"Awakening From the Trance of Unworthiness" (PART 2) by Tara Brach
PART 2 — continued from last week
For a child to feel belonging, he or she needs to feel understood and loved. We each feel a fundamental sense of connectedness when we are seen and when what is seen is held in love. We habitually relate to our inner life in the same way that others attended to us. When our parents (and the larger culture) don’t respond to our fears, are too preoccupied to really listen to our needs or send messages that we are falling short, we then adopt similar ways of relating to our own being. We disconnect and banish parts of our inner life.
Meditation practices are a form of spiritual reparenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience nothing is missing or wrong.
The trance of unworthiness, sustained by the movement of blaming, striving and self-numbing, begins to lift when we stop the action. The Buddha engaged in his mythic process of awakening after coming to rest under the bodhi tree. We start to cut through the trance in the moment that we, like the Buddha, discontinue our activity and pay attention. Our willingness to stop and look—what I call the sacred art of pausing—is at the center of all spiritual practice. Because we get so lost in our fear-driven busyness, we need to pause frequently.
The Buddha realized his natural wisdom and compassion through a night-long encounter with the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. We face the shadow deities by pausing and attending to whatever presents itself—judgment, depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking, compulsive behavior. Because shame and fear often are not fully conscious, we can deepen this attention by inquiring into what is happening. Caring self-inquiry invites the habitually hidden parts of our being into awareness.
If I pause in the midst of feeling even mildly anxious or depressed and ask, “What am I believing?” I usually discover an assumption that I am falling short or about to fail in some way. The emotions around this belief become more conscious as I further inquire, “What wants attention or acceptance in this moment?” Frequently I find contractions of fear under the story of insufficiency. I find that the trance is sustained only when I reject or resist experience. As I recognize the mental story and open directly to the bodily sense of fear, the trance of unworthiness begins to dissolve.
There are times that the grip of fear and shame is overt and vicelike. At a retreat I led a few years ago a young man named Ron came into an interview with me and announced that he was the most judgmental person in the world. He went on to prove his point, describing how scathing he was toward his every thought, mood and behavior. When he felt back pain, he concluded that he was an “out of shape couch potato, not fit for a zafu.” When his mind wandered, he concluded he was hopeless as a meditator. During the lovingkindness meditation, he was disgusted to find that his heart felt like a cold stone. In approaching an interview with me, he felt caught in the clutch of fear, embarrassed that he would be wasting my time. While others were not exempt, his most constant barrage of hostility was directed at himself. I asked him if he knew how long he had been turning so harshly on himself. He paused for quite a while, his eyes welling up with tears. It was for as long as he could remember. He had joined in with his mother, relentlessly badgering himself and turning away from the hurt in his heart.
The recognition of how many moments of his life had been lost to self-hatred brought up a deep sorrow. I invited him to sense where his body felt the most pain and vulnerability. He pointed to his heart, and I asked him how he felt toward his hurting heart at that moment. “Sad,” he responded, “and very sorry.” I encouraged him to communicate that to his inner life—to put his hand on his heart and send the message, “I care about this suffering.” As he did so, Ron began to weep deeply.
In Buddhist meditation, a traditional compassion practice is to see suffering and offer our prayer of care. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we are with someone who is in pain, we might offer this deeply healing message: “Darling, I care about your suffering.” We rarely offer this care or tenderness to ourselves. We are definitely not used to touching ourselves, bringing the same tenderness that we might to stroking the cheek of a sleeping child, and gently placing a hand on our own cheek or heart. For the remaining days of the retreat, this was Ron’s practice. When he became aware of judging, he would consciously feel the vulnerability in his body—the place that for so long had felt pushed away, frightened, rejected. With a very gentle touch, he would place his hand on his heart and send the prayer of care. Ron was sitting in the front of the meditation hall, and I noticed that his hand was almost always resting on his heart.
When we met before the closing of the retreat, Ron’s whole countenance was transformed. His edges had softened, his body was relaxed, his eyes were bright. Rather than feeling embarrassed, he seemed glad to see me. He said that the judgments had been persistent but not so brutal. By feeling the woundedness and offering care, he had opened out of the rigid roles of judge and accused. He went on to tell me something that had touched him deeply. When he had been walking in the woods, he passed a woman who was standing still and crying quietly. He stopped several minutes later down the trail and could feel his heart hold and care for her sadness. Self-hatred had walled him off from his world. The experience of connection and caring for another was the blessing of a heart that was opening.
The Buddha said that our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our connectedness. Whereas Ron was able to rediscover connection and loosen the trance of unworthiness by tenderly offering kindness to his wounds, we might feel too small, too tight and aversive to open to the pain that is moving through us. At these times it helps to reach out, to discover an enlarged belonging through our friends, sangha, family and the living Earth. A man approached the Dalai Lama and asked him how to deal with the enormous fear he was feeling. The Dalai Lama responded that he should imagine he was in the lap of the Buddha.
Any pathway toward remembering our belonging to this world alleviates the trance of separation and unworthiness. After his night under the bodhi tree, the Buddha was very awake but not fully liberated. Mara had retreated but not vanished. With his right hand, the Buddha touched the ground and called on the Earth goddess to bear witness. By reaching out and honoring his connectedness to all life, his belonging to the web of life, the Buddha realized the fullness of freedom.
We are not walking this path alone, building spiritual muscles, climbing the ladder to become more perfect. Rather, we are discovering the truth of our relatedness through belonging to these bodies and emotions, to each other, and to this whole natural world. As we realize our belonging, the trance of unworthiness dissolves. In its place is not worthiness; that is another assessment of self. Rather, we are no longer compelled to blame or hide or fix our being. When we turn and embrace what has felt so personal, we awaken from feelings of separateness and find that we are in love with all of life.
Tara Brach is the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., and teaches throughout the United States and Canada. She is a clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Radical Acceptance: Living with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam).