March 30, 2012
Most people have heard of mindfulness. Like meditation, it has become a fairly common term in general use. It has also become more accepted in western psychology as having therapeutic benefit. Many books have been written on the topic, and yet there remains much confusion in terms of just what mindfulness is and how to apply it on a daily basis to heal and find greater freedom. This is especially true with regard to difficult or emotional situations. It’s easier to be mindful of a sunset compared to the intense anger in a fight with a partner.
While the definition of mindfulness varies, I would describe it as a gentle, focused, compassionate attention. A quality of spaciously noticing what is happening, whether it be within or without. In the west today there has developed a tradition of Buddhist training and practice that is mixed with western psychology. From this tradition, represented by psychologist/ Buddhist teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, a very practical application of mindfulness practice has emerged that can be readily applied in daily life especially with difficult issues or situations.
The acronym that describes this powerful approach is RAIN. It stands for recognition, acceptance, investigation, and non-identification.
The first aspect of this approach is recognition, and this is where basic mindfulness comes in. If we are feeling pain or suffering, the first thing we need to do is actually be aware of it. In this fast paced society with so many distractions and ways of numbing ourselves this is often not so easy.We can carry irritation, hurt feelings and pain under the surface while we just try to get through our day, toughing it out. We can also carry emotional trauma from past experiences over years, which turns into depression, anxiety and illness. The practice of mindfulness begins with an intention to simply pay more attention to what is going on inside us instead of glossing over it. When we feel tense, upset, angry or discomfort of any kind we can briefly pause and check in to see what is going on. Recognizing that we are suffering is the first step to freedom.
The second aspect of RAIN is acceptance. Recognition is not enough because we can recognize something unpleasant and then proceed to distract ourselves from it, deny it or simply wish it wasn’t happening. This process takes some courage, however, and an intention to confront pain and discomfort,which usually doesn’t happen until we have had the realization by experience that there is really no way to avoid what we don’t want, it happens anyway, and the resistance prolongs it and makes it worse, hence the expression, “What you resist persists”. Do you find yourself resisting painful or unpleasant feelings and situations in your life? If so, what has been the result of that resistance? With acceptance we are acknowledging the reality of what is happening simply because it is what is in this moment. This does not mean we are giving into it in a disempowered way, but acceptance is usually a prerequisite to change. By accepting a painful situation we open the door to healing and the potential to create something different.
The next part of the process, after we’ve recognized and accepted what we’re feeling, is investigation, this is core of RAIN. This is the opposite of denying, avoiding or distracting. It involves looking directly into our painful feelings or experience. This is the deeper aspect of mindfulness where we stop and allow ourselves to feel and delve a bit deeper into the thoughts and feelings involved.
The Buddha described four basic foundations of mindfulness practice, and each of them can be employed at this stage. The first is mindfulness of the body. As we investigate, we can pay close attention to our body and any tension or feelings it holds. We may be experiencing tightness in the chest or an upset stomach or a headache. The body can hold pent up emotions and energy from past trauma, so it is a powerful tool to get in touch with things that need to be released as well as grounding us in the present moment.We sit and pay attention to our body and focus close gentle attention on any area that we’re drawn to and feel what is there. Often, as we feel into discomfort in the body, we will experience different qualities to it, tightness in the chest may start to feel like a burning heat and then a deep sadness, a headache may begin to feel like pressure and then grief or tears. We just delve into it as deep as we can and notice and give space to whatever is there. Gentle focused attention has the effect of unfolding the initial sensation and uncovering what is beneath it allowing healing to occur.
The second foundation of mindfulness is feeling. The Buddha spoke of two types of feeling. Primary feelings and secondary feelings. Primary feeling comes first, and it is the quality of feeling we unconsciously project on to every single experience we have. Primary feeling is positive, negative or neutral. From this come secondary feelings, which we are more consciously aware of, including positive feelings such as physical pleasure, happiness and excitement.We also have negative feelings such as anger, jealousy, and fear, as well as neutral feelings such as numbness, laziness and confusion. These emerge from the primary feeling that was initially associated with a situation or experience, so it sets the stage for what comes next. At this stage we observe our feelings becoming aware of what we are feeling and allowing ourselves to openly feel what is there. Giving our feelings attention allows us to realize that they are just energy, and like energy they need to flow and can get blocked if we don’t pay attention to them or give them space to arise.
