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How to Overcome Unworthiness and Fear

Tara Brach & Melli O'Brien






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How to Overcome Unworthiness and Fear

Tara discusses how mindfulness can help us wake up to our true nature, alleviate our suffering and move through fear.

I'm delighted to be with you as

part of this Mindfulness Summit and

to pull us together in the cyber

field, just to sense that this

belonging, regardless of geography.

And I want to just begin by inviting

us all to pause for a moment, just

to come into stillness and to feel

our breath and feel ourselves here.

Feel yourself in your body, this

moment in this living, breathing body.

Today, what I'll be reflecting on is

the importance on this path of awakening

to be able to embrace ourselves,

to be able to bring a real sense of

compassion to all the parts of our life.

And what I found is that when we're

suffering, with myself, all of us,

it usually arises from the sense

of being flawed in some way, that

we're imperfect, it's not just the

imperfection, that we're really deficient.

And I remember teaching about this

at one point, a friend shared how her

mother had been in a coma for quite a

while and all of a sudden she woke up

and looked this person right in the

eyes and said, you know, all my life,

I thought something was wrong with me.

And then she closed her eyes

and went back into a coma.

And that was really the

last thing she said.

And for my friend, this was really a

kind of dying gift because it let her

know how tragic and unnecessary it is

that we can live through our days, and

in some way, be at war with ourselves,

really not be at home in who we are.

One palliative caregiver describes

the greatest regret of the dying as

being, I didn't live true to myself.

I lived according to others' expectations.

I lived according to my internalized

hurts, but I didn't live true to my heart.

And I don't think this is

just those who are dying.

I think for many of us, there's a sense

of disappointment in our lives that

we're not really inhabiting our lives

and living fully and loving fully.

And that it comes because in some

way we're not at home with ourselves.

We're at war with ourselves.

And I call this the trance of unworthiness

in my book, Radical Acceptance.

The key theme is how we go around

many moments without even being aware

of it, just filled with judgment,

thinking in some way we're not enough.

And, and it really affects

how we are with others.

It's very hard to be intimate with

another person, when in the background,

you're feeling like if they really

knew who you were, they'd reject you.

So the sense of unworthiness

gets in the way of intimacy.

It stops us from being creative or

taking risks or being spontaneous.

There's a sense that we have to kind

of watch ourselves all the time and

in a deep way, it stops us from really

being able to enjoy our moments.

There's a, cartoon.

I saw at one point with a dog lying

on a couch, you know, talking to a

psychiatrist .And he, so he says, you

know, it's always good dog this and

good dog that, but is it ever great dog?

So I think you get the idea

that we can spend a lot of time

in that trance of not enough.

And I remember after I wrote Radical

Acceptance, I went to teach at a

university in the United States and

they had a big poster announcing my

workshop and the caption on the bottom

was, Something is wrong with me.

So you can imagine how it was

to start in teaching in a new

place with that kind of an entree.

But I'd say in the deepest way,

believing in a limited self is a veil

that covers over our true nature.

It covers over the light and

the love that flows through us.

And all spiritual traditions, and this

is really perennial wisdom, have this

teaching that our truth, that who we

really are is this loving awareness

and it's the essence of all beings.

And we're no further from it than

the waves are from the ocean.

And yet that's often obscured.

And so when we're suffering,

it's because we're living in

a limited sense of who we are.

The Buddha said that this is our

deepest suffering forgetting who we are.

I often think when I'm teaching on

this, a story that went around my son's

school, he was at a Waldorf school.

The children would gather around

tables, maybe four, four or five at a

table, drawing pictures in art class.

And the teacher would circulate

and stand behind a child and

look what they were doing.

And one little girl was

particularly industrious.

And when the teacher asked her

what she was drawing, the little

girl said, Well, I'm drawing God.

And the teacher said, Honey,

nobody knows what God looks like.

And without skipping a beat,

without even looking up, she

said, They will in a moment.

So something happens as we get older.

Poet, John O'Donohue said, "What is

it that covers over over wildness?

How do we forget our wildness,

the wildness of God, of creation?

And we somehow, either get

civilized to feel that we're

limited, that we're defective,

that we're apart from other beings.

And really the spiritual path

is one of coming back home

to realize our belonging."

Rumi puts it this way.

