Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Tara Brach. Tara Brach is a beloved meditation teacher who’s been practicing and teaching meditation since 1975. She has a PhD in clinical psychology, is the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC, and is the author of Radical Acceptance, Radical Compassion, True Refuge, and the new book with Sounds True called Trusting the Gold. Tara’s weekly podcasts of talks and meditations are downloaded more than three million times each month, and I can tell you that’s a lot of downloads for a podcast for talks and meditations.
Tara Brach has also partnered with Sounds True and Jack Kornfield to create the Awareness Training Institute. Through the Awareness Training Institute, Tara and Jack offer a seven-week online mindfulness training called The Power of Awareness.
They also teach a two-year online training program for people who graduate from the Power of Awareness and want to move on and become Mindfulness Meditation teachers. It’s called The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher’s Certification Program. You can learn more about the Awareness Training Institute in Tara Brach’s new book, Trusting the Gold, at SoundsTrue.com. In this conversation with Tara, we get right into it. What is the trance of unworthiness? How do we work with our most difficult emotions, those feelings of shame, that sense of being unlovable? As a gateway, Tara calls it a portal, to actually discover what in us is gold, what in us is beautiful and pure and loving and kind. Here’s our conversation on Trusting the Gold.
Tara, I’m so happy and honored to have this chance to talk to you about your new book, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness. It’s a collection of some of your favorite stories and quotes that you refer to in your teachings and talks. I wanted to start by talking about the title, Trusting the Gold. I know there’s a story that goes along with the title. Let’s start there.
Tara Brach: Yes. It’s a story that actually I tell a lot because it has had such an imprint on me. In Thailand, for centuries, there is this enormous clay Buddha statue that wasn’t particularly attractive, but people just loved it for its staying power through the centuries—six centuries, actually. In recent years, and I think it was in the late ‘50s, the statue started to crack because of the extended drought. One enterprising monk shined a light into the cracks of the plaster clay, and what gleamed back was gold, this shine of gold, and they undid what turned out to be just coverings. It was the largest gold statue of the Buddha in Southeast Asia, and people come from all over now to look at it.
But here’s what’s so interesting to me. The monks believe, and historians actually confirm this, that the Buddha was covered over with plaster and clay to protect it from invading armies, protect it from being stolen or destroyed, desecrated, much in the same way that we humans cover over our innate purity to try to get by.
We live in difficult environments for many, many reasons, and so we take on our defenses and our aggressions, our way of proving ourselves and just navigating with the ego, and we forget who’s really there. And that’s where the suffering is. It’s not that we have coverings—that’s part of the natural way that we develop defenses and so on. But it’s that we forget the gold. We forget the love and the awareness that’s intrinsic. We forget who’s looking through the mask. And so I think of this—it captures, in a way, the whole path of waking up. We’re waking up to remember and realize and trust the gold, and then include the coverings with a very healing compassion.
TS: That’s interesting, this notion of including the coverings. I think a lot of times, we want to get rid of what we see as those coverings, those parts of ourselves that we don’t like very much that seemed in the way of our pure essence. That seems like a different turn.
TB: It is a different turn because the idea is we need some coverings. It’s just not being identified with them, so that if we’re present and kind toward them—let’s say I feel like I’m being aggressive or judgmental and un-present and kind toward that. It becomes more porous, so I can still remember who I am and then sense, OK, well what degree of assertiveness is needed, so we’re not trying to get rid of as much as come into a wise relationship with.
TS: OK. Well, Tara, let’s talk directly that person who says the part of me that feels just unlovable, unworthy—you teach and write about the “trance of unworthiness”—someone who, right now listening to this, feels they’re in a trance of unworthiness. They don’t identify with that being a covering. They’re like, I am not worthy. That’s how it is. How do they move to a place of experiencing that as a covering and not actually the reality of the situation?
TB: Yes, and that is the suffering of it. What I call the trance of unworthiness is that we believe and feel in our bodies something’s wrong, that something’s wrong with me, like an intrinsic sense of being flawed. The pathway is training our attention, and that puts so much emphasis on mindfulness. Mindfulness means that in the moment you’re aware of the beliefs and feelings going on, that more of you is inhabiting the awareness and is not so caught in the wave. You’re the ocean and you’re not so caught in it. So the more we become more mindful of the patterns, and the more we become kindly toward them, the more we rest in something larger and start trusting that is more the truth of who we are than the waves.
