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Escape the Trance of Busyness: A Conversation With Tara Brach, PhD

Jonathan Foust

S&H's Stephen Kiesling sat down with Tara Brach, founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Center of Washington and author of Radical Acceptance, to explore her RAIN practice: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture.

Those of us who are too busy to get out of our own way—let alone to delight in life—might turn to Tara Brach, who for decades has been weaving mindfulness and compassion and applying them to wherever people get lost. Brach is the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Center of Washington and author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge. She spoke with S&H about her own signature practice, one she details in her new book, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN.

Stephen Kiesling: We’ve followed your work for more than a decade, and one idea that crops up repeatedly is “to create a clearing.” Where did that start?

Tara Brach: I grew up in a very driven background. My dad was a housing and civil rights attorney and my mom worked for the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. Both my parents were full throttle, and I am so Type A. My first taste of freedom from all that came when I was in nature in my mid-teens. I was hiking and paused and … Oh my gosh! I had a sense of wonder at pure beauty. Something beyond this driven world I lived in.

From that and other similar experiences came the sense that we really do need to pause. That it’s only when we stop tumbling forward on our way to something else that we discover this mystery.

It’s right here! So, the Sacred Pause became at the center of my own mindfulness practice: just knowing how to stop and find the stillness in the midst of the movement. That fabulous line,

“Create a clearing in the dense forest of your life,” is not my line. It’s from the poet Martha Postlewaite, and it really resonates.

Stephen: How did your practice evolve?

Tara: I started yoga when I was 20 and went from yoga into meditation. During that time, I also got interested in psychology as another way of shining light on this mystery—so that we can become whole. As I worked on my doctorate in psychology, I was exploring how to wake up … body, mind, and spirit.

Stephen: You write and speak about waking up from a trance. What’s the relationship between a trance and a flow state?

When we wake up from the trance, we have access to flow. The trance is when we’re on automatic, lost in a habitual cycling of thoughts and emotions. Our behaviors are reactive whether we’re being defensive or aggressive or busily checking things off our to-do list. The trance is basically living in a sense of a separate self who chronically feels something is missing or wrong.

When we start to notice what’s going on, and we begin to rest in mindful awareness—noticing the habitual thoughts and emotions but not being lost inside them—we gain access to the space of presence that allows the universe to live through us. That’s what leads to flow state: when our ego habits or our habitual thinking are not getting in the way or not stumbling us up. When our sense of being is not hitched to the ego self, we can then act from a place that can be called grace. We move into a flow state, where we are informed by a much deeper kind of intelligence and compassion and creativity.

Stephen: What allows us to wake up from this trance state?

Tara: A major flag for trance is anxiety: the underlying sense of something’s about to go wrong, that something around the corner is going to be too much, or that I’m going to have to fix it all. That kind of fear-based, anxious thinking—of needing to control life—is a sign of being in a trance. Or we may notice that we’re getting compulsive in our habits: I’m not eating what I need; instead, I’m stuffing in trail mix or a third bowl of ice cream. Another sign of a trance is when we’re caught up in judging ourselves and each other, when we’re caught up thinking, “Oh, something’s wrong with the way you’re doing something, or something’s wrong with the way I’m performing.” The trance is when we’re living from fear-based reactivity, rather than a sense of wholeness.

Stephen: Okay. That’s what I’m doing now. Rather than really listening to you, I’m rehearsing what I’ll ask next. How do I wake up?

Tara: You ask yourself, What is actually happening inside me right now? [pauses] And then you bring your attention to what’s here. Let your senses wake up. Feel into your body. What’s actually going on right now? Can you offer a gentle presence to your experience?

You just took a little bit more of a breath. I could see it. Now you might feel your belly. Start feeling like you’re inhabiting right here. You might sense into your heart area and ask, “What am I feeling?” Maybe you’ll notice, “Oh, I was anxious, thinking that I needed to do something better or different.” Really let that be, without any judgement. And then you breathe a little more, “Oh, so that’s what was going on.” And then you realize that by bringing presence to what is going on inside you, you’re now living in a larger, more awake space. You start hearing the sounds around you because you’ve created a clearing in the dense forest of your life.

Stephen: That’s lovely. I can tell you right now that it works.

Tara: Oh good! Now I’m going to add one more piece to this pathway of awakening. The first question is, what is happening inside me? The second question is, can I let this be … with kindness? Or can I be with this … with kindness?

When you come out of the trance, there’s typically a sense that something’s wrong: I did something wrong or you did. You may notice a bit of fear or a little agitation. And recognizing this is really valuable. When we are in a trance, our emotional body is experiencing separation, and with that comes an undercurrent of fear. The primal mood of the separate self is fear. So as we emerge from trance, we can become more aware of this fear—or related feelings like deficiency, failure, shame, or craving.

