“Both psychological work and what we call spiritual work are seeking ways to deal with suffering, and really learning how to love without holding back, how to let go of the armoring.”
While growing up Christian Unitarian in New Jersey, Tara Brach was introduced to the idea of engaged spirituality, which she describes as “actively bringing our hearts to serving our world.” Later, as a left-leaning activist pursuing a double major in political science and psychology at Clark University, she was attracted to yogic practice as a means of bringing more consciousness and compassion into her work for social change.
These days, Brach is an internationally known author, Vipassana meditation teacher, clinical psychologist, wife, mother … and, yes, still an activist. Her teachings, as expressed in books like Radical Acceptance and Developing Self-Compassion, draw on a combination of traditional Buddhist wisdom and mental health practices.
“My understanding is that working with the psyche is a layer of spiritual processing,” she offers. “Both psychological work and what we call spiritual work are seeking ways to deal with suffering, and really learning how to love without holding back, how to let go of the armoring.”
If psychology “spends more time in the stories,” Brach observes, meditation practice helps us to “see the stories as stories” and bring mindfulness and compassion to the present moment. “And the stories are really part of the portal to the present moment when they’re used skillfully.”
There is no trace of escapism, no spiritual bypassing, in Brach’s teachings. As a psychologist, a member of the Buddhist clergy, and the founder of Washington, D.C.’s Insight Meditation Community, she goes right where the hurt is, using the tools and practices of Vipassana to engage with real-world issues. At the forefront of these is the racism that is entrenched in her culture of origin.
“In the United States, over the last 400 years, we’ve had a racial caste system that conditions each of us with bias, and in particular whites with a sense of white supremacy, and it continues to violate and harm not only Black, Indigenous, and people of color, but those who are living with bias,” she observes. “So, to be awake in these times, in this society, we need to recognize our own bias and actively seek to end racism and repair the damage, because I don’t think we can separate out awakening compassion in our heart and living from compassion.”
Along with promoting awareness of racial issues via articles and podcasted talks, Brach is a trustee for a foundation that supports racial justice, voting rights, and environmental initiatives. She also serves on the advisory boards of the environmental group One Earth Sangha and the animal rights organization Dharma Voices for Animals.
As detailed in her 2012 book True Refuge and in her recently released Trusting the Gold, Brach, once an avid athlete, suffers from a genetic disease that compromises her mobility. This has kept her from many of the activities she loves, such as running, biking, swimming, and walking on the beach.
One of the main skills she teaches, the RAIN technique, was crucial in helping her navigate the feelings of loss that the onset of this disease brought. RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. In other words, when a feeling such as sadness or fear arises, a four-part process can be employed: Acknowledge what is happening (recognize), accept the presence of this feeling without self-judgment (allow), closely and lovingly explore these feelings and the body’s reactions to them (investigate), and bring kindness to these emotions and sensations (nurture).
Thanks to a combination of helpful medication, exercise, healthy eating habits, and time spent in nature, Brach’s condition has improved considerably. Still, at 69, she is contending with the unavoidable challenges of aging.
“As all the natural losses happen—including people I love dying, my body aging and being able to do less, and everything else that, if it hasn’t happened, will happen—I know that the same deep teaching is where I have to attend: finding in the moment the presence and the love—not having my happiness be dependent on being able to do anything, say anything, think anything,” she says. “It really can’t be dependent on anything but the presence that’s right here.”
When Brach speculates about what may await us after this life, she sounds like she’s drawing upon a deep, distant cellular memory.
“My perception is that loving awareness is timeless, like the form-less ocean,” she muses. “There are these temporary waves that arise and then dissolve back into that timeless, formless presence, so that whatever consciousness is right here coming to this bodymind, it’s somewhat fixated on this particular bodymind right now, but the consciousness doesn’t go away. It belongs to the ocean; it’s just temporarily identified, and it rediscovers its belonging in the ocean.”
For now, there is mortal life, with all its highs and lows. Those interested in navigating this human experience with greater skill, grace, and compassion—not by ignoring our physical, emotional, psychological, and societal wounds, but by meeting them head-on—might find Brach’s wisdom useful.