He says, "Your task is not to seek

for love, but merely to seek and

find all the barriers within yourself

that you have built against it."

So our path is to sense how have

we kept ourselves from love.

How do we keep ourselves from feeling

connected to our own being and to others?

And so we'll start this exploration

of how it happens by sensing in an

existential way that all beings incarnate.

And there's actually, part of the

design of nature is to feel in some

way that we're separate, that there's

an encapsulation of a being and inside

is me and out there is the world.

And with any sense of a separate

shell, the primal mood is fear.

There's a sense of having

to protect and defend.

And then our culture deepens that

sense of separation in many ways.

Consider the culture

and how it impacts us.

In the West, and in contrast to where

you might have a sense of belonging

to the earth or belonging to tribe

or community, we're pretty separate.

There's little innate sense

of belonging to family.

It's very individualistic,

very competitive.

And it's critical to meet a certain

standard to achieve in order to belong.

We're told to be special, to look a

certain way, to act a certain way, to

achieve according to certain standards.

And then we get these messages from

our family very early on, on how we

should be to be loved and respected.

You know, certain kinds of intelligence.

And often the message of, you're

too sensitive or too demanding,

and then we internalize that.

Sometimes the messages are very overt.

You're bad.

You're rejectable.

And there's a sense that there can

be a real abusiveness or neglect.

The point is this.

That as we grow up, there's

already a tendency to feel separate

and afraid that's existential.

And this is compounded when we're in

families and a culture that keep having

a message to be better or to be more.

And we internalized that and come

out of that with a sense of something

is wrong and to the degree we feel

that something's wrong with us.

That's life-threatening, because

everything in our wiring is about

really wanting to belong and

be part of the greater tribe.

So then we have a chain reaction that

comes when we feel deficient that has

us try to, we go after substitutes,

what I call, false refuges, in

order to feel a sense of belonging.

And it may be that we try to impress

others and get approval or do a lot to

accomplish and prove our cleverness.

Some of us just go into

obsessive thinking.

Many of us over consume, end up eating a

lot of sugar or, you know, just overeat.

And many of us also move to

alcohol or drugs in order to kind

of soothe that sense of fear.

One of the big places we turn when

we're feeling not okay, is to judging.

Not only are we judging

ourselves, but we judge others.

So at the core, what I'm really

trying to convey is that for many of

us, a lot of our life is organized

around a sense of insufficiency.

And as Gandhi put it, our beliefs create

our thoughts, our thoughts create our

actions, our actions create our character,

and our character creates our destiny.

We need to be able to see and release the

belief and the attitude of self aversion,

or else we're living in a trance.

And there's a sense of a limited itself

and a sense of separation from the world.

There's a story I've always loved

that took place in Thailand.

A big statue, clay plaster

statue of the Buddha.

It's in the ancient capital Sukothai.

And it wasn't a particularly beautiful

statue, but people loved it for its...

It just survived through centuries

of war and weather and so on.

And, and finally at one point about 12

years ago, some big cracks appeared.

And some enterprising monks put a

pen flashlight and looked inside the

cracks to see what the infrastructure

of the statue was and what shown

back at them was the gleam of gold.

And so they'd look into another

crack and again, gold and took

off the plaster clay covering.

It turns out this is one of the

largest solid gold statues of the

Buddha anywhere in Southeast Asia.

And what the monks believed is that it

was covered over to survive difficult

times, much in the way that each of

us covers over our innate purity in

order to make it through difficult

culture, difficult family situation.

And the suffering comes when we become

identified with our coverings, identify

with our defenses, with our cravings,

with the ways we try to navigate.

And we forget the gold.

We forget the goodness.

We forget the innate awareness and

love that really is who we are.

And so the, the essence of the spiritual

path is to find our way back to that.

And in order to do so, we need

to find a capacity to offer

kindness and care to our own being.

That's the only way to dissolve some of

that identification with our defenses.

There's an Indian teacher who,

Sri Nisargadatta, who has a

beautiful call in this direction.

He says, "All I ask of you is this,

make love of yourself perfect."

Make love of yourself perfect.

And I love the thoroughness of

that, that we're really learning

to love the life that's right here,

unconditionally, unconditionally.

And it has to be unconditionally.

That whatever arises in us, whatever

fear, or hurt, or shame, addictive

craving that we hold that with

a profound quality of kindness.

