly bringing mindfulness to traumatic fear can be harmful. First, many of us need therapeutic support. But there are many styles of meditation.
When there is PTSD, we need a style of meditation directly intended to evoke a sense of safety and belonging.
EL: What I like about your teaching is you always bring us back to the body. I find it is missing in clinical psychology. People are in their head already and many work from the neck up.
TB: That is no longer true in the field—over the last two decades I’ve seen the emergence of a number of somatic based therapies (like Focusing, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR.) Many of these work in a powerful, synergistic way with meditation.
I have done lots of training with therapists on how to integrate mindfulness, with it’s full grounding in somatic experience into therapy.
The therapists and meditation students I teach find it easy to use the acronym RAIN—that I introduce in a comprehensive way in True Refuge.
It provides a handle, during difficult times, for bringing a mindful presence to the sensations, emotions and beliefs that often keep us imprisoned in suffering. R-Recognize A-Allow I- investigate with kindness N-not-identified (no longer stuck as suffering self)…N is a return to our Natural loving awareness.
EL: Why did you write this book?
TB: In Radical Acceptance my big issue—and the suffering I witnessed in others—often came down to feelings of unworthiness. In Radical acceptance I described how we get caught in that trance and how we can wake up from that.
In the years that followed I had many challenging experiences. I lost my dad. My mom is aging and has increasing dementia. I was working with people who had heartbreaking losses. Children dying. Custody. Break ups.
Then eight years ago it was my health. My connective tissue is too elastic. I have a genetic disorder, the premutation to Fragile X. Many have it in my family.
EL: Sounds like a good movie.
TB: I am a mutant.
I remember that time well. I could not run, then bike, swim. A lot of my joy and gratitude comes from nature and being able to move freely. I was at Cape Cod with family and friends. One of my greatest joys is swimming, going to the ocean, playing on a boogie board. I could not go. I could not walk on the beach. I could not swim. This was a huge loss and it hit me. I remember breaking down and crying. I had a longing to love life no matter what.
And knowing I needed to find some refuge large enough for living and dying. I needed to find my true refuge.
Walking with my dog along the path above the bay, I still felt the background of my grief. Yet I could feel the vastness of the sky. A salt smell was in the air. I was with my dog. I had no idea how my future would play out, yet I sensed the possibility of being happy for no reason. I wanted to live with that possibility. The book came out of how we all face inevitable loss.
The question is, how do we find peace and freedom in the midst? That was what the Buddha asked. There is aging, sickness and death. We try to hold on when all is changing.
Like the Buddha, like seekers through the ages, I wanted to find that something that is changeless and timeless….whether you call it spirit, god, divine…an experience of presence and love that is timeless.
That was Buddha’s true refuge, it is really our true home, our true nature. The three classic gateways give a beautiful architecture, interdependent pathways to this timeless, loving awareness. We find our way by paying attention to the three gateways, and there is infinite creativity in that process. For you that might be through yoga for others reading poetry….
EL: Anything else you’d like to add?
TB: If I had to trace my own unfolding in writing the book and going deeper into gateways, I’d say the gift of the path of true refuge is trusting our self and our life in a way that gives us a tremendous freedom. I feel so much gratitude.
EL: And faith?
TB: The Pali (language at time of the Buddha) word for faith is “siddha.” It means “Resting your heart in what is true.” We can rest our heart in
moments, experience, in love, in awareness. It gives us trust in reality, in our deepest nature.
I cannot run. I have regained more strength and capacity in walking. I have made peace, found the confidence that no matter what happens it will be okay. If that confidence is there I can celebrate what is here this moment. That is the gift, the low hanging fruit…the gift of living and loving more fully. Writing the book took me deeper. And that process of awakening has deepened my intention, my sincerity about waking up.
I’ve seen that more than anything else, it is our sincerity about awakening that energies the path. It carries us home.
EL: It is beautiful to have a map. It is one of the things I like about Buddhism. There is a formula. How about Christianity?
TB: Father is awareness. Son is truth, a lived manifestation—immanent in this living world. Holy ghost is the loving relationship between Father-awareness and this living world. If you are holding an awareness of this living world you’ll realize everything is a part of what you are. There is an inherent love in that realization.
What the mind realizes as connection the heart experiences as love.
You can see in Christianity. In Hinduism there is Sat Chit Ananda…. Awareness truth and love….why would it not be that way. We find these gateways to freedom in all spiritual paths because they each are expressions of our true nature.
We are awareness, aliveness (living truth of this moment) and love.
- Tara Brach is a leading western teacher of Buddhist meditation, emotional healing and spiritual awakening. She has practiced and taught meditation for over 35 years, with an emphasis on vipassana (mindfulness or insight) meditation. Tara is the senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. A clinical psychologist, Tara is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha and the upcoming book, True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, January 2013). For more information on Tara go to: www.tarabrach.com. Subscribe to feed Tara Brach’s Feed.
I am someone who loves to share and thrives on being with others. My craft whittles moments into meaning and eases my heart. I learn best by listening. I teach yoga and I write. Life is challenging but simple. My kitties make me happy. My husband is my best friend. Check my blog here.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta