Finding Your True Refuge: An Interview with Tara Brach, PhD

All of us have an innate desire to heal our suffering and step into a wiser and happier life. Today it is my great pleasure to bring a favorite author, teacher and psychologist of mine who is at the forefront of integrating mindfulness into psychotherapy and our lives. Tara Brach, PhD is author of the recently released and the soon-to-be-a-classic True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heartbestselling book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, and many more. Tara has weekly podcasts from her Wednesday night sitting groups and is senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. She embodies and emphasizes that beneath the turbulence of our minds and hearts is a loving awareness that as we learn to tap into over and again can reveal a source of resiliency, peace and genuine happiness.

Today, Tara will talk to us about her own journey through suffering that led to true refuge, the differences between true and false refuges, key practices to begin with this in our lives, how this applies to anxiety and depression and a final message for us to walk away with.  

Elisha: One of the aspects of your book that I deeply appreciated was your personal journey from suffering to find your true refuge. Can you share a little of that with us here?

Tara: I decided to write True Refuge during a major dive in my own health. Diagnosed with a genetic disease that affected my mobility, I faced tremendous fear and grief about losing the fitness and physical freedom I loved. My prayer became “May I find peace…May I love this life no matter what.” I was seeking an inner refuge, an experience of presence and wholeness that could carry me through whatever losses might come. During the ensuing years, the practices of presence and self-compassion I teach in True Refuge served in carrying me home over and over to a place of openheartedness, peace and wellbeing.  I gained a real confidence that the refuge I was seeking was right here within me.

Physical sickness has not been the only life challenge of course! My first book, Radical Acceptance, grew out of the suffering of feeling personally deficient and unworthy. Because most of us are so quick to turn against ourselves, the teachings and practices of radical acceptance continue as a strong current in True Refuge: nurturing a forgiving, understanding heart is a basic step on the path.

Elisha: What’s the key difference between false refuge and true refuge?

Tara:  When Siddhartha Gotama (the Buddha to be) encountered impermanence and life’s inevitable suffering, his response was: “Let me find that which is changeless, which is deathless, which is without sorrow, which is unborn and undying, that is a true refuge.”  He sought, and found, the timeless and loving awareness that is our true nature.  A true refuge is none other than this—our own awakened heart and mind.  The book is designed around the three archetypal gateways to, and expressions of, true refuge —awareness, truth (of the present moment) and love.

In contrast to true refuge, a false refuge is that which is subject to change. A false refuge may provide a temporary sense of comfort of security, but creates more suffering in the long run.  We might feel unlovable and take refuge in pursuing wealth or success.  Maybe we fear being criticized, and take refuge in avoiding risks and always pleasing others.  Or we feel anxious or empty and take refuge in alcohol, overeating or surfing the Web.  Instead of directly facing the places of woundedness or hurt, we are using a substitute to soothe ourselves.  We habituate to leaving the very presence that is our portal to freedom.

Elisha: What are some key ways or practices that people can begin exploring their own experience of finding true refuge?

Tara:  The universal strategy for awakening to true refuge is training our hearts and minds.  Mindfulness—paying attention without judgment to the unfolding of moment-by-moment experience—is at the core of these trainings.  In support of mindful awareness is learning to focus and concentrate the attention.  This is often done with an object like the breath or sound or sensations.  And interdependent with mindfulness are the heart practices—lovingkindness, forgiveness, compassion for self and others—that soften and open our hearts.

Our challenge, of course, is learning to navigate difficult situations with presence.  In True Refuge, I offer a version of the acronym RAIN that many laypeople and mental health professionals have found invaluable.  RAIN is a tool for applying mindfulness and the letters represent the following:

R- Recognize

A- Allow

I- Investigate with kindness

N- Not-identified (also Natural Awareness)

In applying mindfulness to challenging situation, we are undoing the conditioning that keeps us imprisoned within the experience of a separate and limited self.  As we bring presence and self-compassion (part of the I in RAIN) to the inner tangles, we begin to realize more and more, that this caring presence is our essence, and that we are not who we thought we were.  The identification with the story of an egoic self becomes more transparent and we awaken to the light, warmth and space of our true nature.

Ego is still there to help us navigate, but we are not exclusively identified with it. Rather, we are resting in a universal intelligence and love—our true refuge, our true nature.  And this flows through the ego, expresses through our unique body and mind.

Elisha: Recurring anxiety and depression are highly prevalent forms of suffering that appear to be only increasing in our culture. What thoughts do you have on how true refuge applies to the moments people feel themselves slipping into those dark and fearful places again and again?

Tara: When we feel very cut off, that’s suffering.  Our true sickness is homesickness.  As the Buddha taught, our suffering arises from forgetting who we are.

Each of the gateways to true refuge is there to guide us home when we begin to slip into suffering.  In True Refuge, I describe outer expressions of the gateways as well as inner.   For instance, the outer part of the gateway of truth would include listening to inspiring podcasts, reading books that can guide us, going to meditation classes, finding a good therapist.  The inner facet is deepening our commitment to contacting what is here in our present embodied experience, and perhaps with the support of RAIN, of a teacher or therapist, discovering a healing (less identified, more free) relationship with the difficult energies that are arising.

Another example of inner/outer is with the gateway of love.  The outer expression would be turning toward the support of spiritual friends, and the inner would be the heart meditations that enable us to feel the vastness and tenderness of love in our own being.   To move through anxiety and depression we need the gateways of truth and love.   And each of these, reveals the formless awareness—the Beingness that is what we are beyond the conditioning of the egoic self.

We might also turn toward the outer refuge of awareness—the example of an inspiring spiritual being—to remind us of our potential to awaken and renew our faith.  And finally, we can turn directly to the inner refuge of awareness, intuiting the alert inner stillness, the timeless presence and Oneness that is our formless essence.  I like the metaphor of ocean and waves:   If you trust you are the ocean you are not afraid of the waves.

Elisha: What is the core message here that we can take into days to find greater peace and freedom in weeks and months ahead, what would it be?

Tara: In the moments that we pause, deepen our attention and regard this life (within and around us) with kindness, we find our way home. In time, we realize that the loving awareness that is here is more the truth of who we are than any story we have been believing about our life.

What we seek—the peace, freedom, love—is always and already here.

Elisha: Thank you so much Tara for your timeless wisdom.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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