A blend of Buddhism and psychology ~ Tori DeAngelis


Psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach blends Buddhist and psychological teachings in ways that are easy for people to apply in their daily lives. (credit: Lloyd Wolf)

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.




Guess Who’s Coming To Dharma ~ Carol Cooper

Angel Williams is as conversant with Wu-Tang Clan as with the message of the Dalai Lama.

Angel Williams is as conversant with Wu-Tang Clan as with the message of the Dalai Lama.
Photograph by Bryce Lankard

In the half-century since Buddhism re-entered American pop culture via the Beats (having first enjoyed a passing vogue during the 1890s), more and more black females—children of the civil rights movement, champions of black nationalism, feminist iconoclasts, and intellectuals—have been finding their way to Buddhist practice. Quietly, without much visibility or commercial fanfare, these women meditate daily, then take the insights they receive “on the cushion” into their lives as mothers, mates, social activists, and career women. From Tina Turner’s autobiographical hat-tip to Nichiren Shoshu to bell hooks’s describing her personal synthesis of Buddhist meditation, Christian prayer, and Sufi mysticism in 1999’s Remembered Rapture to Alice Walker’s outing of herself as a practitioner last year in The New York Times, black women have unwittingly become the world’s most spontaneous lay Buddhist preachers. 

The public face of convert Buddhism in America is predominantly white and male and middle-class. Historically, the presence of blacks and women within this developing scene has been largely glossed over or ignored, much like the black Beats that contemporary historians are always “forgetting” to include in new anthologies. Martin Baumann in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics estimated there were between 3 and 4 million American Buddhists as of 1997, and concluded that only 800,000 of them were “Euro-American.” Lack of official representation belies the truth, and one of the central goals of this week’s Tricycleconference in New York City on Buddhist practice and inquiry is to make American Buddhism more comfortable with its own inherent diversity. 

From Friday, June 29, through Sunday, July 1, Buddhists from around the world will gather at the Marriott World Trade Center to tackle the secular and esoteric concerns of those clinical psychiatrists, Harvard professors, theoretical physicists, and other contemplative types who subscribe to the abstruse doctrines formulated some 2500 years ago by a Nepalese prince-turned-itinerant-philosopher. (The term Buddha is an honorific title not unlike Christos, and simply means one who has awakened from confusion into clarity.) Among the 40 experts Tricycle‘s editor in chief, Helen Tworkov, has recruited will be bell hooks and Dr. Jan Willis: two African American scholar-practitioners who each have at least 30 years of Buddhist praxis. Yet Willis and hooks hardly represent the entire scope of black involvement with the dharma (or “wisdom teachings”), and they’d be the first to point out how suspiciously slow Western-convert Buddhists usually are to recognize potential or genius among the black dharma students in their midst. 

“I have been fascinated in general,” hooks observes wryly, “[by the fact] that white folks have shown themselves willing to follow men of color from Tibet and other places—who barely speak English—but I don’t think that white people in America have shown themselves willing to follow any black guru.” 

Willis, a tenured professor of religion at Wesleyan University, includes issues of class as a factor in this odd reluctance: “I think all of us are affected by our backgrounds, and I think it doesn’t occur to people of privilege that they should extend themselves to other people. And I don’t think you can really expect that Buddhist sanghas [“communities”] are going to be any different than the people who comprise them.” 

Although hooks has lectured at Naropa University and Willis gives guest teachings by request, neither woman is yet a formally recognized dharma teacher with a school and/or disciples of her own—unlike a majority of the conference panelists. Traditionally, teachers are expected to anoint their successors—in other words to tell students when they’re ready to teach. Thus far no high-profile white lama, guru, or sensei (with established financial resources and pedagogic influence) has chosen a black dharma heir. “I think that people are disturbed,” says hooks, “not by a black presence, but by a black presence that seeks to revolutionize” and democratize the power structure of American Buddhism. 

Positioned somewhere between philosophy, religion, and psychotherapy, Buddhist practice can be very slow and difficult going. Depending on the school or style of practice you choose, there can be mantras to memorize, mudras to learn, and complex mental pictures to visualize. Not to mention the demanding discipline of sitting-meditation, which leads to a depth of introspection that can be by turns painful, tedious, or exhilarating. Choosing among a plethora of schools and styles—from the austere rigor of Zen to the straightforward efficacy of Vipassana to the seductive complexity of Tibetan tantra—highly motivated black female Buddhists instinctively develop syncretic meditation exercises prompted by the same impulse that made black pianists turn classical music into ragtime. 

