Tara Brach, a renowned meditation teacher, psychologist, and author, has long been a beacon of hope and inspiration for countless individuals seeking solace, healing, and spiritual growth. With her profound wisdom and compassionate guidance, Tara has helped people from all walks of life navigate the complexities of the human experience, transforming suffering into a path of growth, self-compassion, and inner peace.
From her early days as a grassroots organizer and yoga practitioner to her time in an ashram and subsequent Buddhist Insight Meditation retreat, Tara’s journey has been marked by a thirst for wisdom and an unwavering commitment to unconditional and loving presence. As the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC (IMCW), one of the largest non-residential meditation centers in the United States, Tara has cultivated a vast following through her podcast, which is downloaded over 3 million times each month. Her work in spreading mindfulness and compassion has extended to pressing global issues such as racial injustice, equity, inclusivity, peace, and environmental sustainability.
In collaboration with Jack Kornfield, Tara leads the Awareness Training Institute (ATI) and the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program (MMTCP), further expanding the reach of her teachings. As an author of several books, including Radical Acceptance, True Refuge, Radical Compassion, and Trusting the Gold, Tara continues to inspire emotional healing, spiritual awakening, and compassionate action in the world.
In this interview, I speak to Tara Brach (meditation teacher, psychologist, and author). We discuss the role of spirituality in our lives, the power of meditation, how we can find our connection with the world, and with each other.
Q: What is spirituality?
[Tara Brach]: I’d like to begin with the concept of evolution, as it’s something I often reflect upon. It seems to be a part of our evolutionary journey to feel separate, living within the confines of an ego-driven narrative, experiencing a sense of limitation and disconnection from others. This leads to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, as well as a sense of superiority over non-human animals and the environment. Consequently, we violate each other, mistreat animals, and cause potential irreversible damage to our planet.
In essence, we suffer from a mistaken identity, identifying ourselves as individuals rather than recognizing our interconnectedness. Through evolution, we’ve developed the ability to sense connection, collaborate, empathize, and show compassion, gradually discovering our belonging to a larger whole. This realization is, to me, the core of spirituality – understanding the greater truth of who we are.
Each of us has experienced this interconnectedness during moments of birth, death, art, nature, intimacy, meditation, prayer, or through activities like dance, music, and art. Various terms – oneness, wholeness, awareness, sacredness, divinity, god, spirit – all point to the same animating force or field of awareness. Recognizing that we are all part of this interconnectedness, we naturally develop a deep reverence and respect for the inherent value of all beings.
To illustrate, I’d like to share a personal experience from my college days. My future seemed set: law school, activism, fighting for change with the traditional us-versus-them mentality. However, I began attending yoga and meditation classes, which led to a transformative realization. One spring evening, I felt a profound sense of connectedness and understood that true change must come from this consciousness. I made a complete shift in my life, joining a spiritual community instead of pursuing law school.
I’ve since returned to activism, driven by the belief that the world is a part of us, and we should engage with it through a sense of care and unity, rather than division. This personal journey demonstrates how embracing spirituality and interconnectedness can significantly impact our lives and the way we interact with the world.
Q: Does spirituality serve as a tonic, a consolation?
[Tara Brach]: The more we recognize that we are the ocean and the waves represent different aspects of our being, the less any individual wave of difficulty will consume, overwhelm, or define us. We can remember that while these waves are a part of us, they do not encompass our entire existence. Interestingly, this understanding works in reverse as well. The more we open up to these waves – be it fear, anger, or other emotions – the more we discover our oceanic nature.
In people’s personal growth and maturation, I observe that both of these processes are happening simultaneously. Individuals gain a sense of belonging to something larger, and when they feel stuck, they learn to remain open and accept their current experiences, which in turn reveals their interconnectedness with the greater whole.
Q: How can we access spirituality in our lives?
[Tara Brach]: I’d like to offer a metaphor to help illustrate our true essence, which I believe is the formless level of our awareness. This metaphor comes from Thailand and involves a colossal Buddha statue. The statue, not particularly aesthetically pleasing, had been loved by the local population for centuries. In the 1950s, it began to crack, and a curious monk used a flashlight to inspect the cracks. To his surprise, he saw a brilliant gold reflection. The monks then removed the outer layer, revealing one of the largest solid gold statues ever found.
The belief is that this statue was covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict. Similarly, humans encounter difficulties and cover our innate purity, eventually forgetting our essential nature. We begin to believe that our personalities, our particular abilities or habits, are who we truly are, losing sight of the truth that lies beneath the surface.
By intentionally cultivating mindfulness and compassion, we shine a light on these coverings, allowing for a porousness that helps us remember our true essence. When we bring our attention to these coverings, we realize that the gold within us is more representative of our true selves.
