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True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart

by Tara Brach: My earliest memories of being happy are of playing in the ocean. When our family began going to Cape Cod in the summer, the low piney woods, high dunes, and wide sweep of white sand felt like a true home. Tara BrachWe spent hours at the beach, diving into the waves, bodysurfing, practicing somersaults underwater. Summer after summer, our house filled with friends and family—and later, with spouses and new children. It was a shared heaven. The smell of the air, the open sky, the ever-inviting sea made room for everything in my life—including whatever difficulties I was carrying in my heart.

Then came the morning not so long ago when two carloads of friends and family members took off for the beach without me. From the girl who had to be pulled from the water at suppertime, I’d become a woman who was no longer able to walk on sand or swim in the ocean. After two decades of mysteriously declining health, I’d finally gotten a diagnosis:
I had a genetic disease with no cure, and the primary treatment was painkillers.

I had a genetic disease with no cure, and the primary treatment was painkillers. As I sat on the deck of our summer house and watched the cars pull out of the driveway, I felt ripped apart by grief and loneliness. In the midst of my tears, I was aware of a single longing. “Please, please, may I find a way to peace, may I love life no matter what.”

This place of peace, connectedness, and inner freedom, even in the face of life’s greatest challenges is what I call “true refuge.” It does not depend on anything outside ourselves—a certain situation, a person, a cure, even a particular mood or emotion. The yearning for such refuge is universal. It is what lies beneath all our wants and fears. We long to know we can handle what’s coming. We want to trust ourselves, to trust this life. We want to live from the fullness of who we are.

The pathway to true refuge is presence, the courage to meet even our most challenging inner experiences with a mindful awareness. About twelve years ago, a number of Buddhist teachers began to share a new mindfulness tool that offers in-the-trenches support for working with intense and difficult emotions. Called RAIN (an acronym for the four steps of the process), it can be accessed in almost any place or situation. It directs our attention in a clear, systematic way that cuts through confusion and stress. The steps give us somewhere to turn in a painful moment, and as we call on them more regularly, they strengthen our capacity to come home to our deepest truth. Like the clear sky and clean air after a cooling rain, this mindfulness practice brings a new openness and calm to our daily lives.

I have now taught RAIN to thousands of students, clients, and mental health professionals, and have made it a core practice in my own life. Here are the four steps of RAIN presented in the way I’ve found most helpful:

R    Recognize what is happening

A    Allow life to be just as it is

I      Investigate inner experience with kindness

N    Non-identification

Recognize What is Happening
Recognition is seeing what is true in your inner life. It starts the minute you focus your attention on whatever thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations are arising right here and now. As your attention settles and opens, you will discover that some parts of your experience are easier to connect with than others. For example, you might recognize anxiety right away, but if you focus on your worried thoughts, you might not notice the actual sensations of squeezing, pressure, or tightness arising in the body. You can awaken recognition simply by asking yourself: “What is happening inside me right now?” Call on your natural curiosity as you focus inward.
Try to let go of any preconceived ideas and instead listen in a kind, receptive way to your body and heart.

Allow Life to Be Just as it Is
Allowing means “letting be” the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you discover. You may feel a natural sense of aversion, of wishing that unpleasant feelings would go away, but as you become more willing to be present with “what is,” a different quality of attention will emerge. Allowing is intrinsic to healing, and realizing this can give rise to a conscious intention to “let be.”

Many students I work with support their resolve to “let be” by mentally whispering an encouraging word or phrase. For instance, you might feel the grip of fear and whisper “yes,” or experience the swelling of deep grief and whisper “yes.” You might use the words “this too” or “I consent.”

At first you might feel you’re just putting up with unpleasant emotions or sensations. Or you might say yes to shame and hope that it will magically disappear. In reality, we have to consent again and again. Yet even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain.

Simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain.