And you might right in this moment,

pause and take a moment just to reflect

and sense, what would it mean right

now to make love of yourself perfect.

What are the conditions that have to

come into place right in this moment.

To feel a sense of that you're

making love of yourself perfect.

And this is what you take away

from listening today, that some

deepened intention towards holding

yourself with that kind of deep

kindness, it can change your life.

What I have found in teaching is at the

beginning of making love of ourselves

perfect, I say teaching also teaching

myself, is that we need to start by

recognizing what's going on in the moment.

We start by sensing what is

going on right here in this

moment in my body, in my heart.

And then we offer that a very

allowing non-judging presence.

In the Buddhist tradition, there's a

story of the Buddha being attacked by

the shadow side, which is called the

God Mara, which is really all of those

energies of greed and hatred and delusion.

And his response when Mara would show

up in his life was very, very simple.

He'd say, I see you, Mara.

Come let's have tea.

And I think this is one of the most

profound, evolutionary teachings in a

spiritual tradition, to be able to meet

the shadow side and say, I see you.

Let's have tea.

These are called the

two wings of presence.

The wing of seeing which means

recognizing what is going on

inside you in this moment.

And just the question what's happening

inside me right now, can begin

to cultivate that wing of seeing.

And then the second wing is

the question can be with this?

It's offering that allowing presence,

a willingness to have tea with what's

here, to really be with it fully.

So let's look a little more closely on how

we can bring these two wings of presence.

What's happening?

Can I be with this in a way that

really evolves us from self aversion

to self-acceptance and love?

And I'll tell you a brief story of

a woman I worked with who was in a

major conflict with her daughter.

Her daughter was, I think, 15 at the

time, and her grades were plummeting

and she had begun to use drugs and was

basically not doing homework, not doing

anything, any of her responsibilities.

And for this woman, she was constantly

angry at her daughter and her daughter

was very, very defended against her.

So they were at a real standoff.

So when this woman and I began to work

together, we started exploring these

two wings that I'm describing that

can help us develop self compassion.

And the first step was what is

happening inside me right now.

And for her, it was anger.

And so then can I be this?

Let it be.

Allow it.

It's the second wing.

And then the anger, she could feel

under the anger, there was shame.

I'm not being a good parent and fear my

daughter's life's going to be ruined.

So then again, recognizing

it and allowing that.

And then I said, well, how long

have you been living with the

sense of fear and failure that

you're falling short as a parent?

And then when she really started

reflecting on that, that kind of

unworthiness as a parent, she said you

know, as long as I can remember, before

being a parent, I felt like I was falling

short as a friend or as a daughter.

And so she was getting in touch with how

the trance of unworthiness had really

been running through her whole life.

And so I asked her what it was

like when she felt unworthy.

And she said, well, it's a

kind of a squeeze and a sinking

feeling and really feel completely

caught in and the pain of it.

And when she realized how many moments

of her life actually were moments

that were imprisoned by a sense of

unworthiness, that's when she had an

experience of what Isometimes call ouch,

where she really got her suffering.

I sometimes think of it as,

cause what arose in her was a

real grieving for her own life.

It brings up a soul sadness when we

realize how much our lives have been

shaped by feeling bad about ourselves,

feeling like we're doing something wrong.

And it was at that moment that she could

begin to offer compassion to herself.

It was at that moment, because she had

been present with herself and felt the

different layers that were there, that

she could put her hand on her heart.

And I said, well, what is that place that

feels so unworthy need from you, right?

And she said it just needs to

really feel accepted and loved.

So I asked her to send a message

to herself, and this is a really

important part of self-compassion,

to send a message of care.

And she, she said to herself,

something I often say to myself

which is, it's okay, sweetheart.

It's okay, sweetheart.

Now I mentioned that she

put her hand on our heart.

When I'm working with people and

myself, I often encourage that

because our habitual way of relating

to ourselves is the opposite.

Instead of a hand on our heart,

we are as far from being tender

and intimate as we could be.

So this begins to counter, to de-condition

that tendency of being at war.

You try it right now.

Just gently put your hand on your heart.

Let it be a kind of tender touch,

a light touch with the intention

of just offering kindness inside.

And just notice how your experience shifts

when you change your way of relating

to yourself in a very conscious way.

There are many different

things we can say to ourselves.