In our daily lives, if we pay attention to whatever is appearing, we can find our way home. I’ll share a personal example related to this. During the pandemic, I was teaching mindfulness and compassion, and many people reached out to me saying that the practice of RAIN was saving their lives. RAIN is an acronym for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture, and it helps individuals weave together mindfulness and compassion.
When my mom came to live with me and my husband, I felt guilty for not spending enough time with her and anxious about not fulfilling my commitments. One day, after barely acknowledging my mom, I decided to practice RAIN. Recognizing my fear, anxiety, and guilt, I allowed these emotions to be present, investigated them with curiosity, and nurtured them with kindness. This practice created space for me to be more present and compassionate, ultimately helping me cherish the moments I had with my mom.
Repeatedly practicing RAIN not only saved precious moments with my mom, but it also allowed me to reconnect with my true essence and be more present in my life.
Q: Who is the you when i look at you?
[Tara Brach]: That’s an insightful question, one that leads us to consider how we can train people who view each other as enemies to recognize their shared humanity, vulnerability, and innate goodness. How can we facilitate this shift in perspective? I believe that the more we trust the “gold” within ourselves, the more we are able to see it in others.
Everyone has their masks, displaying their fears and desires on the surface. Due to our negativity bias, it’s easy to focus on the flaws or defenses in others. However, the more we train ourselves to see the goodness in others, the more we can recognize it. When we interact with others, we can either fixate on their anxieties or performance concerns, or we can attune our receptors to truly sense the genuineness, curiosity, and care within them. The choice is ours.
Q: Do we need to experience trauma to unlock our connection with the world?
[Tara Brach]: I believe we must confront the knots within our system, whether they stem from full-blown trauma or less intense emotional wounding. Our suffering arises from the unseen, unfelt, and unprocessed parts of our psyche, or the “issues in our tissues.” To awaken, we must work through these.
We often frame emotions as negative, but it’s important to recognize the intelligence within every emotion, even depression, fear, and hurt. Physical pain is essential as it calls us to care for ourselves, and emotions are there to help us survive and thrive. Fear warns and protects us from danger, while anger helps us overcome obstacles. These energies are life-loving expressions.
If we push these emotions away, judge them, or fail to attend to them, they become taut and twisted. Imagine a hose with water flowing through it; if twisted, what happens to the flow? We must move through these emotions with awareness and compassion to reach sacred spaces, as represented by animal-headed deities in Buddhism and other Asian religions. When we encounter these deities with awareness, they untwist, freeing their pure essential energy to integrate and vitalize our entire system.
A Buddhist myth involving Mara, a deity representing greed, hatred, and delusion, highlights this concept. When the Buddha would teach, Mara would appear, and his attendant, Ananda, would worry. However, the Buddha would calmly invite Mara to have tea, demonstrating the importance of befriending what’s difficult. The key is learning how to have tea with Mara and embrace even the most intense energies.
Q: Does life have a purpose?
[Tara Brach]: We must confront the knots within our system, whether they arise from severe trauma or milder emotional wounds. Our suffering stems from the unseen, unfelt, and unprocessed aspects of our psyche, which can be thought of as “issues in our tissues.” To awaken, we must work through these.
Often, we label emotions as negative, but it’s crucial to recognize the intelligence in every emotion, including depression, fear, and hurt. Physical pain is essential, as it signals us to care for ourselves, and emotions help us survive and thrive. Fear serves to warn and protect us from danger, while anger aids us in overcoming obstacles. These energies are life-loving expressions.
When we push emotions away, judge them, or fail to address them, they become taut and twisted. Imagine a hose with water flowing through it; what happens to the flow when it’s twisted? To reach sacred spaces, as symbolized by animal-headed deities in Buddhism and other Asian religions, we must move through these emotions with awareness and compassion. Encountering these deities with awareness allows them to untwist, freeing their pure essential energy to integrate and revitalize our entire system.
A Buddhist myth involving Mara, a deity embodying greed, hatred, and delusion, illustrates this idea. When the Buddha taught, Mara would appear, causing concern for his attendant, Ananda. However, the Buddha would calmly invite Mara for tea, showcasing the importance of befriending what’s difficult. The key lies in learning to have tea with Mara and embracing even the most intense energies.
[Vikas: And can mindfulness help us understand this?]
[Tara Brach]: I am aware that we’re often conditioned to have a linear perspective on progress, constantly evaluating ourselves and our position on the map. It’s common to use any system we engage in as another playing field for self-judgment, pushing ourselves, and playing out our personalities. This certainly happens in the world of meditation too.
What I’ve observed is that some people might be driven by a more superficial sense of grasping, which is inevitable. However, with mindfulness, the practice itself eventually shines a light on this. By continually asking just two questions — “What is happening right now inside me?” and “Can I let this be with kindness?” — we practice the basic awareness skill of paying attention to the present moment without judgment, with interest and friendliness.
