Psychologist and author, Dr. Gail Brenner, shares about the healing power of being present and compassionate with whatever is going on within us. And how when we begin to recognize that there is no ‘out there’ in our lives – there is only our perception – that we begin to suffer less.
Gail Brenner’s interest in suffering and the end of suffering is long standing. Like you, she just wanted to be happy. She put together a functional life of work and friends, but was continually plagued by anxiety, confusion, and relationship troubles. In her search for peace, she came across spiritual teachings about the nature of happiness. And she made some life-changing discoveries including that the more she became disinterested in thoughts—any thoughts—the happier she was.
You can find Dr. Gail Brenner at GailBrenner.com.
- How meditation can teach us to be with our experience
- Having compassion for everything that arises within us
- How believing what the mind tells us can be a source of suffering
- Welcoming and relating to all the different parts of ourselves with out judging them
- How we can get stuck on the path of healing
- How happiness is our natural state
- How peace never leaves us, we simply place our attention on other things that we believe cause us suffering
- The feeling of separation that is at the root of trauma
- How there is no life ‘out there’; there is only what we perceive
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Rumi poem: The Guest House
Transcript of Interview with Dr. Gail Brenner
Alexandra: Dr. Gail Brenner, welcome to Unbroken.
Gail: Thank you. Very happy to be here.
Alexandra: I’m happy to have you here.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to realize you didn’t need self-help?
Gail: My background, how far back should I go? I’ll just start professionally. I’m a psychologist, and I’ve been a psychologist for a long time. It’s a profession that drew me many years ago. We heal ourselves as therapists or practitioners, and as much as we help other people. So I think that was part of my motivation early on.
My training was pretty conventional. And then things started really moving and shifting and changing for me, when I started meditating. This was about a little over 20 years ago at this point. I had been in therapy myself for a very long time, and didn’t at this point, I can say, I didn’t get a lot of change from that, that I was looking for. So I kept looking. I had this spirit in me of like, well, there’s got to be something else out there to help with the way that I my version of suffering.
I started meditating. And that really started changing everything, because of the way meditation teaches us to be with our experience. So to be aware of what’s arising in us; sensations, emotions, whatever it is. And when I first started meditating, I was shocked at how many different energies I found in my body and different emotions that I didn’t even know were there. And the fact that I was suffering started to make sense, like, oh, there’s a whole lot going on in here that I didn’t realize, and that is probably something I should pay attention to.
That was the beginning of a spiritual path for me. So combining my psychology background with my interest in spirituality, really supported my quest to find happiness and discover how to be happy. And whereas happiness I knew it was possible, there was some spirit in me that no matter what happened, it, the flame didn’t go out. And then when I started realizing the possibility that maybe there was the possibility of not suffering so much, I was really on fire about that and wanted to know. I went to number of spiritual teachers and had different insights and realizations along the way. And led me to the point where it’s, it’s an ongoing path.
Now it’s nothing’s finished. And there’s always something alive for me like right now, what’s alive, for me is just compassion for everything that arises in us, like every single nuance of our experience, and really turning toward that and welcoming that and loving that.
You’re probably referring to the title of my book, The End of Self-Help. What I mean by that is, there’s no self here that needs help. It’s the title of your podcast, Unbroken. There’s nothing here that’s broken. There’s nothing that needs to be fixed. There’s just different energies and emotions and experiences arising and learning how to relate to all of those in a way that feels aligned and supports our essential wholeness.
Alexandra: Thank you for that answer. One of the things that I was really struck with in The End of Self-Help, was you talk about having been on several spiritual retreats and your journey with psychology, and then it was a lunch, I think, with Rupert Spira that you had, where he pointed out well, what’s the consistent thing that’s there? So your feelings and your thoughts, our thoughts, change. What’s constant? And you realized it was this observer presence. Those are my words. So that was the consistent thing.
Could you talk about that a little bit for us?
Gail: Well, what he showed me is that it was really about time. And he was he pointed out how it takes time to suffer. These are my words, not exactly his. But it takes time to have stories, it’s takes time to have a personal identity. There’s a past, present and a future and now and then, and even to say this statement, I am unworthy, or, I feel inadequate, to have language takes time.
So if we believe anything that the mind tells us, because the mind is only exists in time, then that can be the source of our suffering. And when there’s the realization that time is not ultimately real, there’s a certain reality to it, but it’s not the ultimate reality. Everything just collapses and into this infinite presence. And it’s not capable of suffering at that point.
Alexandra: Related to that, there’s this quote that I love from the book that says:
“When you know, you are presence, the simplicity of being aware, rather than the complexity and confusion of what you’re aware of problems lose their impact.”