Investigate with Kindness
At times, simply working through the first two steps of RAIN is enough to provide relief and reconnect you with presence. In other cases, however, the simple intention to recognize and allow is not enough. For instance, if you are in the thick of a divorce, about to lose a job, or dealing with a life-threatening illness, you may be easily overwhelmed by intense feelings. Because these feelings are triggered over and over again—you get a phone call from your soon-to-be ex, your bank statement comes, you wake up to pain in the morning—your reactions can become very entrenched. In such situations, you may need to further awaken and strengthen mindful awareness with the I of RAIN.

Investigation means calling on your natural interest—the desire to know truth—and directing a more focused attention to your present experience. Simply pausing to ask, “What is happening inside me?” might initiate recognition, but with investigation you engage in a more active and pointed kind of inquiry. You might ask yourself: “What most wants attention?” “How am I experiencing this in my body?” or “What am I believing?” or “What does this feeling want from me?” You might contact sensations of hollowness or shakiness, and then find a sense of unworthiness and shame buried in these feelings. Unless they are brought into consciousness, these beliefs and emotions will control your experience and perpetuate your identification with a limited, deficient self.

In order for investigation to be healing and freeing, we need to approach our experience with an intimate quality of attention. We need to offer a gentle welcome to whatever surfaces. This is why I use the phrase “Investigate with kindness.” Without this heart energy, investigation cannot penetrate; there is not enough safety and openness for real contact. Imagine that your child comes home in tears after being bullied at school. In order to find out what happened and how your child is feeling, you have to offer a kind, receptive, gentle attention. Bringing that same kindness to your inner life makes inquiry, and ultimately healing, possible.

Non-Identification: Rest in Natural Awareness
The lucid, open, and kind presence evoked in the R, A, and I of RAIN leads to the N: the freedom of non- identification, and the realization of what I call natural awareness or natural presence. Non-identification means that your sense of who you are is not fused with or defined by any limited set of emotions, sensations, or stories. When identification with the small self is loosened, we begin to intuit and live from the openness and love that express our natural awareness. The first three steps of RAIN require some intentional activity. In contrast, the N of RAIN expresses the result: a liberating realization of your natural awareness. There’s nothing to do for this last part of RAIN—realization arises spontaneously, on its own. We simply rest in natural awareness.

Jim was a law student who had been attending my Wednesday night meditation class for a year and a half. He made an appointment to see me privately, telling me that he had a compelling obsession that he wanted to address. When he arrived at my office he walked quickly to one of the chairs, seated himself, and jumped in. “I don’t know if you work with this kind of thing,” he said, “but I’m having sexual problems and I really need some help.” He stopped abruptly, and blinked nervously. I could feel his courage in pushing himself to be so direct, and I wanted to set him at ease. “How about telling me more,” I said, nodding a bit to encourage him. “If I’m not the best person to help, we can figure out a good next step.”

Jim gave me a grim smile. “Okay, then,” he said, “here’s what’s going on. I’m in a new relationship, one that has some real potential. She . . .Beth . . . has so much that I’m looking for. She’s smart, fun, kind. And very attractive.” Jim paused, as if acknowledging to himself the realness of her appeal. When he continued, his voice was a defeated monotone: “The problem is, I’m afraid I’m going to blow it with her.”

Jim’s fear was of performing poorly during sex. He said the problem had ruined several prior relationships.

Jim’s fear was of performing poorly during sex. He said the problem had ruined several prior relationships. He’d obsess longingly about having sex, and he’d obsess anxiously about premature ejaculation. Then, when he started to make love, he’d either climax quickly, or he’d shut down and lose his erection. Ashamed, over a period of weeks or months he’d become increasingly distant from his partner until she reacted with hurt or anger. Then he’d call it quits.

“I don’t want to do this to Beth, or to me,” he stated bitterly. “I hate how I obsess about sex—wanting it, fearing what will happen—it’s my mind that’s ruining my sex life . . . and it’s also screwing with my ability to study.” Sitting back, he shook his head in disgust. “We’ve slept together a couple of times, and the same old thing is happening . . . What to do?” he asked, not really expecting an answer.

