Preparing our hearts…

Greetings, readers and friends. I hope you are enjoying this holiday season and not getting too stressed out by all the busyness this time seems to require. I swear, every year, I promise myself I will keep things simpler, go a little slower…but so far that promise seems always to end up broken like icicles on pavement—and at some point, usually within two weeks of the Big Day, I realize I’ve done it again and am once again frazzled, resentful and decidedly un-festive. What is it? Seriously…what?

Tara Brach
Tara Brach

As luck or grace would have it, I stumbled recently upon a podcast by Buddhist psychologist, author and teacher Tara Brach, “Preparing Our Hearts for the Holidays,” which I found surprisingly pacifying. The general idea is that, though the holidays can be times of love and celebration, they also have a way of putting Miracle-Gro on relational conflicts and challenges. This short talk—which includes two meditations—explores how we can bring insight, grace and openheartedness to ourselves and to others in our lives. I have listened to it once. I will listen to it again. And probably again, and a few more times. Honestly, I would do well to listen to it daily. I recommend it highly if, like me, this time of year proves challenging for you. In this holiday talk (there are legions of Tara Brach meditations and talks out there), Brach asks an interesting question: “How would you like to feel after the holiday is over?” I find this inquiry has helped guide me to set an intention for myself—not an intention having to do with how many sheets of cookies I will bake, how many gingerbread houses I will construct (only to watch them implode before my eyes on the kitchen table), or how many presents I will wrap or stockings I will fill or presents I will buy or Christmas cards I will send—but more about how I want to feel about the holiday once it is over. Tara Brach’s question helps gently steer me away from the Christmas craziness toward the heart of the matter, nudging me closer to the warm, loving person I want to be in this world, for myself and for my friends.

I love Tara Brach. Fifteen years ago, my friend Andie and I kind of by accident heard her speak at Omega in New York City. I was going to say she blew our socks off, but the truth is, she disarmed us both and soothed our monkey minds and helped center us. Radically. Which reminds me, her book Radical Acceptance is a must-read. It’s been around for a while (since 2004, to be exact), but do check it out. And even if you have read it, rereading it wouldn’t hurt. I think I’ve read it three times, personally. I’m sure I will read it again.

But anyway…do check out “Preparing Our Hearts for the Holidays” if you want help calming and centering yourself during this time. Just Google “Tara Brach” and you will find this talk listed among many others. It’s all free. Thank you, Tara.

Oh, and another thing. Though her lessons are serious—about mindfulness, and presence, meditation and letting go, etc.—they are peppered with amusing little jokes and stories, which serve to lighten the experience of going deeper, reminding all those who walk this walk that there is joy in the journey and we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously.

A quote I just found from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha:

“Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns… We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.”

Love that.

Another one: “When someone says to us, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, ‘Darling, I care about your suffering,’ a deep healing begins.”

This last quote brings me back to what struck me most deeply about Tara Brach’s lecture 15 years ago. I am remembering that during that time I was quite angry about how things were going with a friend of mine. I felt resentful about the way he had handled something (I’ve now forgotten exactly what) and guilty and conflicted about taking space from the relationship. At one point in her talk, Brach asked us to think of something that was causing us pain, then, after inviting us to sit with the feelings for a moment, in her soft and very soothing voice, she asked us to speak to ourselves, saying something to the effect of, “Sweetheart (or Katherine/your name) (or Dearest), I am so sorry you are suffering. I see you are in pain…” Etcetera. The idea is not to fight the feeling or hate the pain or seek to run away from it or wish/pray it away, but rather, to shine some loving kindness on it, and on ourselves. It seemed so simple, what she was saying. It still seems simple. But I was surprised at the time by how powerfully and deeply disarming it was to simply address myself in a gentle, loving way, and express compassion about the pain itself, the struggle roiling within. I remember experiencing a noticeable softening, along with a subtly brightening openness. It’s hard to describe. Maybe you had to have been there. But I have been a devotee of Tara Brach ever since—not the most fervent or consistent devotee, to be honest, but I do turn to her when I think of it and/or when I need her. And here she is, coming through for me again. Maybe she will for you, too…if it happens that you are looking for this kind of light now.

…And so, peaceful holidays to you. May you experience love and acceptance in your heart, feel a sense of belonging with the people and creatures that surround you, and if it be the will of heaven, find some good new books under your tree and some quiet time to read them.