A review of “True Refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart”

Tara Brach has excellent credentials to write about meditation and mindfulness. She founded the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C., and is a well-known retreat leader and clinical psychologist.

Her new book, “True Refuge,” is a worthy addition to a growing collection of spiritual books by Buddhists.

Brach explains mindfulness basics and illustrates her points with case histories of people she has counseled who have struggled with negative emotions stemming from cancer diagnoses, alcoholism, sexual assault and troubled relationships.

The author’s candid descriptions of her own losses and emotional upheavals give the book added credibility. Brach never comes across as someone who has all the answers, but rather as an ordinary, sometimes-fragile seeker who has faced emotional and physical challenges just like anyone else.  

We learn on the first page that the author suffered two decades of “mysteriously declining health” before she was diagnosed with an incurable genetic disease. She had been an active athlete, but gradually had to give up sports and outdoor activities, a process that “feels like a kind of death.”

For Brach, it was a learning experience as she applied the principles of mindfulness and compassion to her own life.

Throughout the book, Brach focuses on the wisdom of learning to live in the moment, rather than constantly trying to escape from life’s inevitable disappointments.

“It’s as though we’ve spent our lives on a bicycle,” she writes, “pedaling hard to get away from the present moment. We pedal to resist what is happening, we pedal to try to make something happen, we pedal to try to get somewhere else. The more we feel like something is missing or something is wrong, the faster we pedal.”

In other words, we think that happiness is always just around the corner, always in the future, instead of living in the only moment we have, which is now.

“A deliberate meditative pause helps us to savor the often-forgotten goodness and beauty that is within and around us,” she says.

Knowing that all people suffer at some point, Brach describes the importance of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves.

In one of the book’s most helpful sections, Brach discusses the trauma of sexual and physical abuse. She suggests that more than anything, victims need a trusted friend or therapist who will listen without judgment or advice. Another excellent section deals with the importance of forgiveness – of ourselves and of those who have wronged us.

Each chapter ends with guided meditations. In “lovingkindness meditation,” a person sits quietly with eyes closed and repeats phrases such as May I be safe, May I be happy, May I accept myself just as I am, May I know the natural joy of being alive.

“True Refuge” is a book that can be read slowly, letting the simple wisdom of each chapter touch the reader’s heart.

I have one reservation about this otherwise splendid book.  In a short note, Brach says she changed names, identifying characteristics and other details to protect the privacy of the people she counseled. I have no problem with that, but she also includes word-for-word exchanges between herself and her clients, without saying if she tape-recorded these conversations or took contemporaneous notes. This is especially relevant in a book that relies so heavily on intimate case histories.

Authors tarnish their credibility when they pretend they can recall word-for-word conversations from past years. It would have been helpful if Brach had acknowledged the issue and perhaps said that she is recalling as best as she can the tone and substance of long-ago encounters.

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