I suggested that while we could talk some more, we could also use RAIN to explore what was going on. Jim had heard about RAIN in class but had not yet tried it on his own.

“Let’s go for it,” Jim said. “I’ve talked this to death in my own head already.”

When we practiced RAIN together, Jim noted the fear and shame underlying his thoughts, but he quickly shifted from connecting with the feelings to analyzing what was happening. “I’m fixated on the past,” he said scathingly, “and can’t get it that now is now!” Drawing his attention to his harsh attitude toward both the feelings and the obsessing, I suggested that as he continued this investigation on his own, he might intentionally offer some message of acceptance or care to whatever felt painful or unwanted.

This turned out to be a real sticking point for Jim. At our next meeting several weeks later, he confessed that whenever he’d tried to work with RAIN on his own, he could acknowledge his feelings, but he definitely couldn’t allow or accept them. Instead, within moments of recognizing his shame and fear, he’d flip right back again into the stories of past embarrassment and the anticipation of future humiliation. Then he’d judge himself. “No matter what was going on, I was doing something wrong,” he told me.

Finally, after more than a week of this, Jim realized he had lost confidence that RAIN could help him. The crisis came late one evening. Craving relief, he cast about for anything that might distract him and subdue his mental fixation. He focused on his breath, he tried substituting other thoughts, he put on his favorite music, and then he finally picked up a novel. When he realized he wasn’t taking in the words on the page, Jim threw the book aside in desperation. “I knew I was running away,” he told me, “and that it was making things worse.”

Then he finally surrendered to what was happening inside him. “There was a mix of bad porn and dumb soaps dominating my mental screen . . . with nobody controlling the remote,” he recalled. “It was obvious that ‘I’ couldn’t do anything. So something in me stopped fighting and softened.” As the charged thoughts kept playing through his mind, Jim mindfully noted them as “obsessing.” Soon he recognized the familiar undercurrents of fear and shame. But this time, he spoke to them with a gentle inner whisper: “It’s okay, it’s okay.” To his surprise, the fear and shame gave way to a deep loneliness. Again he offered the message “It’s okay,” and he felt his eyes well up with tears. When his mind lurched back into sexual fantasy, and then into judgment, he noted that, and remembered to whisper “It’s okay.” He was accepting both the fantasy and his aversion to it.Gradually, as he continued to make room for what was arising, Jim realized he was utterly sad. But it was okay. He felt real and, as he put it, “fully present in my skin.” Jim had found his way to the accepting presence that is key to RAIN. I encouraged him to continue to pause whenever he realized he was feeling stuck and reactive, to give himself time to come back and be here, and then inquire with interest into whatever was going on inside him. “Try to be patient,” I told him. “It can take a while to decondition our emotional looping . . . but you can trust it’s happening!” In the weeks that followed, Jim discovered that whenever he could stop the war and offer an unconditional presence to his experience, the circling of obsessive thoughts and unpleasant feelings began to dissipate.

Jim discovered that whenever he could stop the war and offer an unconditional presence to his experience, the circling of obsessive thoughts and unpleasant feelings began to dissipate. The more he mindfully named and accepted his scenarios of future failure, the more he could see them as thoughts, not reality. He didn’t have to believe their story line. And by opening without resistance to the fear in his body, he reconnected with a mindful presence that included the fear, but was not possessed by it. Jim was more at home with himself, but when I asked him about his relationship with Beth, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked down at the floor. “We’ve got a ways to go,” he said, “but I’m working on it.”

Our next session was a month later. Jim told me that the week before, he and Beth had been on the verge of breaking up. On several occasions during the past weeks the sex had been what he called passable. “It worked,” he said flatly. But there were other times when he had avoided being intimate because he felt the old insecurities lurking in the background. Beth too had pulled away a few times after they had begun hugging or kissing. One night after dinner she tried to break the tense silence, asking him if they could talk about what was going on between them. Jim felt himself shut down completely. He gave her a tired look and attributed everything to the pressures of law school. When he left early, saying he needed to study, she didn’t even walk him to the door.