I use ocean waves a lot, Tami, because it’s not—every metaphor’s very imperfect—but I think we can almost get an embodied sense of the more whole we feel, the more we’re inhabiting the fullness of awareness. The more we can see the passing nature of, OK, this is a flaring up of addictive tendency or this is a flaring up of being judgmental or this is a flaring up of fear, and not feel like it defines us. That’s where the shift comes in. Learning, really, to offer mindfulness and compassion to the changing waves.
TS: Now, we each might identify our own way of how we fall into the trance of unworthiness. Do you think it’s important to understand what the early experiences are, what happened in the first few years of our life that created these? You said these coverings are natural. Do you think we need to understand, do that investigative, archeological work to know how this occurred, how this continual vulnerability to this type of wave pattern occurred—or you don’t really need to know the “why”?
TB: There’s a certain amount of understanding, both how we got messaged in our early life, how we got treated because we ended up telling ourselves what others told us, and we end up treating ourselves like others treat us. There’s a certain value to that, but I’ll even go beyond that. There’s a certain value to sensing how things get passed through the generations, the way we are shaped by other generations. There’s a real value to sensing how society is shaping our behaviors, our attitudes. I love the saying that we’re not thinking our own thoughts. We’re thinking society’s thoughts. The reason that that kind of understanding is part of being freer is it helps us to get: it’s not our fault. That the suffering or the things we don’t like got shaped by forces that are outside of who we are.
When we can see that, when we can see how past generations were traumatized, when we can see how society is just absolutely fueling overconsumption, or fueling ideas of how bodies should be, and then we realize we’re hating our bodies because we are programmed to hate our bodies. I name that one because it was really helpful for me. I had, probably since my late teens, an eating disorder and a sense of body dysmorphia and self-aversion for my body that I struggled with over a decade and a half. It was very much a part of a culture that says women should have this kind of a body, and if we don’t match what the culture says, then we end up hating ourselves. I think getting the societal impacts or what our caregivers did, past generations, all helps us to not take it as personally. It’s not an intrinsic flaw. It’s part of the conditioning, and if it’s conditioning, we can alter that conditioning in how we treat ourselves.
TS: Would you be willing, Tara, to share more from your own? Let’s go ahead with the multigenerational inherited conditioning that you’ve really had to work with in your life and that journey for you.
TB: Sure. I’m glad to. I was very close with my mother growing up. I was the first child. She was alcoholic, she was depressed, and her mother was very depressed. I don’t know about the addictions in past generations, but that was the case, and I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t make her better, and so I ended up feeling the sense of powerlessness to help, letting somebody else down, something’s wrong with me for not making her feel better, which carries over. It’s a tendency, this real pain in disappointing others. She, by the grace of AA and other factors, actually pulled out and [experienced a] tremendous amount of healing, but that was after I left for college. That was one piece.
Then my father, a civil rights attorney, a passionate do-gooder, idealistic—and the message there was make a difference, contribute. And I grew up feeling never enough. It’s like it didn’t matter what I did, especially to do with the suffering around us. It needed to be more because he was so one-pointed. That’s just an example of how the messages got implanted in me and just created a real deep sense of deficiency.
TS: I want to talk specifically about that not-enough-ness, and I want to talk about that because it’s something I know well, and also I know it and I see it in many of my friends. There’s this sense that, at the nervous system level, deep down in us, there’s this “you can’t really rest, you can’t really trust the gold completely and relax.” You always have to have, somehow, the sense of there’s some hill I have to climb, something I have to do, whether it’s for my own … It feels so deep in, as I said, in our nervous system. I’m curious how you’ve been able to break through that into more of, if you have, into a feeling of real restfulness.
TB: Yes. I love the word enough-ness or all-right-ness because it is a space outside of that conditioning. It feels to me to be society-wide. It’s almost—there’s capitalism that always requires growing and accumulating more. It feels very much like a part of a grasping culture that we always have to be more and do more and produce more to be OK. Then of course, some of us grew up in families where the caregivers, the messenger, our caregivers really directly linked with the kind of response we get whether we are lovable or whether we’re respectable.
So, so many of us have our basic worth linked to our external doings. And “enough” meaning it could be in the spiritual way—kind enough or it could be having done enough for the world. Or it could be the more materialistic accumulated enough, or look good enough, or have enough of an intelligence. But we have all these standards that we’re always measuring against, and it’s exhausting. I mean, it’s really exhausting, that “not enough,” because it keeps on fueling the stress that makes us have to do more, so we get identified as a human doing, as they say, not a being.
TS: Then in your own experience, breaking this pattern that we both, for many of us, inherited from our families, or it was our coping strategy in our families to get love, and then also the cultural interject, but let’s move out of it, Tara.