Willis has been teaching Tibetan visualization techniques to inmates of the all-female York Correctional Institute and has found them as eager and able to benefit from these empowering tools as anyone—anointed or otherwise. “For me the issue is accessibility. So I take it to places where it wouldn’t ordinarily go.” 

Angel Kyodo Williams is a thirtysomething New York-based student at the Village Zendo, studying under its white, female founder, Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Williams adores her teacher and her sangha, but feels neither can adequately support her desire to spread the dharma into the black community. She recently published Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace (Viking Compass), her own introduction to the practical aspects of Zen thought for the curious but unconverted. Written in the unpretentious, conversational tone black people tend to use among themselves, Being Black is no more informal or “irreverent” than many books white Buddhists write to attract new people to the religion. Yet little things like Williams’s calling the “Four Noble Truths” the “Four Simple Truths” to minimize the aura of elitism that hovers around an archaic term like “noble” in the 21st century makes conservative elements within American Buddhism reject her presentation as heretical. Many Buddhist bookstores have already refused to stock it, claiming “it’s a black book, it’s not a Buddhist book.” 

“I think we need interpreters, communicators,” Williams says about her style of teaching Buddha dharma. “I thought of building a bridge, but it’s not a bridge into the practice of how white Americans practice Buddhism, but a bridge into developing our own language around the practice.” 

As a young woman of the hip-hop generation whose first exposure to Asian philosophy (like thousands of blacks and Latinos since the ’50s) came through the martial arts, Angel Williams is as conversant with Wu-Tang Clan as with the message of the Dalai Lama. She feels a strong connection to both and would love to use Buddhism’s profoundly anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, and antisectarian essence to revitalize black political activism in this country. “Before, when we joined a movement—be it SNCC, NOW, or Greenpeace—we were trying to dismantle something outside ourselves, when we really needed first to have a revolution from within.” Later Williams adds, “What Buddhist practice does for black Americans is it solves the identity crisis for us. How? By slowly eliminating our need to be externally defined.” 

Although it’s a fact that every people or nation that has embraced Buddhist thought has added something of its own to the teachings, not everyone can accept the notion that black folk might “jazz up” Buddhism. Nevertheless “black dharma”—for lack of a more descriptive term—is emerging from black practitioners whether the white Western Buddhist hegemony is ready or not. 

Willis managed to sidestep the sense of alienation some black students have experienced with white teachers—or even with white-identified Asian teachers—by learning Sanskrit and Tibetan, then studying Buddhism with male Tibetan teachers in India and Nepal. Her memoir, Dreaming Me (Riverhead Books), centers around her “Baptist-Buddhist” conversion and chronicles Willis’s hegira from her working-class origins in a KKK-plagued Alabama mining town, to a collegiate flirtation with the Black Panther Party, to her 15-year-long discipleship under a Tibetan lama. It is a contemporary namthar (“inspirational parable of enlightenment”) that is no less “Buddhist” for its black American context. 

Talk to any black female Buddhist long enough and you will get the sense that they see a straight line of evolution from the galvanizing power of the black Christian church during the civil rights movement to the dormant potential of an entire population of emotionally whole black Buddhists. Was it purely accidental that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the notion of ahimsa (“nonviolence”) from a Hindu holy man or that he nominated the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize the year before he was assassinated? bell hooks, who frequently quotes both King and Hanh in her books, describes her ongoing friendship with Hanh as a communion of spiritual equals. “It was very deep when I met Thich Nhat Hanh. He embraced me as a fellow teacher, not as if ‘Oh, you’re coming to bow down to me.’ He had no difficulty [giving me] that expansive sense of ‘Your work has been doing the work of dharma, and I see that.’ “

For information about this conference, see www.tricycle.com/conference.html or call 1-800-989-9337.


Dalai Lama: Humans Created Terrorism, So Stop Praying To God For A Solution ~ Michael McLaughlin


<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop="caption">Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama says humankind bears some responsibility for the emergence of terrorism.</span>ASHWINI BHATIA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama says humankind bears some responsibility for the emergence of terrorism.

Prayer alone will not be enough to stem terrorist attacks like the shootings and bombings last week that devastated Paris and shocked the world, the Dalai Lama said.

The Buddhist spiritual leader from Tibet said in an interview with German media outlet Deutsche Welle on Monday that terrorism is a problem caused by humans and, thus, must be fixed by mankind without God’s intervention. 

