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.
Beandrea: Ten years passed between your first and second books, and a lot changed in your life. How you were affected during that time?
Brach: When I wrote Radical Acceptance the suffering I was addressing a lot was how much people struggle with a sense of not okay self, that feeling of ‘something’s wrong with me.’ In True Refuge basically is about understanding that all of us on some level are saying, ‘Help, I need to find a way to deal with the difficulty of life.’ And certainly one layer is the sense of something’s wrong with me. But there’s a much, perhaps more, fundamental or deep kind of struggle that we face which is really getting that our bodies are going. That we’re losing beings that we love. That everything that matter to us will pass. And so how do you make peace with the uncertainty? How do you make peace with the reality that we can’t control anything?
Beandrea: You grew up Unitarian. Was spirituality and/or religion something important in your upbringing?
Brach: No, not at all. I grew up in a very humanistic kind of family. My parents, their values were deeply about how to help the suffering on Earth. And so they were very committed to contributing to the humans of the world. And so it was a very liberal, progressive kind of religion committed to social justice basically and peace. So I grew up on more that milieu of very, very liberal left family that wanted to make a difference. But then of course I also grew up when there was a lot of drugs, and a lot of exploration of consciousness, and that’s what grabbed me. The realization that the reality that we were living in was very thin layer of the truth of what was, and there was this fascination with what was reality. Who am I really?
Beandrea: I was struck by that you decided after college to go into an ashram. How did that come about for you?
Brach: When I was in college I was very involved with radical leftist activities, tenants rights work and again social justice peace work, but I also started doing yoga and I was also doing psychedelic drugs, and the combination of the experiences I had doing yoga which really altered my state of mind and psychedelics, again just something opened and I realized there was this world that I wanted to experience and that I needed to throw myself into some forms of spiritual practice to keep opening that up.
Beandrea: How did you find your way to this particular ashram?
Brach:There were a few people teaching yoga on campus, and it happened that they were Sikhs wearing the white garb and turbans and they taught a form of yoga, Kundalini yoga. It was a pretty quick match for me because it’s a very energetic, dynamic form of yoga that was very enlivening. Very quickly I could sense the opening of consciousness. That really grabbed me. I liked the vigorousness of it, the engagement.
I was not looking for religion. I was really just looking for a way of practicing yoga that would just wake me up. And so I found my way to an ashram, and I was a little surprised by the religiosity of it. It took me a lot to adapt to that because, again, I had come from this very liberal, not religious background, so I was in it for the yoga and I found that it came with a religion. So I would say that a lot of years of my time in an ashram what kept me there was I was a very dedicated yogi. I described myself as a Type A yogi. I would say I was over ambitious. So the yoga kept having its effects, but I always bristled a little at some of the religious parts that were not necessarily a fit for me.
Beandrea: When you look back now on being in the ashram, what stands out to you?
Brach: A number of things. I mean one piece of being in an ashram is that I loved the camaraderie of all of us really passionate about spiritual practice and about just discovering more of these states of heart and mind that were right and alive and peaceful and beautiful. We would get up early together and there was something very beautiful about our shared commitment. We worked together and we were young and idealistic and we had this sense that we were doing something that was really pure and beautiful and good and was going to help other people. We taught other people yoga. Our restaurant served really delicious food. So there was a sense of this shared vision, and an extended family of people that had this beautiful commitment, and we had a lot of fun. There was a lot of humor and there was a lot of generosity and a lot of care. There was real beauty. When I say the religion didn’t really quite match, there were parts of the religious practices that were totally beautiful. The chanting together was devotional and I loved it. What I didn’t like was there was certain rigidity and that it was hierarchical, and that we were told what to do from the top down.
There were a lot of rules — some of which I didn’t think were that wise or good. It was somewhat male-dominated. Even though there were some women in a lot of power, it had a common male-dominated feeling. We weren’t free politically to continue to express ourselves and work for the causes we really liked. It had to all be within the frame of the organization, and ultimately I found that some of the ideals we believed in weren’t being lived and weren’t being walked by our leader, and that has happened in many many organizations. There were different kinds of abuse that ended up making me feel like I could no longer participate.
Beandrea: In Radical Acceptance you talk about how you eventually broke with the ashram and how that led you on your path that opened up your whole life as a teacher.
Brach: I felt like my life in the ashram was also a good and rich spiritual life, and I was learning and growing, but there was more to unfold and leaving the ashram let me kind of listen inwardly and find my way to what else wanted to unfold itself. I have an enduring respect for my friends who are still a part of it because they are absolutely dedicated to living and giving and growing.
Beandrea: Then it was after you left the ashram that you encountered Insight meditation and the teacher Joseph Goldstein right?
Brach: Yes, I started reading even while I was still in the ashram. I was reading books like Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala which I love, and Be Here Now [by Ram Dass], and Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind [by Shunryu Suzuki], and Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield’s Seeking the Heart of Wisdom. I went to a 10-day meditation retreat up at the Insight Meditation Society [in Barre, Massachusetts].
Brach: Right away – I think it was the second day of the retreat – I remember this sense of ‘Oh, okay so this is my path.’ And when I said that it wasn’t so much ‘Oh I am a Buddhist.’ It was more this way of paying attention, of cultivating a mindful awareness, cultivating compassion. Because the difference was in the ashram the mediation was all very directed, more of a yogic, more concentrated practice. You concentrate on a mantra, concentrate on your breath. Whereas in Buddhist meditation, at least in the style that I’ve mostly been trained in and that I teach which is Vipassana, the practice is really just to notice what is actually happening moment to moment. The difference is that when you stop controlling your intention and open to what is happening in the moment, you can actually see the nature of reality. You can actually see what’s true. You’re not manipulating or controlling or directing anything, you’re simply a wakeful presence. So it was a whole new evolution in my experience, a whole new level of unfolding.
This is the first installment of a four-part interview.
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