TB: I’m on for that. Cheers. I watched it for a lot of years, I mean, because as you say, it’s very embodied. It’s in the body in a painful way. I would see how I would do things, and I would do the things that look like it would make me enough. Let’s say our teacher workshop, and people would light up, and I’d see a lot of transformation. I’d come home and a couple of minutes later, I’d be looking at my to-do list because I had to keep on fueling that I was enough with the next thing I would do. Just literally, the glow would last for a few minutes of enough-ness, so it was very hitched and temporary. I remember one of those times coming back and then meditating and asking myself, OK, so what would be enough? I let my imagination really go wild with how much I contribute and do and help people, and how kind and patient I’ve been, the whole thing. And I realize none of the externals would actually leave me feeling enough because I’d still have the next day that I’d have to go do it again in some way.
That enough-ness didn’t have to do with that. It really had to do with the quality of here and now presence. That right in this moment, there can be a sense of wholehearted, really fully right here, really engaged with what’s right here. In these moments, there’s a wholeness, there’s enough, and it doesn’t mean not to do the good things. It just means to rest our roots of sensing goodness in the presence that’s here, not in any of the doings.
TS: This word gold, trusting the gold, is it fair to say that another way to talk about this gold, because you told the story of the gold Buddha statue, but it is the here now presence that that’s what we’re coming into to trust, that’s the gold. I’m asking, is that a fair thing to say?
TB: Yes, the gold, I would describe the gold … I mean, the Buddhist would say it’s Buddha nature or true nature. The gold is the fundamental or primordial awareness, the basic awareness that’s here, and it has flavors and expresses like a gem, multi-faceted. The gold gets expressed as gratitude, the gold gets expressed as love or as compassion or as wisdom. So there are different expressions. Each of our body minds has different ways of expressing that basic presence. I’d say the most fundamental expression would be love, so that’s the gold, yes.
TS: I wanted to ask you more about this word “trusting” also, because I think for a lot of people like, yes, trust the compassion, the love, the kindness and then get screwed over—something like that. Trusting is not necessarily something that, for some of us, we feel it’s worked out so great. I’m curious what you might say about that.
TB: Let’s say our intention is trusting the goodness or the gold in ourselves and each other. And then in some way, we’re not paying attention to how that person’s patterning might just really injure us, so clearly that’s not what it means. In fact, I think often about … I had this supervisor when I was getting licensed as a psychologist who’s a consummate therapist, I mean, just beautiful. He had this capacity to see the gold and mirror it back. He really let people know he saw their light, their spirit, their goodness in these particular expressions. And people would, in that way, be very undefended with him, and then they could ally together to look at how the coverings were creating pain and harm for themselves or others, and he was extraordinarily astute at seeing the coverings.
It wasn’t like seeing the gold blocked him from recognizing the different patterns that we have that get us in trouble. It actually made it possible for him to be with others, and I’m assuming himself, and bring that healing presence to the coverings that actually allows the coverings to transform. So I hope that gives a sense of it, because it’s not a blind naïve thing. It’s all-inclusive.
TS: Interesting. The gold you write about, this power of seeing, you called the secret beauty in people or secret beauty. What’s your inner posture that enables you to be able to do that?
TB: It is a practice, because I think so often of the negativity bias that has us fixate on the coverings. Yes, what I’ll do, whether—sometimes I’m with the person, sometimes I’m not, is know that’s an intention, to see who’s there. Some part of me is asking questions like, who are you really and what do you really care about, what really matters to your heart? What do you long for? What do you love? I have an inquiry about who that person really is, and in a deep way, what is that that’s looking back at me through those eyes, just really sensing. It’s the same sentient—as I look at you, it’s the same awareness filtered through all sorts of different conditionings. And so that really helps me, but it’s an active inquiry, Tami, that I actually have to have in my mind to explore. Then another level of it is, as I see that goodness, is there a way for me to let this person know? That’s part of it as an act of loving, that I see the goodness and I mirror it.
TS: That’s a beautiful practice, I think, for any of us.
TB: There’s a trick that I also use when I can see, is I’ll sometimes look and ask myself what’s the color of this person’s eyes, because as we know, whether we believe it, the eyes are the window of the soul. There’s something about looking attentively at another person’s eyes that I feel like it is a springboard into feeling the sentient that’s there.
TS: Now, Tara, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about you, if that’s OK, and your own formation. It was interesting to know more about your family. Then I’ve read that you joined an ashram for quite a long period in your life, and I’m curious to know more about that. What was the inspiration to live in an ashram, and then why did you leave?