I just love that.
I wonder if you could expand on that a little bit for us?
Gail: When we go into the mind and believe the stories that are there. When we look at our histories, or we want a better future, there’s a limited personal identity that’s at the center of that that thinks that there’s something missing. And that that’s a myth.
I’ve come to discover that there’s nothing missing. But if there’s a felt sense that there’s something missing, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, that can be a beautiful inspiration for a deeper inner investigation of knowing.
This happened to me a lot; teachers would say something to me like, well, there is a possibility for an end of suffering. And I didn’t know that in my own experience. So that made me curious, oh, well, they know that. And somehow, I believed that. It made me look at my own experience, and keep coming back and coming back and coming back, because that’s what we need to do.
We need to look within and not wait for the insight or go to the right teacher or read the right book or whatever. It’s an ongoing, endless, really beautiful investigation of what’s here, what’s true, what’s real, and getting a deeper understanding around that.
Alexandra: I like hearing that you say it’s ongoing, that there is no bottom to it.
And so obviously, you’re still discovering things. Is that true?
Gail: Very much.
Alexandra: There’s no destination that we should be aiming for.
Gail: There isn’t. And it’s the opposite of a destination because we think a destination is out there or in the future. Or if only this, or if only that, if only I got it, if only I knew what he knows. Then if there’s an if then then there’s time. And then there’s a projection into the future. And what that means is there’s something missing here and now. And if there’s something built to be missing here, and now there’s something to be investigated.
Alexandra: If any of our listeners are self-help junkies, like I was, how do you suggest that we take the first few steps of getting off that roundabout, as I’m calling it.
Thinking that there are things that are wrong that we need to fix?
Gail: It’s a journey. There’s nothing wrong with self-help and an interest in that, and if it helps, which I think in some ways it can. Some of it can help some people some of the time, and that’s wonderful.
But if there’s a keep looking, keep looking, keep looking and not finding then there’s something else that’s needed in that. If you keep doing the same thing over and over and it’s not really getting you what you desire, what your heart is wishing for and speaking to you, then there’s something else to be done. And that something else is to look inward to recognize that that need for self-help is based on a sense of brokenness, or inadequacy.
What we really talk about here is a complete 180 on that. There’s nothing wrong with any part that arises, any emotion, any anything, and discovering how to relate to those different parts. But I’m really hearing your question like, how do you inspire people to get off the path of self-help?
I think these journeys happen in their own time in their own way. And the questioning, always inquiring not taking anything for granted, not leaving one stone unturned. So, for example, when someone says to me, I’m depressed, I don’t take that at face value. To me, that’s the beginning. I’m getting super curious about what is actually happening in their experience that they’re labeling as depression, because depression isn’t direct experience. Depression is a word that we have some commonality in what it means. But it’s a label for something. So we need to know very specifically what is arising here now.
Alexandra: Do you think at different times, in a person’s life, a word like depression can mean different things?
Gail: Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure if people know what it means, which is that’s the curiosity about it. Like, what is it that and these words get thrown around, and they’re common in our culture? And, so if we get if we really come down to the present moment, if just like what is happening right here, right now, turning the attention into that. The turn from our minds into our bodies is helpful and our direct experience, like what is actually happening now.
And then we find there’s a contraction in the chest or there’s a fluttery feeling in the belly, or there’s a story running over and over and over in a loop that you didn’t even realize was there. And then then we can start opening up learning how to be with those different experiences that we notice.
Alexandra: Do you see an intelligence and in that?
Gail: Yes, absolutely. There’s sometimes we need guidance, I think for lots of people it’s not a path we can go alone. My offering weaves together this path of awakening and understanding the truth about reality, with the investigation into early trauma patterns, which I find fascinating.
And by early trauma patterns, I mean, what happened to us when we were young, in our families that didn’t get resolved, those very sticky places, and how we bring them into adulthood, and we take them to be our identity, when they’re actually not because there are a limited identity. And looking at that, from the perspective of wondering like, who am I what is the truth of by being? What is the truth about reality in the here and now? And to do that we need to untangle those early trauma patterns, those places, tender places in us where we’ve been stuck for a long time.
Alexandra: This is one of the things I wanted to ask you about, because I know you have an interest in this and I saw several blog posts on your website.
You’re saying that trauma can live in our bodies. What happens when we begin to in investigate that or be present with it?
Gail: So what happens when we begin to investigate it, we start to become aware of the actual pattern and even pattern is a vague word. So I’m interested in the body, the attention and attunement into the body is super useful. And I would think important in this investigation, what’s happening in the body, what young parts are being activated?
