May 19, 2013

Meditation teacher a calming voice in frantic times

Buddhist Tara Brach heals thousands seeking spiritual guidance.

By MICHELLE BOORSTEIN/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - A tornado warning was in effect in Washington and the rain was coming down in sheets, but the little residential roads around the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Md., were gridlocked with traffic, as they are every Wednesday night. Washington's strivers were striving to chill out.

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Tara Brach’s weekly meditation classes draw hundreds of people to the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Md. Her popular talks are also downloaded nearly 200,000 times each month by people in more than 150 countries.

Washington Post photos by Bonnie Jo Mount

click image to enlarge

Tara Brach applauds a music performance at the Maryland church where she holds a weekly meditation class.

Hundreds of people were rushing to the weekly class of Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach, a therapist who has become a must-listen for many urban professionals. Inside, her calm voice fills the silence.

"What does it matter for us to be in touch with our deepest aspiration?" she says into a headset. "Was today a trance? How much was I here today?"

Listening that night would be far more than the 300 people in the room. Brach's talks are downloaded free nearly 200,000 times each month by people in more than 150 countries. Strangers write from around the world to say her words have saved them from committing suicide or relapsing into drugs. Government contractors who parachute into Washington plan trips around her class. One devotee last year gave her newborn son the middle name Brach.

Brach is riding a massive American wave of meditation, a mind-training practice meant to heighten self-awareness and compassion. Its popularity is particularly high among Americans who don't identify with a particular religious affiliation, a group that's grown from 7 percent to nearly 20 percent of the population since the early 1970s. In a nation of people busily crafting their own religion, meditation may be the new American prayer.

The meditation school that Brach founded, Insight Meditation Community of Washington, is one of the biggest in the country. Brach and her husband, Jonathan Foust, a yoga and meditation teacher who is former president of the well-known retreat Kripalu in Massachusetts, are the royalty of Washington's spiritual-but-not-religious crowd.

Brach's appeal in Washington makes sense: She's a Type A go-getter. The petite 60-year-old focuses on pragmatic struggles such as body image, divorce and being controlled by your To Do list. She drives a BMW and lives in posh Great Falls, Va. She talks about aspiration.

Brach is a Buddhist meditation teacher and member of the Buddhist clergy, yet finds traditional Buddhist texts sexist and cold. She strips religious language out of her classes so as to not turn off secular types, but worries about people not going deep.

Some Buddhist figures call her secularized approach radical.

"She's clearly treating modern forms of sickness," said Clark Strand, a well-known Buddhist writer. "But it's part of a culture-wide experimentation being done with yoga, meditation and other spiritual technologies to see how well they work in the absence of the ethical systems and belief systems that have supported them for thousands of years. And the answer isn't clear yet."

To Brach's many devotees, she is foremost a healer. Her new book, "True Refuge," about her recent search for calm in the face of serious illness, debuted on The Washington Post's bestseller list the week in February it was released.

Her followers include devout Catholics and Muslims, trauma-struck veterans and 12-steppers with a range of addictions. The vast majority are not Buddhists, but spiritual seekers drawn to Brach's calming voice as she shares Buddhist teachings, folksy stories and quotes from the likes of Oprah, D.H. Lawrence and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Gray Clark was desperate when he began listening to Brach. His young daughter had a mood disorder, and the family was struggling to manage her outbursts and their own anxiety. A churchgoing evangelical since birth, Clark, 43, needed practical tools and a philosophy to help him accept his situation but not be consumed by it.

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