“The first responsibility of love is to listen” – Tara Brach
Lately, I’ve been a bit obsessed with psychotherapist, author and teacher, Tara Brach. She explains things quite clearly and simply, and even if they are concepts that I’ve thought a lot about, in listening to her talk (I mostly listen to podcasts), there is always something new and completely enlightening in her explanations and stories.
The other day I listened to one of her classes – Part 2: Heart of Compassion. It’s available on iTunes or the Stitcher app for free, and is just under an hour long, if you’d like to listen. But, if you’d rather read some of my major takeaways, read on. (There’s a lot in the recording, and I’m only choosing a fraction of it, so I highly recommend listening to the whole thing if you’re able).
Before she talks about how to stop turning on ourselves, Tara talks about how we can get closer to compassion for ourselves and others and explains how we’re wired both towards and against compassion. At one point, Tara shares a vignette about the Dalai Lama. He says “I don’t know why people like me so much. It must be because I value bodhichitta (the awakened compassion at heart). I can’t claim to practice it. But, I value it.” In other words, it’s not that our hearts are always open and caring, but we can care about caring. And that’s the first step toward being a more compassionate human towards others and ourselves.
So, what keeps us from having an open heart all the time? Interestingly enough, our lives (and brains) are not totally suited to compassion under certain conditions. Even though our brains have evolved to have what are called “affiliative emotions,” or the capacity to resonate with other people, trying to meet our most basic needs can override our ability to be compassionate. These basic needs include first – the need to feel safe, which the brainstem is responsible for. When you’re ensuring that you’re safe, and have a physiological response to danger, the biochemistry in your brain is at odds with feeling compassion for, perhaps, the person or being that is potentially putting you in harm’s way. (Think about driving and someone trying to merge into your lane and almost hitting you – it’s probably not your first instinct to be compassionate toward that person!) In our daily lives, it’s common to feel the stress of something around the corner – a feeling of anxiousness or that you are going to run out of time. In fact, our deep fear is that we don’t have enough time and something bad will happen because of that.
Tara cites a famous study out of Princeton University called the Good Samaritan study. Seminarians who were about to preach on the topic of the Good Samaritan who thought they were going to be late for their sermon didn’t stop when they saw someone in distress on the way to their sermon! Their desire to meet their own needs, in other words, overrode the capacity to be compassionate, even when, ostensibly this was a topic at the top of their minds. When our bodies are telling us there’s not enough time, we go into stress response. Our mirror neurons – the ones that activate us to being attuned to others (and ourselves) are not activated when we’re stressed. The more that we feel stressed, the more others become what Tara calls “unreal others.”
Most of the time, we are concentrating on either avoiding something bad happening, getting more pleasure, or securing our bonds with others. During those moments, our attention is narrow and fixated and we’re not open. But even though we get caught in lots of habits during the day, we can care about caring. And that can open the door. “Your sincere intention to cultivate openheartedness will energize the path,” says Tara.
Notice if you are starting to criticize yourself as you think about this concept. You might say to yourself something like “I value compassion, but if I’m really honest with myself, I’m super critical a lot of the time!” If you can just start to notice that self-criticism and bring it into your awareness, it won’t control things.
Here’s some good news – it’s not our fault that we get cut off. We have deeply ingrained habits and blaming ourselves only deepens the grooves, or neural pathways. The heart of compassion is compassion for ourselves. And healing ourselves actually requires us to be compassionate towards ourselves. But the more we’re suffering and struggling, often the harder it is to be compassionate towards ourselves. So, when we have turned on ourselves, how do we open up to have self-compassion? Or, as Tara puts it, “embrace the life that’s here?”
We weren’t born with the tendency to turn on ourselves, it has become a habit. We learned it when we were young, and we often repeat the pattern. But habits are neural pathways, and neural pathways, with practice, can change. The real issue, Tara notes, is that most of us are aversive towards our egos. Specifically, we are averse to the behaviors or the ways that the ego likes to meet our needs. For example, we don’t like it when we get aggressive, defensive, yet, every living animal feels these things. We think it’s bad. We don’t like the ways we get addictive and grasping. We don’t like the way we seek approval. Yet, when we’re with others, most of us want a certain kind of response from others. When we’re not turning on ourselves, we blame outward – we blame the world, or the way others treat us.
The way a lot of us learn to deal with this aversiveness is simply to ignore it, pretend it isn’t there. But, pushing down what we don’t like about ourselves is as futile as trying to keep a beach ball down in a swimming pool. We can sit on it, but eventually it will come right back up!
So. We have to embrace our egos. Whatever we can’t embrace about ourselves with love controls us. But, it’s so hard to embrace it all…it’s hard to embrace the ugly parts. Tara paraphrases a concept from Eckhart Tolle – whatever’s happening, regard it as if you’re choosing that experience. At this point in the podcast, Tara is describing an experience of hers, and describing exactly how she was able to move from turning on herself to compassion and love.
So, asking yourself, “What would happen if I’m choosing this?” allows you to metaphorically step away from being totally inside it, and notice what’s going on. Tara says, “If you want to love this life – first notice what’s going on and in some way you’re saying yes to it.” In some way you are saying “This too.” You’re noticing it and allowing it. And if you’re fully allowing it, your heart can open, you can feel compassion for it. You can then ask yourself, “Can I really say yes to this ‘bad person’ feeling?” Place your hand on your heart and ask “How deep can this ‘yes’ go?” “Can I say yes so deeply that I can just hold all of this with tremendous compassion and love?” “Can I just say ‘this too’ to everything that arises?” (Incidentally, placing your hand on your heart activates the brain to release the “feel good” hormone, oxytocin. Check it out here!)
Tara talks about her experience: “The yes went so deep…that the aversion was floating in a sea of tenderness. In other words, I was no longer the judge or the judged. There was just pure compassion for the life that was here. Even self compassion is a little too limiting of a word, because I wasn’t feeling compassion towards a self, it was just compassion for the currents of life that were flowing through…that were part of me.”
So to summarize, how we get waylaid, Tara says, is that we make things wrong. There’s only one way to freedom – loving it all. But, most of us aren’t able to start by loving it all. I’ve summarized Tara’s experience and guidance into 5 steps:
1) Noticing it* (Oh,there it is)
2) Allowing it (I am choosing this)
3) Saying yes to it (I am accepting this too, as part of life)
4) Deepening the yes so that it’s not even me, that it’s more of a spiritual yes** (Connecting to something outside of myself, spirit, God, my higher self, the Divine, the Universe)
5) Feeling the love and compassion
6) Rinse and repeat anytime you need to 😉
I hope this is helpful to you! I feel incredibly grateful that I listened to this teaching from Tara and I know I’m going to be practicing it a lot. I’d love to hear your reactions or questions in the comments.
*By “it” I mean the aversion to your ego or the way your ego meets its needs, the part(s) of us that you don’t like and/or the aversion to those parts. An example might be – “I didn’t like how I just lost my temper.”
**At this point, you can place your hand over your heart to deepen your physiological response.