Anything troubling you, anything which is irritating you, that is your teacher. – Ajahn Chah
Isn’t it true that you can learn as much (or more) from unpleasant or difficult experiences as from pleasant ones? Yet, our tendency as human beings is to resist, push away or distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings. The trouble with this often unconscious habit is that what we resist persists.
Resistance happens in life and meditation practice when common but difficult emotions or mind states come up, such as restlessness, boredom, agitation, fatigue, and doubt. When we push away these experiences, it turns out that we are actually feeding them. Fortunately, the R.A.I.N. practice allows us to work with these rough spots.
Before exploring R.A.I.N., it’s important to remember that one of the first things meditation practitioners are invited to do is to turn toward their experience with kind curiosity or to “put out the welcome mat” to all experiences – “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say.
While this suggestion may seem a little extreme at first glance, what it points to is that mindfulness practice is not dependent on the moment needing to be perfect, relaxing or even pleasant. It gives you permission to let go of common misconceptions that you should feel a certain way or that you should be somewhere other than where you are right now.
Instead, can you give yourself what Shinzen Young calls “radical permission to feel” whatever is showing up for you in the moment, because it’s here.
As transformative as this process can often be, it’s not always easy (or skillful) to sit with unpleasant sensations, thoughts and emotions.
It’s not skillful or appropriate in moments when you’re feeling too emotionally overwhelmed or triggered by past trauma. In those cases, it may be wiser to “turn away” by shifting the attention to a neutral place in or outside the body (e.g., the breath, feet touching the floor, or sounds). When some degree of comfort and safety has been re-established, you can explore the unpleasant experience, only doing so in doses that feel right to you (sometimes referred to as titrating the experience.)
When it feels safe to explore rough spots, R.A.I.N. can support you in meditation and daily life with more skill and ease.
What is R.A.I.N.?
R.A.I.N. is a practice that has been around for over two decades. Developed by Michelle MacDonald and popularized by Tara Brach, a well-known psychologist and meditation teacher in the U.S., it combines essential mindfulness and compassion tools into one practice using the acronym R.A.I.N. – Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nurture (or Non-identify).
R.A.I.N. can be practiced as a formal meditation or informally (in daily life) by bringing mindfulness and compassion to difficult emotions (or physical pain and, to a lesser extent, thoughts). When used informally, each step can be used independently or in combination with the others. This blog post describes the whole process of R.A.I.N. for difficult emotions.
The R stands for “Recognize” the difficult emotion. Often, our feelings happen without us being conscious of them.
In formal R.A.I.N. practice, you are invited to call up a challenging situation that triggers difficult emotions and asked to settle on the most predominant one. Once you become aware of it, you “recognize” the emotion.
At this stage, it is helpful to name the emotion. When naming, you might say in your mind: “this is sadness,” or “this is anxiety or fear,” “this is a disappointment,” etc. Naming a difficult emotion is an opportunity not only to recognize and acknowledge it, but it also allows you to stay present rather than get swept away by the sometimes-dramatic story and emotional charge.
Research suggests that when you label difficult emotions, the amygdala (the part of the brain that registers danger) becomes less active and less likely to trigger a stress reaction in the body (David Creswell & colleagues, 2007).
This first step in the R.A.I.N. process, recognizing (and naming), is an excellent quick informal practice that you can incorporate on its own into your daily life when meeting difficult emotions.
The A is to “Allow” it to be here because it already is. Rather than pushing it away or resisting it.
Resisting is our natural tendency because difficult emotions don’t feel good. One way to understand “allow” is to understand the opposite, which is resistance. Resistance refers to the struggle that occurs when you believe or want your moment-to-moment experience to be other than what it is.
Resistance might be experienced as not wanting or pushing away. Instead of feeling emotions, you might find yourself desperately seeking distraction: your mind may wander, ruminate, or worry, or you might engage in stress eating, overwork, or experience physical tension or unnecessary anger.
It’s important to note that without some resistance, you might be overwhelmed by daily life’s intensity, so resistance has a function in ordinary life. Still, it can have negative long-term consequences if it remains unconscious.
So, can you give yourself over to a “radical permission to feel” by inviting what poet Dorothy Hunt calls “a heart space where everything that is, is welcome”? This “allowing” is the doorway to the next step – investigation.
The I is to “Investigate” the emotion in the body rather than making it a cognitive or analytical process.
“Feel it to heal it.” Emotions have mental and physical elements—thoughts and body sensations. Research suggests that emotions are associated with distinct yet universal body parts (Nummenmaa, 2014) that can be seen on heat maps. When Finnish scientists asked people to map out where they felt different bodily emotions, they found the results surprisingly consistent across cultures (e.g., fear and anxiety trigger body sensations in the chest area).
Body awareness is an essential factor in emotion regulation (so next time you wonder why we practice the body scan, you can remember this). Whereas thoughts change quickly, making them difficult to linger with for long enough to work with them, body sensations are relatively slow moving. When you locate an emotion in the body and change your relationship to it, it begins to shift and change. Once you’ve investigated the emotion in the body, the practice turns to nurture and/or non-identification.
The N is to “Nurture” the pain with kindness, compassion, and care.
Kindness and care come into direct contact with the emotional pain. Without self-compassion, it’s tough, if not impossible, to tolerate difficult emotions; when we offer ourselves kindness and care, it creates a sense of safety that allows us to be with them. Different ways of meeting pain include using hand gestures, imagery, words, or phrases that allow you to feel safe and cared for. The meditation below lets you explore what words or phrases work for you.
Versions of R.A.I.N that use “Non-identification.”
The N for “non-identification” means that you don’t consider the difficult emotion to be “me” or “mine.”
The more you practice, you will see the difference between “I am an anxious or angry person” versus “Anxiety or anger is arising right now.” Increasingly you become more able to step back from the emotion rather than get lost in it, seeing emotions as transient phenomena rather than inherently who you are. You see emotions (and thoughts) as weather systems passing through, arising, and passing away. When you investigate them rather than feed or resist them, you can see how quickly they come and go, constantly shifting and changing.
R.A.I.N. is a powerful practice that allows you to feel, process and heal difficult emotions.
Try this 15-minute R.A.I.N. practice here
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness and self-compassion to manage stress and build emotional resilience, or you want to feel more at ease in your life, click here to learn more about our introductory mindfulness and self-compassion programs, or visit omwllness.ca
Again, here’s a quick reference to the steps in R.A.I.N.
1 Carl Jung said “what you resist persist.”
2 With thoughts, we would use the N (non-identify version) step in R.A.I.N.
3 John Gray said, “what you feel you can heal.”