It’s so clear that the only way to awaken and be free is to love ourselves into healing. That we need to encounter what we feel is imperfect, we need to encounter the painful emotions, and really bring a mindful, loving presence to it.
Welcome to AWAKEN, a podcast presented by the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. That was the voice of Tara Brach. And I am your host, Laurie Anderson. In this 10-part series, we explore the dynamic path to enlightenment and what it means to wake up. We’ll hear from authors, artists, wisdom bearers, and Buddhist teachers, people who have experienced a shift in their perspectives on life throughout their personal journey. This podcast is inspired by the exhibition Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, which illustrates the stages of enlightenment through paintings, sculptures, and other objects. We use these artworks as a jumping off point to better understand the paths our guests have been on and where they are going.
In this episode, we contemplate the process of finding a spiritual path and navigating the student-teacher relationship. We speak with psychologist, author, and teacher of meditation, emotional healing, and spiritual awakening Tara Brach. She shares her story of how her life took an unexpected turn, what it was like to find her own path and how her spiritual journey led to radical acceptance and compassion.
But first, Tara responds to a sculpture of Gautama Buddha.
I see balance and I see repose and I see awakeness and I see tenderness. And I use my imagination, because I imagine the living consciousness that’s behind and animating the creation of this. So I actually imagine the consciousness of an awake Buddha and the love and the compassion and the awareness, and then imagine it living through me and all of us. So the still statue becomes a conduit for that consciousness.
In this sculpture, Gautama Buddha holds his hands in a gesture of teaching known as the dharma chakra mudra, which suggests the act of instruction. It originally signified the Buddha’st first teaching when he symbolically turned the wheel of the Dharma. One of the fingers of his left hand, which holds the end of his rope, extends to touch the joint, thumb, and forefinger of the right, connecting the hands and forming an approximation of a wheel.
There’s always a transmission from all of life to all of life about what reality is. And that there’s an elegance and a grace to the mudra that allows for that transmission. And, and with that, there’s so much more in the statue that allows for that sense of transmission. There’s a grace to the robes. I mean, it’s exquisite the way the robes fall. And it’s, it’s like the world is kind of draped in a very graceful, natural way. There’s a sense of belonging to the world and yet not. But the hands are actually what is at the center of it, that kind of transmission of let’s wake up to reality.
I have never stopped being a student. And I don’t actually mean that in a kind of Zen koan way. I flip roles very, very easily. I don’t hold them tightly. So I can be in the teaching role in a moment. And the role is just a sense of sharing with friends understandings that can help others to find the same thing out themselves, because that’s really the goal. It’s like often when people ask me a question, I respond with a question, just because I know you already know. And if I ask a question in a clarifying way, it’s so empowering to know you already know. So I take the role of a teacher because I’ve been practicing a long time and I’ve made some discoveries that are helpful on the path. And in a moment I’ll be listening to someone else speak or, you know, listening to a talk or reading something in a magazine or whatever, or talking to a child, you know, and I am in such a receptive mode that they are channeling something that I need to pay attention to that helps me wake up. So I really do have a lot of fluidity in these roles. Because whatever I love, I like to share.
And there is a teaching that the Buddha gave his son Rahula that is pretty well understood in the Buddhist world, that if you teach something, you inhabit it more. It comes more alive in your cells. So teaching lets me hang out in the Dharma realms. I mean, it means, you know, if I’m teaching by preparing talks, it means I’m spending some of my week just feeling from the inside out and reflecting on whatever I want to share. And it means that more moments in my life, I’m living from the reality that I want to communicate.
My parents were Unitarians, and so really the earliest expression of spirituality, I would think of, in terms of, more interconnected with everybody else and the importance of social justice and of compassion and of taking care of each other. And that was the motif in my family. My parents were both very much social activists and very dedicated to being helpers. But my actual direct experience of, kind of a sense of the spiritual, they were also really into nature and into bird watching and hiking and camping, and I remember being pretty young, maybe eleven or twelve and being in the Blue Ridge Mountains and hiking around and going off on my own and sitting on a rock and looking out over the Shenandoah Valley and getting very still. And being consciously in a state of wonder, like just being awed at the beauty. And also aware of a quietness I wasn’t used to because, because the beauty in some way swept away, kind of like a wind, that it just kind of blew away all my normal preoccupation. So it was just a sense of quietness and, and a belonging to something larger.
