Most people who come to meditation are looking for respite from what is sometimes called the “monkey mind”—the perpetual, hyperactive (and often self-destructive) whirl of thoughts and feelings everyone undergoes. But the truth is that meditation does not eradicate mental and emotional turmoil. Rather, it cultivates the space and gentleness that allow us intimacy with our experiences so that we can relate quite differently to our cascade of emotions and thoughts. That different relationship is where freedom lies.
RAIN is an acronym for a practice specifically geared to ease emotional confusion and suffering. When a negative or thorny feeling comes up, we pause, remember the four steps cued by the letters, and begin to pay attention in a new way.
R — Recognize: It is impossible to deal with an emotion—to be resilient in the face of difficulty—unless we acknowledge that we’re experiencing it. So the first step is simply to notice what is coming up. Suppose you’ve had a conversation with a friend that leaves you feeling queasy or agitated. You don’t try to push away or ignore your discomfort. Instead, you look more closely. Oh, you might say to yourself, this feels like anger. Then this might be followed quickly by another thought: And I notice I am judging myself for being angry.
A — Acknowledge: The second step is an extension of the first—you accept the feeling and allow it to be there. Put another way, you give yourself permission to feel it. You remind yourself that you don’t have the power to successfully declare, “I shouldn’t have such hateful feelings about a friend,” or “I’ve got to be less sensitive.” Sometimes I ask students to imagine each thought and emotion as a visitor knocking at the door of their house. The thoughts don’t live there; you can greet them, acknowledge them, and watch them go. Rather than trying to dismiss anger and self-judgment as “bad” or “wrong,” simply rename them as “painful.” This is the entry into self-compassion—you can see your thoughts and emotions arise and create space for them even if they are uncomfortable. You don’t take hold of your anger and fixate on it, nor do you treat it as an enemy to be suppressed. It can simply be.
As we get closer to it, an uncomfortable emotion becomes less opaque and solid. We focus less on labeling the discomfort and more on gaining insight.
I — Investigate: Now you begin to ask questions and explore your emotions with a sense of openness and curiosity. This feels quite different from when we are fuelled by obsessiveness or by a desire for answers or blame. When we’re caught up in a reaction, it’s easy to fixate on the trigger and say to ourselves, “I’m so mad at so-and-so that I’m going to tell everyone what he did and destroy him!” rather than examining the emotion itself. There is so much freedom in allowing ourselves to cultivate curiosity and move closer to a feeling, rather than away from it. We might explore how the feeling manifests itself in our bodies and also look at what the feeling contains. Many strong emotions are actually intricate tapestries woven of various strands. Anger, for example, commonly includes moments of sadness, helplessness, and fear. As we get closer to it, an uncomfortable emotion becomes less opaque and solid. We focus less on labeling the discomfort and more on gaining insight. Again, we do not wallow, nor do we repress. Remember that progress doesn’t mean that the negative emotions don’t come up. It’s that instead of feeling hard as steel, they become gauzy, transparent, and available for investigation.
N — Non-identify: In the final step of RAIN, we consciously avoid being defined by (identified with) a particular feeling, even as we may engage with it. Feeling angry with a particular person, in a particular conversation, about a particular situation is very different from telling yourself, “I am an angry person and always will be.” You permit yourself to see your own anger, your own fear, your own resentment—whatever is there—and instead of spiraling down into judgment (“I’m such a terrible person”), you make a gentle observation, something like, “Oh. This is a state of suffering.” This opens the door to a compassionate relationship with yourself, which is the real foundation of a compassionate relationship with others.
By allowing ourselves this simple recognition, we begin to accept that we will never be able to control our experiences, but that we can transform our relationship to them. This changes everything.
We cannot will what thoughts and feelings arise in us. But we can recognize them as they are—sometimes recurring, sometimes frustrating, sometimes filled with fantasy, many times painful, always changing. By allowing ourselves this simple recognition, we begin to accept that we will never be able to control our experiences, but that we can transform our relationship to them. This changes everything.