Some people use what Thich Nhat Hanh,

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says,

"Darling, I care about the suffering."

Sometimes we could just say, "It's okay."

Or, "I'm here with you."

I sometimes say forgiven, forgiven.

Not as if I've done something

wrong, but just forgiving what's

happening, letting it be okay.

The more that we practice pausing

and feeling what's here and offering

compassion to ourselves, the more we

experience the essence of transformation,

which is our sense of who we are shifts

from being the bad person or the victim

to being that space of loving presence,

of compassion that's holding our life.

And that shift is a shift of freedom.

Over and over again,

though, we need to practice.

You might think of it in terms

of neuroplasticity, that we have

certain kind of grooves or patterns

in our brain and our nervous system

that are correlated with beliefs

and feelings of being not okay.

And you are beginning to create

new patterning and it just

needs to be repeated many times.

And gradually over time, you'll find that

you actually sense the who you are more

as awareness and love than any small story

that you might have been telling yourself.

That is when we start feeling free.

There's a metaphor I like of when

you're dying a cloth and into the

color indigo, there's a vat of indigo

dye and you take the cloth and you

dip it in and then you pull it out

and it's that bright, rich indigo.

But within moments, it fades and it

just becomes a little bit off-white.

So then you have to dip it again and you

pull it out and the same thing happens.

It gets that rich, deep blue, and

then it fades back to a little

off-white, but a little bit

richer than it was the first time.

And after many repetitions, the

color holds and you get to feel the

brilliance of that, of that blue as

something that's an ongoing experience.

In the same way, when you practice

mindfulness, mindfulness is recognizing

what's going on in the moment,

really being with it, not judging it.

And when you offer compassion, the sense

of kindness to yourself, that richness

of recognizing, oh, I'm not the bad self.

And sensing again, that, that vast

and tender presence as really being

who you are, is the taste of freedom.

What's so beautiful is that the more

you trust your own goodness, the more

you trust that gold, you know, from

the statue of the Buddha, that basic

goodness in yourself, the more you

move through the world and everyone,

you see, you can see that same

light and goodness shining through.

And that doesn't mean that you don't see

the habits and patterning that have that

person harm themselves or harm others.

But you're seeing through new eyes.

When a person is acting in a

harmful way, you start to sense

what's going on for that person.

I sometimes think of it this way.

Again, a metaphor for you, that

if you imagine that there's

a little dog under a tree.

You're going to pet that little dog, then

it kind of rears at you and it lurches

forward, its fangs are bared and it's,

you know, it's very, very aggressive.

And you're immediately feeling angry

at it, but then you notice that

the dog's leg is caught in a trap.

And then you shift immediately

to going, oh, you poor thing.

Much in the same way, when you've

done that training of presence and

compassion with your own inner life,

it's much easier to see when another

person has their leg in a trap.

And it doesn't mean you

don't take care of yourself.

It's important to create the boundaries

you need to do to protect yourself and

others, but your heart won't shut down.

There's understanding in your heart, that

that person is in some ways suffering.

And that makes all the difference.

A story that comes to mind is of an

army, some man that was in the army

that had gone through a mindfulness

program for anger management.

And he, after, you know, he'd

gone through it and he found it

very valuable and the program was

really grounded in mindfulness.

It was using mindfulness so that when you

get the surge of anger, instead of acting

it out, you learn the art of, what I call

the sacred pause, where, and this is true

for any strong emotion when it comes up.

Pause, just pause, because if you pause,

Viktor Frankl, put it best, the space

between the stimulus and the response.

In that space is your

power and your freedom.

So pausing lets you make a better choice.

So that was the kind of training he had.

And one day, he went to a supermarket

to pick up some, to stock up.

And he filled up his cart and

he went and got into line.

And the woman in front of him only had

a few items, but she was in his line.

She wasn't in the express line.

And not only that, she had a little

girl and she handed the little girl

to the clerk and they wereoohing and

aahing and he, his anger got stirred up.

And he, you know, he felt like,

you know, what is going on here?

She should be in the other line.

And I'm a busy person.

I'm an important person.

I've got things to do.

And he just went into reactivity.

And then he remembered his training.

And he paused.

And he said, these two wings

that I've been telling you about,

what is happening inside me.

He started tracking his body

and he could feel the anger and

underneath the anger, he could feel

the fear and he let it be there.