What emotions are present, what are the stories and beliefs and expectations that are running? The starting place might be suffering here and now in our daily lives. Like if there’s a struggle in a relationship, or, in general, people have struggles with relationships, which was the case for me, a long time ago, I just had trouble with all relationships. And so the questioning is then like, Oh, what am I bringing into that situation? What is arising in me?
And then that’s the beginning. What are the feelings that I feel? What’s the urge? What are the tendencies that I’m bringing in, and then bringing that back inside, into our own experience to understand like, oh, that happened because of whatever was going on in my family when I was three, or five or even earlier than that. And we get an understanding of why these patterns are here in us.
Then we begin to be able to turn toward them with kindness and care and love and unconditional, welcoming and acceptance. And that begins to soften them. So if we’re caught in a some kind of condition pattern, it’s like we’re in love one lane going back and forth, back and forth, for, you know, decades, many of us. And so what we do is bring our attention there and begin to have a great and bring everything together.
Because there’s division there, there’s separation, like, oh, there’s a feeling I had to submerge many years ago, and I can’t bring that out into the light, it’s too scary or unsafe. But we bring about a sense of safety so that we can investigate those deep inner parts, the long-standing patterns and feelings that we have. And with that sense of safety and holding and loving, which is what we always wanted anyway, and maybe didn’t get as much as we needed.
There’s a softening that happens. And when there’s a softening, they’re not so much in charge, and then there’s more space, and then we have more options. And then we can be more present. And then we get to look at things in a fresh way, rather than with that veil that’s been over our eyes, maybe for decades.
That’s how this focus and investigation on our early patterns that developed how that plays a very usual a common role in how people get stuck on this path of awakening, but also where the freedom can be there.
Alexandra: Oh, say more about that. That’s curious for me, how people get stuck on the path.
Gail: If these patterns are unknown to us, I always tell people become an expert in how you suffer. Really get to know what it is that happens in here. Why? So that you can see it.
That’s one reason so that you can, if you’re completely absorbed into some kind of pattern, like say, you’re a people pleaser, and your attention is out there. And all you’re doing is pleasing, pleasing, pleasing, there’s no space to learn how to be with yourself. So we slow things down, and we turn inward.
We take the time to do this very sometimes subtle and precise investigation about what’s happening in the body and what young parts have been activated and all of what’s arising in the present moment, and turning toward those parts with our loving attention and then that creates the space for something new or a new way of being.
Alexandra: There’s an exercise, talking about the flip side of this, that you mentioned in The End of Self-Help about thinking of something that brings us joy, and then dropping our focus on the thing and just feeling the joy.
Can you tell our listeners about that?
Gail: We often, in a common way of being, we want to seek out something to give us joy, or fulfillment or satisfaction. And there’s an ‘if only’ mindset around that; if only I had that thing, that good relationship, that promotion, whatever it is, then I will feel happy or joyful.
But happiness is our natural state, actually, when we stop the looking outward for it, assuming that we don’t have it. And we start to bring our attention in toward our experience. And then we notice what’s there, and we’re lovingly, with all the different parts, being with all of those parts. And then we look beyond that even to what’s outside of all forms.
There’s a field, an energetic field, of aliveness. And we can learn to recognize that it’s always here and always has been here, but it’s just been covered over by our attachment to positive states or finding and not finding the end of our suffering out there.
But we look deeper than the emotions, deeper than our personalities. And we go into the bare bones of the present moment and open to the energetic field that’s here. And as everything falls away, and this is what I was describing, time just collapses, we’re just here and alive and aware, and there’s a tremendous feeling of well-being that comes there.
That’s possible for all of us to discover, at any point in time. It’s not for special people. It’s not special, it’s the nature of how things are all the time. So, there’s always the possibility of discovering that, that happiness or we can use different words of peace or ease or well-being or a sense of fulfillment of not missing something, sometimes it comes as stillness or quiet. This is our, our natural state from which everything arises.
Alexandra: Do you have a practice yourself about touching that space daily?
Gail: I have many practices. I love practices, and I actually feel that practices or some kind of regularity or intention along this path is helpful, I even want to say necessary. Very few people have a lot of insights or go further with their desires without a commitment to it. And it’s a hard commitment. And we can put out a prayer for it, but not just a prayer, there has to be action behind it.
I love practices. I love practices around understanding our trauma patterns. Really, for me, the main one is meditation; just getting quiet and opening and being and then just knowing that and having that be a very familiar, known place, even though it’s fresh, always it’s still the capacity, that we have to find that over and over and over.
