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The Monkey Mind

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Tara Brach is a leading western teacher of Buddhist meditation, emotional healing and spiritual awakening. She has practiced and taught meditation for over 35 years, with an emphasis on vipassana (mindfulness or insight) meditation. Tara is the senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. A clinical psychologist, Tara is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha and the upcoming book, True Refuge-Three Gateways to a Fearless Heart (Bantam, 2012).

Tara is nationally known for her skill in weaving western psychological wisdom with a range of meditative practices. Her approach emphasizes compassion for oneself and others, mindful presence and the direct realization and embodiment of natural awareness.

I was lucky enough to get Tara’s insight on Chapter 16 of my book Dragons at Work, which focuses on the “Monkey Mind,” our tendency to become trapped by the small desires directly in front of us and ignore the larger picture.

SJ: We’re looking at Chapter 16 which opens with Michele returning home from work to find her Taoist Grandfather watching The Sopranos on TV. Their conversation moves from the Sopranos to how to trap a monkey: Simply place a peanut in the hole of a tree. The monkey will reach into the tree to seize the peanut, but holding onto it, his hand is now too big to remove from the hole. Refusing to release the prize, he is trapped.

Tara, what drew your attention as you read this chapter?

TB: I was immediately captivated that Grandfather watched The Sopranos on TV because I really enjoyed The Sopranos myself, and it’s a juicy parallel to Dragons at Work. Tony Soprano was absolutely addicted to anger and to control. It’s his modus operandi to get what he wants in the world: through violence, lashing out and trying to control other people’s lives. In a less criminal and more corporate context, that’s what’s going on for Dan. He’s trying to manage his project by controlling, grasping and lashing out.

SJ: Yes. Dan is caught, trapped by his own limitations and behavior. What else are you drawn to?

TB: Well, clearly this is creating suffering for Dan. We know that he’s had a health scare, but it’s also creating suffering for the people who work for him, for his family and for himself. His life has gotten really small. Dan, like the rest of us, is trying, in some way, to be happy or find gratification or feel better in his life, but his strategy to control people isn’t working. And neither is his the way he’s running his project.

For me, one of the high points is when Michele gives Dan a taste of how to relax. If he can learn how to relax, he might be able to break the pattern by interrupting it. The word interrupt is a really important word. Every one of us gets caught in a chain of reaction that causes trouble for us. We have it with our thoughts, our feelings and our behavior. And if we learn to pause in the midst of it, if we can interrupt it, then we have a possibility of contacting inner resources and we can change the reaction.

In my work with people, I call this the “sacred art of pausing.” If we can stop in the midst of the reaction, if we can pause even for a short amount of time (and there can be different signals to stop) then it’s possible to interrupt and make a change.

I have a favorite line from Viktor Frankl. He said, “Between the stimulus and the response is space, and in that space is our power and our freedom.”

SJ: That’s wonderful.

TB: Yes. I remember hearing it at one of my meditation classes. We have a lot of people involved with 12-Step programs. One of them has sponsored so many people that he’s practically famous as an AA sponsor. He told me that he’d first heard me talk about the pause a few years earlier and then said, “Learning to pause for five seconds is as helpful as a year of meetings.”

SJ: Earlier you mentioned the ability to recognize when you need to pause; that there are signs that you’re going off track. What do you see with Dan?

TB: Michele is drawing Dan’s attention to certain flags that will help him recognize he’s in trouble. He’s in a chain of reactivity and there’s so much confusion. He needs a simple way to bring himself back to a resourceful state. I use a process with the acronym RAIN.

First, you Recognize. You simply recognize Okay, this is what’s going on. That pause allows whatever you’re feeling to be there. You’re just stopping. You’re not trying to change anything because the space you need is not there. If you immediately try to change things without pausing and allowing, you bring the same energy to what’s next. So, it’s recognize and allow.

And then you need time to investigate what’s happening. That’s the “I” of RAIN. And I’ll add that one has to investigate with kindness, because if there’s not some quality of gentleness, you again won’t be able to really see what’s going on. My sense is that’s the process Dan is going into.

When you pause, recognize, allow and investigate with kindness, that brings you to “N”, which is non-identification. That’s what I love so much about Grandfather – he actually names it. He notes that you’re moving away from being identified with all the cravings and the wants – I want this, and I need it that way, and you have to do it my way. If you’re not identified with all the wanting, you’re freer to come from a larger sense of your being.

SJ: In my experience, the more I enter that space, the more familiar it becomes and the easier to access. And that affects my sense of identity, as well.

TB: That’s exactly it. For me identity is the best word. You become more familiar with that space where you’re just present and aware and relating to what’s going on. It gives us more of a sense of our real being – that we’re much more than that self that was lashing out or hanging on.

I sometimes share a story that really touched me about a man in the Army who had a really bad temper.

A soldier was sent to a mindfulness-based course for anger management. In the mindfulness training he learned to notice the flags that let him know when he’s about to go off. And how to recognize the feeling and then allow whatever it is it to be there. Just pause, find that space, investigate, and so on.