Mostly I remember happiness, like kind of a warm, expanded feeling. Just remember a buoyancy, like something about it was incredibly energizing. Like there was something more to this world and I was discovering it. It was that sense of, that’s what I am. I am larger. That this smaller self in a bubble isn’t the whole thing. So I would say that over and over again, in the following years, it was nature that kind of was the wake up to that sense of the sacred.
When I was in college, that self in a bubble had learned to believe that she was unworthy, that she wasn’t good enough. And it kind of came to a fore when I went on a hiking trip with another friend, and she was talking about how she was learning to be her own best friend. And I just, with this crushing recognition of, I was the furthest thing from that, I was just always very harshly criticizing myself for what kind of daughter I was or partner in relationships or friend.
And I was planning to go to law school, and I would go to these meetings and rallies on the weekends and so on. And I started noticing more and more that the mood at them was so angry and strident and creating an us and a them, and the them was the enemy. And then I go to yoga class and there was all this sense of peacefulness and harmony.
And I remember one spring night leaving the class and standing outside by a fruit tree. Because I remember the fragrance and standing still and realizing that my body and my mind were in the same place at the same time. And, oh my gosh, that was kind of that homecoming again, belonging to a larger space of presence. And it became so clear to me that to create the world we believed in, we needed some connection to, and access to, that inner sense of presence, of open heartedness.
And so I kind of made a dramatic left turn and instead of going to law school, I moved into a spiritual community, an ashram, a Sikh ashram, where for the next decade I was doing yoga and meditation and, you know, trying to come home to myself in a way.
I really brought my type-A temperament of striving and working hard, always trying to achieve, and a kind of perfectionism into the spiritual path. And I remember going around to different teachers and asking them, “Well, how can I get enlightened?” And they’d kind of look at me and wisely say, “Well, just relax.” And so then I’d say, okay, just relax. And that would be my next project. But I had this idea that it would take about eight years if I worked hard. So I don’t know where I got the idea from, and I don’t know why “just relax” didn’t really take hold, but I was trying very hard to become more perfect. And I had short experiences of absorption and of peace and of light and of unity. I think I had this idea of ongoing light, ongoing quiet, of being able to move through the world and have everything kind of pass through me in an easy way and that my behaviors and my words and my thoughts would all be, you know, benevolent. You know that I’d be living from this wise and balanced place twenty-four/seven.
In some ways, it was a feeling of dedication and it came from a very pure place, which was a real yearning to be all that I could be, to really live from my potential, to know what it meant to love fully and to see truth. So in a way, the intensity of my practice had a beautiful current in it. But it also had a kind of a judgment to it, that I always needed to be better. I always needed to improve. And what that meant was it was very rare to be able to have that sense of enough. This moment is enough. This body-mind is enough. And to really, truly rest in how it is, in the imperfect conditioning that’s really a part of who we are. So that’s how my type-A practitioner kind of manifested in spiritual life. That only changed really after I left the ashram.
Towards the end of my time in the ashram, I had gotten pregnant and I was very early on and I had a miscarriage. And I had been out in the hot sun doing a lot of exercise. And some part of me thought, maybe I’d stressed my body. And I reported that, because there were a lot of us, including pregnant women, out in the desert. And I kind of thought maybe this is a problem we should pay attention to. The spiritual teacher of our community thought in some way I was challenging his way of doing things. And he stood me up at a big large group gathering and said, “You didn’t have a miscarriage because of this. You know, you had a miscarriage because of your ego.” And he kind of, he basically berated me in a way that left me quite exposed and quite shamed, and this was two days after the miscarriage. And also feeling betrayed.
So the next weeks threw me back on myself in the sense of really having to process a feeling of being abused. It felt like emotional abuse. And underneath that my own feelings of shame and self-doubt. And what came out of that, because it was a very sinking feeling that felt sensitive. It was like a hole of burning shame and embarrassment. But what came out of it when I really stayed, and what I mean by stayed is I just really just kept breathing with it and feeling it, is I felt ever more deeply than in my life, this dedication to accept myself just as I am. To really trust that, yes, there’s conditioning and I’ve got a driveness and so on, but to trust the goodness that’s here. To trust the reality that I love and I care and I’m waking up. And so I left the ashram because it became so clear to me that he was an abusive person and that the whole structure supported that.