And then the possibility of bringing that knowing into our daily lives, which I find fascinating. When somebody cuts me off in traffic or something disappointing happens, then all of a sudden, we’ve left that peace and happiness, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. Our attention has just moved onto something else that we believe to be the source of our suffering in that moment.
So how to work with that to release our attachment to the objects and the thoughts the expectations the emotions they need. And coming back winding it back to the stillness that’s always here. The fulfilled infinite empty energy of life, resting here, then we know it as the source of peace.
Alexandra: You mentioned meditation as practice.
If someone doesn’t have an affinity for meditation or has tried it and it didn’t work, is there something else another a different kind of practice they could try?
Gail: There’s a lot of things. First of all, if someone’s having trouble meditating or can’t or whatever, a guided meditation. Choose that and maybe start one minute a day, because for some people it’s just really, really hard to sit still and be. Start small, that would be one thing.
Another is a practice of attention into the body, which I love, which is just sitting and paying attention to, you could do it as a scan or as whatever sensations are prominent and appearing. But just getting curious about sensation. And that in and of itself is a huge practice in presence. Because we get to notice more and more the subtle sensations.
Ssome people aren’t very comfortable by their habit of being of paying attention to the body. So we can start by just putting the fingertips together and feeling the pressure there. And just getting curious like closing your eyes like, Oh, what is that? So we close our eyes, we take away the fingers and the forms that are in front of us. And we just feel the sensation there. And just like, oh, just getting curious, what is that?
What is that like? Putting our attention right on that sensation. And getting intimate with it and knowing it and making space for it to do whatever it wants to do expand or contract or dissolve or whatever, it doesn’t matter. But opening our attention into sensations in the body or energies. Some people feel frozenness or a sense of numbness in a body that it’s hard to access. But even that can be a fascinating experience to turn toward and get curious about.
Alexandra: You mentioned guided meditations there at the top. And you have quite a few on your website. Am I right about that?
Gail: Yes, I have some meditations.
Alexandra: We’ll mention your website address at the end of the show. But yeah, if people are looking for something, they can definitely find them at your website.
I should have asked this question earlier when we were talking about trauma. But we you mentioned in again, in The End of Self-Help about the feeling of separation, that is at the root of trauma.
Could you expand on that and share with our listeners about what you mean by that?
Gail: At a feeling level, I think we all kind of know what that means. We just feel separate from the world from life. We’re in our heads trying to figure things out.
Say you have a conflict in a relationship, blaming the other person or, we’re in our head. And there’s not a sense of unity there. There’s a sense of a me and the other person, a me and even separate from other parts of myself, there are parts of myself that are too shameful to go toward or too, too difficult, too challenging. I don’t know how to feel the feelings that I know are buried in me somehow. And there’s that fragmentation.
There’s a sense of different energies and ideas and parts and emotions. It feels chaotic and sometimes challenging for us to be with. And when isn’t a sense of separation, when that’s been healed, or we realize the wholeness that is the essence of who we are. There’s a sense of well-being there’s always in a little kind of anxiety or discomfort in set and separation, that something isn’t right. There’s something wrong with me. There’s something wrong with the world, there’s something wrong with life.
And then we go into our heads trying to figure it out. But when we can give our attention to that separation, we can get really interesting, especially in the body like, Okay, I don’t feel comfortable in myself or my life. Why is that? And go in and discover what is it in our bodies or maybe our emotions that’s bringing about that sense of dis-ease and bringing our attention to that so that we can see what that really is which is just a sensation arising in awareness.
Alexandra: It strikes me that that sense of separation could almost be described as an absence of love or compassion. Would you agree with that?
Gail: Yeah, I would agree with that actually.
Alexandra: I think of traumatic experiences in my childhood. And that feels like the root of the whole thing; that I felt there was an absence of love, or connection, I guess, compassion.
Gail: Split off. That’s a really good example, just to be very concrete. Say that something upsetting happens to you, as a five year old, and there isn’t the environment. And this is not in any way to judge parents, because they’re always doing their best. I encourage people to really get that as much as they can, because the blame just keeps the victimization going.
When we stop blaming, then we can soften and start to look at like, oh, compassion for the other, eventually, but also compassion for ourselves, we were just in a difficult situation. Say that something upsetting happens. And we don’t get the attention to the emotions that we need and the care and the support. And the knowing that it’s okay to feel that way. And it’s okay to express an emotion if we don’t get that.
Especially chronically over and over and over for some of us for years, what do we do with that emotion, it gets stuck in the body, it can’t get resolved and freed up. So it gets stuck in the body, and we feel tense in our bellies, and then we push it away. And we try to make sense of it. But we can’t, because we’re not looking at the full picture of it. We don’t have the skills to do that.
