How do you react to difficult emotions like anxiety, guilt, or anger?

Many of us have the habit of judging ourselves and others harshly, drawing lines of blame that separate us from each other. But there’s another way, writes internationally recognized meditation teacher Tara Brach in her new book. Radical Compassion is a way of practicing acceptance and care for ourselves and others that allows us to stay present to all that life brings and stay connected to each other.

Her main tool for cultivating radical compassion is RAIN, where we Recognize, Allow, and Investigate whatever is troubling us—be it the crippling anxiety after our first breakup or the tenderness and guilt of white privilege—and Nurture ourselves with self-compassion.

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A psychologist and bestselling author, Brach draws upon her own experience with family, health, and the events of the world alongside her work as a psychologist to provide clear examples and tools for applying ancient spiritual practices to everyday life, from our most challenging emotions to our deep personal relationships. Many of her exercises draw on themes of self-compassion, loving-kindness, and reappraisal, all of which have been found to support well-being. 

For me, all of Brach’s books (and podcasts) feel like trusted friends I can call upon when I am feeling caught up in unhelpful, self-focused rumination or truly overwhelmed by the bad news of the world. It was a highlight of my year (maybe decade) to interview Brach about her new book. Below, she offers suggestions on the many practices we can try for self-discovery and awareness, and ways to unlock our own deep and true loving nature.

Eve Ekman: When you teach meditation and compassion practice, I really appreciate your focus on the body in a variety of different ways. Why is being embodied so important?

Tara Brach is the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. © Jason Elias

Tara Brach: When we reflect on what we cherish, it’s intimacy with others, creativity, wisdom, wonder, living fully—and all of them are sourced in an embodied presence. This is why I call the book Radical Compassion: If compassion is just mental, an idea about somebody suffering that’s not grounded in that feeling of tenderness in our hearts, it doesn’t motivate us to actively express our care. Radical compassion is radical because you go to the roots, because it’s embodied.

All of us have a kind of degree of dissociation from the body, to avoid that raw intensity that lives in our bodies. Often we hold the emotional wounds we’ve experienced in our bodies, “our issues in our tissues.” It really is a deep part of the spiritual path to, with gentleness and awareness, come into the body and reopen to what we have been avoiding. There is even more disassociation if there’s been trauma versus a safe, kind upbringing where it is safe to be in our bodies. Disassociation is also amplified by being in a speedy high-tech culture. So it’s very pervasive.

It does take practice to re-awaken through our body. I encourage people to do mindful body scans, yoga, qigong, or other meditative practices that help us wake up in our bodies. I also feel really strongly that anyone who has experienced trauma needs to be careful to go gradually and with a healer therapist, so that they don’t re-traumatize themselves by trying to be embodied. It takes a real atmosphere of care and safety.

I sometimes think of how we imagine shy, scared creatures in the woods—these are like parts of ourselves that are in our body that we are avoiding. We need to invite them into the light of awareness. If there’s something in us that feels difficult to feel, we just say: I’m here. If there’s fear, I sometimes invite people to sense the fear sitting next to them on a park bench, and then gradually let yourself feel how it’s living inside you. Re-associating to our bodies is a gradual path.

EE: Looking to the body wisdom is like discovering a different language. In your experience, is it a challenge for people to find their body in the beginning?

TB: A lot of them. And the more dissociation, the more challenge because it’s just what you said—there’s different language for that body knowing. It takes a certain kind of sensitivity to listening inwardly to be able to feel our body. And if our body has been a dangerous place, then that sensitivity gets cut off; we actually leave the premises and we don’t want to listen. So it’s almost like learning how to listen carefully and use real gentleness and kindness. It might simply be to put your hand on your throat, gently from the inside out to just sense what wants to be paid attention to in there.

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EE: In your book, there are many powerful visualization practices. But there are very few high-caliber scientific studies of visualization. How do you understand the unique benefits of imagination or visualization as part of meditation practice?

TB: Loving presence, for example, is a basic capacity and it can be cultivated and strengthened. In order to strengthen it, we need to find pathways, ways of paying attention that wake up our feeling of warmth and openness, and it really helps to use all our senses. The most common pathway we use is offering a loving message, such as “I love you, I am here with you,” that we say to ourselves. We can do that mentally, or we can do it with a soft whisper. That’s one modality. Another modality that’s really, really powerful is touch. In the moments that we put our hand on our heart, there’s a warmth and a connection that actually helps us to become more tender.

Then, back to your question, there is yet another modality, and it is imagery and visualization. Many different spiritual and psychological traditions use imagery and visualization, such as in the meditations from Tibetan Buddhism, among others. We take in so much information through our eyes and we think visually. So having something represented in the visual field that actually relates to a deep inner experience—it’s like the seed is already there, but the image helps to nourish it and bring it into its fullness. So whether it’s the image of a person you really love and trust embracing you, or imagining a more formless loving presence with light and warmth, it wakes up that experience.

