Gail Brenner called her last book, The End of Self Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life an intriguing and possibly provocative title that could send an entire personal growth industry to its knees. But the Santa Barbara psychologist has no intention of causing dismay. In fact, her energy is devoted toward bringing peace and happiness to everyone via the realization that our thoughts create our suffering, and relief comes from knowing (and living in the realization) that we are not our thoughts.
It’s not a new idea, but one that Brenner delivers with insight, clarity, and grace on a regular basis, including a free email newsletter she composes anew each week based on whatever is most alive for her in the moment – which, of course, is the place where peace resides. Brenner has also been offering a free (donations accepted) Meetup called “Living in Truth, Peace and Happiness”, an open forum where, after a short meditation, attendees can ask questions, bring up their own observations or insights, and request help with conscious in the awareness that observes the mind. The next gathering takes place on Wednesday, November 15, at her home in midtown. (Visit www.meetup.com/Living-in-Truth-Santa-Barbara/events/244764354/ for details).
Brenner talked about her perspective in a conversation earlier this week.
Q. What’s wrong with “self-help”?
A. (The term) makes us think that there’s something wrong with us, and that we can find that magic bullet or technique or a thought pattern that will somehow help us in the future. There’s an assumption that who we are is somehow damaged or inadequate, and that we can find a solution to improve. But the idea that we have problems is an illusion. Ending self-help invites us to turn attention inward in the moment, and discover that place of spaciousness with everything is whole, so there is nothing we have to do. It ends the searching outside for hope and lets us turn inward to discover a place within that’s always here.
So the peace comes from being in the present. Can you say more?
It’s about being aware at a deep level of what’s happening in the body, in the perception, and being open to what is actually here rather than the thoughts. Just being aware brings that peace, without the attachment to the mind that pulls you into what’s wrong. Looking beyond the mind, or prior to the mind, and just being with the perceptions and sensations, opens you up to peace… but don’t take my word for it. It’s true. But I invite you to test it out. It’s not a belief system. It’s a living reality.
But people might wonder something such as, “How am I supposed to feel peace when my boyfriend just broke up with me, or when I have a headache?”
When you are suffering or upset about something, try a micro-analysis or investigation of the moment to see exactly what’s happening. The mind is running a story that it’s unhappy or fearful, and maybe inadequate, and there are feelings and emotions associated with it. Our attention is feeding that story, so those emotions feel stuck. But we don’t have to pay attention to the story of suffering or even the feelings. It’s possible to relax our attention away from those thoughts and feelings and open to expansiveness of the present moment. It’s only an option to make suffering our reality.
On your website, you talk about having anxiety and confusion and searching for your own end to suffering that wasn’t helped by psychotherapy or even training as a clinical psychologist. What was the catalyst for you?
There was a very alive and palpable realization that anything I think about myself is not who I actually am. It led me to take any thought process – neurotic or otherwise – so much more lightly. I just don’t buy into my thoughts anymore. I have them, I notice them, and I use them, but I don’t take them as my absolute reality.
How is something so simple also so elusive?
That’s exactly the question. It is simple and it’s so much closer than you might imagine. But the mind thinks that what you really want isn’t available right here and now, that you need the next teacher or book. So, you have to go outside the mind, which is a tricky thing. You literally have to not believe your thoughts. Once you get that, there is a big opening. It’s tricky but very powerful.
Given the title of your new book, Suffering is Optional, I’m reminded of The Work of Byron Katie about loving what is, and so many other teachers and modalities that speak of living in the moment and being aware that we are not our thoughts. What makes your work different?
It’s not different. There’s only one truth. But that truth has different voices, and different ways it’s expressed. The ultimate truth is the same: we are not this personal self with problems, insecurities, and fears we take ourselves to be. But it’s very compelling to believe that. So it’s valuable to have all these different voices help point us to the deeper truth about is, because it’s about what you resonate with. I’m just another one. The thing is, we can talk about it and read about it. But you get the value when you actually implement it into your life, and become aware of the moments where you can make a difference. It’s exciting when you get to live it. My passion is about getting the word out that suffering is optional. When I realized that in my own life, I was amazed about the possibility. I want everybody to know that.
Which brings up to the Meetup you run, “Living in Truth, Peace and Happiness”.
I started it because it’s so joyful to me to talk about this. I love looking into the possibilities of people finding freedom and happiness, and living it. As a psychologist, have that helping thing in me. I want people to know what I know. So, I love offering it. There is so much wisdom in the group, and I love holding space for it…. Many people have been coming for more than two years now, but we love it when there are newcomers. If you feel moved to come, that spark that lights you up, take a step out of your comfort zone and act on it.