It wasn’t the first time I had been confronting the trance of unworthiness, but it was the first time I had ever been emotionally abused. I don’t have that kind of trauma so much in my history. So it was both completely painful, but also a wake up. A wake up that was so strong that it actually deepened my attention. So that where in the past, I would feel the feelings and try to bring kindness and tell myself I was a good person, here it was like, either you believe the message of another person and really, really contract into that bad personhood or you find out what else is possible. You have the courage to trust this larger sense of being that has a fundamental goodness to it and can include all the imperfect conditioning. So I guess it’s that place in me that deep down really does trust that came to the fore in those moments. And I left with, you know, there was pain in leaving because I had been there a long time. I had very close relationships. But also I kind of entered the next phase of my spiritual practice with this deep conscious intention to embrace the life that’s here.
I continued to teach yoga, but I was gradually introducing myself or got introduced to Buddhist readings and Buddhist practice. And it was pretty natural and organic that I found, you know, the power of it. And I got very drawn to going to a retreat. And I remember my first week-long retreat, and it was 35 years ago or so. An immediate resonance and the message at the retreat, you know, that suffering is universal. That it’s natural. It’s not a personal pathology. You know, the suffering of my self-doubt, the suffering of shame, the fears I have about what other people think, it’s just part of our universal suffering. And also the message is about freedom. That it’s not by perfecting a self. The freedom comes in opening to reality and really opening our hearts and our being to how it is right here. And I found such resonance in the power of what’s called wise mindfulness, which is really this capacity to pay attention to the changing flow of experience, without judgment, to become the witness that’s engaged, that’s feeling and experiencing, but not identified, and, and bringing compassion to that process. So this all just really resonated so much that early in that first retreat, I realized that, wow, this path can carry me the whole way and I want to be teaching this. So that all happened in my first Buddhist retreat.
I certainly had my antennas up for any teacher that was assuming a kind of hierarchy and putting themself above others and telling people not to pay attention to their own experience, pay attention to what I’m saying. In other words, any spiritual ego. I was much more sensitive to, and it certainly has affected my own teaching, because I feel very much that a true teacher is just reminding people of the wisdom that’s already in them. So in that way, yes, I was very sensitive and I got drawn to not one teacher but a whole number of teachers that in different ways offered inspiration. And that was just my way. I mean, some people do have a single major teacher. I had a number that had . . . a number that . . . Joanna Macy has been a teacher that has opened me to our belonging to the natural world and, you know, really dedicating our being to helping to save our larger body, this earth. And other teachers have really brought me more into the nature of what is emptiness and how do we discover that emptiness. And other teachers, more the nuances of discovering compassion.
Right from the start, you could find the teachings of the eightfold path, which really covered all these different dimensions of being so comprehensive. So that right from the start, the Dharma teachings that have to do with wise understanding were there that, you know, seeing the suffering, when we get lost in thoughts and lost and in the reactivity of wanting and fearing and and believing that we are that wanting, fearing self, you know, that the smallness of that, the suffering of that, cause the Buddha really taught that we suffer because we forget who we are, you know. And seeing the freedom that comes when we can live from a more awake awareness and an open heart. So that wise understanding. And then wise intention was so, so much part of the teachings, right from the get-go, that if we listen deeply, we’ll sense our heart’s aspiration.
This heart wants to wake up. This heart wants to be loving. This heart is naturally free and wise and wants to manifest that. So that wise intention really energizes the practice. And then the wisdom of wise effort, which is not striving. It really arises out of a love of love and a love of truth. And so these are, I’m naming the ingredients that I found as I began going to retreats and doing the readings. And then the part of the eightfold path that has to do with wise speech and conduct and livelihood. These are all the ways that we actually live the path. In other words, living from compassion. And my favorite phrase which is, with a reverence for life. You know, not causing harm and how, when we align our actions with this, it helps to wake us up more into who we are. It’s like we are living from who we are. So those, that’s the part of the path that is sometimes called sÄ«la or ethical, ethical trainings.
And then of course at the center for me has been wise mindfulness, which is really that training that brings an awake awareness to our moments. So we see what’s happening clearly. And the last part of the eightfold path is wise concentration, which really supports wise mindfulness. That we learn a steady kind of attention rather than being scattered. That can focus and even get so absorbed that we feel real quietness and peace. It gives a taste of peace and that serves the path. So I’m sharing all this because each element of the eightfold path helps, and we use it with other elements to create a kind of a holding container for our whole life.
