Tara Brach is a celebrated teacher and activist who founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington fifteen years ago. This month Brach released her new book True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart,the follow up to the book that made her famous, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.

So I drove out to her house deep in the woods of Northern Virginia – an actual fox trotted up her driveway just as I arrived – to talk with her about her work, her life, and what it’s like to walk a spiritual path. This is the second of four installments.


Beandrea: You often talk about the “trance of unworthiness” or the “trance of the small self.” Would you explain where this comes from?

Brach: On some level I always felt that I was letting somebody down. That I wasn’t enough as a mother or enough as a friend, a parent, a daughter. I was seeing it in myself and then as a psychotherapist with clients. Whomever I was working with, if we started looking below whatever the presenting issue was, there was that same sense of ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not enough.’

I started asking myself ‘well how come we feel that way? How does that happen?’ On one level we could say there’s an existential predicament, where any being that comes into existence feels separate. It’s almost like there’s this membrane where inside the membrane is ‘me,’ and everything else in the world is ‘out there,’ and hand in hand with that is the sense that something can go wrong. The primal mood of the separate self is fear. There’s a sense of ‘something’s wrong or something is going to wrong,’ and then through our personal history we sense that the something wrong is me. That ‘I am going to go wrong.’ And we blame it on other people too.

Some of us got more of those messages than others. Some of us were neglected, traumatized, abused. Depending on how severe the early experience of stress was, the transfer of abuse is thicker.

So with Radical Acceptance, to the degree that we can be aware, the sense of who we are enlarges and we’re not caught inside the trance. Radical Acceptance has two wings. One is to notice what’s happening. Okay, notice ‘feeling ashamed,’ notice thoughts of ‘I’m going to fail.’ And the second way is hold that with kindness and compassion.

Beandrea: I’m struck by the whole notion of how we’re taught to be good in society. The idea that you have to be educated, to strive and climb ladders, and that amps up that trance even more. That’s the sign that a person is doing well, that they are in the trance you’re describing.

Brach: Exactly. We have a culture where in order to belong you have to strive and you have achieve and you have to meet certain standards no matter what you’re doing. You have to have a certain kind of intelligence that matches our culture’s idea. Even though there are many, many kinds of intelligence, and for everybody that doesn’t have that kind of intelligence, they end up with that stamp of ‘not really smart.’

Beandrea: In your new book True Refuge, you talk about false refuges. You’ve already named some, but what are some of the common false refuges that people get caught in?

Brach: We all have our strategies for trying to make it. I often think of it like a space suit. We come into this world, and there are all these standards you’re supposed to meet, and you’re supposed to be a certain way, and it’s hard, and so to defend ourselves and prove ourselves we all take on strategies to make it through the day. They are false refuges because it’s a temporary fix. We feel better for the moment, but they don’t last.

An example is getting everything done. We have this thing where if we can just get things done, if we can check things off of a list, then we’ll be happy. But I can speak for myself, as soon as I’ve gotten something done I get a reprieve of maybe seventeen seconds. My mind is immediately fixed on what next needs to be done. So the self-soothing of getting things done is really temporary. Now sometimes we achieve certain things that give us a little bit more of a ride, but anyone that’s trying to achieve to feel okay about themselves will keep on having to achieve. There’s never enough.

Beandrea: So you notice in that seventeen seconds you’re being drawn to do another thing on the list. Do you then, mindfully do the next thing? Do you just notice that you want to do that next thing? Walk us through that discernment process.

Brach: So the first step is just noticing it, and then what you do when you notice is note that there is a false refuge in play. There’s a wonderful phrase that Victor Frankel says, which is “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space, and in that space is our power and our freedom.” So the awareness when we recognize the false refuge creates a space. A little pause, and that makes all the difference. In that pause you may be able to decide to do something different. Or you may realize there’s still a real pull, but at least you can move through the false refuge with more awareness and be less identified with it.

Beandrea: So how you do that second thing on the to-do list matters? That you’re doing it from a different place?

Brach: Yes. Because if you’re more awake, if you’re more mindful, then you’re here, but if you’re in this trance of ‘I have got to get this done so that I can do that, so that I can feel better about this,’ you’ve missed out on your life.

Beandrea: And with the compassion and acceptance piece, even if you notice that you’re running to that second item on the to-do list and you’re still feeling stressed and anxious, there’s the compassion of ‘Today I’m not able to slow down and do that, but maybe someday I will.’

Brach: That’s essential. If you don’t, if you look at the false refuges like bad things that you have to overcome then it’s just another way of doing the trance. It’s patterning that got set in at a very early age. It was the best we could do at the time. It has its own organic time of releasing, but all you can do is offer presence, and then sometimes out of that presence there will actually be some sense of, ‘Well I actually don’t feel like I need to do that.’

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