Last week I described how mindfulness helped to ease my long standing travel anxiety. The practice that I used is called RAIN (recognize, accept, investigate, non-identification) and was developed by Michele McDonald, with whom I sat two meditation retreats.
When an unwanted emotion or urge has arisen, the first step is to recognize that it has arisen. This seems obvious, but my experience is that it is often not easy to recognize such mind/heart states early. The earlier that I recognize, for example irritation, the easier it is to work with it, to enable it to move through me rather than to continue to burn inside.
The second step is called accept. I'll illustrate this with a vignette from a Looney Tunes cartoon I saw as a boy. In the cartoon the protagonist is being chased by the bad guy. He runs into a cabin and in quick succession nails one board after another across the door to keep the bad guy from entering. As he finishes pounding the last nail, there’s a tap on his shoulder. It’s the bad guy! He was already in.
And that’s the point: the sadness or fear is already in. So the ‘accept’ is simply to accept that the emotion has arisen. In most cases, we know that it doesn’t seem likely to disappear in the immediate future!
The first part of investigate is often called ‘direct experience’ or ‘bare attention,’ both of which imply asking the cognitive part of our brain to step back and instead use the part of the brain that feels directly. So we “feel” the emotion. When I am aware of a strong emotion, I generally find that my breath is not slow and relaxed, so I might simply observe it mindfully, sometimes for a few breaths or for a few minutes.
Investigating my body, I might notice muscular tension in my shoulders, or my face, or my stomach. I don’t even ask anymore “where is my anger in my body?” Instead I pause, rest my awareness on my body and bring mindfulness to sensations or energy that are prominent.
Meditation teachers often use the word contractedness to describe afflictive emotions, because the body generally contacts (e.g., muscular tension) and the mind also contracts. For example, if you are angry with someone for yelling at you, your sense of them contracts into that angry part of them and you lose sight of the rest of them. The Dalai Lama describes a simple practice called ‘applying the antidote’—focusing on that person’s ‘good’ qualities; this eases the contractedness and reminds you of the larger picture of who they are.
I can still get quite irritated when things aren’t going the way I had wanted them to go. Some months ago, the lower drawer of my wife’s filing cabinet got stuck. Going to her office, I was able to open it, but then realized the lock was broken. Being a therapist, my wife needs patients’ files to be locked at all times. Upon realizing she needed a new cabinet NOW, I was aware of some frustration. I went to Staples and saw a cabinet that was reasonably priced. I searched impatiently for a clerk, mumbling to myself. Finally one came and said he would check in the back of the store. Many minutes later he returned to say they didn’t have one, but could order it and it would be in within 3 days. Not acceptable. And he couldn’t sell me the floor model for a reason I didn’t buy, pun intended. So I decided to try Wal-Mart, the only other choice in our small town.
As I got out of the store, I recognized that by now I was quite irritated and frustrated, and the normal self-talk wasn’t being helpful: “Hey Tom it’s not that big a deal” and “a lot of people in North Korea would gladly trade places with you.”
So I just sat in my car for a few minutes. I simply observed my breath and noticed as it slowed down. Then I checked in with my body—some tightness in my shoulders and jaw.
I also sensed the story that was running through my mind like a tape loop. “How come I have to do this? Everything has to be done right now. I’ve got a bunch of things I need to do today.” Blah Blah Blah. Actually, not blah, blah, blah, because a key part of this practice is compassion toward the parts of you that are struggling.
And so I brought compassion to those parts of me that were playing the “poor me” tapes. After a short time the ‘poor me' story began to ease.
Then I started the car and went to Wal-Mart in a much better heart/mind space.
The last part of the practice is called Non-identification. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into detail about this step. What I’ll say here is what it looks like when I’m identifying with an emotion. Most people think nothing of saying “I am angry” while I don’t know anyone who has ever said “I am cancer.” In the latter case, we might say “I have cancer” because we know that cancer is only part of what is happening to me now, that there is much more to me than the cancer. Similarly, when we say “I have anger” or even “anger has arisen,” we reduce that sense of identification. This allows us to contact the universality of the emotion: I’m not the only person to get angry, or feel shame, or who has cancer, etc.
It is so important to emphasize a paradoxical aspect of this practice: the intention is not to get rid of the afflictive emotion but rather to be with it with compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh explained this beautifully years ago when he noted that we Americans often tend to be hard on ourselves. He asked us to imagine our self as a younger person and having a younger brother or sister come to us crying about something that had just happened. He reminded us that in this situation, we wouldn’t berate them--“grow up!”--but rather we would open our arms and comfort them: “come sit with me.”
He told us that when we berate ourselves, we are trying to push away this unwanted emotion: we are literally at war with a part of ourselves, and that is why the pushing away doesn’t work. Richard Schwartz developed the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy. This model dovetails so nicely with RAIN and Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice: bringing compassion to that part of you which is suffering.
If you Google ‘RAIN Buddhist’ you can read many other descriptions of this practice. I want to acknowledge that many other spiritual traditions also have practices to apply when we are struggling with powerful emotions.