News & Politics

What I’ve Learned: Tara Brach

The beauty of slowing down, the drawbacks of too much striving, and how accepting yourself can change you

National editor Ken Adelman ( has been conducting What I've Learned interviews since 1988.

"You can't remove fear," Tara Brach says, "but you can find balance and freedom in the midst of it." A self-described type-A personality in recovery, Brach has been practicing meditation for 30 years and now teaches others how Buddhist meditation can help them work through anxiety and live in the present.

Brach, 52, was raised in Montclair, New Jersey. Her father was an attorney, and her mother ran the local chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency. After graduating from Clark University with a political-science degree, she spent ten years in ashrams studying and teaching yoga and meditation. During this time, she moved from Boston to Washington to get married.

She received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. Her dissertation analyzed how meditation can help those with eating disorders. After receiving her license in clinical psychology, she developed a psychotherapy practice. She was ordained as a Buddhist lay priest in 1988.

Brach's meditation classes at Bethesda's River Road Unitarian Church draw 200 to 300 people. She also teaches at retreats and conferences, and she has written a book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.

Brach lives in Bethesda with her partner, Jonathan Foust, a former president of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts who now teaches and offers mind-body therapies here. Her son, Narayan, is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts.

In her house, surrounded by the woods and her two poodles, we talked about what she's learned.

Washingtonians rush around a lot. What can Buddhism do for them?

The Chinese word for busyness also means "heart-killing." The more anxious we get, the more uncomfortable we are with ourselves and the more we speed up our lives. When I'm rushing around like that, it's impossible to be genuinely empathetic with someone else–to pay close attention and really listen.

In Washington we keep checklists and feel great crossing things off. But in that process, we're always on our way somewhere–we're not arriving in our lives. Buddhism teaches us how to pause and arrive in the present moment.

What happens if you don't have time to pause, with all the e-mails, phone messages, and deadlines?

At the end of our lives, each of us will look back and wonder what really mattered. It won't be busyness. It'll be that we were able to love and be intimate with others, that we enjoyed beauty and were creative in some manner. That we lived our lives fully.

The busyness in Washington is pursuing some accomplishment, commodity, or recognition we think we want. We race to the end of our lives. Then at the finish line, we realize we've skimmed the surface.

But isn't there satisfaction in accomplishment?

Sure. But to be productive in a way that's genuinely gratifying requires elements of creativity, wholehearted presence, good will–the sense that what you're doing serves others.

Accomplishing for the sake of accomplishing is often driven by feeling not good enough. Being on a treadmill where fear drives our busyness goes against a life based on loving and being loved, being present in each moment–and not having to prove yourself.

How do you make that transition?

For me, through Buddhist meditations that train me in mindfulness and compassion. I always used to feel I was never doing enough. I had to keep producing to feel better about myself.

Feeling unworthy is the deepest and most pervasive suffering in our society. Feeling inadequate or broken keeps us from being intimate with others and can drive us toward addiction. Needing to soothe ourselves leads to compulsive overeating, drugs, or alcohol. I was an overeater for years. Being addicted, and feeling ashamed of it, drives more addictive behavior.

Buddhist practice helps release this shame. That's why the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step program works so well with Buddhist practice–especially the 11th step, which talks about the importance of prayer and meditation.

In my classes, there are many Twelve Steppers. What I teach helps them quiet their minds and get in touch with the emotions underlying addiction. By learning to accept themselves and trust their basic goodness, they begin to loosen addiction's grip.

The Buddha described how we all want to be happy, but our habit is to fixate on happiness substitutes–finding the right partner, getting a raise or dream house, losing weight. These can never deliver lasting happiness because everything is impermanent. It's like being thirsty and drinking saltwater–we keep needing something else to feel okay, but instead of discovering true happiness, we chase after substitutes, seeking the next fix.

Research reveals a "happiness set point," or default position, in the brain. Things that we anticipate will make us happy can do so for a few months, but then everyone returns to his or her set point. Meditation has the capacity to change that set point.

Explain what you call "the sacred pause."

We're wired to think we're always on our way somewhere–the next thing to ask, say, or do. We frequently worry about what will go wrong. We can break this process once we learn to pause and bring a gentle, mindful attention to what's happening inside us.

We need to reconnect with the life of our bodies, to feel our hearts. That's the sacred pause. At any time, we can take a few breaths, relax, pay attention.

Most people keep speeding up to drown out their anxiety. They stay lost in thought, dissociated from the body. Being brave enough to pause entails feeling that anxiety in our bodies. But we also find some space of presence and kindness underneath it.

When do you pause?

I start each morning with yoga and then practice meditation for 45 minutes. It quiets my mind and reconnects me with my heart. Then throughout the day, I take pauses. After hanging up the phone, I won't immediately go on to something else. I'll sit still and feel my body and breath, maybe for 30 seconds. I then reenter the day with a refreshed presence.

How many times a day?

A good number. Of course, there are some days when I'm stressed and race through the day with only a few times of fully arriving in the present. Other days, there are more pauses. I'll park in the driveway and sit for 20 seconds before getting out. Or before meeting with a client, I'll pause to make sure I'm fully there. Beyond just the pausing, my intent is to be as mindful as possible throughout the day.

When my son was in high school, he and I often locked horns. We went to war over time he spent on the computer, when he went to bed, and so on. When I heard computer games at night, I barged into his room and tore into him. Even when there wasn't a particular incident, I carried around a lot of irritation.