TB: I joined because I was becoming more and more aware that there was a larger reality, a larger truth than the cocoon of thoughts and beliefs and so on I was in. And that was … I mean, I started realizing that the more I’d be in nature, the more I’d do yoga. Psychedelics helped to shake loose some of the moorings. Part of it was just this, that’s always been with me, this inquiry like what is true. Part of it is this longing for communion, for love. They go hand in hand. Letting go of the separateness. And I found it as I got a taste of ashram life, before I moved in in the chanting, the yoga, the meditation, living in community, so I was drawn. It was really loving truth, loving love. My personality type is throwing myself in, so when I taste something that has some magic to it, I really go for it.
I joined, and as it turns out, the kind of ashram I joined was very, very vigorous. We’d get up at three-thirty in the morning and do two-and-a-half hours of Sādhanā, of spiritual practice, and work all day at the family businesses, and do some more meditation, and then start all over. It was very idealistic. The sense of we were serving the world—that really resonated. The intensity did arouse a lot of beautiful altered states. I mean, I learned how to concentrate and get really, really still, and feeling peace and bliss and love and harmony. It really worked on that level. It was also perfect for a Type A personality that it also had a rigidity, and that ended up the shadow of it, Tami, is of course why I left, which is that it was very hierarchical, patriarchal, it’s very perfectionistic. We’re really trying to perfect ourselves, which played right into my trance of unworthiness because I could never be enough.
That atmosphere allowed for abuse, it allowed for abuse. It happened to me. I was abused emotionally. It happened to others. I witnessed it. The national leader was an abusive personality type. I mean, he hurt people. Between that sexual abuse of young women, criminal activity—that was a strong shadow and I left. But I did get—it was hard, by the way, to leave ten years and this is my family—I did get a lot in training my heart and mind in certain ways. But it was a harmful container after a while, very clearly.
TS: As someone myself who trained in a Type A meditation training environment for over a decade, after leaving that community, there are times when I wonder, am I serious about my spiritual journey or am I now all into the letting go, relaxation path of trusting the beauty of this moment? I don’t have the kind of rigor I had when I was training. Another part of me says, well good, you’re taking a more feminine, balanced approach. But then I wonder am I, just basically, am I lazy? I’m curious what your view is of that and how we find that balance of people who perhaps tend towards Type A, Type … go, go, go.
TB: Yes. Same. I mean, I’ve often wondered, am I still playing my edge? Am I giving myself as much, and is there something I’m not seeing? And when that comes up, it brings me to say, what’s my deepest intention and longing? If I ask that, in any given moment, I can feel it just as I name it. I come back to really loving love and loving truth and trusting that love. It’s almost like I’m not trusting that the ego is going to keep her edge and wake up. I’m trusting that awareness wants to wake up to itself. Awareness wants to be free, to love fully. Awareness wants to rest in its own wholeness. I really do think of it that way, and so I actually deepen my trust in that, that it’s really OK.
TS: Tara, I think sometimes people might think of you as Tara. Oh, Tara is the meditation teacher who specializes in helping us deal with really difficult emotions. I’m wondering what you think about that. Do you think that, oh yes, that did become part of my specialty?
TB: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that’s the leading niche, so to speak, because on my own path, I just had to spend a lot of time working with difficult emotions and finding that the more difficult they were—the shame, the sense of fundamental flawed-ness, our fear—and the more difficult, the more they became this real portal to freedom. I move through that path. I have moved through and I continue to that pathway so many times that, every time I would be with difficult waves, I’d rediscover in a deeper way the ocean-ness, the vastness, the impersonality, the tenderness of awareness. It became part of my passion to explore all the nuances of that with others, but it doesn’t seem to leave out much.
The more I feel what it includes, because for people that really go into it, opening to the waves that are difficult actually ends up revealing what’s sometimes called non-identification, that it’s really empty. So there’s a very deep wisdom that wakes up, and it’s filled with caring. It’s got the whole everything that I love of that, the truth and the wisdom and the loving and the communion’s all there.
TS: Let’s see if we can make it really real for someone, this idea of something like shame, which doesn’t feel like a portal. I think, to many of us, it feels like a terrible dead end where I’m spinning around in a shame cycle. How could shame be a portal? Maybe you could share from a personal vantage point how shame was a portal for you in some sense, and what that was like to pass through.
TB: Sure. Gladly. There’s been 10,000 rounds of it, so it’s a very familiar pathway. The shame doesn’t occur that much anymore. I remember when I got sick, and this was in my early 50s, and I spent four or five years pretty sick. It was a spiral down and I didn’t know if I’d get better, and so there was fear to it, but one of the most dominant feelings was I was feeling in some way that I was ashamed that I wasn’t taking care of myself better, and I was ashamed that I wasn’t a better patient. I didn’t like the sense of irritation. I didn’t like the impatience that will come up to me. The more tight I’d get over not feeling well over a sustained period of time, I didn’t like the self who was sick.