When he was back at home, Jim did some honest soul-searching. He asked himself what really wanted his attention, and the response in his body was immediate. An ache of sadness filled his chest and strangled his throat. “It was a lifelong loneliness . . . and it felt unbearable,” he said. “When I asked that place of loneliness and sadness what it wanted from me, the response was ‘acceptance,’ but that was not all.” Jim waited, listening inwardly as he relived his experience. “It wanted me to be as real with Beth as I was being with myself.” He looked at me with a self-effacing mile and shook his head. “I was scared shitless!” His mind raced forward to the moment when he would confess his shame about falling short sexually. He could see her being polite and kind, but having to mask the pity and disgust she was feeling. “Impossible. Forget it,” he told himself. “I might as well break it off now.”

But when he imagined losing Beth, something cracked open.

“Tara,” he said, looking at me with tears in his eyes, “I had to take the chance.” He called her on the spot and asked if he could come back over that night. “She agreed . . . it was almost like she was expecting the call.” Initially Beth sat on the other end of the couch, frosty and quiet. But as soon as Jim started talking, she realized that he wasn’t there to break up with her. “Beth shocked me, because she just started crying. That’s when I realized how much our relationship mattered to her.” From that point on, he said, their conversation was nothing like what he had imagined.

The more he told her about his embarrassment and fear, the more he realized that his feelings were in the safest, most caring hands possible. “Beth was hurt that I hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her,” Jim told me. “She had thought I was losing interest . . . we were both afraid of rejection.” Jim was quiet for a few moments as if weighing what he wanted to say next. “That night was the first time I could really say I made love with someone.”

The adage “what we resist, persists” is a deep truth. If we try to fight obsession and the raw emotions that underlie it, we end up reinforcing them. For some people this might lead to acting out in rage or taking drugs. In Jim’s case, it meant being unable to maintain a sexually intimate relationship. Even without acting out, resisting our obsessive thoughts or feelings traps us in the suffering of a small, deficient, separate self.

As Jim was discovering, the best medicine for obsession is taking refuge in the truth of the present moment. We learn to recognize what’s going on, and accept the fact that it’s happening. When we become mindful of a thought as a thought, our sense of identity is not unconsciously fused with its content and felt sense. Thoughts and feelings can come and go without disconnecting us from our natural openness, intelligence, and warmth. For Jim, this homecoming freed him to be intimate with another person. He could contact and accept his own inner life without believing limiting stories about himself. And he could see past the veil of stories about Beth that had been keeping him separate from her. She became an authentic, vulnerable human, and that allowed true loving to flower.

The Buddha taught that we spend most of our life like children in a burning house, so entranced by our games that we don’t notice the flames, the crumbling walls, the collapsing foundation, the smoke all around us. The games are our false refuges, our unconscious attempts to trick and control life, to sidestep its inevitable pain. We do not want to face the raw experience of losing the life we love.

When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world.

When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world. There are times that stepping away from the full pain of loss can be an intelligent and compassionate response—it gives us space and time to regain some energy, perspective, and balance. It may not be a false refuge to keep ourselves occupied after a fresh loss—to bury ourselves in work, books, movies, or to surround ourselves with company. The same is true if we need to withdraw from regular activities and social engagements. But our ways of seeking relief are often neither healthy nor temporary. Instead, they become ongoing attempts to control our experience so that we don’t have to open to our grief. For me, relating wisely to what I call “the controller” was a pivotal step in finding refuge in the face of loss.

I was scheduled to teach a meditation retreat one winter, when my body really crashed. I landed in the hospital, unable to teach, or for that matter to read, walk around, or go to the bathroom without trailing an IV. I remember lying on the hospital bed that first night, unable to sleep. At around 3 a.m., an elderly nurse came in to take my vitals and look at my chart. Seeing me watching her, she leaned over and patted me gently on the shoulder. “Oh dear,” she whispered kindly, “you’re feeling poorly, aren’t you?”

