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Ancient Buddhist Way to Cope With Hardship

RAIN is a Buddhist mindfulness tool that offers support for working with intense and difficult emotions.

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Imagine you just found out that your child was suspended from school. Imagine your boss just told you to redo a report you’d worked on for a month. Imagine you just realized you’d been on Facebook for three hours and have finished off a pound of trail mix in the process. Imagine your partner just confessed to an affair. How do you feel? It’s hard to hang out with the truth of what we’re feeling. We may sincerely intend to pause and be mindful whenever a crisis arises or whenever we feel stuck and confused, but our conditioning to react, escape, or become possessed by emotion is very strong. Yes, there are times when being present feels out of reach or too much to bear. There are times when false refuges can relieve stress, give us a breather, help lift our mood. But when we’re not connected to the clarity and kindness of presence, we’re all too likely to fall into more misunderstanding, more conflict, and more distance from others and our own heart. About 12 years ago, a number of Buddhist teachers began to share a new mindfulness tool that offers in-the-trenches support for working with intense and difficult emotions. Called RAIN (an acronym for the four steps of the process), it can be accessed in almost any place or situation. It directs our attention in a clear, systematic way that cuts through confusion and stress. The steps give us somewhere to turn in a painful moment, and as we call on them more regularly, they strengthen our capacity to come home to our deepest truth. Like the clear sky and clean air after a cooling rain, this mindfulness practice brings a new openness and calm to our daily lives. I have taught this practice to thousands of students, clients, and mental health professionals, adapting and expanding it along the way. I’ve also made it a core practice in my own life. Here are the four steps of RAIN presented in the way I’ve found most helpful: Recognize what is happening. Allow life to be just as it is. Investigate inner experience with kindness. Nonidentification. RAIN directly de-conditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience. It doesn’t matter whether you resist what is by lashing out in anger, by having a cigarette, or by getting immersed in obsessive thinking. Your attempt to control the life within and around you cuts you off from your own heart and from this living world. RAIN begins to undo these unconscious patterns as soon as we take the first step.

Recognize What is Happening

Recognition is seeing what is true in your inner life. It starts the minute you focus your attention on whatever thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations are arising right here and now. As your attention settles and opens, you will discover that some parts of your experience are easier to connect with than others. You might recognize anxiety right away, but if you focus on your worried thoughts, you might not notice the actual sensations of squeezing, pressure, or tightness arising in the body. If your body is gripped by jittery nervousness, you might not recognize that this physical response is being triggered by your underlying belief that you are about to fail. You can awaken recognition by asking yourself, “What is happening inside me right now?” Call on your natural curiosity as you focus inward and try to let go of preconceived ideas. Listen in a kind, receptive way to your body and heart.

Allow Life to Be Just as It Is

Allowing means “letting be” the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you discover. You may feel a natural sense of aversion or wishing that unpleasant feelings would go away, but as you become more willing to be present with “what is,” a different quality of attention will emerge. Allowing is intrinsic to healing, and realizing this can give rise to a conscious intention to “let be.” Many students I work with support their resolve to “let be” by mentally whispering an encouraging word or phrase. You might feel the grip of fear and whisper “yes” or experience the swelling of deep grief and whisper “yes.” You might use the words “I consent.” At first, you might feel you’re just putting up with unpleasant emotions or sensations. Offer the phrase gently and patiently, and in time your defenses will relax, and you may feel a physical sense of opening to waves of experience.

Investigate with Kindness

At times, simply working through the first two steps is enough to provide relief and reconnect you with presence. In other cases, the simple intention to recognize and allow is not enough. If you are in the thick of a divorce, about to lose a job, or dealing with a life-threatening illness, you may be easily overwhelmed by intense feelings. Because these feelings are triggered over and over again-you get a phone call from your soon-to-be ex, your bank statement comes, you wake up to pain in the morning-your reactions can become very entrenched. In such situations, you may need to further awaken and strengthen mindful awareness with the I of RAIN. Investigation means calling on your natural interest—the desire to know truth—and directing a more focused attention to your present experience. Simply pausing to ask, “What is happening inside me?” might initiate recognition, but with investigation, you engage in a more active and pointed kind of inquiry. You might ask yourself, “What most wants attention?” or “How am I experiencing this in my body?” or “What does this feeling want from me?” You might contact sensations of hollowness or shakiness and then find a sense of unworthiness and shame buried in these feelings. Unless they are brought into consciousness, these beliefs and emotions will control your experience and perpetuate your identification with a limited, deficient sense of self. For investigation to be healing and freeing, we need to approach our experience with an intimate quality of attention. We need to offer a gentle welcome to whatever surfaces. This is why I use the phrase “Investigate with kindness.” Imagine that your child comes home in tears after being bullied at school. In order to find out what happened and how your child is feeling, you have to offer a kind, receptive, gentle attention. Bringing that same quality of kindness to your inner life makes inquiry, and ultimately healing, possible.