I remember working with that, Tami, at one point, just realizing how I’d added to all the unpleasantness and pain of sickness, a sense of bad self. And I got really dedicated, because as soon as I really got it, I wanted to, the way I described, love myself into healing. I really focused in on that, that feeling of shame about who I am. Here I’m this dharma teacher and I can’t even get sick and still stay connected. It was really powerful, because I went right into the core of the shame, that old sense of failure, of not enough, of therefore not being lovable. Because that’s where it goes, that I’m going to be pushed out. Shame has a sense of something’s really wrong, and the fear of being rejected for it.
When I could get in touch with that depth of I’m unlovable, and feel the suffering of that, just really feel the suffering of it, that’s where there’s a tenderness. Like something larger felt tender towards the shameful place, and that was the beginning of really offering a self-compassion where I really allowed myself to feel bathed in kindness, like oh this hurts. I found it’s really important to recognize this hurt. It’s like, ouch. Because if we can really get the sense, the landscape of this incarnation and how this being is hurting, there is a natural tenderness that arises. It’s the beginning of self-compassion. That self-compassion was incredibly full and incredibly healing. I felt really washed in loving presence and dissolving into loving presence until it just became so clear.
My identity was not a sick person. My identity was not a sick person falling short. My identity was not a sick person who would never get well. It was like those were the coverings, and I was resting in this loving presence that’s really the truth of what I am. It deepened my trust tremendously to make that shift from the ashamed patient to that loving presence, so it was holding this life.
TS: It’s very helpful. It sounds like, just experientially—and I’m not trying to say anything about the way the reality works or anything like that—but that experientially, there was this hurt, this feeling of this person. This being really is hurting right now, and then this other compassionate, loving, tender space that could hold the being that was hurting, almost two, like a big loving space. Is that part of the breakthrough?
TB: Yes. I would go back to the ocean, the waves because they’re not a separate two. It’s like in recognizing the hurting, there was an enlarged sense of presence just in recognizing that I was resting more in the ocean that had the space and the tenderness to create all the waves on the surface that were moving through. The shameful self was a part of my experience, but it didn’t define me, and that’s the shift.
TS: I mentioned the meditation teacher who helps us deal with difficult emotions. You can also say the meditation teacher who teaches the RAIN practice. Interestingly, in Trusting the Gold, there’s one chapter—there’s more than 50 chapters in the book, short chapters—where you talked about the RAIN practice. In the rest of the chapters, you offer other pointers and ways of working with difficult emotions. But I’m curious if you can just connect for a moment the RAIN practice with what you were just describing as this type of self-compassion breakthrough.
TB: Yes. RAIN, it makes it sound like RAIN, some sort of a very particular practice over there, and it’s actually, I think, that is applied meditation. It’s bringing a weave of mindfulness and compassion to wherever we’re stuck. In a way, all the other teachings I mentioned in the book could be seen as part of that process. But putting that aside, RAIN is an acronym. It was first, for those who are not familiar, Michelle McDonald, who’s a wonderful senior Buddhist meditation teacher, first coined the acronym back, I think, in the ‘80s or ‘90s. The way I teach RAIN is actually a shift from the original because I added in self-compassion to it, which feels pretty basic. The letters stand for R is recognize, A is allow, just letting be what’s here. The I is investigate, and it’s not a cognitive investigation. It’s actually primarily somatic, where we investigate and become more embodied in contact with whatever is going on. The N is to nurture.
Then after we’ve done that, after we’ve nurtured, there’s actually another phase, which is “After the RAIN,” and it’s an important one. Just as after a real rain, it’s after the rain that there’s that flourishing. It’s in the moment after we’ve done the “doing” steps—recognize, allow, investigate, nurture—that we can rest in and be the presence that’s there, get to really know the “who we are” beyond the limiting sense of a self. In the example I just gave you, I was doing RAIN.
I was recognizing that I was feeling the overt feelings that first got to me was self-judgment and feeling really down, feeling really grim and depressed. And then I’d allow that to be there. Allow means you don’t judge or try to fix or in any way try to avoid. Just some moments of just let it be there.
Then the I, investigate, I ask myself sometimes, whenever there’s some suffering: What am I believing? Because there’s always a belief that in some way, something’s wrong, and I could sense that something’s wrong with me. Then the investigate is to somatically feel that in the body, that squeeze that’s fearful in the chest and hollow in the belly of just a sinking feeling. The more I open to it, and the more I sensed how many times in my life I had been contracted into that sense of “something’s wrong with me,” that real “ouch, this hurts,” that’s when I could feel a moisturizing, a tenderness start to open up.
