When meditation turns toxic: the woman exposing spiritual sexism

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Since suffering a miscarriage at a women’s retreat, Tara Brach has tried to reform the world of meditation by arming its practitioners with a single weapon: self-compassion


Tara Brach was four months pregnant when she miscarried at a women’s retreat in Española, New Mexico. She was 30, and had spent the last eight years as a devoted member of 3HO, a community promising spiritual awakening.

The loss devastated her. She believed that extensive physical activity in the desert summer heat might have contributed to her miscarriage, so she wrote a note to her spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, suggesting they exercise care with pregnant women in the future.

Bhajan waited until the next public gathering to respond. In front of a roomful of her peers and without previous warning, he sternly declared that no summer was hot enough to cause a woman to miscarry. He then called on Brach to stand up and “hear the truth”.

She had lost the baby, he said, because she was too worried about her career – and “motherhood is not a profession”. Now shouting, he accused her of being a liar; he could tell she was one from her aura. “You wanted to have a child, that is true. Everyone knows that. Otherwise you would not have spread your legs,” he spat. “But you got it, and then what?”

He told her she needed to go sit and “work it out”.

Brach, in shock from the public humiliation, retreated to a little one-person meditation hut called a gurdwara, where she spent most of the night.

Meditation in her ashram – which she practiced for several hours after meeting the day at 3.30am with a cold shower – focused on cultivating a “state of peacefulness, energy or rapture”. This practice usually made her feel less distressed or anxious, if only temporarily, by pulling her out of her feelings.

That night, she decided to try something else and forced herself to sit with her feelings of shame, sorrow and fear, instead of trying to escape them. After several hours of doing this, she asked herself if she was feeling bad because, as Bhajan said, she was bad, or because she had lost a pregnancy and had been abused by her spiritual teacher in front of her community.

That night, everything changed. She started to listen to her body and her intuition, and came to the realization that the world of meditation had a serious problem with sexism and patriarchal practices. So she decided to do something about it – starting with self compassion.

•••

In late September, I visited Brach at her home at the end of a dead end street in Falls Church, Virginia. Brach, 68, wore all black on her petite frame. Her wavy hair is the blond of a kid who spent the summer at the pool, evidence of her daily morning swim.

Her simple appearance and earnest demeanor doesn’t suggest the meteoric level of success she has received as of late. Brach has become a spiritual leader trusted by members of the US Congress, where she has taught a workshop, and celebrities like Naomi Watts and Tamu McPherson – who both told Vogue that Brach saved them during the worst of the pandemic. She releases one guided meditation and one dharma talk weekly; more than 2.5 million people listen every month.

As I settled in her screened-in gazebo, Brach wrapped me in a big white blanket, not wanting the morning chill to prevent us from being fully present with each other. It’s important to pay attention to our bodies, she explained. We usually try to ignore cues because we live in a culture where success means conquering bodily and emotional experiences instead of listening to them – but the feelings never really go away, no matter how we try to cover them. If we were cold, we would spend the whole interview wishing to be somewhere else.

She first experienced the stickiness of feelings in childhood, which she spent trying to save her mother from depression and alcoholism. Brach’s mother appeared to be a high-achieving woman: she had graduated from college, traveled abroad and spent years working in advertising. But after getting married, she moved to East Orange, New Jersey, and had four children. As her world shrank, she retreated inside herself, armed with gin and murder mysteries.

No one really paid attention to her sadness and self-loathing until Brach, by then a teenager, started drawing lines on her mom’s bottles to track how much she drank. It took a couple of years before she was willing to go to rehab, and a few more before she managed to stay sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Brach left home, she had done her job and saved her mom – but she’d also internalized some of her self-loathing, which she tried to fix with food, alternating between binging and dieting.

In college, her plan was to become a civil rights attorney like her dad, but the reality of rallies and protests disappointed her. “They were adversarial and aggressive,” she said. Instead, she found herself pulled towards the calm she experienced after her weekly yoga classes, which were taught on campus by 3HO members (the acronym stands for Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) .

On her way home from yoga one spring night, Brach stopped to admire a fruit tree beginning to blossom, and realized that her body and mind were in the same place at the same time. Outside of experiences she’d had consuming psychedelic drugs, she’d never felt anything like the overpowering sense of belonging, connection and acceptance she felt under that tree. It was there that she realized where societal change needed to come from – not from courts, not from politics, but from our consciousness. She officially joined 3HO shortly after, and moved into an ashram outside of Boston once she graduated.

