Beloved insight teacher Tara Brach is founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC (IMCW). With over thirty-five years of meditation practice and a PhD in clinical psychology, she blends Eastern and Western perspectives. She is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam, 2003) and True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013). See her website: www.tarabrach.com.
Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Kim Criswell interviewed Brach by phone in May 2014 on the theme of hunger.
Inquiring Mind: People often misinterpret what Buddhism is saying about hunger. What is hunger and how is it misunderstood?
Tara Brach: From the Buddhist perspective, hunger is a universal force that arises out of the dissatisfaction inherent in a changing world. When hunger is resisted, or if it possesses us, it obscures reality. Beneath various manifestations of hunger is a deeper longing, an urge toward experiencing full aliveness, wakefulness and communion. The main misunderstanding I run into is that wanting is bad and should be vanquished or that the arising of hunger/wanting/desire means that one is not spiritually mature. I’ve seen this cause confusion and self-aversion. It’s like saying, “You shouldn’t feel pain or sadness or love.” Wanting is intrinsic to living, to awareness taking form. There would be no existence without that inclination, without that wanting to become form.
The point is not to vanquish desire but to be mindful and not judging, not to resist it or to be possessed by it. I remember an eating binge I had during exam time in college. Once the numbness and fullness wore off, I could see myself craving and being out of control; it felt like a basic flaw in my being. An “addicted self,” I was possessed by wanting and I was averse to that wanting as a sign of my badness; I was a bad addicted self. I cried, thinking, “I hate myself. I hate myself.” Then inside my mind I heard a different voice saying, “I can’t help it. It’s not like I want to feel craving. It’s just happening.” Experiencing that helplessness touched my heart. I recognized the cruelty of punishing myself for what I couldn’t control.
In teaching, I share a lot about “the second arrow.” A difficult energy arises—craving, fear, jealousy—and then we add aversion to that: “I’m bad because of this.” That second arrow is what locks us into what I call “the trance of unworthiness.” So when I saw my aversion to craving, when I saw my self-hatred, the shock led to a process of befriending, of learning to not blame myself for craving or anything else that made me feel unworthy. This allowed me to bring a healing attention to what was driving the eating. I don’t see any way to heal without first releasing self-hatred.
IM: How do you get beneath substitute hungers to a deeper, more wholesome hunger for happiness or connection?
TB: With addictive wanting, self-aversion is almost always there and needs to be dealt with. Twelve-step programs help; once you have a group of people all together saying, “Yeah, me too,” it releases some of the personal blame and leads to a deeper healing. We need the support of sangha, of spiritual friends who see us truly and care. And within our own being, we need to cultivate radical acceptance. This is comprised of the two wings of presence: mindfulness, which is seeing what’s happening inside of me, and heartfulness, which asks, “Can I let it be, can I hold it with compassion?” We start with whatever is prominent.
A woman I worked with at a retreat was struggling with overeating. In the dining hall, she was wound up in shame, going back for seconds and thirds. She would eat her first portion and then go to another part of the dining hall after she went back for more food. She felt taken over by cravings. So I had her meditate on the arising of craving, recognizing the thoughts and feelings that came up as her body experienced craving. She began to see, just as I had in college, that this was just happening on its own. She wasn’t thinking, “Okay, this is a good time to start craving.” As she began to see how she was tightening and closing down on herself, she mentally whispered, “It’s not my fault.” Then she could start exploring the deeper forces that drove her to go after food as what I sometimes call “a false refuge.” She came to recognize a deep longing to feel loved and to feel at home in herself; she saw her anxiety and how she would comfort herself. But first she had to loosen and soften the second arrow of blame.
IM: On the whole, does one need to tune into what’s going on in the body in order to reach the understanding of “it’s not my fault”?
TB: Yes. I worked with one man whose anger alienated his wife and was ruining his life. He had a cognitive understanding of his anger. But until in his body he could sense the arising of anger and how it possessed him, until he could physically feel the intensity of that, he was unable to translate the mental understanding of “it’s not my fault” into an embodied understanding that aroused compassion.
My recognition of the importance of working with the body started in college. I was caught up in obsessing—about food, about boyfriends. My therapist said, “Every time you catch yourself obsessing, find out what’s going on in your body.” It was powerful: I noticed that under the obsessing there was a clutch of anxiety which triggered racing-around thoughts. I found that if I could stay with the anxiety and pay attention to it, my mind would quiet down.
I also found that being very physical helped. I remember one difficult season of anxiety, depression and compulsive eating. I was at a party and danced up a storm, really sweating it up. At some point, I went outside. It was a starry night, and warm out. There was something about being in my senses that touched a place of stillness and openness and quiet at-homeness. I realized, “When I am really in my senses, I am not lost in the small, agitated world of my mind.”
I had always loved dancing, hiking and being in nature. It became very clear to me that when I could find my way back into the body, I could rest in a larger, freer place than when I was living in my mind’s stories. This inclined me toward yoga and, eventually, to meditation practice emphasizing mindfulness of the body, which kept waking me out of the trance of thinking and into this living world.
IM: How does one move from the grip of personal craving to recognizing that others also suffer?
TB: One very powerful practice, tonglen, trains us in feeling the vulnerability within us, and then in opening to sense all those others who also feel the same type of suffering.
The breath is a support for tonglen. Breathing in, we are taking in or contacting the suffering. Let’s say I’m feeling a sense of craving. With the in-breath, I let myself completely contact that craving. The wing of mindfulness is saying, “What is happening inside me right now?” With the out-breath there is a complete “letting it be.” The wing of compassion offers it into space—both surrounding and interior space—into loving awareness.