Then I could intentionally nurture, the N of RAIN, which for me is often … I put my hand on my heart or two hands on my heart and in some way call in love. Sometimes it’s the sense of my own awake heart offering love to the vulnerable place. And sometimes I sense it’s just through and beyond me, that loving presence that I’m calling on—really the great heart of the universe, the bodhisattva of compassion, whatever words we want. This feel of love and light to bathe me. And then I find it’s coming from inside too. Then there’s a natural letting go into that. That’s what happens when there’s a lot of compassion. There’s a dissolving of that solidity that’s hurting so much. Then “After the RAIN,” as I mentioned, was this sense of this loving presence is more the truth than any narrative, any set of feelings that come and go. It’s this. That’s what builds the trust.
TS: In Trusting the Gold, you share in these short chapters other, I guess I could call them reminders or maybe I might call them interventions, but then maybe that’s just me. When you’re suffering, here’s an intervention you can try. You don’t exactly offer it that way. You tell beautiful stories around these reminders. Here’s one. “When emotions are strong, my first step towards kindness is usually pausing, opening to the feelings, and telling myself ‘This belongs.’” These two words, “This belongs.” Since I’ve read that, I’ve been trying that with different things. This really works. This is terrific. This belongs. I’m curious how you came upon this phrase, “This belongs,” and how you use it.
TB: I’m not sure how I came upon it. The image, again, of ocean waves—that if we’re the ocean, whatever waves that are rising along, they’re just part of it. They’re not going to last forever in their current shape, but they’re part of it. By acknowledging the truth that they belong in that moment, there’s more space that opens up. I have seen over and over again, Tami, how we fight things. I mean, that’s our conditioning to think, this shouldn’t be here. I don’t want this to be here. This is the exact opposite of that and it undoes our conditioning, because when we’re defending against the waves, we create more waves. But in the moment of “This belongs,” I’m actually using my hands underneath here, there’s like, oh OK, so there’s the space of a larger space of presence and there’s room for these waves. They’re part of what’s the truth, the actuality of the moment. And acknowledging truth is very powerful, even when it doesn’t feel good. It’s freeing. That actually sets the way for us to do a deeper presence and investigation and unpacking and untwisting.
TS: OK. We’ll throw up one more of these sentences. It’s in a chapter called “Meet Your Edge and Soften.” You described what it’s like to say to yourself, “Sweetheart, just soften.” I wanted to hear more about that, this softening process.
TB: Well, it’s an embodiment practice. If you imagine you have some ice and you put it in water, it melts and it becomes water. The same thing, when the body has those contractions of fear or shame or anger, whatever it is, and we actually invite softening. There’s a natural letting go of the tightness, and by inviting it with kindness, just even a gesture of kindness, even remembering the word kindness ends up creating a space for softening. It just does. What I’ll do is feel that ice-cube-ness and in some way, invite it to dissolve. Say: Do you feel ready to let go? And that really helps, just inviting. What I’ll find is that the edges start getting wavery, and there’s a releasing into the surrounds, into the field of awareness that’s within and throughout. And presence actually gets stronger. It’s so amazing that in the moments of softening, that the presence gets stronger and that allows for more softening. It’s a virtuous cycle.
The message, “Sweetheart, just soften,” is a reminder that this is possible. In terms of how to use it, if you want to just practice with this, start with easier words. In other words, scan through the body and notice where there’s tightness you’re holding, just physically. It doesn’t have to be some big deep strong emotion. It may be tension in the shoulders that you feel right now, and just sense if it wants to let go a little, just invite it. Say: Would you like to dissolve some? It’s OK to let go. Are you ready to dissolve? You start getting the knack of it, of inviting tightness to release a bit, and it builds over time because the body’s intelligent. It knows how to let go. We just need to remember it’s even possible.
TS: Now, Tara, a couple of times now I’ve said the meditation teacher who helps us deal with difficult emotions, your area of specialty. And it seems to me that part of what’s really hard for people even after the turning, the recognizing, and the allowing is just feeling the utter terribleness, the utter excruciating, burning terribleness, daggers, painfulness. As you were saying, just soften. Oh, I have to go into the body and after I feel those places where I’m, I don’t know, getting iron rods stuck through my heart—I mean, I don’t know, we can get dramatic here, whatever it might be with people. How do you help people with that, with just the experiential intensity of the painful aspects of these difficult emotions?