•••

3HO was started by Indian-born Yogi Bhajan in 1969. A charismatic leader, Bhajan was responsible for an array of rules that had to be followed by his disciples. Full members wore turbans and all white clothing (although members call themselves Sikhs, the group bears little resemblance to Sikhism). They had to practice several hours of yoga and meditation a day. They also took a vow of celibacy until married, and were eventually given a spiritual name.

Most also entered into marriages arranged by Bhajan himself. “None of us could see a reason for the matches he made,” Brach told me. Even at the time, she balked at the hierarchy and the rigidity of having to marry someone chosen by a male guru, but she decided she couldn’t say no; it was “what the path required”. In a ceremony held at the Española ashram, she married a man she barely knew alongside eight other couples.

Two years after Bhajan told her that something was wrong with her for losing her pregnancy, Brach finally left. It was the only adult life she’d ever known. Bhajan called and begged her to come back. When she refused, he became cruel, telling her she would be barren if disobeying. She did not tell him she was already five months pregnant.

Her husband left with her. They had a boy they named Narayan. She taught meditation classes and finished a clinical psychology doctoral program; he worked for a landscaping company. They lived together for another five years before divorcing. “He’s a wonderful person, but one I never would have chosen for myself,” she says.

Brach managed to escape 3HO, but many were not so fortunate. In 2019, 15 years after Yogi Bhajan’s death, his longtime secretary, Pamela Dyson, published a memoir outlining his abuses. Dyson, who left the organization in 1984, sued Bhajan two years later, at the same time as Katherine Felt, another former devotee. Felt’s testimony states she suffered imprisonment, rape and assault by Bhajan.

The suit was settled out of court and followers were largely dismissive about the allegations until Dyson’s book about her ordeal, published over 30 years later, prompted others to come forward. 3HO commissioned an independent investigation that concluded that he’d abused – sexually, physically, emotionally – dozens of members. (Leadership has said they won’t erase Bhajan from their history, but he’s no longer their moral and spiritual guru.)

Brach became a Buddhist lay priest in 1988. Eventually, she joined the ranks of Buddhist meditation teachers with psychological training – and vowed to reclaim the intelligence of the body and the heart from what she experienced in the ashram, and from a patriarchal society that teaches us to dissociate from our bodies.

•••

It’s easy to see the problems with male-led religious groups like 3HO, but the secular Buddhist world that Brach transitioned to was not free of sexism or hierarchy either. More complicated still was the treatment of women within the Buddhist religion.

The 14th Dalai Lama did say that a woman could be chosen as his replacement, but also, jokingly, that she would need to be “attractive”. He apologized for the comment in 2019, but it’s a line he’s gleefully repeated over the years. In 2010, he told a reporter that the first time someone asked him about the possibility of a female Dalai Lama 20 or 30 years before, he’d said yes but then added that “if she is an ugly female, she won’t be very effective, will she?”

An apology written on his behalf said that he had always been supportive of women’s rights, missing the point that repeating this joke for decades affected the tone and culture of Buddhism, both religious and secular. As the late Buddhist feminist scholar Rita Gross wrote in a 2014 paper titled The Suffering of Sexism: Buddhist Perspectives and Experiences, Buddhism has a real problem with “the sexism of male dominance”. “Traditional Buddhists ... readily admit that women are disadvantaged in general and in Buddhist institutions. That is because to be born a woman is an unfortunate birth, the result of negative karma from previous lives. Thus, it really isn’t unfair that women are so disadvantaged and nothing can be done about it except for women to be good girls.”

Even the story of the Buddha perpetuates patriarchal gender dynamics. In order to achieve enlightenment, the Buddha had to leave behind all his earthly attachments, including his wife and son. Enlightenment, then, is not available to women who create and care for children, as spiritual awakenings are separate from daily life.

While some types of meditation require practitioners to completely detach from earthly concerns, “mindfulness meditation in the West has never been that”, Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist who lectures at Harvard’s Medical School told me. “As it is understood in the US, it is primarily the practice of regulating attention.”

This often takes the form of focusing on one thing – like our breath, or counting to 10 repeatedly – and returning to it every time attention wanders. Stepping outside of the stream of emotion, and focusing on the present moment, helps one to return to life calmer and better equipped to deal with distress.

Brach’s brand of meditation focuses on compassion towards emotions during meditation. Germer explained the difference between the two approaches like this: “Mindfulness helps us regulate emotions through regulating attention, while compassion regulates difficult emotions through care and connection.”

