Tara Brach is a psychologist and teacher on Buddhist meditation. She is the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, a spiritual community that practices Vipassana meditation.
The Washington PostMeditation guru Tara Brach is calm eye of Washington’s stress-filled storm
Listening that night would be far more than the 300 people in the room. Brach’s talks are downloaded free nearly 200,000 times each month by people in more than 150 countries. Strangers write from around the world to say her words have saved them from committing suicide or relapsing into drugs. Government contractors who parachute into the District plan trips around her class. One devotee last year gave her newborn son the middle name Brach.
Yesterday, I went to Buddha and the Body retreat organized by Jonathan Foust from the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) in a rented basement of a Northern Virginia church. Life has been so hectic over the past six-nine months, I’ve stopped attending the Wednesday evening IMCW session with Tara Brach, and not been able to find a more convenient time slot to engage in group meditation. I figured that I could cram my meditation requirement into an intensive day-long session (9:30-5:00, with several breaks).
What I did not count on was the physical beating that my body would take from being seated in easy pose for much of the day. Because my hips have opened up over the past year, I decided to bring my zafu cushion and sit on a yoga mat, rather than be a wimp stilling on a chair. What was deceptive was that I felt extremely comfortable seated in easy pose, propped up on a folded blanket and my cushion, and could keep my spine poised vertically over my hips with ease. Both legs (thighs, knees and calves) were resting on the ground (my right left tends to rise). But I did not realize how grueling the experience would be. My muscles were not used to sustaining the pose for hour after hour (with breaks, of course), especially in the deepest reaches of my core muscles. In previous extended sessions of easy pose, I found myself slumping over and tilting the hips back, being unable to hold the arch in the small of my back, which was a clear alert to shift to a different posture or seating arrangement.
All this fatigue crept up on me. After the lunch break, I noticed that it became harder and harder to keep my mind focused on meditation. I was so numb and fatigued that I could not identify where the problem was. Even when we were laying down, I could not keep my mind on target. I felt as if I was just skimming over the surface of my mind. If there had been symptoms, such as leg cramps or going to sleep, I could have identified it and changed my sitting posture.
After the retreat finished, I took the long Metro ride home from Ballston, Virginia. It seemed to take ages (more like 90 minutes, with a transfer at Metro Center, thanks to the slower Saturday train schedule). I had dinner, took the dogs for a walk, and then took stock of my body: I realized that I was extremely exhausted, even though I did not have any sore muscles,. I hit the bed and did not regain consciousness until 7:00 the next morning. Once I was back on my feet, I could tell that my hips and associated muscles had the post-exertion ache of being pushed beyond standard limits.
Of course, I should really be talking about Jonathan Foust’s dynamic meditation method and the impact of the meditation itself, but it will have to come in another entry.
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.
As I was descending into the bowels of the Dupont Circle Metro station, I realized that I was not feeling as though I had been pulled through a wringer and hung out to dry for a couple of hours. I guess it’s a sign that my body had gotten past the shell shock stage with my yoga. That does not mean that I have mastered anything. There are lots of poses today that I could not get into — and it was a Yoga 1 class. I have plenty of weak points. But I am able to get through a class without feeling physically exhausted.
I’ve been thinking that I would like to attend a retreat — not a full week one in an exotic location, just a weekend or one-day yoga retreat. I think it could help me get to the next level. Just 90 minutes a couple of times a week is not going to make up for years of tight muscles. I keep telling myself that I have to be patient with my body and my spirit. But a chance to focus on yoga for an extended period of time would allow me to start building the personal habits and mindset that could be transferred to a daily practice. I missed one retreat given by John Schumacher and Tara Brach, just one day of yoga and meditation — exactly what I wanted, but it fell on weekend when I had to devote some time to my family. We have to keep things in balance.
I will have to keep my eye open for something. In the meantime, I need to take a quick class of meditation — still flying by the seat of my pants. Several centers in the DC area offer starter help.