TB: Sometimes they’re too painful and it’s not useful, so I just want to name that. When there’s trauma, and there’s a sense of panic or terror, and the invitation’s not “dive right in and open it up and let it completely fill me.” It could be re-traumatizing when we’re not resourced enough. I want to name that these approaches have to be gradual, have to be done intelligently. We are habituated to feeling like we can’t handle things, so playing an edge, unless there’s a lot of intense trauma, can actually be really revealing and give us confidence. Wow, I can handle whatever life brings. The [inaudible 00:48:14] call that the lion’s roar. It’s a confidence. It’s even deeper than happiness because we don’t have to tense against what’s around the corner so much. To come back to your question, how do we do that? How do we, when it feels really, really daggers and squeezed and just piercing and shattering, how do we open into it? There are a few ways to support it, and one is through the whole process of RAIN or through any process of working with difficult emotions: nurture all the way through.
Even before you start, set that intention—may I feel held in love, may there be some space for this—whatever kind message you inwardly, and throughout, know that you can come back to. Whatever gestures of kindness, whatever remembrances of safety help, maybe that you have a certain person in mind that you just sense is accompanying you, or a spiritual figure maybe that you sense, the natural world of trees and streams, that you’re part of that and that energy’s supporting you.
In other words, bring in what helps to make room, to make it easier, and very specifically, when I get to investigate, I often put my hand on my heart, Tami, because having my hand on my body, first of all, communicates a tender presence. I’m accompanying myself. And we need company. When we’re scared, we feel separate, we need company, so I’m accompanying myself. Also, putting a hand on the heart begins to quiet down the sympathetic nervous system, begins to calm us anyway. I’ll do long deep breathing with something when there’s real agitation, so that there’s ways to modulate our agitation as part of this, and they’re fair. We can modulate some and we can breathe and have our hand on our heart, and still lean in and lean in and invite the difficult places to express themselves and offer presence. It’s an art that we gain more and more strength as we practice, but it’s doable. I find that the more intense, as I mentioned earlier, the more I open to it, the more openness is there, the more I can trust the power of that openness and awareness.
TS: It’s helpful. It’s inspiring. Thank you, Tara. OK. Let’s talk more about your mom, but in this context, which—you have a chapter in Trusting the Gold—”Is This Universe a Friendly Place?” You share a conversation that you and your mom had after you gave a dharma talk in which you were teaching on basic goodness—that that is the nature of our world, our universe. And your mom asked you some challenging questions. I’m curious if you can share some of that dialog and talk to us, those people who say: Is the universe a friendly place? I’m not sure. I believe in my own basic goodness inside, I believe in yours, but the whole universe itself, it might be more of a neutral place. It might not have a valence toward friendliness.
TB: I love this question. That’s a quote, as you know, from Einstein. He says it’s the most basic question we need to ask ourselves. He goes on to say, what happens if we believe that this world is intrinsically unfriendly. He says that we’ll use all our technology and all of our resources to create bigger walls and weapons. He says if the other side, if we believe that it’s friendly, we’ll use all of our technology and all of our resources to deepen our understanding of this world we’re part of. In a way, just to say that how it happened with my mom, I was giving a talk on goodness, on really trusting the gold, because there’s not a difference between trusting in the basic benevolence or goodness of this world and trusting the gold.
My mother was there. She had moved down to live with us, and so she regularly would come to my Wednesday night talks, which is totally a blast because we’d drive back together and she’d talk about the themes. She was a Philosophy major in college and she loved challenging me, even when she agreed with the sentiments. On this one, oh my God, she really went to town. She said, “Where is the basic goodness in racism or social injustice or capital punishment?” —she was avidly against capital punishment—“or humans violating each other and destroying the earth?” That was the kind of thing. Then she went on to say, what makes goodness more basic than badness? What makes love more basic than hate? All the questions people asked. And she said, “I’m voting for neutral at best.”
TS: I can imagine a lot of our listeners are right there with your mom.
TB: Totally. Totally. She was right. As you mentioned, we don’t know. We just don’t know. We don’t know what’s more basic cognitively. We don’t know if love is more basic than our human capacity for hatred and cruelty. In current times, I think that it’s really hard because we’re seeing such a spike in fear that we’re seeing all the limbic reactivity in the universe come out. So we don’t know. There’s no logical proof, and I completely acknowledge that. I shared with her why it was so meaningful to me to trust goodness, and I described my own experience. Just as you said really, my own being, the moment of loving presence feel more true, more like home, more a priority, more basic, more whole than the changing waves.
