This photo is gracing my about.me page.
This week’s multimedia selection is Audio Archives of Tara Brach’s Dharma talks at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) here in Washington, DC. Each week there is a 40-60 minute talk about practicing Buddhism in the modern world, and then Tara leads the group in a 20-25 minute meditation. I’ve listened to several of these talks, and they are outstanding, insightful pieces of devotional thought. I come from a Protestant church tradition, my father was a pastor and I have heard a few sermons in my day. But Tara is not preaching. She has an intimate tone of voice that draws you into the narrative. It’s almost as if she is talking to you over the breakfast table, even though she is addressing hundreds of people. Her cadence and timber prepare you for the formal meditation that follows.
Tara Brach is the founder and senior teacher at IMCW. She wrote Radical Acceptance — Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam Dell, 2003). I read the book a few months ago, and had been meaning to put up some comments about it. The book is a dialogue between her practice as a psychotherapist and the wisdom that comes from Buddhist Dharma. Although her patients’ life stories provide many opportunities for insight into the human condition, she also draws on her own experiences. I found a lot of useful ways of looking at life’s dramas and tragedies. The “radical acceptance” that Brach is talking about is the act of freeing ourselves from the self-inflicted pain of feeling that there is something wrong with us (rather than use the “royal we,” I should probably speak in the first person). This is more simply said that done, which is why Brach needs a whole book to just scratch the surface. This issue is one of my own personal traumas — a deep sense of inadequacy, lack of self-worth and self-esteem, all of which poison my experience. I find myself being pulled back to re-read sections and chapters to review key points to her calm grasp of what it means to be human and how to get beyond the trap of human suffering to live life to its fullest potential.
So you can listen to audio files or read the book, either way you’ll appreciate the reassuring message of hope.
While I was away in Colombia, my travel reading was Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness (Broadway Books, 1999) by Mark Epstein. I had read his book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective and was impressed with his approach to giving insight into life’s threads, knots and tangles. He is a New York City-based therapist and is one of the teachers at the New York Insight Meditation Center.
I managed to get through the whole book (181 pages) by the end of my meeting thanks to Epstein’s effortless writing style and the compelling content. He illustrates his central theme drawing on his own personal path of discovery and on his patients’ case histories. A saving grace of the book is that Epstein does not bite off too much by trying to be an authoritative text on Buddhism, meditation, patient-centered therapy or any other big concept. He is not selling a particular theory or political line. Instead, he argues that we need to relax into the flow of life, rather than lock into an attempt to control our experience or accumulate pieces of self-improvement until we have attained perfection.
Since I finished reading the book about four weeks ago, I’m trying to reconstruct what I found most rewarding in the book — without re-reading the book again. I am going to do some scratch writing off-line before posting it here.
I have been lugging Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, around for the past month, reading on the Metro, rather than sticking my nose in a newspaper.
Kabat-Zinn tells us that Buddha was not a Buddhist and that Buddhism is not really a religion, but a highly sophisticated psychological technique for relieving human suffering. That 17th and 18th century Westerners (“ethnologists, philologists and religious scholars”) put the religion tag on the Buddha’s followers because that’s the way Westerners’ brains worked, they needed to classify them with Christians, Muslims and pagans.
“… so we could say that the historical figure of the Buddha, and those who have followed his lead, gave the world a well-defined algorithm, a path of inquiry, which he himself pursued in search of what was almost fundamental to the nature of humanity: the possibility of being fully conscious, fully awake, and free from the fetters of our own conditioning, including our unexamined habits of thought and perception and the afflictive emotions that so intimately and frequently accompany them unbidden.” [page 129]
So “Buddhism” and Zen are not doctrines of faith, but systems of methodologies to explore the human condition. Just as yoga is not a religion — and you can practice it while remaining a Christian, Jew or atheist. This realization intrigues me because I now have another tool set to add to my survival kit and explains why I have felt drawn to understanding more about the Buddha and his teachings.
Cool, I feel more empowered already. Of course, I now have enough knowledge to be dangerous. Excuse my over-generalization.