By maintaining this practice, we actually wake up out of the drivenness to get somewhere, and that’s what’s truly fascinating.
Q: What is the role of mindfulness in our lives?
[Tara Brach]: We spend an immense amount of time in virtual reality, hardly grasping how often our thoughts are somewhere other than in our senses and the present moment. The greatest gift of mindfulness is awakening us from the virtual world and immersing us in the immediate, enabling us to truly listen to sounds and genuinely see past the surface of our surroundings and feelings. This allows us to fully show up for our partners, children, friends, work, and service.
As highly conditioned, habitual beings, we possess numerous unconscious habits of reactivity. Mindfulness enables us to witness and respond rather than react to these habits. A personal experience that stands out to me occurred in 2003, when the United States was preparing to attack Iraq. As I read the newspaper, I grew increasingly angry at the administration and the hawks driving us to war. I decided to practice newspaper mindfulness: naming the anger, feeling it in my body, and recognizing the fear and grief underneath. Eventually, I discovered a tender sense of care beneath it all.
Instead of reacting with anger, I responded by joining a group of clergy and spiritual leaders to protest at the White House. Our signs reflected care for everyone’s suffering, not just our own. We were arrested, but the spirit of our demonstration was one of care. Mindfulness allowed us to respond rather than react, ultimately changing the energy in the field. If practiced collectively, it could change the world. As the Dalai Lama once said, if all 8-year-olds were trained in mindfulness, there would be no more war in the next generation.
The physicists describe it as that all of life comes out of this infinite field of possibility, like every moment is just emerging and dissolving into that, and part of us is resting in that creative, infinite field and we’re not so consolidated with an identity of a particular form.
Q: How can we come to terms with our own mortality?
[Tara Brach]: There’s a beautiful book titled “How We Live is How We Die” that captures a fundamental understanding found in all spiritual paths: every moment is a living and dying experience. When this interview concludes, it will be as gone as the ancient pyramids or the First World War – simply gone. Our ability to recognize the ever-changing flow and embrace its groundlessness is crucial.
If we try to cling to a particular moment or force something to happen, it’s like clenching our fist around a moving rope – we get rope burn. However, if we open our fists and rest in the changing flow, we discover something beyond it: the space of loving awareness from which everything arises and returns.
Having recently lost dear people in my life, I can relate to the feelings of cherishing moments and facing the inevitability of loss. Approaching 70, with many friends in their 80s, your question feels incredibly relevant. The key lies in training ourselves to be open to groundlessness, allowing insecurity and uncertainty to exist, and embracing that as part of our experience.
Tara Brach’s teachings blend Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices, mindful attention to our inner life, and a full, compassionate engagement with our world. The result is a distinctive voice in Western Buddhism, one that offers a wise and caring approach to freeing ourselves and society from suffering.
As an undergraduate at Clark University, Tara pursued a double major in psychology and political science. During this time, while working as a grassroots organizer for tenants’ rights, she also began attending yoga classes and exploring Eastern approaches to inner transformation. After college, she lived for ten years in an ashram—a spiritual community—where she practiced and taught both yoga and concentrative meditation. When she left the ashram and attended her first Buddhist Insight Meditation retreat, led by Joseph Goldstein, she realized she was home. “I had found wisdom teachings and practices that train the heart and mind in unconditional and loving presence,” she explains. “I knew that this was a path of true freedom.”
Over the following years, Tara earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Fielding Institute, with a dissertation exploring meditation as a therapeutic modality in treating addiction. She went on to complete a five-year Buddhist teacher training program at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Working as both a psychotherapist and a meditation teacher, she found herself naturally blending these two powerful traditions—introducing meditation to her therapy clients and sharing western psychological insights with meditation students. This synthesis has evolved, in more recent years, into Tara’s groundbreaking work in training psychotherapists to integrate mindfulness strategies into their clinical work.
In 1998, Tara founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC (IMCW), which is now one of the largest and most dynamic non-residential meditation centers in the United States. She gives presentations, teaches classes, offers workshops, and leads silent meditation retreats at IMCW and at conferences and retreat centers in the United States and Europe. Tara’s podcast is downloaded more than 3 million times each month. Her themes reveal the possibility of emotional healing and spiritual awakening through mindful, loving awareness as well as the alleviation of suffering in the larger world by practicing compassion in action. She has fostered efforts to bring principles and practices of mindfulness to issues of racial injustice, equity and inclusivity; peace; environmental sustainability, as well as to prisons and schools.
She and Jack Kornfield lead the Awareness Training Institute (ATI) which offers online courses on mindfulness and compassion, as well as the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program (MMTCP).
In addition to numerous articles, videos, and hundreds of recorded talks, Tara is the author of the books: Radical Acceptance (Bantam, 2003), True Refuge (Bantam, 2013), Radical Compassion (Viking, 2019) and Trusting the Gold (SoundsTrue, 2021).