I sense that this life is no different from any other life, that it’s all from stardust. All life forms emerge from the same source. We might play things out differently, but we are the same basic capacity. When I trust that, that loving awareness is our essence, that it’s really that the universe springs forth from it in some way. It’s helpful, and the way it’s helpful is if I sit here and feel like that’s the source, it allows me to live more from love, less defended, more open. It just helps me in how I live. In fact, my main mantra, if they’re self-taught, the main thing I tell myself is trust the gold. If in this moment, I say trust the gold, I get more sincere. Just reminding myself of that brings me more embodied into feeling what I care about and living from that.
I’ll just say one final thing, that my mom, especially in the last few decades of her life, she saw the best in people and brought out the best. She’s really loving. She lived as if she trusted the gold, even if she may have challenged it cognitively. I think it’s a powerful view to take on. Really, what happens if I trust the gold? Just to ask that and see what happens. I find it really transformational.
TS: Let me check something out with you, Tara, because what I also hear you saying is if we come into trusting our own goodness inside—actually, if you take all the coverings off inside, underneath, that the essence of who I am is this pure, kind, generous, loving presence, and I know that. I know that that’s what’s underneath. Then there’s a logical extension, because I’m part of the universe and that’s what I am at my core. That’s what the whole universe is. That’s what you’re saying. We were investigating it ourselves, and that’s a note or a gateway or something into what the whole universe is. Is that part of what you’re saying, that you’re experientially, that’s the path for you?
TB: Yes. I can describe it logically like, well I’m made of the same stuff as everything else. I come from sensing that awareness is the source for this life form. It’s going to be the source for all life forms, different ways of developing and expressing and getting stock. And there’s more. It’s also that the more I am trusting that goodness here, the more I look at you and it’s just so clear what’s looking back at me. The more I see it, the sacredness in all life forms and the trees and the animals. I mean, also, trusting the gold either can bring out a lot of compassion—I think of factory farming and sensing all these beings are really arising out of the same sacred essence, and the horror of the violation. Can’t we value all of life? Because I really do value all of life. Doesn’t mean I don’t forget and get smaller and make hierarchies in my mind. I do, but there’s a waking up out of that and seeing something that feels deeper and more true.
TS: Then finally, Tara, this podcast is called Insights at the Edge. One of the questions I love to ask people is, what would you say is the edge, your edge, your personal growth edge, if you will. What are you currently working with right now as a person?
TB: My edge is related to what I was maybe just talking about, that in recent days in particular, Tami, it’s gotten to me in a more full-bodied way, the realness of how many current species may not make it, probably won’t make it, how our earth body is threatened. I mean, it’s very visceral, and then the suffering in the most vulnerable people, and then all the way fears are inflaming white supremacy that’s caused centuries of violence and just keeps on going. Then I mention factory farming. It’s very visceral, so it’s really in me. What happens when I am just that feeling, is this voice comes up: what else can I do? It’s so bad. I need to do more. I mean, we’re in such bad shape. It’s wrong not to do more. Then I have to re-face the reality that I don’t, my health won’t last if I’m much more active than I currently am, so what happens? And this is the process that happens to me is I get grim, like OK, things are bad and I can’t do much more.
Then when I notice that grimness, that’s the view there, and I open underneath it, then I weep. I really feel the sadness. I just love life and I feel a sadness of life suffering, so there’s loving for the world. Then what that enables—and this is all when I’m awake—is then my next activity, whatever way I’m trying to serve, I just bring more heart to it, so hopefully it serves better. It’s just from caring. It’s not about doing more. It’s that Mother Teresa fabulous line of “doing small things with great love.” That’s my edge, because as I mentioned it early on, I have a lot of conditioning to always do more. And now seems a time that the world needs a lot of caring and a lot of active engagement.
TS: Well, I think you’d be glad to know, Tara, that there are a lot of us with you doing our parts, the listeners of this program, and so you have a lot of accompaniment. Each of us can just do our part.
TB: That is the wisdom and the goodness of it, Tami, is that it’s not an individual self, it’s being these holding hands, the care, and that is a refuge.
TS: Wonderful conversation, Tara. Thank you so much.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Tara Brach. We’ve been talking about her new book with Sounds True. It’s called Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness. With Sounds True, Tara Brach has also partnered with Jack Kornfield to create the Awareness Training Institute. The Awareness Training Institute offers a seven-week online mindfulness training called The Power of Awareness, and then people who have taken The Power of Awareness, some may choose to go on and actually become trained as meditation teachers. Tara and Jack have partnered together with Sounds True to create The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program, a two-year online training program. You can learn more about the Awareness Training Institute at SoundsTrue.com. Thanks everyone for being with us. Thank you for your part, metaphorically, if you will, holding hands here—corny as it sounds—with Tara and me, all of us connected. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast, and if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.