By meeting pain with a tender presence, we transform our wounds and losses into fierce grace.
On my first ten-day meditation retreat I had many opportunities to look closely at painful emotions and limiting beliefs. My mind was generating a barrage of self-judgments—from niggling little things like not packing comfortable pants to major failures as a parent—and I felt imprisoned in a deficient, separate self. It became clear to me that being at war with myself was cutting me off from my heart and perpetuating suffering.
I set the intention to accept rather than push away the underlying feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, and shame. Those precious moments of unconditional acceptance didn’t last long at first, but always in them I discovered that my heart was open, caring, and free. Even when thoughts about the parts of myself I didn’t like continued to come up, they were held with compassion, there was room for imperfection. My mantra became “The boundary to what I can accept is the boundary to my freedom.”
Of course my negative judgments weren’t restricted to my own personhood. I’d feel annoyed with people dear to me who weren’t taking care of themselves in the way I thought they should. I’d get caught in judgments aimed at those who hold power and create suffering for vulnerable populations. But each time these thoughts arose, I’d remind myself that acceptance without boundaries meant including all beings in my heart. And I could feel how pushing anyone away created a wall that barricaded a small, separate self from others, from the world, from inner freedom. I could feel it in my tense body and constricted heart.
On that retreat I learned that when I shift my attention away from judging myself and others and let my heart open to the vulnerability we all share, the wall starts becoming more porous. As I open to that vulnerability with compassion, the light and warmth of my heart shines through freely. As Rumi puts it: “That hurt we embrace becomes joy. / Call it to your arms where it can change.”
You might sit for three minutes with the simple intention to accept whatever experience arises inside you: changing thoughts, feelings, sensations, sounds. As you do, sense what you notice about the quality of your heart and your presence. Who are you in the moments of unconditionally accepting life?
When we feel held by a caring presence, by something larger than our small, frightened self, we begin to find room in our own heart for the fragments of our life, and for the lives of others. The suffering that might have seemed “too much” can awaken us to the sweetness of compassion.
Excerpted from Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness by Tara Brach. Copyright © 2021 by Tara Brach. Cover & Interior Illustrations © 2021 Vicky Alvarez. To be published by Sounds True in June 2021.
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