Between the gatherings, the weekly newsletter, and the wealth of resources on your website, you basically give away all of these teachings. Why?
I love to write about these topics and to interact with people… It’s a no-brainer for me. It makes me happy. No other place I’d rather be, no other conversations I’d rather have. And it helps me live it in my own life. When I’m thinking about these things, putting it together, writing about it, and discovering aspects in conversations, it all feeds me.
(Find out about Brenner’s Meetup, sign up for her newsletter, and get lots more information online at www.gailbrenner.com.)
Bodhi Path Offerings
Resident teacher Dawa Tarchin Phillips returns to Bodhi Path Santa Barbara, the Buddhist center on Mission Street, next Thursday, November 16, for the second class on “Awakening the Enlightened Body Speech and Mind – The Sacredness of our Life”. The teaching addresses the relationship we have to our body, speech, and mind in relation to fact that we are born into a world of impermanence, uncertainty, and change, including old age, sickness, and death, which can lead to struggle. During Dawa’s absence on November 9, a Sangha-led meditation and movie occupies the 7 to 9 pm frame, with the screening of a video on the Shamar Rinpoche interview at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica on March 12, 2014. Three months before his passing, Shamar Rinpoche discussed his book The Path of Awakening and the various aspects of lojong practice.
Saturday, November 11, brings a Day of Intensive Chenrezig Practice with Khaydroup Zangmo to Bodhi Path. The event, held 10 am to 4 pm, consists of morning and afternoon sessions and features instructions, discussion, and practice to further deepen understanding and confidence in the benefits of the practice associated with Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion who is considered the patron Bodhisattva of Tibet. His simple “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra meditation is practiced in all the great lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, with the belief that we all share, in our basic nature, unconditional compassion, and wisdom that are no different from what we see in the lamas. The event marks a return of one-time Santa Barbara Bodhi Path resident teacher Zangmo, who completed two three-year retreats in France before moving to the U.S. in 2000 to be a resident teacher at the Santa Barbara center. During her two-year residency, she helped found both the San Luis Obispo Bodhi Path and West Los Angeles Bodhi Path centers, which later moved to Pasadena, where Khaydroup still serves. Admission is by suggested donation of $35 for either morning or afternoon session, or $60 for both.
Coming to Bodhi Path later in the month: a special Thursday night teaching on Emptiness with Trinlay Rinpoche on November 30. Call 284-2704 or www.bodhipath.org/sb.
Shortcuts to Spirituality: Ongoing Offerings
The Santa Barbara Cuddle Connection’s monthly gathering takes place 6:30 to 9:30 pm onSaturday, November 11, at Santa Barbara Body Therapy Institute, 516 N. Quarantina Street. All are invited to experience connection within yourself and extended to others, energetically and/or with platonic touch. The three-part evening begins with an ice-breaker and check-in, followed by creating a safe container through demos and exercises, before concluding with participants using the skills to settle into exchanges at their own comfort level. Cost is $20 at the door. Details at www.meetup.com/Cuddle-and-Connection-Santa-Barbara.
“End Suffering Now”, the upcoming gathering from Jim Dreaver, author of End Your Story, Begin Your Life and the forthcoming Flowing in Freedom: Mastering the Joy of Being Fully Present, includes a teaching in his simple and immediate method to see through the ego simply by remembering the mantra “Only now is real….” The freedom comes from grounding in the here and now, and observing how our thoughts and “stories,” including the “I” thought we most personally identify with, come and go, yet “we,” the awareness that sees, are always here. The meeting takes place 7 to 8.45 pm at a private home on Verde Vista Drive in SB. Call 563-4904 for details and directions. By donation.
Santa Barbara Mantra Lounge Kirtain, which takes place 7 to 9:30 pm Saturday, November 11, at Unity of Santa Barbara’s chapel, takes note of November and Thanksgiving by offering entering the spirit of gratitude through sacred song. All are welcome – even those who are convinced they can’t sing – to the evening of melodious kirtan and vegan fare, featuring call-and-response devotional chants in Sanskrit accompanied by authentic instruments performed live, followed by connecting to others while sharing vegan refreshments. The $10 donation is all inclusive. RSVP and more info at www.meetup.com/Santa-Barbara-Mantra-Lounge-Kirtan.