Tara Brach, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist known for blending Western psychology with Buddhist practices, has helped thousands of people work through crisis and emotional suffering. In her latest book, True Refuge, Brach gives us a path to healing emotional wounds and finding inner peace through inspirational stories, guided meditations and encouraging teachings. No stranger to adversity, Brach shared with us her own story about dealing with grief when she was struck with a debilitating illness:
When I became seriously ill in my early fifties, I came face to face with the core identity of what I call “the controller.” I didn’t want to accept that I could no longer run or bike or count on having the energy to sustain my rigorous schedule. If I could just keep doing things—teaching, walking, serving our community, counseling others—the ground might stay firm under my feet. But one December, right before our winter meditation retreat, my body crashed. I landed in the hospital, unable to teach, or for that matter to read, walk around or go to the bathroom without trailing an IV.
On the third day of my weeklong stay, I was walking around the perimeter of the cardiac unit, jarred by how weak I felt, how uncertain about my future. Then, for the ten-thousandth time, my mind lurched forward, anticipating how I might reconfigure my life, what I’d have to cancel, how I could manage this deteriorating body. When I saw that the controller was back in action, I returned to my room and wearily collapsed on the raised hospital bed. As I lay there, the circling thoughts collapsed too, and I sank below the surface, into pain.
Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa taught that the essence of a liberating spiritual practice is to “meet our edge and soften.” My edge was right here, in the acute loneliness, despair about the future and grip of fear. I knew I needed to soften and open. I tried to keep my attention on where the pain was most acute, but the controller was still there, holding back. It was as if I’d fall into a black hole of grief and die.
Then, gently, tentatively, I started encouraging myself to feel what was there and soften. The more painful the edge of grief was, the more tender my inner voice became. At some point I placed my hand on my heart and said, “Sweetheart, just soften…let go, it’s okay.” As I dropped into that aching hole of grief, I entered a space filled with the tenderness of pure love. It surrounded me, held me, suffused my being. Meeting my edge and softening was a dying into true refuge—into timeless, loving presence.
In the remaining days, whenever I recognized that I’d tightened into anxious planning and worry, I noted it as “my edge.” Then I repeated to myself: “Sweetheart, just soften.” I found that kindness made all the difference. When I returned home, the stories and fears about the future were still there. The controller would come and go. But I had a deeper trust that I could meet my life with an open and present heart.
Consciously grieving loss is at the very center of the spiritual path. It’s natural that the controller arises: We will seek to manage the pain of separation in whatever way we can. Yet, as we awaken, we can willingly surrender into the grieving. We can learn to meet our edge and soften. I’ve found that by honoring the pain for what has passed away, we are free to love the life that is here.