May 19, 2013

Meditation teacher a calming voice in frantic times

Buddhist Tara Brach heals thousands seeking spiritual guidance.


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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

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

The Charlotte computer engineer turned to meditation, first locally and then through Brach, whom he now listens to on his daily long runs. He travels a lot for work, and if he's within an hour of Bethesda on a Wednesday, he goes to River Road.

As is the case with many of her devotees, Brach is in many ways both therapist and spiritual guide to Clark. Her teaching awakened "much more compassion and understanding and openness . . . which to me, that's what God is about," he said.

"So much of religion is about following some creed or dogma, and by and large, people aren't looking for that," he said after Brach's recent class. "They're looking for something much deeper."

Brach has always been drawn to spiritual depths. After growing up Unitarian in New Jersey, she took up an intense type of yoga and meditation called kundalini. She joined an ashram, took a vow of celibacy and entered into an arranged marriage. For a decade, her life was waking before dawn, playing guitar, chanting. She was blown away by the feeling of transcendence and compassion that yoga and meditation could bring.

In her 30s, she began to see that lifestyle as rigid, a "false refuge" or Type A spirituality -- more about trying to be perfect than about balance.

She left the ashram, turned to Buddhism and divorced. Buddhism, she says, is about "waking up, but not striving." She was ordained into the Buddhist clergy in the mid-1990s but has moved to less-specific language, saying she is influenced by a range of spiritual teachings. She talks about "the deeper dimension to self" and love as a "formless presence." Struggle, she told her students earlier this year, is part of our longing not for happiness but for meaning, to be "part of something larger. Which is waking up to who we are."

She describes her own awakening in her new book, which lays out how three decades of meditation, several religious transformations, divorce and motherhood didn't prepare her for the shock of mortality.

A decade ago, she was found to have a condition associated with Fragile X, a genetic disease that can effect the elasticity of the connective tissue. It left the avid athlete in pain and unable to walk very well. She has since significantly improved and regained a lot of her health, but the experience remained.

Brach's message has particular appeal to baby boomers juggling care for children, parents and themselves.

"We're both at a pragmatic point, especially living in the D.C. area with all this unprecedented stress right now. Especially among boomers, with the responsibility of raising family, their parents' health, their own mortality," said Foust, Brach's husband. He jokes about it, darkly: "We are in the suffering business, and business is booming."

But when it comes to Buddhism, Brach knows she is on the secular fringe. She's gone from someone who swore off sex and wore white from head to toe to a kind of spiritual personality, whose weekend retreats sell out even at $300 a pop.

She's also in demand as a clinical psychologist, her longtime profession. Brach has headlined four major psychology conferences in the past year. This reflects the growing belief that spirituality, however it is defined, is a component of mental health.

For some, meditation's spread raises questions. More conservative religious groups reject the idea that healing comes from within and not from God. Even some new spirituality sites -- whose readers are likely familiar with meditation -- have run articles in the past couple of years with such headlines as "Is meditation narcissistic?"

"I can see it going both ways. For us to try and not be affiliated (with religion), it means we are bypassing the most profound teachings," Brach says.

As a result, she and others "are very committed to having whatever we teach have an ethic, a reverence for life, for not harming. We're saying if you train the mind and heart, it will lead to revering life."


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