If summer is, for most of us, a wake-up call that we have bodies, many of us answer the call with reluctance, even dread. The body is a problem to be solved, a disaster to be made the best of. Despite our frantic attention, Tara Brach—a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C.—believes, we're guilty of neglect. We worry so much about how the body looks that we forget to attend to how it feels.
Brach's book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, posits that while a sense of unworthiness has become habit in our culture, we judge ourselves without knowing who we really are. And the key to that crucial knowledge, she says, is the body—our all-access pass to the truth of how we feel and what we know, an amazing tool that's always available but usually ignored.
O, The Oprah Magazine: As a culture, we're obsessed with our bodies, but you make the case that we're strangely out of touch with them. Tara Brach: We spend a lot of time evaluating, judging, commenting on, and making plans for our bodies—all of which, paradoxically, takes us away from the body. Look at your hand: Turn it, see where the skin is creased or wrinkled, think of what that hand has been through in your life. Then close your eyes and feel the hand from the inside out—the tingling or vibrating. There's a difference between any notion of the hand and the actual living hand—that's what most of us are missing.
O, The Oprah Magazine: Exactly what are we missing? And why does it matter? Tara Brach: Say we're thinking about how to get skinnier. When we do that, we're on our way somewhere else; we're not experiencing life right here. In the moments that we're trying to make things different, we're not spontaneous, we're not accessing our creativity or intuition, and, most important—because living in our minds keeps us separate from each other—we can't really feel love. It's the difference between being locked in our heads and being awake in our bodies, which is what I call embodied presence. You can't achieve that if you're always on your way to the next thing.
O, The Oprah Magazine: Most of the time my body is busy, though—my hands are making a meal or my feet are taking me somewhere. Should we be getting away from the purposeful use of the body for a certain portion of the day? Tara Brach: The body is a wonderful instrument, but it's also aliveness itself. If you're having sex, you don't want to be thinking of the purpose; you want to be right there, tuned into sensation. If you're eating, you don't want to say the purpose is to nourish; you want to enjoy the taste. If you're skiing, the purpose isn't to get down the hill; you want to feel the movement. The life that is most cherished is not on our way to something else but is experienced directly.
O, The Oprah Magazine: How did we get so cut off from our bodies in the first place? Tara Brach: We're dissociated as a culture. We overmedicate, we're born and die in hospitals, we mistrust the body. It feels mysterious and uncontrollable. And if we've suffered emotional wounds, we really cut off. But we all have emotional wounds, and healing them requires opening to the places of vulnerability in the body.
O, The Oprah Magazine: How do we open to these feelings? Tara Brach: It takes training to reenter the body. The first step is taking what I call the sacred pause—a pause that allows you to be still and ask what's going on inside. The second step is asking: What can I do with this information?