One day I pledged that before speaking to him with anger, I'd pause. I wanted to get in touch with what was happening inside me and bring to it some compassion. This was practicing radical acceptance.

So I'd pause outside his door. In my body and heart, I'd feel the anger and, underneath that, real fear–that he was ruining his life, that our relationship was being destroyed. If I paused even longer, I'd find sadness over the distance that had developed between us. Once I could feel all this happening, I'd enter his room and talk to him.

Radical acceptance didn't mean I became a doormat, but it opened possibilities for respect and clarity. So when I spoke to him, he felt I was honoring him. This shifted our relationship.

Just what are we radically accepting?

The psychologist Carl Rogers said, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." Acceptance means we're accepting the actuality of what's happening inside us–hurt, anger, fear, shame. Such honest presence with our experience is a precondition for healing and change. After it come wisdom and compassion.

So there's no diminution of striving or improvement?

Yes, there is–I don't strive as much. But I now work with more energy and creativity. Much of our striving is wasteful. It exhausts us and disconnects us from inner wisdom. It's impossible to reach your deeper intelligence and intuition when your mind is racing along.

All this sounds self-centered.

No, it's the opposite. These practices allow us to be at home with ourselves in a way that extends to caring about others.

Most people spend much of their day wondering what they're going to do, what's going to go wrong, or how to get more of what they want. Radical acceptance frees them from such obsessing. Instead, there's an ability to befriend difficult emotions in that moment. When we open to our feelings of need and insecurity, we're better able to bring compassion to others.

Buddhists call this the bodhisattva path, the path of an awakening being. As we awaken our hearts and minds, we sense more keenly how we're connected with all of life.

Radical acceptance is saying "yes" to the experiences of the moment. At an early retreat, I realized I was waging war with everything happening. I wasn't liking how my body looked. I was critical of teachers, angry at my ex-husband. So I began to say yes in my meditation. I started saying yes to all my feelings and sensations.

At first, this was perfunctory. Then I could meet everything I experienced with a gentle quality of yes. Space suddenly opened up. I realized humor and freedom.

So you just pause. Let go of thoughts and come into your body–notice what's going on. It's not saying yes to everything for the rest of your life. It's merely yes for this moment. Your heart relaxes and your mind opens.

How much of your philosophy is Buddhist and how much is universal?

In The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley describes the teachings of nonseparation–how we all belong to everything, how loving awareness or loving presence is the source of all beings–how, as we unfold, we discover this. Buddhism is one expression of that philosophy.

But beyond that, Buddhism offers an accessible way of training the heart and mind to realize these truths. Because of its psychological sophistication, Buddhist meditation is especially attractive to Westerners.

Of the few hundred people at my weekly meditation classes, many regularly attend their temple or church. They belong to a range of denominations and religions. They find that the Buddhist practices of mindfulness, compassion, and forgiveness allow them to live their religion or spiritual path in an immediate way. These practices bring alive the mystical essence of their tradition.

Talk about suffering.

Buddhism teaches that suffering comes from feeling separate, which goes hand in hand with the sense that something's missing or wrong. Fear is the primal mood of the separate self. Without our realizing it, much of our lives can become organized around feeling we're fundamentally isolated and flawed.

Buddhist mindfulness and compassion practices allow us to accept our lives–including fear and loss–as they are. Rather than a path to perfection, these practices are a path to wholeness. We can relax the striving to become different, more perfect humans and learn to live from our basic goodness–from the love in our hearts, from our natural wisdom, humor, and creativity.

Developing that trust was the most profound step of my life. I now see how my eating disorder came from feeling unworthy. I'd overeat and then condemn myself. This would cause another bout of overeating.

Buddhism enabled me to step out of that cycle. I began to forgive myself. The more forgiving I became, the greater ease I felt. More at home in myself, I was no longer driven by addiction. I was free to become more natural and spontaneous with others. My feeling of connection and caring became more and more real.

Does Buddhism often lead to social action?

Yes. I cofounded the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship before the United States went into Iraq. Instead of being an antiwar movement with stridency and self-righteousness, we wanted to help nurture a genuine peace movement. Through protests–even when some of us were arrested–we've maintained a respectful, prayerful, compassionate presence.

But not going into Iraq would have left Saddam Hussein in power to brutalize people.

True, but I believe that less suffering would have come if the United States hadn't started a war. That's a judgment call. But the best we can do is listen to the wisest, most compassionate space inside us, and then express our truths.

Let's take Rwanda, where the most compassionate approach may have been to start a war against those about to butcher 800,000 people.

Yes. Sometimes we need to do whatever it takes. Absolutely.

Your big lessons from Buddhism?

To stop thinking that happiness can come from chasing after fleeting pleasures and running away from discomfort and difficulty. Such a life prevents us from discovering the aliveness, tenderness, and beauty that arise when we're fully here now.

Even when our lives seem terrible–with the diagnosis of a malignancy or the loss of a loved one–living in the present with deep awareness can reawaken our compassion and wisdom. It also gives us confidence that we can handle whatever happens.

Your grand lessons of life?

If at any moment I stop and ask myself what I really care about, my life becomes aligned. It doesn't matter what I'm in the midst of doing. If I reflect on what's important, I'll remember to pause, relax, and open my heart.