I have really been looking forward to today’s interview. Tara Brach is a clinical Psychologist who has been integrating mindfulness and psychotherapy for many years. She is author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam, 2003), the upcoming CD Meditations for Emotional Healing: Finding Freedom in the Face of Difficulty and weekly podcasts from her Wednesday night sitting groups that address forgiveness and compassion. She is also senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. She really embodies and emphasizes the importance of acknowledging our aversions in life and cultivating compassion for ourselves and others as a means toward mental health.
Question: You are open about struggling in the past with depression and anxiety in your own life. What has helped you and what words of wisdom could you impart to The Mindfulness and Psychotherapy readers?
Tara: We suffer because we have forgotten who we are and our identity has become confined to the sense of a separate, usually deficient self. All difficult emotions-fear and anger, shame and depression-arise out of this trance of what I call false self.
I’ve found that whenever I am really suffering, on some level I am believing and feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Over the years I’ve been drawn to three primary gateways for awakening from this trance. In the Buddhist tradition they are referred to as the three refuges:
One (called “sangha”) is loving relationship-both live contact with loved ones and also meditation on the love that’s in my life. In the moments of remembering love, there is an opening out of the sense of separate self. For me, reflecting on love has included prayer to the beloved, to what I experience as the loving awareness that is my source. When I feel separate and stuck, that loving presence might seem like it’s apart from me and “out there.” But by reaching out in longing and prayer, I’m carried home to the loving presence that is intrinsic to my Being.
A second gateway (“dharma” or truth) is taking refuge in the present moment. The training of meditation is a gift as it has helped me to pause, wake up out of thoughts and contact my moment to moment experience. When I am no longer running away or resisting what is happening inside me, I reconnect with the space and compassion that has room for whatever is going on.
A third gateway (“buddha” or “buddha nature”) is turning towards awareness itself. Most of the time we are paying attention to the foreground of experience-to our thoughts, feelings and sensations. What we are missing out on is the background of experience, the formless dimension of Being itself. By asking questions like “What is aware right now?” or “What is knowing these sounds?” or “Who am I?” we begin to intuit our own presence or Beingness. The signs of this presence are space, stillness and silence.
For myself and so many I’ve worked with, becoming familiar with this formless dimension of who we are makes it possible to open with love to the changing expressions of life within and around us. It allows us to make peace with living and dying, and to live our moments fully.
Question: For many people, the term “acceptance” implies that they are OK with what they are experiencing. How would you explain what you mean by “Radical Acceptance” to someone who is not OK with feeling angry, sad, or anxious?
Tara: Radical acceptance has two elements: It is an honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is. I sometimes simplify it to “recognizing” and “allowing.”
You can accept an experience without liking it. In fact, let’s say you are feeling stuck in anxiety and disliking the feeling. Radical Acceptance includes accepting both the feelings of anxiety and the aversion to it. In fact, acceptance is not real and not healing unless it honestly includes all aspects of your experience.
There is an increasingly well-known adage that says “What you resist, persists.” Your identity gets hitched to whatever you are not accepting. And the more you push something away or run from something, the more your sense of self is linked with that experience.
This dynamic has been expressed as an equation: Pain X Resistance = Suffering. Typically when anxiety or anger or sadness arises, it is met with a form of resistance like judgment (such as the thought “This is bad, this shouldn’t be happening”), self-distraction or physical contraction. If instead you mindfully accept the difficult feeling and the dislike of how unpleasant it is, there is a shift in your relationship to the experience. That which is aware and accepting of the feelings is larger than the feelings. Your sense of Being is enlarged: While the unpleasantness might remain, it no longer is hitched to your sense of who you are. There is freedom, there is room for what is going on.
Some helpful mantras in practicing radical acceptance are “This too” and “Yes.” Saying yes, or sending the energetic message of “Yes” helps to incline you toward allowing what is, to be there.
It can be helpful to remember that radical acceptance of a difficult feeling does not mean that you are resigned to always feeling that way. It doesn’t mean that the feeling is “right” or “wrong.” Nor does it mean that you will be passive, and not take actions that might be helpful. Radical acceptance refers to your relationship with the reality of “what is” in the present moment. By arriving honestly and with openness to this moment’s experience, you create the possibility of then responding with wisdom and compassion. For example, radical acceptance of anxiety might then incline you to share your experience with a trusted friend, go out to walk in the woods, or write in your journal. What is important is that you have first become intimate with your own experience.
Question: How can Radical Acceptance help for people who have experience severe traumas?
When I work with people who have been traumatized, the starting place is helping that person find whatever gives a sense of refuge-of safety and/or love. It is essential that there be a container, a sense of resourcefulness that can assist the person in contacting and releasing the trauma that is held in the body.
My relationship with the person, our trust and care, is part of that container. In addition, I explore what other relationships and experiences have offered safe refuge. For instance it might be in remembering the love with a dog, the feeling of belonging to nature or the trust in a spiritual figure.
Once we have established access to a refuge of love and safety, it is possible to bring radical acceptance to the different ways that trauma is appearing in the persons body, heart and mind. This is a gradual process, one that I’ve described in the article The Power of Radical Acceptance: Healing Trauma though the Integration of Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy
The key is a movement back and forth between the energetic knots of held trauma, and the refuge of love and safety.
The alchemy of healing trauma is ultimately similar to working with any difficult emotion. In time, there is a shift in identity. Rather than being immersed inside the victimized or abused self, there is a realization of the loving awareness that can include, but is not defined by, any of the wounds of this lifetime.
I want to thank Tara for such a wonderful interview and look forward to her upcoming interview on the 5 Key Elements for Emotional Healing and Spiritual Freedom.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interactions provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.