He allowed the feelings to be there.

That sense that some of you might

be familiar with that when something

gets in our way, we have that

fear there's not enough time and

our world's going to collapse.

So he just stayed with his fear and

things started settling and that

shift in identity where he became

more of the witness, more able to be

present with what was there versus

the person who was lost in anger.

So he was calmer.

He was able to open his eyes and

he saw athelittle girl was cute.

And when it was his turn, he

said to the clerk, you know,

that little girl is awfully cute.

And she smiled at him and

she said, oh, thank you.

Actually that's my little girl.

My mom brings her here because my

husband was killed in Afghanistan.

And this is my only way to see her.

So twice a day, my mom

brings her so we can visit.

I share this story with you

because when we begin to learn

these practices of mindfulness and

self-compassion, we begin to shift

in our way of relating to the world.

We begin to pause more.

And you might just imagine if we

move through the day and like this

man, we took the time to pause and

then begin to really find out what

is going on for another person.

We'd be actually helping to

serve the healing of our world.

In that pausing and looking more

deeply, we'd see past the kind

of mask that we usually react to.

It's that pausing and deepening attention

that helps wake us up from racism.

And so where in the United States

right now have so much going on.

We just had killings of nine people

in a black church in Charleston.

African-American men that are murdered

on the streets that are unarmed.

So racism, if we could pause, if we could

deepen our attention, if we could really

be present, we might be able to wake up

out of the ways we create others into

unreal others, because once somebody

unreal to us, we can violate them,

and instead hold them in our hearts.

So we practice these practices and I am

grateful to you for having the interest

and feel the calling to deepen presence

because we practice for the freedom

of our own hearts and also for the

healing of our world, so that we can

listen to this earth that has so much

disease and respond rather than being

in our trance of too busy or on our way.

And listen to the suffering of others.

And also, so we have the capacity to

look at each other and see the goodness

and to appreciate it and honor it,

because one of the greatest gifts

that you can give anyone is to see

their goodness and remind them of it.

People forget.

So we'll close this class, if you

will, with a very brief reflection

just to invite you to take a

moment wherever you are, a moment

for a bit of an extended pause.

And in this extended pause,

you might just close your eyes.

Listen to the words of Thomas Merton.

He says, "Then it was as if I suddenly

saw the secret beauty of their hearts,

the depth of their hearts when neither

sin or knowledge could reach, the

core of reality, the person that each

one is in the eyes of the divine.

If only they could see

themselves as they really are.

If only we could see each other

that way all the time, there

would be no more need for war, for

hatred, for greed, for cruelty.

I suppose the big problem would be that we

would fall down and worship each other."

So in these moments, just to feel

yourself, sitting here mindful

of the sensations of your body.

Mindful of your breath.

And you might sense if there's somewhere

in your life right now that you're being

particularly unforgiving or unaccepting

of yourself and let that come to mind.

As you reflect a bit on what it is that

you've done that makes you not able

to forgive or accept, what behavior,

what ways of judging or acting, perhaps

causing harm to yourself or another.

You might take a moment and sense

how your leg in some way is in a

trap when you're behaving that way.

How there are some unmet needs, some

fears that have been driving you.

And just to have some compassion for that.

And it's a way to support yourself in this

practice of self-compassion, to gently,

perhaps put your hand on your heart again.

And just to recognize

your own vulnerability.

So recognize the fears, the hurts,

the unmet needs, and to also

recognize the pain being turned

on yourself, at war with yourself.

You might sense in your life, how many

moments of your life have in some way

been imprisoned or stolen away from you,

because you were at war with yourself.

Moments that you could have been

enjoying a sunset or entertained

and amused by something or feeling

a sense of loving connection.

Instead were squeezed by the sense

of something is wrong with me.

Just to notice that and sense that

and feel your deep aspiration to

deepen your capacity for self love.

Just send any message you'd

like to your heart right now.

Any message of comfort or kindness.

Closing with the words of Rumi who

writes, "I've gotten free of that

ignorant fist that was pinching

and twisting my secret self.

The universe and the light

of the stars come through me.

I am the crescent moon put up

over the gate to the festival."

Thank you for your

attention and your presence.

Wishing you all blessings, that you

may trust and live from that deep

goodness, from the love and the

awareness that's your true nature.

Thank you.

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