Live an Engaged Life by Tara Brach | Omega

Tara Brach talks about mindfulness and meditation—and offers guidance on how to begin and stick with a personal meditation practice.

Omega: What motivated you to begin meditating?


Tara: There were two reasons. First, I had the sense I needed to improve myself. I thought meditation would diminish the parts of me I didn’t like and I'd become a more perfect and awake person. I don't know where I got that idea, but I worked really hard at it. I would go to different teachers and they would say, "Just relax, it's okay," but I would then take that on as the next way to improve myself.


There was also a deeper reason I was drawn to meditation, and that was the intuition that what we are is a mystery and continuing to wake up to that mystery is what makes life meaningful. I sensed that it was possible to be unconditionally loving of who we are, and sensing that possibility drew me into meditation.


Omega: At some point did the need to improve yourself drop away?


Tara: I wouldn't say it completely dropped away, but when it appears, it’s not so compelling or believable. The longing to realize truth and be awake is deeper. When I find that I'm trying hard or pushing, there's a gentle voice that says, "Just relax, it's okay."


Omega: Are there specific teachers who have influenced your practice?


Tara: I have been influenced by teachers from across the spectrum, including Thomas Merton, Suzuki Roshi, Tsoknyi RinpocheAnam Thubten, and the teachers who brought Vipassana to the West. I love the Sufi poets and Native American teachings. The books that really launched me into spiritual practice were the Carlos Castaneda books, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, and Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. 


Omega: Many people today have multiple teachers, or maybe even no teacher. Do you think people can have a practice on their own?


Tara: Like any process of mastery, I think we need teachers to give us feedback and guide us. We may have more than one teacher, but it’s really important to get guidance from people that have experience being on the path.


Omega: How does someone choose from among the many styles of meditation?


Tara: Meditation means paying attention in a way that helps serve awakening. There are many ways to do this. Experiment with what speaks to you. I encourage people to explore a practice that has some element of mindfulness because we can use meditation to generate all kinds of altered states, but if our intention is to realize reality, to realize who we are, then learning to bring a non-judging, kind attention to the present moment is essential.


Omega: What do you mean by mindfulness? 


Tara: Mindfulness is an intentional training of the heart and mind. So I’m also talking about heartfulness when I talk about mindfulness. We train in mindfulness by paying attention to our experience of the present moment, without judgment. Mindfulness is sometimes misunderstood as a detached witnessing, when in fact it’s a profoundly engaged process of feeling and seeing and being with our changing moment to moment experience. 


Omega: Can mindfulness be helpful for someone who has experienced trauma?


Tara: If you’ve experienced trauma or severe emotional wounding, certain types of mindfulness practices might open you up to re-experiencing that trauma. On the other hand, if you’re exploring mindfulness with a therapist, have some other safe “container,” or feel fairly stable and resilient, mindfulness can be a powerful part of healing trauma. For many people who live with PTSD, a good way to set the groundwork for mindfulness is to first practice a lovingkindness meditation or breath-focused meditation that quiets and collects the mind. This is where it helps to have a teacher who can guide you to practices that will best serve different emotional/mental states.


Omega: How do you encourage people to be present when they fear they’ll be overwhelmed by their feelings?


Tara: We have a deep conditioning to avoid unpleasantness. We each have our own ways of avoiding it—we tense our body, go off into obsessive thinking, stay busy, use food to numb ourselves. I call these false refuges.


These ways of self-soothing or controlling our experience aren’t bad—they’re part of our human conditioning. But they don’t serve us in a way that is helpful or healing. They’re a temporary fix that seems to protect us, but they actually lock us even more solidly into a sense there’s something wrong. If we’re tensing against the future, we can’t enjoy the present moment, feel love, cultivate wisdom, or creatively engage with what’s happening right now.  


When we relax and bring a courageous and open presence to what's here, in those moments there's a shift in our sense of identity. This is the heart of the entire spiritual path. The gift of all spiritual practices is that when we stop resisting and open wakefully to what’s here, we go from being the self that needs to protect itself to a space of awareness that's tender and wakeful and capable of responding with love to the moment. 


Omega: What happens if you can’t drop the resistance?


Tara: There are times that our conditioning is such that we may not be able to drop the resistance, or we may be re-traumatized if we do. Having a supportive relationship with someone, like a teacher, can create the safety for us to ease into what we’ve been running away from.


Some practices have us reflect on a person we know loves us, and in the warmth and acceptance we feel from thinking of them we can begin to contact the parts of ourselves we’ve been running away from.  Other practices are to offer a gesture of kindness to ourselves, which naturally softens our heart.   But most important is not to blame the resisting!  It’s not our fault, and self-blame only creates more contraction.  Our practice is to simply have the intention to open, and be profoundly forgiving of whatever unfolds.


Awareness wants to realize itself.  We can trust the windows and doors of our hearts will open, allowing the wind to blow through.  


Omega: So waking up can be a gradual process?


Tara:  While for some there are sudden awakenings, for many it is a gradual process. We have to respect that our wounds may go deep and a gentle approach can be the compassionate way to healing. But we’re also in the habit of thinking things are going to be “too much,” so it’s important to keep the experiment alive. When you realize you can handle what’s there, you become free to live your life and love fully, without holding back.

© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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