I do that for myself but then I extend it. I say, “Let me bring to mind all those who, like myself, experience craving.” It’s not my craving, it’s the craving. I breathe in for all of us, and let myself feel that collective experience. Then I breathe out and sense the space and compassion and vast wisdom that can hold all of that.
IM: You do tonglen when you’re on the meditation cushion. Can you also do it in the middle of a heated moment with someone?
TB: You can practice formally and there’s also on-the-spot tonglen. When a heated moment comes up, you can breathe in and say, “Okay, let me feel this fully.” Then breathe out and allow the experience to float in space, offering whatever is needed—forgiveness, prayer. It’s very creative. I was at a meeting some weeks ago and I could tell that one person was feeling ignored, as if her voice didn’t matter. I breathed in and felt the insecurity, the left-out feeling. Within myself I connected with her feeling of isolation and then, breathing out, I offered kindness and inclusivity and space.
Beyond tonglen, I also work with what I call “false refuge.” There is a whole range of false refuges we go to if our basic needs for security and love aren’t met. We hitch our wants onto getting a certain kind of approval, or finding a partner, or having a job. The “if-only mind” says, “If I have this, then I’ll be happy.” We chronically misunderstand what’s going to bring us happiness. And with false refuge, we get a temporary fix. We get a little bit of what we want, a taste of it. But of course, we’re never satisfied; it just deepens the grooves of wanting. We need to turn toward true refuge, to what we really long for.
There is a practice I call “tracing back desire” that can help us in relaxing our fixation on a false refuge. Once I went to a retreat after I had just met a potential romantic partner, and I really got to see how the mind works. I was obsessed with stories about what might happen: this was the person who was going to make me happy. I was fixated on these stories. So I started tracing back desire, moving from obsessive thoughts (hitching me to false refuge) back to my body, to the felt-sense of what was there in the moment. At first there was this very excited kind of fixating feeling. As I stayed with it, asking, “What is it I’m really, really wanting?” I found a longing for love. I kept staying with that, and grief came up: a grief of separation. Inside the grief was a knowing of undividedness, of pure loving. As I let go into that, really experiencing it, I came right into the source of yearning. I just became the loving. There was no object at all. So tracing back the desire, you discover its very source, which is the pure loving awareness that’s calling us home.
IM: What do you do when the wanting is to hurt somebody?
TB: Wanting to hurt somebody is the same thing, but a fear-contorted version. One way I talk about it is, the Latin root of the word desire comes from desiderare, desidus, which means “away from the star.” My understanding is: we’re all made of stars, the energetic source of life, the expression of pure awareness. Our deepest longing—and it’s a totally wholesome longing—is to belong to this full, alive wakefulness, this luminosity. We long to “belong to our star,” to realize our true nature.
The habit is to fixate. The more we fixate on something outside ourselves, the stronger that sense of “being away from our star” is. But when we start to open to the reality of change (which happens when we open to our body, by the way), that fixation starts to loosen. For instance, imagine you have just a minute or two to live. What really matters? For me, when I “get” impermanence, my narrow, fixated wanting starts dissolving. The longing that’s left is to just belong to love, just to be love. That’s all that matters. So to me, this is a liberation practice: that we face the radical nature of impermanence and completely, without any resistance, open to it. That allows the core longing-to-belong to carry us home, into oneness.
I’ll give you a very recent example: my mom died last month. During the last years of her life, I had a wanting for her to be without pain and free from anxiety, to enjoy her moments. But when we really opened together to the truth of her dying, all of the fixation dissolved and the only longing left was for her to rest in love. We realized this loving awareness as our shared essence. Then even that dissolved: we were just being the love. All there was was a field of loving. To see the shift from fixated wanting, to yearning, to belonging itself, was incredible. We turned back toward true refuge, toward loving awareness, the more we faced the truth of impermanence.
IM: These practices are so valuable for the individual who is grappling with relationships. When it comes to world hunger, or catastrophes in the world, how do these practices apply?
TB: The same unmet needs for security and love that lead to fixating on substitutes in our personal lives—in other words, that lead to overconsuming and controlling others—operate on a global scale. Just as we’ve got individual weight and heart problems, we have resource depletion and climate catastrophe. They’re so out of balance that many species are suffering and threatened with extinction. So the false refuge of overconsumption by some creates starvation for many. And the false refuge of fixating on power and control creates oppression and injustice. In our individual lives and collectively, we need to shift from limbic domination (identifying with grasping; fight, flight, freeze) to an integrated consciousness capable of what I call “attend and befriend.” This is the training we’ve been talking about for this whole interview.
But it’s not enough. If we feel like a “separate self” trying to awaken consciousness and respond to global warming, we’ll go through the motions but internally feel overwhelmed, despairing or numb. It’s too big. But when we start feeling like we’re in it together, there is a real sense of “I belong to the earth and I belong to those who are trying to heal the earth.”
This is where, in the triple gem, the role of sangha becomes critical. We have to work together toward healing. We cannot address global hunger and global warming and the dis-ease of earth from the sense of a separate self. Healing comes from trusting our mutual belonging.
It doesn’t matter if we think what we’re doing is going to make a difference. What else can we do but keep remembering love and awareness, and taking the next step, serving this precious life? In the face of death, our individual death, the earth’s death, we keep turning toward loving awareness, expressing and living from it. That’s all. As we do that, we know we’re living in truth. We know that we’re at home.