Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge with a look at the theme of Chapter Two: “The Trance of Small Self.”
Rumi’s poem at the beginning of the chapter points to our tendency to forget that we were born with open, innocent awareness and goodness as our essential nature:
Whatever came from being
Is caught up in being, drunkenly
Forgetting the way back.
Tara describes how we create what she calls a “space suit,” or the small self of the ego, to meet our needs and to protect ourselves from harm. But, as essential as this protection is for our survival, when we identify with the space suit and think we are the self who is angry, judgmental, anxious, or admirable, we fall into a trance and lose touch with the mysterious presence that always underlies our fleeting thoughts, emotions and actions.
Family gatherings tend to be trance inducing. A few weeks ago, Mark and I attended the wedding of my nephew and godson Schuyler in New Hampshire. Sometimes I feel self-protective around relatives who are scientists and medical doctors, especially around those with skeptical views about my dedication to meditation and music therapy. Before arriving at the rehearsal dinner, Mark helped me clarify my intention to be openhearted and conscious of habitual patterns of interacting.
During the weekend, I listened more carefully than usual to my relatives and let myself be surprised by spontaneous interactions—a nephew who’s studying Buddhism at college asked me about “no self, ” a niece in her first year of medical residency wanted to know about my experiences at hospice, and my siblings appreciated the way I toasted Schuyler’s inner life as well as his outer achievements. While Mark and I were having fun dancing amidst my extended family at the wedding party, I felt relaxed and grateful for the mysterious ways that we’re all teaching one another life lessons.
Tara points out how many of us try to be perfect and to measure up to impossibly high standards of what we imagine other people expect from us. Danna Faulds’ phrase that “Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain” rings true. When we tell ourselves fear-driven stories about being flawed, we reinforce a mistaken, limited sense of identity that separates us both from our own inner life and from others. In a state of self-imposed isolation, we may judge ourselves as being selfish and “unspiritual.”
Practicing meditation helps us train our attention to recognize trance states and stories of failure, doubt, anger and blame. We find freedom by observing these stories arising and passing away without believing them and by witnessing desires, aversions and fears of the small self coming and going without identifying with them. With awareness and compassion, we learn to accept the ego’s needs and anxieties as natural parts of our conditioning and as waves on the vast, open ocean of presence.
Recently I had the following dream:
From an aerial view, I’m watching myself go through daily routines. Nonjudgmentally, I observe rigid tendencies in the personality that is performing familiar tasks according to habitual sequences. I also observe how these routine tasks are interspersed with silent pauses and with periods of spontaneous interconnection with people, animals and trees. The awareness that watches from above is benign and accepts me with no part left out.
The dream highlights our human capacity to forego self-criticism and to accept ourselves just as we are. This transformation in our consciousness affects not only how we live but also how we die.
Some of you may have seen a video about the Metta Institute, founded on 2004 by Frank Ostaseski, as an outgrowth of the Zen Hospice Project in Sausalito, California. The Institute’s mission is to provide education about spirituality in dying, [quote] “reclaiming the soul in caregiving and restoring a life-affirming and transformative relationship to dying.” On the video, one of the Metta Institute faculty members, Ram Dass, intones a mantra: “I am loving awareness,” reminding us that we are far more than the ego mind with which we tend to identify. Although much of his body is paralyzed from a debilitating stroke, Ram Dass radiates happiness. Students wait patiently to listen to the wisdom expressed in his halting words. He points to his heart and declares, “The spiritual heart is who we really are. It’s the entrance to the soul’s plane of consciousness.”
The guided meditation that closes Tara’s second chapter is an ideal way to practice opening the spiritual heart. This (slightly adapted) version of Metta or loving kindness practice is aimed at dissolving the identity of an isolated, deficient self and at preparing a foundation for including others in an unconditionally loving heart.
Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and relax any areas of the body that might be tense or tight. Take some moments to feel the breath at the heart: Breathing in, sense that you are receiving warmth and energy; breathing out, sense that you are letting go into openness.
Silently begin offering yourself the following phrases of loving kindness:
May I be held in loving kindness.
May I feel safe and at ease.
May I find true refuge within my own being.
May my heart and mind awaken; may I be free.
As you repeat each phrase, open to whatever images and feelings arise.
You might explore placing your hand gently over your heart and see if physical touch deepens the experience of holding yourself with kindness.
Include any reactive thoughts or feelings that arise during the practice: “May this too be held in loving kindness.”
Don’t worry if you sometimes find yourself just reciting the phrases mechanically. Your heart has natural seasons of feeling open and closed. What matters most is your intention to awaken loving kindness.
As the meditation comes to an end, sit quietly for a few moments and notice the feelings in your body and heart. Is there a new sense of space and tenderness? Do you feel more at home in your own being?