Nonidentification: Rest in Natural Awareness

The lucid, open, and kind presence evoked in the R, A, and I of RAIN leads to the N: the freedom of nonidentification and the realization of what I call natural awareness or natural presence. Nonidentification means that your sense of who you are is not fused with or defined by any limited set of emotions, sensations, or stories. When identification with the small self is loosened, we begin to intuit and live from the openness and love that express our natural awareness. The first three steps of RAIN require some intentional activity. In contrast, the N of RAIN expresses the result: a liberating realization of your natural awareness. There’s nothing to do for this last part of RAIN-realization arises on its own. We simply rest in natural awareness.

Put It Into Practice

You can practice the steps of RAIN during a formal meditation whenever a difficult emotion arises, or you can call on it in the midst of daily life. Either way, the key is to be conscious and purposeful as you initiate the practice—know that you are offering a committed presence to what is true, here and now. When you decide to try it, consider these specific suggestions. Pause: Before you begin RAIN, take the time to pause. The pause might be in the form of a physical time-out that removes you from immediate external triggers. More important, it is an internal time-out from the reactive tumble of thoughts. Intentionally create a space in which you set aside distractions and pay attention. This willingness to deliberately interrupt habitual activity and dedicate time to being present will lend increased focus and clarity to your practice. Cultivate Flexibility: You have a unique body and mind, with a particular history and conditioning. No one can offer you a formula for navigating all situations and all states of mind. Only by listening inwardly in a fresh and open way will you discern what most serves your healing and freedom. As you practice RAIN, remember that the sequence I’ve suggested is neither rigid nor necessarily linear; you may need to adapt the order to your inner experience. You might find, for instance, that as soon as you feel rising anxiety, you recognize it as a familiar inner weather pattern that happens to you and most everyone you know, and hence it does not feel so personal. In moments like these you have already arrived at the N of RAIN; so, rather than any continued “doing,” such as investigating with kindness, you might rest in natural presence. Similarly, you might end your RAIN practice before formally moving through all the steps or cycle through the process again if you encounter something unexpected. As you listen inwardly to what is needed, you may also feel drawn to weave other forms of meditation into your practice of RAIN. To ground yourself, you might begin with a body-based reflection, yoga, or a walking meditation. If strong feelings arise, you might take some time to simply focus on your breath. This kind of inner listening and adaptability can help you transform what at first might seem to be a mechanical technique into a creative and vibrant means of awakening on your spiritual path. Seek Help: Practicing RAIN can intensify your emotional experience. If you are concerned that you might become possessed or overwhelmed by your feelings, postpone practicing RAIN alone and seek help. Especially if you are working with post-traumatic stress, it can be important, and even necessary, to have the guidance of a therapist or psychologically attuned meditation teacher. The presence of a trusted and experienced person can help you feel safe enough to connect with inner vulnerability and also to find relief if what arises feels like too much. Be Mindful of Doubt: Doubt acts as an impediment to RAIN and, more broadly, to any gateway of true refuge. When you are stuck in beliefs like “I’m never going to change,” “I’m not cut out for spiritual practice,” or “Healing and freedom aren’t really possible,” you get stopped in your tracks. Some doubt is healthy, as in, “I’m no longer certain this job is in line with my values” or “Maybe I’ve been the one who is avoiding intimacy.” Like investigation, healthy doubt arises from the urge to know what is true, challenging the status quo in the service of healing. Unhealthy doubt arises from fear and aversion, and it questions one’s own basic potential or worth, or the value of another. When unhealthy doubt arises, it helps to say to yourself, “This is doubt.” By recognizing and naming doubt when it arises, but not judging it, you immediately enlarge your perspective and loosen the bind of trance. If the doubt is persistent, you can deepen presence by regarding it with kindness. Rather than being controlled, and perhaps paralyzed, by doubt, let it be a call for a clear, mindful presence. Be Patient: While RAIN reduces the grip of trance, it is rarely a one-shot experience. You may need to go through numerous rounds of RAIN, again and again meeting entrenched patterns of suffering with attention and kindness. Each time you meet one of those familiar patterns with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen. There’s less identification with the self in the story and more ability to rest in the awareness that is witnessing what’s happening. You become more able to abide in compassion, to remember and trust your true home. Rather than cycling repetitively through old conditioning, you are actually spiraling toward freedom. Practice With the “Small Stuff”: Each time you bring RAIN to a situation that usually causes you to react, you strengthen your capacity to awaken from trance. You might identify in advance what for you is chronic “small stuff”—the annoyance that comes up when someone repeats herself, the restlessness you feel waiting in line—and commit to practicing a “light” version of RAIN. By pausing many times throughout the day and bringing an interest and presence to your habitual ways of reacting, your life will become more spontaneous and free.