To deepen presence, we need some gesture of kindness, some sense or some quality of forgiving, accepting, or caring. If we can “let be,” with kindness, we will find inner freedom from the fear.

We can think of this as the two wings of awareness: If you want to come out of trance, you ask, “What’s happening inside me?” And then, “Can I be with this with kindness?” Those two wings are mindfulness and compassion, and we need both to fly and be free.

Stephen: That’s beautiful. Let’s return to the idea of creating flow and of getting rid of baggage. One of the things you write about is letting go of blame. Could you talk about that?

Tara: Waking up from the trance—and the suffering—of blame is really important. Blame doesn’t feel good, but we hold onto blame so tightly. For example, if I ask you to bring to mind somebody you resent or blame for something, and then I ask you to imagine letting go of that resentment or blame—to put aside any idea that this person is bad or wrong—what you might feel is fear that the person is going to hurt you again. Or you might feel powerless,

or out of control. Or you might feel that letting go of blame means that you are the one who’s wrong. There are a lot of strong reasons people hold onto their blame.

Essentially, it’s because when you let go of blame, you get in touch with vulnerability—and we’d rather feel angry and blame than feel powerless and vulnerable.

So we hold onto it, even though blaming another person doesn’t end up getting us what we want. I’ve seen so many couples in a standoff in

which each person is blaming the other because they feel unloved or disrespected. Sadly, the blame doesn’t get them what they want. And it doesn’t bring them closer. So the question is, how do we begin to move past blame?

This is a place where we can use the practice of RAIN. The acronym stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. RAIN is a way of weaving mindfulness and compassion and applying it to where we’re emotionally stuck. It can be brought to our hurts and fears, our places of addictiveness and shame, and our anger and blame.

Stephen: How does RAIN work?

Tara: Let’s say I feel resentment towards somebody. The first step is to make what I call the U-turn. Instead of focusing on what the other person did wrong, I turn it back to myself and ask, “What am I feeling? What’s really going on here?” This is the R of RAIN. Recognize. In this case, I might recognize, “Oh wow! I’m really feeling a sense of anger or rage towards this person.”

The A of RAIN is Allow, which means letting the feeling be there for now. I’m not going to try to change the situation. I’m not going to fix anything or add anything more to it. I’m just going to allow the feeling to be clear. Make a space and let it be there. Creating that space enables me to move to

the I of RAIN, which is Investigate. What is really happen- ing inside me right now? And then I might sense a feeling of hurt: “Oh, the way they’re acting makes me feel like they don’t care about me.”

And then I can start feeling that hurt and deepen the investigating. The core of investigation is very somatic … not mental. I’m scanning my body. Maybe I then sense, “Oh, this is a very familiar feeling. I’ve experienced this squeeze in my heart all of my life. It’s really an old wound.” And one part of investigating is to ask, “What does that wounded part of me need? Oh, what it really needs right now is to feel a sense of being cared about.”

And that brings me to the N of RAIN, which is Nurture.

I might put my hand on my heart and say, “It’s okay sweetheart. I’m here. I’m not leaving. I care about you.” And then, after a bit of time, I just pause and sense what has shifted. After doing those four steps, what I feel is a shift from being the victim to a more enlarged being … a shift from the offended self to a field of compassionate presence. And I take a few moments to rest in that presence, get familiar with the truth of who I am beyond the blaming self.

Stephen: How much time has gone by?

You can spend 30 minutes or you can do it really quickly. To do it quickly, just pause a moment and recognize the predominant feeling, and let it be. Allow it. Then investigate and feel a little more awareness in your body. Finally look for some way of nurture: A gesture of self-kindness. In a short amount of time, you’ll notice you are freed up enough to move forward into whatever’s next with more intelligence, more clarity, and more heart. All that might take two minutes.

Here’s another piece that’s important to remember: RAIN doesn’t heal things once and for all. These patterns have been in us for a lifetime, so you may need to do many rounds of RAIN. But again, they can be short rounds. And every time you do a round of RAIN, you become a little less wedded to the stories of a small self, of a deficient self, of a fearful self. And you become more familiar with a spacious, clear, and open heart. This is the gift of RAIN. It helps us to live from our true nature, our basic goodness.

You become more familiar with a spacious, clear, and open heart. This is the gift of RAIN. It helps us to live from our true nature, our basic goodness.

After a round of RAIN, I can look at that person I resented with a lot more clarity and wisdom. I might see that this other person is going through a lot of stress, and I can be more compassionate towards them because I’m not taking it so personally, I’m not lost in trance.

Stephen: So, in a sense, being easier on yourself is actually a path out of victimhood?

Tara: Yes. Whether you call it being easier on yourself or deepening your attention to what’s going on inside you with compassion, you first have to bring attention and compassion inward—and then you can open to others. There’s a beautiful saying that I repeat a lot: “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” When we release blame toward ourselves and others, we can open to the raw emotions that are under blame, and in that openness discover empowerment and true spiritual healing.