“People want to lead peaceful lives. The terrorists are short-sighted, and this is one of the causes of rampant suicide bombings. We cannot solve this problem only through prayers,” the Dalai Lama said as part of a response to a question about how he viewed the attacks.

“I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said. “It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

Other religious leaders, like Pope Francis, have encouraged followers to join him in prayer after Friday’s series of shootings and bombings that killed at least 129 people and injured more than 300. 

It would also be unwise to expect politicians to devise solutions too, the Dalai Lama said.

“So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments,” he said. 

Though the conflict between Western secular countries and radicalized Islamist terrorists is often depicted as a clash of civilizations with irreconcilable differences, the Dalai Lama said the struggle is not nearly as stark.

“The problems that we are facing today are the result of superficial differences over religious faiths and nationalities. We are one people.”

The Dalai Lama’s comments echo remarks he made in New York on his first visit to the city after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

During that trip, The New York Times reported that he said “compassion, dialogue — peaceful means” are the “real antidote” to terrorism

“‘Terrorism comes out of hatred, and also short-sightedness,” he said. 


VitaSoul – HH The Dalai Lama

“We can make this a more peaceful century if we cherish non-violence and concern for others’ well-being. It is possible. If the individual is happier, his or her family is happier; if families are happy, neighbourhoods and nations will be happy. By transforming ourselves we can change our human way of life and make this a century of compassion.”

TED Talk Tuesday – Joan Halifax: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

In the wake of the devastation in the Philippines, we turn to TED for a lesson on compassion in the face of tragedy and pain. I lost family in an earthquake and I remember riding the train into work the following day feeling too numb by shock to truly experience pain. My heart goes out to those who are suffering now, looking for lost loved ones, struggling to survive. I can only offer my deepest concern, compassion, and love. Know that even though we are miles apart, my heart and hope are with you.

Compassion is in an innate human quality that is rarely nurtured. In this powerful and emotional talk, Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax discusses the impact and gift of compassion. Halifax has spent many decades actively practicing compassion by tending to the incarcerated, sick, and dying. What she has learned is that compassion can heal; it can heal both internally and externally. Compassion can heal our pain and soothe the pain of and in others. How can we as individuals begin to practice compassion? How is compassion present in your life? Let me know in the comments.


So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. And there’s referential and non-referential compassion. But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering.But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.

Now I worked with dying people for over 40 years. I had the privilege of working on death row in a maximum security [prison] for six years. And I realized so clearly in bringing my own life experience, from working with dying people and training caregivers, that any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.

And when I worked in the prison system, it was so clear to me, this: that many of us in this room, and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row, the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered. That compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions. I had that condition, to a certain extent,from my own childhood illness. Eve Ensler, whom you’ll hear later, has had that condition activated amazingly in her through the various waters of suffering that she has been through.

And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear.And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The very word terror is global. The very feeling of terror is global. So our work, in a certain way, is to address this imago, this kind of archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe.

Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities.For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, they feel that suffering a lot more than many other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.

Another thing about compassion is that it really enhances what’s called neural integration. It hooks up all parts of the brain. Another, which has been discovered by various researchersat Emory and at Davis and so on, is that compassion enhances our immune system. Hey,we live in a very noxious world. (Laughter) Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.

VitaSoul – HH The Dalai Lama

“Once we have a firm practice of compassion our state of mind becomes stronger which leads to inner peace, giving rise to self-confidence, which reduces fear. This makes for constructive members of the community. Self-centeredness on the other hand leads to distance, suspicion, mistrust and loneliness, with unhappiness as the result.” ~ HH The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dala...
Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, is the leader of the exiled Tibetan government in India. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Photographed during his visit in Cologno Monzese MI, Italy, on december 8th, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Friday!

“When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.”

Pema Chodron (born 1936);

Buddhist Nun

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...
A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanderlust Wednesday – “Nepal. Kathmandu. Treasures I found By the Stupa.”

Some great inspiration for our Wanderlust Wednesday. Thanks to Natalia Maks for this great visual post, be sure to check out her blog. Remember to travel and explore. Adventure = Growth.

Natalia Maks

I spent a few occasions by the Stupa, and every time I loved to take pictures of variety of details which were the real treasures for me. I appreciate the architecture , the symbolism and all that amazing environment by these Buddhists temples. Here I am presenting some of the wonderful treasures from a couple of Stupas in Kathmandu.

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