Emily Tanner, a 34-year-old international affairs professional living in Charlottesville, Virginia, found Brach after her husband came home one night and unexpectedly told her that he wanted a divorce.

In her desperation, she read and listened to anything she could find. Brach resonated most. “I always thought I was supposed to feel completely better after meditation, but Brach’s approach taught me that meditation does not have to mean a calm response to emotions,” Tanner told me.

She primarily learned this through Brach’s “little acronym” Rain, which moves through four steps – recognizing difficult emotions, allowing them to be there, investigating them with curiosity and nurturing them with love. During these meditations, Tanner sat on her bed or couch and brought feelings of despair, shame, failure and rage to mind when Brach asked her to. She then told herself they were valid: “I stopped fighting them and really started feeling them.”

When prompted to examine where they lived in her body, she found that anger and fear manifested as tension in her upper arms, shoulders and chest, and sadness as a hollowness and pressure in her chest and shoulders. The final step of nurturing was usually the most difficult – and the most powerful. She put her hands on her heart, or sometimes wrapped herself in a hug and whispered aloud, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK, you are OK, you are OK, you are OK.” The practice not only helped her understand her situation intellectually, but also showed her a way to start healing from her pain.

•••

Self-compassion as the approach to mindfulness, rather than a result one gains from it, is a relatively new concept.

In 2003, Kristin Neff, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, published the first empirical study on self-compassion. It may sound obvious now, but the study found self-compassion to be a good alternative to self-criticism, which tends to make people feel worse about themselves, and self-esteem, which often includes more of a false puffing up. Self-compassion, a term most participants had never heard of, allowed them to see their flaws clearly and move towards addressing them. “At the time there was very little written about it, so I based my work on Buddhist models of compassion and then turned it inward for self-compassion,” Neff told me.

That same year, Brach published her first book, Radical Acceptance. When Neff read it, she though: “She’s the one, she’s the spiritual teacher who totally gets what I’m talking about.”

We are wounded in relationship, and we are healed in relationship

Tara Brach

Neff says there was a lot of resistance to the concept of compassion in the male-dominated mindfulness world – something she experienced first hand. About 10 years ago, a prominent mindfulness researcher humiliated her at a conference. “He was so dismissive. He said, ‘Mindfulness already includes the heart, you know, it’s already there.’ But it’s different when you make it explicit, when you put your hand on your heart and you say, ‘I’m so sorry you’re hurting. Is there anything I can do to help?’”

Brach and Neff paved the way for women like Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track and the science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. In her role as faculty director of Yale School of Management’s Women’s Leadership Program, she focuses on teaching self-compassion because women in male dominated world of business often view themselves with self-criticism, “which they falsely believe leads to self-improvement”.

David Saunders, a psychiatrist who also has a PhD in Buddhist studies, told me that all types of mindfulness share the goal of reducing suffering. Whether the best way to do that is by cultivating compassion first with awareness following naturally, or attention first with compassion following naturally, is one of the key issues that has been “wrestled over and wrestled with since Buddhist thought and practice began”.

These approaches are not at odds. Mindfulness (or awareness, or wisdom) and compassion (or love, or warmth) are often thought of as two wings of one bird in Buddhist philosophy, Brach told me. You need both to fly. “We all have the same foundation. We’re training our mind to notice what’s happening and regard it with compassion. The difference is what we’re emphasizing,” she said.

Brach and Neff also emphasize connection – with our hearts, minds, bodies and each other. “We are wounded in relationship, and we are healed in relationship,” Brach said.

For a long time, Brach’s relational healing came through family, friends, clients, students, peers – and her son. Only at 50 did she find a healing romantic relationship.

She met Jonathan Foust at a conference where they were both speaking. He sat near the front while she led a meditation and found himself distracted by how attractive she was. He recalls her saying “whatever thoughts you’re having, make room for them, they’re OK.” So he did. They have been together since.

Healing has been a byproduct of their relationship – they have remarkably similar pasts, which includes ashram living, arranged marriages, and having to readjust to regular life. But their healing is also an explicit and ongoing practice. They meditate together twice a week and discuss what feels good about their relationship, and what needs attention.

Foust told me he used to feel terror when Brach would look at him and say “we need to talk”, even though he knew it would be good for them. For her part, Brach knew that she sometimes used language indicating a serious talk as a controlling move. The regular check-ins have changed everything. Like formal meditation, it’s a way to hold space for “whatever presents itself”, she said, before going back to being tender and open. “When we really listen in order to understand, we end up with more intimacy, more care.”

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