Next time you feel lost in powerful emotions, use this wonderful tool described by Tara Brach, psychotherapist and meditation teacher. The following is adapted from Tara Brach’s forthcoming book, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart(Bantam, January 22, 2013), which I highly recommend.
My earliest memories of being happy are of playing in the ocean. When our family began going to Cape Cod in the summer, the low piney woods, high dunes, and wide sweep of white sand felt like a true home. We spent hours at the beach, diving into the waves, bodysurfing, practicing somersaults underwater. Summer after summer, our house filled with friends and family—and later, with spouses and new children. It was a shared heaven. The smell of the air, the open sky, the ever-inviting sea made room for everything in my life—including whatever difficulties I was carrying in my heart.
Then came the morning not so long ago when two carloads of friends and family members took off for the beach without me. From the girl who had to be pulled from the water at suppertime, I’d become a woman who was no longer able to walk on sand or swim in the ocean. After two decades of mysteriously declining health, I’d finally gotten a diagnosis: I had a genetic disease with no cure, and the primary treatment was painkillers. As I sat on the deck of our summer house and watched the cars pull out of the driveway, I felt ripped apart by grief and loneliness. In the midst of my tears, I was aware of a single longing. “Please, please, may I find a way to peace, may I love life no matter what.”
This place of peace, connectedness, and inner freedom, even in the face of life’s greatest challenges is what I call “true refuge.” It does not depend on anything outside ourselves—a certain situation, a person, a cure, even a particular mood or emotion. The yearning for such refuge is universal. It is what lies beneath all our wants and fears. We long to know we can handle what’s coming. We want to trust ourselves, to trust this life. We want to live from the fullness of who we are.
The pathway to true refuge is presence, the courage to meet even our most challenging inner experiences with a mindful awareness. About twelve 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 now taught RAIN to thousands of students, clients, and mental health professionals, and have 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:
R Recognize what is happening
A Allow life to be just as it is
I Investigate inner experience with kindness
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. For example, 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. You can awaken recognition simply by asking yourself: “What is happening inside me right now?” Call on your natural curiosity as you focus inward.
Try to let go of any preconceived ideas and instead 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, of 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. For instance, 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 “this too” or “I consent.”
At first you might feel you’re just putting up with unpleasant emotions or sensations. Or you might say yes to shame and hope that it will magically disappear. In reality, we have to consent again and again. Yet even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain.
Simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain.
Your entire being is not so rallied in resistance. Offer the phrase gently and patiently, and in time your defenses will relax, and you may feel a physical sense of yielding or opening to waves of experience.
Investigate with Kindness
At times, simply working through the first two steps of RAIN is enough to provide relief and reconnect you with presence. In other cases, however, the simple intention to recognize and allow is not enough. For instance, 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?” “How am I experiencing this in my body?” or “What am I believing?” 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 self.
In order 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.” Without this heart energy, investigation cannot penetrate; there is not enough safety and openness for real contact. 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 kindness to your inner life makes inquiry, and ultimately healing, possible.
Non-Identification: 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 non- identification, and the realization of what I call natural awareness or natural presence. Non-identification 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 spontaneously, on its own. We simply rest in natural awareness.