Tara Brach is a celebrated teacher and activist who founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington fifteen years ago. In February 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 third installment in an ongoing series.
Beandrea: Your work reminds me think of this quote from Jacob Needleman: “Seeing yourself as you really are is a great healing force, but in self help you’re chiefly working on the self you see. Spiritual change takes place when the seer, and not merely what is seen begins to change and deepen.” And that seems to be just what you’re just talking about. No quick fixes, right?
Brach: Yes, you’re not trying to make yourself into a better person. You’re trying to come home to who is really here, and that just takes time.
Beandrea: A lot of people today who just start meditating because they heard it would be good for them. Or you know they went to a mindfulness-based stress reduction class or come to your Wednesday night classes on River Road. What do you think about that?
Brach: People come for all different reasons, and there are definitely some people that are just really stressed out, and they get it, that if they do the mental exercise and meditation, their minds are going to shift to a place where there’s just a little bit more peace and freedom. And then some people come because there’s this very deep impression that who they are is mysterious and way more than they have really been spending time tending to. I find it doesn’t matter what level people are coming at, if you just start training your mind to be here, in that experience you find the silence. And you find the skills, and in that you find tenderness. You find that presence and reality itself is what wins you over. It’s what we’re longing for. And so that’s why I always say we’re not meditating to improve ourselves so we can become something different. Meditation actually deconditions all this chatter and reactivity so that we can relax back into who we actually are.
Beandrea: A hundred years or two hundred years from now it will be interesting to see what people say about this time we’re in. There is so much access to all these teachings that weren’t widely practiced or known about, and you had to go to the ashram or the monastery to learn about them.
Brach: And that is what’s so interesting about right now. It’s actually so out of the closet now. I mean even ten or fifteen years ago I would talk about meditation, and it was like this far out exotic thing. Now there have been over 10,000 research projects validating meditation. There are brain scans showing that when you direct your attention this way it correlates in your brain that way with positive emotion. No matter what we think mystically, training the mind to pay attention actually changes your mood. It changes your brain chemistry. It cultivates empathy and compassion. So science has really brought it into mainstream. Unlike anything else could have.
Beandrea: In reading True Refuge you talk about how our brains are wired to hang onto negative experiences and the positive ones are like Teflon. I felt relieved reading that.
Brach: You said ‘I’m not alone!’
Beandrea: Right, yes, and it’s not my fault! It’s just how I was made, you know? There’s so much emphasis on thinking positive these days.
Brach: I have found so many people get a glimmer of True Refuge through meditation, but then they quit because in some way the way the meditation structure they are given leaves them feeling like they’re not very good at it. People come to me to confide, ‘I’m really not cut out for this. I have a busy mind.’ As if they’re the only person in the world, and they’re confessing it. It’s really important to say right out front that the way that our brains are designed is to leave the present moment. It is part of our genetic inheritance to keep vigilant, to keep scanning our environment, to move to the future, to move into the past, to be a virtual reality. In our design we get lost in thoughts, and the more stressed the more quickly, it’s like being on bicycle, we start peddling away from that present and get lost in that virtual reality. So we’re going against the conditioning of our psyches, but the good news is we actually have what’s called self-reflective awareness – the capacity to notice that.
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