The same suffering that I’ve shared with you of, I’m not enough, I’m falling short, I’ll never be good enough. You know, that kind of thing. So many of my clients, because I was spending a few decades doing clinical psychotherapy and also my meditation students, so many, the same suffering. And I found it just pervasive in contemporary society. The sense of not good enough. It became clearer and clearer that if we don’t wake up from what I call the trance of unworthiness, we really can’t inhabit who we are. And the first step really is to notice it. Like I’ve had so many people say, you know, once I had the phrase, a trance of unworthiness in my mind, I started noticing how much I was just being dominated by this harsh critic, or I started knowing how much I anticipated others were going to be judging me. And it can be a revelation. And then the next step is, and this is where it takes courage, is to really spend time with the layers of shame and fear that are underneath that trance of unworthiness. And I remember one of the early retreats, I attended Buddhist retreats, that there was some teaching that had the language of the boundary to what you accept is the boundary to your freedom.
The boundary to what you accept is the boundary to your freedom. And was really powerful because I started sensing, “Okay, this moment, what am I not accepting?” Well, I’m kind of not accepting that my body is feeling this way right, right here and now, you know, and I’m not accepting, how I’ve been as a mother, and my mothering isn’t good enough. And maybe in that moment the teacher was being long-winded and I felt like I wanted more quiet in the meditation. Whatever it was. I just started noticing how much my whole body-mind contracted in the moments that I was pushing away what was happening.
And I actually started a yes meditation at that point. Which, I use the word yes, but it’s the energy of yes, which really says, this is the reality of this moment. Just allow it to be here. It doesn’t mean I agree. It doesn’t mean I’m always going to be this way. If I have a self-judgmental thought, yes doesn’t mean I agree with the content of the thought. It just means, okay, yes, judgment is going on.
And so I started practicing more and more like that. And first it was mechanical. First I was just going yes to this, yes to that. And it was kind of gamey, but then I actually started, you know, getting amused because I was more witnessing than I was caught up. And then the yes, the accepting, became very tender. It was like, okay, this is the wave in the ocean right now. And the power of it was that who I was, was more resting in that ocean-ness. I became more of that tender ocean that had room for the waves. And so this was really the heart of what I’ve been teaching to others over time is to be with what’s here. To courageously feel it and to hold it with that tenderness. Sometimes we just all, the best we can do is just say, okay, yes, for the moment. But if we keep staying that yes turns into love, a field of love, and we start trusting more and more that we’re that field of loving more than the story in our mind.
So I’ve come to call this trusting the gold. That we really start, when we really bring in that acceptance and compassion, we start trusting our basic goodness. It’s kind of the gift of radical acceptance and radical compassion. And it came from this story and many stories in my life where I wasn’t trusting, where I was filled with self-doubt, with the fear of rejection, and how I found my way through mindfulness and compassion to again trusting the gold.
I spend a lot of time in nature. And what I’ll do when I’m in nature, when I’m in the natural world is, you know, really sense the aliveness and sentience of what’s here. And I remember a few years ago, I was on a walk by the river and I heard really loud shots. And I realized it was hunters that were shooting geese.
And I’ve spent a lot of time watching geese and watching them have babies. Just yesterday, I saw the first batch of babes on the river, the goslings. And so I have a real relationship with them, and I burst out weeping when I heard those shots. Because I felt like my friends were being violated, and then I started as I walked, I just kind of reflected, you are my friends. You know, it’s like saying, namaste, I see the sacred in you, to the geese. And then I saw my dog. My dog was just kind of trotting along beside me and, namaste, you are my friend too, to my dog, and then the cardinals flitting in the tree. And whatever I saw, you know. And what happened was the more I did it, the more I felt this belonging to this web of life and realized that in the moments that I perceive that connectedness, when I perceive we are friends, that namaste, seeing the sacred, I can’t be alone. I’m never alone. And I practice with that. I practice that with humans, with who, whatever I’m with, you know, whatever life form I’m with, remembering the goodness, the gold, seeing the sacred. And when I’m really, really stuck, I have to first sense that there’s some love in the world, loving me.
There’s a phrase from one nondual teacher that “love is always loving you.” And I love that phrase. So I sense the world as having some benevolence that’s loving me when I’m feeling stuck, separate, when I’m caught in that separate self sense. But as I do this practice of sensing the sacred in all forms, I become that loving that’s loving the world. So that’s one of the spaces of resting in awakened awareness that is very sweet. And what is so clear is that in moments of awakening, there’s not a me resting in something, it’s that awareness that I belong to a wider field.