As she walked out tears started streaming down my face. Kindness had opened the door to how vulnerable I felt. How much worse would it get? What if I wasn’t well enough to teach? Should I get off our meditation community’s board? Would I even be able to sit in front of a computer to write? There was nothing about the future I could count on.
How much worse would it get? What if I wasn’t well enough to teach? Would I even be able to sit in front of a computer to write? There was nothing about the future I could count on.

Then a verse from Rumi came to mind:

Forget the future . . .
I’d worship someone who could do that . . .
If you can say, “There’s nothing ahead,” there will be nothing there.
The cure for the pain is in the pain.
I began to reflect on this, repeating, “There’s nothing ahead, there’s nothing ahead.” All my ideas about the future receded. In their place was the squeeze of raw fear, the clutching in my heart I had been running from. As I allowed the fear—attended to it, breathed with it—I could feel a deep, cutting grief. “Just be here,” I told myself. “Open to this.” The pain was tugging, tearing at my heart. I sobbed silently (not wanting to disturb my roommate), wracked by surge after surge of grief.

The house was burning and this human self was face-to-face with its fragility, its temporariness, with the inevitability of loss. Yet as my crying subsided, a sense of relief set in. It wasn’t quite peace—I was still afraid of being sick and sidelined from life—but the burden of being the controller, of thinking I could manage the future or fight against loss, was gone for the moment. It was clear that my life was out of my hands.
Those six days in the hospital were a humbling lesson in surrender. A pulse that wouldn’t go above forty-five; doctors who couldn’t figure out what was wrong; food I couldn’t eat; release date extended. Yet what was most amazing to watch was how the controller struggled to remain in charge.

On the third day I was walking around the perimeter of the cardiac unit, jarred by how weak I felt, how uncertain about my future. Then, for the ten thousandth time, my mind lurched forward, anticipating how I might reconfigure my life, what I’d have to cancel, how I could manage this deteriorating body. When I saw that the controller was back in action I returned to my room and wearily collapsed on the raised hospital bed. As I lay there, the circling thoughts collapsed too, and I sank below the surface, into pain.
Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa taught that the essence of a liberating spiritual practice is to “meet our edge and soften.”

My edge was right here: the acute loneliness, the despair about the future, the grip of fear.

My edge was right here: the acute loneliness, the despair about the future, the grip of fear. I knew I needed to soften, to open. I tried to keep my attention on where the pain was most acute, but the controller was still there, holding back. It was as if I’d fallen into a black hole of grief and died. Gently, tentatively, I started encouraging myself to feel what was there and soften. The more painful the edge of grief was, the more tender my inner voice became. At some point I placed my hand on my heart and said, “Sweetheart, just soften . . . let go, it’s okay.” And as I dropped into that aching hole of grief, I entered a space filled with the tenderness of pure love. It surrounded me, held me, suffused my being. Meeting my edge and softening was a dying into timeless loving presence.

In some ways, the hospital was a great place to practice. So little control, so many hours alone, so many rounds of vulnerability. In the remaining days, I repeated to myself again and again: “Sweetheart, just soften.” Whenever I recognized that I had tightened in anxious planning and worry, I noted it as “my edge.” Then I’d invite myself to soften. I found that kindness made all the difference. When I returned home, the stories and fears about the future were still there. The controller would come and go. But I had deeper trust that I could meet my life with openness, presence and love.

Each of us has the innate capacity to turn toward true refuge. We can decide to love life. We can meet our edge and soften. I call this saying yes to life, and often guide students in meditation around this practice. Although we will continue to shut down, we can always start with exactly what we are experiencing and bring kindness to our resistance. We can say yes to our no—to the parts of ourselves that want to ignore, suppress or turn away from pain. As we intentionally deepen our yes, we discover an unconditional acceptance—an open, tender space of awareness—that frees us. We have come home to the refuge of our own awakened heart.

Awaken Buddhism

Awaken Spirit

Mindfulness & Meditation

Source: AWAKEN


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