When Tara Brach, PhD, speaks, a lot of people listen. Even when she doesn’t speak, they listen — or simply join her in silence.
Brach is a popular presenter at spiritual centers across the country, leading about 10 workshops and two or three meditation retreats each year. Followers in more than 150 countries download her talks and guided meditations for free and devour her best-selling CDs and books, including her 2013 book “True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart,” which discusses how people can find “their true home” — what Brach calls “a timeless, loving presence” — under even the most challenging conditions.
“What I have found over time is that the more I can recognize what is happening in the present moment and simply open and allow the experience without judgment, the more I come back home.”
Her approach blends Buddhist and psychological teachings in ways that are easy for people to apply in their daily lives, say colleagues.
“Tara has an incredible ability to bring the teachings alive with stories that are personal, that show she is vulnerable, but at the same time, not make them about her, but about others’ development,” says Cheri Maples of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice, a non-sectarian mindfulness training center for criminal justice professionals and others.
Over the last decade, Brach’s teaching and writing have helped to inspire a line of research that has made mindfulness techniques more mainstream, says one such researcher, University of Toronto psychologist Zindel V. Segal, PhD. He was a key founder of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, an approach that uses mindfulness techniques to prevent depression relapse, first outlined with colleagues J. Mark G. Williams, DPhil, and John D. Teasdale, PhD, in a 2000 article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
“Coming at a time when the field was still grappling with how mindfulness and compassion practices could be integrated into clinical treatment, Tara’s work was profoundly influential,” Segal says.
‘The trance of unworthiness’
Brach came to her path by studying psychology, meditation and yoga, as well as by examining her own life and conflicts, which include a 1991 divorce, a 2003 diagnosis of a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue and a family that — like her — is “neurotic as hell,” she laughs.
Now 60, Brach experienced an “aha!” moment at age 22 as a psychology and political science student at Clark University. While on a camping trip, a friend told her she was “learning how to be her own best friend.” Hearing this, Brach burst into tears, she remembers. “I realized I was just the opposite. Everywhere I looked I had another judgment about myself — I was a bad daughter, I was a bad friend, I was too heavy, I couldn’t control my eating, I wasn’t doing what I could be doing academically, I didn’t help the world enough,” she says.
That observation led to an ongoing attempt to understand and free herself and others from what Brach has come to call “the trance of unworthiness.” It’s a particularly strong habit in the West, she thinks, because our competitive, individualistic culture pressures us to feel we’re never good enough.
To pursue healing and explore her spirituality, Brach decided to move into an ashram after college. For 10 years, she lived in this spiritual community, teaching at the ashram’s yoga center and working in a vegetarian restaurant to stay afloat. She immersed herself in practicing yoga, breath-based meditation and devotional chanting, which quieted some of her mental obsessing and helped her gain more openheartedness and peace. While still living in the ashram, she began graduate school at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she earned her doctorate in clinical psychology in 1991.
Her psychology training and internship practice provided her with two core insights, Brach says. The first is that therapy should create a sufficiently safe and accepting space so that clients can connect with areas of dissociated emotional pain, learn to relate to that pain with sturdier internal resources and start to heal. The second is that recognizing and mirroring the client’s strengths is powerful medicine.
“It serves as a key element in clients’ ability to release limiting self-narratives, open to unprocessed pain and discover a greater sense of wholeness,” says Brach from her quiet, woodsy home in Great Falls, Va. But it was Buddhist meditation that really helped to gel her direction, she says. After attending a number of silent retreats, in 1995 Brach embarked on a three-year teacher training program led by psychologist and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, PhD, at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif.
“Over those years, my spiritual life went much deeper because I came to trust my heart and awareness and who I am beyond these changing moods, thoughts and ways of behaving,” she says.
The core Buddhist teachings about how “to awaken to the vastness, mystery and intrinsic goodness of who we really are” became a central focus of her life, therapy work and teaching, she says. These teachings are grounded in practices of mindfulness, and lead to a natural love of and generosity toward the world.
“When we are mindful and awake in the moment, we have the capacity to empathically sense the suffering within and around us, and to respond with compassion,” she says.
A dual strategy
In the ensuing years, Brach sought to share her experiences and insights with others, through psychology practice and teaching. As a private practitioner, she worked with clients with anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms who were interested in spiritual work. She also offered classes and workshops that combined Buddhist teachings, meditation and psychology, such as psychodrama and meditation, for instance, or applying meditation to emotionally challenging situations. She no longer practices individual therapy but teaches both lay practitioners and professionals seeking to integrate mindfulness into psychotherapy.
Her Eastern practices intimately informed her psychology path, and vice versa. She has seen how combining an ongoing meditation practice with psychotherapy can provide a powerful path for healing.
“Therapy helps us to recognize and accept our patterns and imperfections, while meditation gradually opens us to the confidence that we have an inner refuge, a way to hold our lives in our own caring and healing presence,” she says.
When people train in these ways, the results can be dramatic, she says. Researchers agree, with studies showing that meditation helps to activate regions of the brain involved in higher functions and offering a behavioral and psychological alternative to the instinctive “fight or flight” response of the reptilian brain. A 2010 study by Britta K. Hölzel, PhD, and colleagues in Psychiatric Research, for example, shows that meditation leads to increases in brain density in the cerebral cortex, associated with improved executive functioning, concentration and emotional regulation. Meanwhile, a 2003 study in Psychosomatic Medicine by Richard Davidson, PhD, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, showed that eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation produced significant increases in left-sided anterior brain activity, which is associated with positive emotional states.
Brain activity aside, “you can think of spiritual practice as a kind of spiritual re-parenting,” Brach adds. “You’re offering yourself the two qualities that make up good parenting: understanding — seeing yourself for who you truly are — and relating to what you see with unconditional love.”
Today, Brach’s work extends to many populations. Practitioners whom she has trained teach mindfulness techniques in schools, prisons, corporations, nonprofit organizations and on Capitol Hill. They have offered classes at the World Bank, the Environmental Protection Agency and to superior court justices. A sure sign these ideas are becoming a part of the nation’s consciousness: In October, Brach and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), another champion of mindfulness and author of the 2012 book “A Mindful Nation,” teamed up to launch a mindfulness program at a large public high school in Bethesda, Md.
“To me, bringing mindfulness-based practices to students, teachers and parents is some of the most important work we can be doing,” Brach says. “If we can help the next generation become more self-aware, empathetic and emotionally resilient, they will bring their wisdom to healing the earth and creating a more peaceful world.”
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.