The third foundation of mindfulness is thought. Here we observe the thoughts and the thought processes that are involved in the situation. We do this without indulging or judging them, we simply allow ourselves to be aware of the thoughts. This is a key aspect of mindfulness, it is a simple awareness that notices. Indulging thoughts happens when we stop noticing them and get lost in them or identify with them, and judgment is just another thought to be noticed with awareness. Mindfulness is very simple and yet very powerful, but it is so simple that we can miss seeing and experiencing how powerful it actually is. The thought aspect of this process is quite important because many of us identify with our thoughts, imagining that they represent who we are. By noticing our thoughts with awareness we free ourselves from compulsive thinking because we see that they arise, remain for a time and then dissolve while the whole time awareness remains as the watcher.
The forth foundation of mindfulness is Dharma. The word Dharma has a number of meanings in Buddhism, but here we can take it to mean truth, the deeper truth of an experience, a truth that only we can uncover within, which brings freedom. With this aspect we widen the lens of our mindfulness and look at the overall process attempting to see the truth behind it. This might include asking ourselves some questions about what we’re struggling with. Am I seeing things clearly? Is there an ongoing pattern I’m playing out in this situation? Am I imagining that how I’m feeling right now will last forever? What is really at the core of this argument for me? By asking these questions and being open to feeling what they bring up rather than trying to figure anything out intellectually we see further into the nature of what we are struggling with.
The final aspect of RAIN is non-identification. After we have observed our experience with mindfulness we illuminate that our thoughts, feelings, ideas, beliefs and trauma are not really who we are.We see this directly because in mindfulness we see that these things are impermanent, they constantly change, they come and go. However, what always remains is awareness or the deeper aspect of our consciousness, and it is untouched by what we experience, it merely reflects whatever is there. It is like a diamond in muddy water, it may be covered with mud, but when we clean it off, the diamond is still pure and unaffected. When we experience this awareness, we no longer need to identify with our thoughts and beliefs, mind states and feelings as who we are. This results in incredible freedom, because we are no longer so caught up in all the drama that we suffer so much from, and we can allow it to unfold without resistance or attachment. It also frees us to more deeply experience and appreciate life and whatever is happening, because we don’t need it to be a certain way to support who we think we are.
Once you have some familiarity with the process of RAIN, it is fairly easy to apply in the moment when needed. Let’s look at an example. Suppose you have an argument with your partner and you notice yourself becoming angry.You recognize that you are feeling an escalating anger and the discussion has turned into an argument, so you decide to pause and ask for some space. You go into the next room and sit and breath for a moment and allow yourself to accept what is happening. By accepting it you open the door to working with it in a healing way and you take responsibility for how you are feeling. As you continue to sit and investigate, you become aware of a knot in your stomach and with further attention that is felt as anxiety. As you focus on the feeling of anxiety you experience it turn to fear, and you realize your initial anger in the argument came from a deep fear of losing your partner. With this fear you see a story in your mind that involves your partner leaving you, and all the details that go along with it, and its a familiar story.You realize this has been an ongoing pattern beginning in childhood when your father left. Having paused and approached this situation with mindfulness you have awakened the natural awareness within you, so you can see that this anger, fear and insecurity are not truly who you are, and you no longer need to identify with it as you were doing in the argument. The question may arise, “What was I really protecting with my anger in the argument with my partner?” You are able to experience it fully, release the pent up feeling, see into its nature and let go. When you cease to identify with a painful pattern or state of mind, you reclaim your power from it and are no longer under its control.
This is the process of healing with RAIN, and we can use it with practice to unravel longterm patterns and emotional blockages resulting in much greater freedom, joy and health. Mindfulness is a simple age-old technique that is always available to us in each moment, we have but to remember and put it into practice.