Guided Reflection: Bringing RAIN to Difficulty

Sit quietly, close your eyes, and take a few full breaths. Bring to mind a current situation in which you feel stuck, one that elicits a difficult reaction such as anger or fear, shame, or hopelessness. It may be a conflict with a family member, a failure at work, the pain of an addiction, or a conversation you now regret. Take time to enter the experience-visualize the scene or situation, remember the words spoken, sense the most distressing moments. Contacting the charged essence of the story is the starting place for exploring the healing presence of RAIN. Recognize What is Happening: As you reflect on this situation, ask yourself, “What is happening inside me right now?” What sensations are you most aware of? What emotions? Is your mind filled with churning thoughts? Take a moment to become aware of your “felt sense” of the situation as a whole. Can you feel how the experience is living in your heart and body, as well as in your mind? Allow Life to Be Just as It Is: Send a message to your heart to “let be” this experience. Find in yourself the willingness to pause and accept that in these moments, “what is…is.” You can experiment with mentally whispering words like “yes,” “I consent,” or “let be.” You might find yourself saying yes to a huge inner no, to a body and mind painfully contracted in resistance. You might be saying yes to the part of you that is saying, “I hate this!” That’s a natural part of the process. At this point in RAIN, you are noticing what is true, and intending not to judge, push away, or control what you find. Investigate With an Intimate Attention: Now begin to explore what you are experiencing more closely, calling on your natural interest and curiosity about your inner life. You might ask yourself, “What about this most wants my attention?” or “What most wants my acceptance?” Pose your questions gently, with your inner voice kind and inviting. Notice where you feel the experience most distinctly in your body. Are you aware of heat, tightness, pressure, aches, squeezing? When you have found the most intense part of your physical experience, bring it into your face, letting your expression mirror, and even exaggerate, what you are feeling in your body. What emotions are you aware of as you do this? Fear? Anger? Grief? Shame? As you continue to investigate, you might find it helpful to ask, “What am I believing?” If this leads to a lot of thinking, drop it. But you might find that a very distinct belief emerges almost as soon as you ask. Do you believe that you are failing in some way? That someone will reject you? That you will not be able to handle whatever is around the corner? How does this belief live in your body? What are the sensations? Tightness? Soreness? Burning? Hollowness? As before, send the message of “yes,” “I consent,” or “let be” and allow yourself to feel the fullness or intensity of the difficult experience. As you contact and allow what is happening, what do you notice? Is there any softening in your body and heart? Can you sense more openness or space? Or does the intention to allow bring up more tension, judgment, and fear? Now ask the place of most difficulty, “What do you want from me?” or “What do you need from me?” Does this suffering part of you want recognition? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Love? As you sense what is needed, what is your natural response? You might offer yourself a wise message or an energetic, tender embrace. You might gently place your hand on your heart. Feel free to experiment with ways of befriending your inner life-whether through words or touch, images or energy. Discover how your attention might become more intimate and loving. Nonidentification: Rest in Natural Awareness: As you offer this unconditional, kind presence to your inner life, sense the possibility of relaxing and being that awareness. Like an ocean with waves on the surface, feel yourself as the tender, wakeful openness that includes arising and passing sensations, emotions, thoughts. Can you sense how who you are is not identified by or hitched to any particular wave of fear or anger or hurt? Can you sense how the waves on the surface belong to your experience but cannot injure or alter the measureless depth and vastness of your being? Take some moments, as long as you’d like, to simply rest in this spacious and kind awareness, allowing whatever arises in your body or mind to freely come and go. Know this natural awareness as the innermost truth of who you are.

From the book True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart by Tara Brach. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.