Stephen: Do you ever have the feeling that people coming to you for help are already fairly awake and just need to be harder on themselves?

Tara: Well, it depends. If being harder on yourself means creating better boundaries or changing unhealthy behaviors, then that’s absolutely helpful. But if being harder on yourself means being punitive or hateful towards yourself, that’s not helpful at all. It only digs you deeper into an ego-trance.

A lot of people I see are very entangled in what I call the trance of unworthiness, where they’re feeling deficient and unworthy and not trusting their intrinsic intelligence and capacity for love. And many also fixate their blame on others. RAIN helps with both. It is the most powerful spiritual technology I know for cultivating compassion for ourselves and others—and creating the space to become free of the trance of unworthiness. I think of my book Radical Compassion as a guidebook on how to use this technology to live fully from a wise, caring, and joyful heart.

"She Asked the King for a Sing Soaring Lark," Mary Alayne Thomas, maryalaynethomas.com

"Wildest Place," by Mary Alayne Thomas maryalaynethomas.com

Recognize • Allow • Investigate • Nurture

RAIN Partners

If you and I were to practice RAIN together right now, we would each choose an issue that we want to work on. The first step—Recognize—is to name and share whatever we have chosen. For example, I might say, “The key features I’m feeling are a sense of anger and distance from my sisters.” And I’d share whatever else was most predominant about the experience. And you might say, “The key feature I’m working on is feeling a lot of anxiety about an event coming up.” And you would also say a bit more about what feels strongest. Then we’d take a few moments of shared quietness, creating a space of Allowing. We’re just clearing space … as if we’re saying, “Okay, these are the issues. We’re not going to try to fix them. We’re just going to try to deepen our attention.”

Then we’ll go into a more extended silent phase to Investigate and then nurture what we’re feeling. I might sense, “Oh, I’m feeling into that distance from my sisters, and it feels like shame in me. I’m not really coming through for my sisters.” And I’d get in touch with that shame in my body and Nurture the feeling with some compassion. I’d end by noticing the shift that occurred … maybe from an angry self to a kinder presence. Meanwhile you’d be doing the same process with your anxiety, and we’d come back together and share whatever unfolded.

That 30-minutes would be our RAIN partner session for the week.

What is so cool about doing it together is that it helps people stay with the process. The mind doesn’t wander off, the support actually brings more depth, and the shared feelings don’t feel quite so personal. Together we might realize that it’s not such a bad thing that you have anxiety or that I’m feeling shame or what- ever. We hear each other and realize our issue is part of the human predicament. We shift into an intimate place with lot more space, mutual compassion, and perspective.

RAIN in Conflict

When my husband Jonathon and I have triggered each other into conflict, we first take a self-compassion break. That means we do our own thing—and we do the U-turn. Instead of being angry at the other, we look inside at what we’re feeling, and we do RAIN for ourselves. That enables us to see the other with more clarity and kindness, and less reactivity. Then, when we get back together, we share what came up in RAIN, and the other person is much more able to empathize because we’ve both already done some self- healing. We have a joke that the first person who can role-reverse wins. By that we mean, the first one who can actually see through the other’s eyes and really feel a sense of compassion is the one who’s best serving the process. It’s the friendliest and most supportive of competitions! We’re building a capacity for understanding and compassion that’s really helpful in relationships.

RAIN Prevents Regret

About five years before my mom died, she came here to live with us. She was 82 and didn’t know anybody around here, and I, in my busyness, wasn’t giving her the attention I had wanted to. I remember one day I was on my computer preparing for a talk. When I have deadlines, I get anxious and shut out everything, and so I barely looked up from my computer when she came in to show me an article from The New Yorker. She very gracefully put the article down on my desk and left the room, and then I had this jarring feeling: “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how long I’ll have her with me.” I had so much anxiety about getting my talk done on time—a talk on awareness and compassion—that I didn’t show up for my own mom.

So I did RAIN with the anxiety about deadlines. I did RAIN a lot—creating more spaciousness and touching into a deeper sense of ease and flow. And I started finding that when I was with my mom, rather than looking at my watch or trying to get back to my computer, I was delighting in her. In making big salads for dinner, taking walks by the river, joking about the antics of our dogs. I had it easy. I had a great mom.

When she was dying, I remember being by her side and she would look up now and then and say, “You’re right here, aren’t you?” And I really was right there. Now I miss her like crazy, but

I don’t have regrets. I feel like RAIN saved my life-moments with my mom. RAIN gave me moments I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed lost in the trance of my busyness.

Adapted from Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN. For more practices go to TaraBrach.com.

"A Moment's Rest," by Mary Alayne Thomas maryalaynethomas.com