One day he was off duty. He went to the supermarket, piled up a whole cart of stuff, and got into the check- out line. In front of him was a woman with just one item, and she had a child in her arms and she’s taking her time. She and the clerk are oohing and aahing over the child, and this guy’s temper flared. He’s thinking I’m a busy guy. I’ve got things to do. This woman has only one item, and she and the clerk are just oohing and aahing over this little baby. He started feeling really angry.

And then he recognized the flag and he remembered his training. He paused, and he went inside and began RAIN. He began to notice what was going on, recognizing that underneath was that familiar anger, that agitation. I’m not going to get where I need to go and get everything done. He felt his breath. He calmed down.

When he opened his eyes, he noticed the child was kind of cute. When it was finally his turn, and the woman and her child had left, he said to the clerk, “That child was really cute.” The clerk beamed and said, “Oh, that’s my child. My husband was killed in Iraq last year. My mom brings the baby every day so I have a little chance to be with him.” He realized how much he was missing what was happening for other people, and for himself, when he was lost in that chain reaction of anger. The story perfectly illustrates the power of pausing and deepening our attention and coming home to a truer sense of who we are.

SJ: How did your own meditative practice affect your ability to pause and connect with others?

TB: In this chapter Grandfather talks about the monkey trapped by refusing to let go of a peanut. In my own life, the peanut I was grasping was this need to prove myself worthy. I was racing around busily trying to convince everybody I was worthy and not finding, in that pause, that Hey, here we are together. The love is here.

In Chinese script, the word for “busy” is similar to the word for “heart killing.” I realized that in trying so hard to prove I was okay I was armoring over my heart. I now call that the “trance of unworthiness.” I’m not alone in this – so many people feel inadequate, and they spend so much time trying to prove themselves.

My process was sensing the flags of feeling the “not okayness,” or that something was wrong with me, or something was missing, and then letting that be a reminder to pause. Then I would use the mindfulness practice to just recognize and allow the feeling of “not good enough” however it arose, feeling the fear of failure, or whatever it was.

In this way, I deepened my connection with those feelings. I learned I could just be with the feelings in my body until I could hold those feelings compassionately. First I developed a sense of being present with the feelings. As I practiced more, that presence became very compassionate.

That way of attending became more familiar to me as a way of being – more real than the self that was trying to prove herself. And that is the end of RAIN. I was no longer identified with that unworthy self. I was resting more in a kind of presence. I went through thousands and thousands and thousands of rounds of that, of in some way catching the flags of “not okay” trying to prove whatever it was and pausing.

SJ: You write so eloquently about that in your books. What I love about your teaching is how you use your own experiences as examples. You’re willing to reveal yourself. Some teachers seem inaccessible because they seldom share anything about their own process of growth.

TB: Well, mine were so in my face, I couldn’t avoid them. I learned, and continue to learn from my own foibles. But I love this Lao Tzu piece you chose, Stephen. I find in the moments when we’re not so lost in the trance of “what do I need to do to be more successful?” or fear of failure… in those moments it becomes crystal clear that we’re in it together. We’re in this boat, and if there’s a leak on your side it’s the same boat so it’s my leaky boat, too. The less I’m focused on what’s wrong with me the clearer I am that we’re all connected. Then it becomes much more natural to spontaneously want to take care of us, not me.

I love this line: “one who recognizes all men to be members of his own body.” The world lives in our heart. There’s not really anything outside. It’s all part of us. So, for me, meditation has been very powerful in waking up that understanding.

SJ: Can you say a few words about your new book and how it’s a continuation or an elaboration of your first book, Radical Acceptance?

TB: Radical Acceptance primarily addresses what to me is one of the most pervasive kinds of suffering: that we’re often at war with ourselves. In my twenties it became clear to me that I wasn’t my own best friend. I was at war with myself a lot. Radical Acceptance is the inquiry of how do we befriend ourselves? How do we forgive ourselves and really embrace this life beyond our own small concerns?

Over the last few decades, along with almost everybody I know, I have faced huge changes. This body got older. I encountered sickness. I encountered the loss of beloved people. I’ve watched myself and other people lose our memories and deal with various major life losses.

The inquiry of my new book, True Refuge, is how, in the face of the greatest losses, we find a sense of peace and freedom and real happiness. That was my compelling inquiry when my health took a major nosedive. I lost a lot of my capacity to walk up hills and on sand and I couldn’t swim. I was very attached to being outside and moving easily, and I felt a huge amount of grief around that loss. I remember one particular day where that question arose. No matter how much loss there is, how do I find a sense of peace and happiness, no matter what?

That’s the inquiry of the book, and I use my own story and what I’ve discovered about true refuge. And I like the word “refuge,” because so often we take what we might call false refuge. We try to take care of ourselves in ways that in the short term might give us temporary relief, but don’t really give us a deep sense of peace. And so True Refuge looks at how we come home to the love and the awareness that can hold our lives.

SJ: Thank you, Tara. As always, it’s a pleasure to speak with you, and I look forward to reading your new book.

About the Author

Stephen Josephs has coached executives and top performers at some of the world’s most impressive organizations for 30+ years. By applying psychology and transformational methods to leadership development, Stephen brings an integrated approach that maximizes performance and helps leaders find new ways to expand their effectiveness. His book, Dragons at Work, is a seminal text on peak performance and leadership management.

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