And we don’t have the safety, which is another key factor, it doesn’t feel safe for us to be ourselves with our own experience. And we’re going to split something off. And that’s the sense of separation that we can’t open to and include everything because it just feels too difficult. And then it becomes a habit. And then we build strategies around that of avoidance or being outside of ourselves and high achieving. Lots of strategies that we can create in our lives.
And then, that the source of all of that is that sense of having split off something so that we can’t feel whole. And then of course, the medicine is to bring all the parts the energies welcome it all. And this takes time. It’s not like magic, like I just welcome everything. No, because some of these parts are very shocked and traumatized and scared to come out into the open. We just take the time, little by little to create this safe space for these cut off parts to come back into awareness.
Alexandra: Makes me think of that Rumi poem about welcoming every visitor.
Gail: The Guest House.
Alexandra: Yes. I love that.
One of the final things I want to ask you is how is our experience of life a projection of our inner state?
Gail: There’s actually no life out there. There’s only what we perceive. So if our perception is veiled by negativity, low self-esteem, fear, a sense of lack, that something’s missing. That’s how we see the world. So and that’s how we can I want to say miss-perceive situations.
We assume that someone did something because they don’t like us. Somebody didn’t call you and they said they would. And then if you’re behind that veil of unworthiness, you might conclude, oh, that’s because that person doesn’t like me, or they weren’t thinking about me or they don’t pay attention to me.
When the reality is if we take away all the veils, they were busy, whatever was going on in that other person’s world, but we project what’s here in ourselves. So if we are believing that the world is unsafe, that other people aren’t going to be there for us that we fail. This is the energy that we show up in situations in our life with.
And this is what we project out onto whatever is happening. So the world is a projection of our inner state. But if our inner state is clear, if it’s open, if there’s not attachment to the suffering, if there’s the sense of wholeness and not the sense of separation, then we’re way more set up to see through the eyes of love, and not fear, love, and not separation, love and not lack. And we can we have compassion, and we see things tenderly, we just melt.
That’s another practice I like. Go into a busy place a cafe or something and just see things, everything you’re seeing through the eyes of love. And just get curious, like, how is that to see without the veil of separation? Very illuminating.
Alexandra: As we’re starting to wind up today, when it comes to The End of Self-Help, and the end of suffering, is there anything we haven’t touched on that you would like to share with our listeners?
Gail: The biggest support is to be very kind with yourself during the process. So if you’re struggling to get an insight, or struggling to feel better, and skip over suffering, which is normal, and I have compassion for that we all want to, none of us really wants to suffer. There’s this human tendency to want to skip over the hard places in us.
But what this path really asks of us is that a growing capacity in ourselves like more and more expansion into the possibility of including everything, which means the really hard places, the tender places, the rejection, the abandonment, the fears, the terror, the rage, all of it. And little by little, like letting that come in.
I want to add in a way that that feels doable. So we don’t want to overwhelm ourselves, either. I’m a big fan of doing this kind of work, of inner investigation, in a group setting that’s led by a leader that has a sense of how to be with these kinds of practices and paths. And we can’t do it alone.
Actually, there’s a saying that trauma happens in relationship. And it happens, because we’ve had inadequacies, let’s say in our relationships, and it heals in safe relationship. So we don’t really know how to bring a sense of safety to ourselves, which is what we need, ultimately. And we can do it, it just takes some time to learn it and get the experience with being a safe anchor for ourselves.
It helps to get the exposure and experience in a group or with other people who can offer that safe space. I want to emphasize kindness to ourselves, and the willingness to stay with it. And trusting yourself. So a lot of us in when we have struggles we learn not to trust ourselves and not to trust life, and it just doesn’t feel very good to be in life with that mistrust. And to find spaces, people where you can begin to trust again, because that trust is our natural state, actually.
Alexandra: Thank you for all of that.
Gail, where can we find out more about you and your work?
Gail: My website. GailBrenner.com. And there’s a lot of content on there; blog posts and interviews and guided meditations. There’s different tabs; an audio tab for the meditations and there’s some video on there as well. I do pretty much weekly groups, so and they’re open for everybody, everybody’s welcome to come. So you can find out about them there or sign up for my newsletter and I send out an article every week because I like to write and I hope it’s a support for people.
Alexandra: Great. I will put links in the show notes at unbrokenpodcast.com for that.
Thank you again for being with me here today. I really appreciate it.
Gail: Thank you I appreciate you inviting me. Kindness is my message.
Alexandra: That really shines through. Thank you. Take care.
Gail: Thank you. Bye.