EE: I love your description of using all of our senses—why exclude any of them, right?

TB: Some sensory modalities are more well developed than others. If a person who is primarily auditory is trying visualization, they will be groping around. For a person that’s very kinesthetic, having them put their hand on the heart is really helpful. Sometimes it’s best to have a person use a modality they don’t use very much because that opens up other parts of their brain and sensitivity. My instructions to people are to make practices an experiment. Ask yourself the question: What ways of paying attention help me to wake up a feeling of love? And then customize your practice to make it your own.

EE: And what we need could change day to day, right?

TB: That’s a fabulous point. We know we can get into a habit of doing a loving-kindness practice a certain way, and then it gets rote and it loses some of its freshness and power. So it’s very good to mix it up.

EE: There are many useful practices in your book. The one that really stuck out to me was the “if only” reflection. Can you talk about it a bit?

Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN (Viking, 2019, 288 pages)

TB: There’s a phrase, “if only” mind. Without actually saying it to ourselves, it directs our way of moving through the day: “If only this would happen, if only I lost the 10 pounds, if only I could get a promotion, if only so and so would treat me differently.”

We don’t realize how many moments of our life, on some level, are being driven by this sense that we want life different; we’re hoping the next moment will provide what this moment does not. It happens both on the larger landscape of our life —“If only I could have the right partner”—and also happens during the day, “If only I could get a cup of coffee, or get finished with all my emails,” and so on. This is so powerful because it’s a trance, we’re leaning in the future, we’re on our way somewhere else.

A big realization we can explore in this practice is that when we’re suffering, it’s because in some way we feel like something’s wrong or missing in the present moment; we’re at odds with reality. Thus recognizing “if only” mind helps us come into relationship with the present moment.

In Radical Compassion, I offer a lot of reflections to bring unconscious habits that keep us in trance into the light of awareness. If we bring “if only” mind into awareness, we have the chance to open our hearts more fully to the life that’s right here.

EE: You are not a monastic living away from the world; you are very much in the world. How do you keep up your practice with all the demands of your everyday life?

TB: First off, my commitment to practice doesn’t come out of a kind of a rigidity, or a sense of “should.” I actually love practicing. I love love, and I love truth, and so I’m pretty motivated. My life is very demanding, so I have set for myself some guidelines that work. One of them is that I don’t do technology until after I’ve already walked out in the woods by the river and done my sitting. Similarly in the evening: no screens in the bedroom. So there’s really an unwinding, a chance to sit and stretch and come out of virtual reality.

After my morning sit, I set intentions, such as: “Let me be awake and kind through the day.” And I’ll build in a lot of different ways of pausing.

EE: Today, many people have never met their contemplative teacher; they only know them by books and podcasts, like me before I met you this morning. What is the role of the teacher in our practice?

TB: Teachers can be incredibly wonderful, helpful older friends—friends that are farther on the path, so to speak. And they also can be a shadow side, where we play out all of our dependency and abuse of power. So like everything else, that relationship needs to be approached with a tremendous amount of mindfulness.

We need each other. One of the big illusions on the path is that I’m a separate self trying to wake myself up. The only way we can realize our non-separateness is to realize our mutual belonging is it. Here we are, you and I, and as we’re exploring these spiritual questions we sense that behind our roles, the one who’s looking through those eyes is no different than the one that’s looking through these eyes and this heart, and that the tender place in this heart inside this body is the same field of tenderness in that other person. When we can remember that, it’s a far more liberating experience than if I’m on my cushion with my eyes closed, thinking that I’m waking up separately from others.

EE: This dovetails with lots of research that practicing a kind, helpful orientation toward others provides us with meaning. How do you make sense of two themes in contemplative practices—finding happiness within and finding happiness through relationship with others?

TB: It can seem an opposition when we say that your true refuge is your own awakening heart, breaking the habit of thinking that we need something out there and instead finding peace and wisdom and infinite tenderness right here. I’m always already here, and that’s true.

The more we open to that, the more we discover that that place of refuge is really a shared field. We’re really connecting with the larger belonging, it’s not “myself” that is OK. It actually relaxes into sensing “we the collective.”

When we go inward and become profoundly present to the love that’s right here, we can also sense our relatedness and sense our mutual belonging. Either way, we’re still discovering what’s beyond the separate self.

The more we learn to relate to our inner life with compassion and embodied presence, the more that compassion and embodied presence naturally includes everyone else. They go both ways. It’s all about just relationship—relating to life right here, relating to this life between others.

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