Waking up is always a belonging to a wider field of presence and the sense of identity with a separate self, the story, it just doesn’t have any stickiness. And it doesn’t mean I can’t go back into a role or still have a story come up or a feeling. It all happens, but there’s not so much identification. There’s still that sense of being that open field of tenderness and having room for the changing currents.
Before we come to a close, Tara was generous enough to share with us a way to love ourselves into healing through the practice of a meditation called RAIN.
What I’ve realized over and over again is, you know, we’re so afraid of our human imperfection, of the conditioning that we each have, that gets us insecure. It takes the shape of obsessiveness or neediness or aggression. We get addictive. We all have this, and we think something’s wrong with us. And it’s so clear that the only way to awaken and be free is to love ourselves into healing. That we need to encounter what we feel is imperfect. We need to encounter the painful emotions and really bring a mindful, loving presence to it. And the meditation I teach that cultivates this capacity to really love ourselves into healing, to not hold back our love, is what I call the RAIN meditation. And it’s really just a weave of mindfulness and compassion. But what happens is when we get reactive and when we start judging ourselves, we forget everything about how to meditate. It’s like, it all goes out the window. So the value of having this acronym, which is four simple steps””it’s called RAIN, and it’s Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture””is it helps us to come back home again. But it takes repetition because we have so many pathways in our brain that lead us to self-aversion and self-judgment. So it’s a practice to love ourselves into healing.
As you’re listening right now, take a moment to find a posture, a way of being that’s comfortable, that allows you to be awake, at ease, letting the attention go inward and taking a few full breaths. Let the breaths collect your attention, bring you into presence. I invite you to bring to mind some challenge in life, someplace that’s not traumatic, but where you react in ways that cause some pain, whether a place where you repeatedly either feel hurt or defensive, angry, anxious. And it might be at work, it might be in a relationship, might be to do with an addiction.
Let yourself, when you land on something, bring to mind the situation where you get triggered. Let it be close in. If you’re with another person, seeing their face and hearing their words, reminding yourself of the environment you’re in.
And taking a moment, we begin RAIN with Recognizing, just to recognize whatever is most predominant. Whether it’s fear or anger, or judgement or hurt, you can mentally whisper what you’re aware of. That helps to recognize it more fully.
The A of RAIN is Allow. And that simply means that willingness to let it be. Just let the uncomfortable or painful feeling be there. It’s the basics of saying yes, this is part of reality right now, just for now. Let it be.
And that allows you to go to the I of RAIN, which is Investigate. And you might sense, to start, what are you believing when this is happening? Are you believing that someone doesn’t value you or care about you? Are you believing that you’re failing in some way or that you’re unlovable? Just sense if there’s a core belief that presents itself. Mostly as you investigate, find out the experience in your body, the felt sense. It might be in the throat or the chest, the belly, and start keeping company with the feelings that are difficult. It’s kind of a leaning in and breathing with. Then you might put your hand on your heart as a beginning to deepen the sense of keeping company with your own inner experience. And as you feel it, as you feel the hurt or the anger, fear, whatever it is, just sense what it needs in this moment, how it wants you to be with it. Does it need you to deepen your acceptance? Okay, this is here. Does it need to know you’re staying and you’re not leaving? I’m going to be with you. Does it need a reminder of your own goodness? Trust your goodness.
We end with the N of RAIN, which is Nurturing. Send some message of care inwardly. Either send it from your own awake heart-mind, or imagine the awakened heart-mind of the Buddha or some deity or somebody you love sending that message right to the place of vulnerability, bringing compassion inward. Let that touch of your hand at the heart help deliver it with kindness.
And as you end the meditation in what’s called after the RAIN, just notice a sense of your own being, when instead of being the fearful self or the angry self, you’re resting in that field of kindness and presence. That this is more the truth of who you are than any story you could ever tell yourself.
Many thanks to Tara Brach for sharing her experience with us. We hope you enjoyed it.
For more information about our guests and to see images of the artwork in this episode, visit AWAKEN Podcast. If you’re hungry to continue the conversation, join us on Instagram at @RubinMuseum. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Leaving us a review is one of the best ways to help this podcast reach more listeners like you.
AWAKEN is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public, and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Wieden Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Awaken is sponsored by Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for Awaken was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.
Don’t forget to listen in next time as we explore how a journey toward awakening might begin, with Latham Thomas, master birth doula and world-renowned wellness leader.
Thanks for listening.
Awaken is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public, and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Wieden Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Awaken is sponsored by Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for Awaken was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.