Today I would like to spend some time talking about how we can bring self-compassion to our difficult emotions.
In our fast-paced modern world, all of us might find ourselves becoming more reactive and on edge. Our minds might get in hyperdrive with worries, with our to-do-lists. We might become hooked on the news. With the advent of climate change, a lot of us are feeling a sense of fragility, and uncertainty, and that stimulates a great deal of anxiety. We might feel strong emotions like fear, anger, agitation, grief on a regular basis, and many of us might seek distractions in order to avoid feeling these deeply uncomfortable emotions.
What else is possible? How can we shift to a more wakeful and kind presence?
We need to be intimate with our inner life in order to process what’s there. If we keep distracting ourselves, we end up feeling disconnected from ourselves and from others.
The key is to pause, allow the mind to become quiet, and to deepen our attention. When we pause, we interrupt our automatic patterns, and we are able to respond instead of reacting. Everyday life is a good opportunity for us to practice being mindful, to experience less distractions so that we can let what is important emerge.
Mindfulness practice invites us to feel our emotions fully and consciously, to make space for them, even the difficult ones, instead of avoiding them, pushing them down or being completely dominated by them.
We learn to bring awareness to the felt sense of what is happening to us when we are triggered, to feel our own vulnerability.
When we experience strong emotional reactivity, one practice that is particularly helpful is self-compassion and loving presence. It brings in the second wing of mindfulness, the wing of allowing through loving presence. It helps to release the painful beliefs and emotions that keep us from living a life true to ourselves.
As Francis Weller writes in the Wild Edge of Sorrow, “how are we with self-compassion? Too often our caring is reserved to those outside of ourselves, as though we haven’t earned the right for kindness. We judge ourselves and resist offering gestures of mercy to ourselves. Yet, every one of us knows loss and defeat, loneliness and failure.”
He invites us to imagine self-compassion as the “internalised village”.
Pause for a moment and think about how you tend to respond to a friend who is suffering. Usually we feel an immediate caring and sympathy toward their pain. We don’t typically recoil in judgment and condemnation, and yet, that is often how we respond to our own moments of pain. Imagine instead that the dear people in your life (caring friends, family members, teachers, or mentors) are dwelling inside you, that the little village in your world has been taken into your hearts. Now when suffering arises, your interior friend can say to you “be gentle, be kind, be compassionate with this suffering part of your life.” It is soothing to imagine the village residing inside our chest.
The clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has developed a self-compassion practice based on the acronym RAIN, and it is described in her book Radical Compassion.
RAIN stands for the four steps of Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. It brings in the two wings of mindfulness, recognising and allowing. These steps are easy to learn and can be used whenever we feel stressed, fearful, reactive and confused. Over time, they build inner resilience and trust in our own wise heart, so we can respond to life in a way that expresses our truth.
The first step is to recognise that we are caught up in emotional reactivity, for example incessant worry, judgements, fearful thinking, fixed beliefs, or defensive behaviours.
We start by pausing to become aware of our moment to moment experience, to become present to what’s here. So we can open to what is going on inside us, the changing flow of sensations, emotions and thoughts, without any resistance.
It is as though we are taking a U-turn, when we shift our attention from an outward fixation – our judgements about another person, our thoughts, our stories about what is going on – to the real living experience in our body.
So how do we do the U Turn?
The first step is to pause when we realise that we have been lost in thought, excessive worrying, blaming, judging, controlling…take a few deep breaths and ask yourself : “What is happening inside me?”, and notice your actual moment-to-moment experience: the sensations in the body, any strong emotions, mental stories. Practice being curious, take your time, simply become still and notice whatever is going on.
Instead of avoiding or resisting our feelings, or lashing out in anger, or judging ourselves, we open to what’s here, and invite it in. Our habitual reaction is to say no when we perceive a threat, to tense up or brace ourselves against it. Here we are practicing saying yes instead.
We ask ourselves: “Can I be with this?” or “Can I let this be?”. It is natural to feel resistance at this point, we might wish that these feelings would go away. You might feel a strong urge to start analysing and fixing things, but you need to let that be as well. You might like to whisper an encouraging phrase such as “this too” or “this belongs” or “it’s okay”. Simply saying yes begins to give us a sense of more space, more room for what’s here. There is less resistance. “Meet your edge and soften”
It is not saying yes to harmful behaviours, it is saying yes to our feelings of anger or fear, so we can set boundaries with greater courage and clarity.
For some of you who are new to this practice, it might be that these two first steps are enough to start with. The next two steps help to deepen our presence so we can get in touch with our innermost vulnerability and awaken our self-compassion for our suffering.
This phase is about bringing an interested and kind attention to our experience and finding it in the body, asking oneself: where am I feeling this? It can help to place a hand where you feel it most. “our issues are in our tissues”, if we want to heal we need to feel what’s there.
Some of the following questions may be helpful:
- What’s the worst part of this? What most wants my attention?
- What is the most difficult / painful thing I am believing?
- Where are my feelings about this strongest in my body? it can be helpful to scan the throat, chest and belly
- What are the physical sensations in my body associated with these feelings (eg. Clenched, hot, tense…)
- If the most vulnerable hurting part of me could communicate, what would it express (words, feelings, images)?
- How does this part want me to be with it?
- What does this part most need (from me or from some larger source of wisdom and love)?
When we investigate, it is important to go back to our somatic, bodily awareness. Instead of thinking about what’s going on, we need to keep bringing our attention back to our body, directly contacting the felt sense and sensations of our most vulnerable place.
Compassion will arise when we have contacted our place of deepest vulnerability.
Once we are fully present, we can listen for what that place truly needs to begin healing.
Note on trauma: if there is trauma, it is important to take the time to nurture without going into the vulnerability, using the breath or safe bodily sensations such as the hands or the weight of the body and the feeling of support from the seat and the earth, or even the sounds, to ground oneself. Really taking the time you need to soothe your nervous system, so there is enough balance to be mindful of what is happening and not re-trigger trauma.
As you sense what is needed, what is your natural response?
Calling on your internalised village or the most wise and compassionate part of your being, you might offer yourself a loving message or gently place a hand on the heart, offer a tender message towards yourself, whatever will comfort you most (it’s okay, may I be happy, may I feel safe). Or you might imagine someone you trust – a parent, grand-parent, pet, dear friend, teacher or spiritual figure – holding you with love and expressing their care to you.
Feel free to experiment with ways of befriending your inner life, whether through words, touch (placing one hand on your cheek or heart, even hugging yourself), images or energy. You might visualise yourself surrounded in soft, luminous light. Imagine embracing your inner child.
The reason it works, is that if we keep imagining what we are longing for, it brings it alive. It activates our brain and our whole body experiences it as if it was really happening.
So we can set our intention to turn toward love whenever we become aware of feeling lonely, depressed, anxious, caught in self-judgement or blaming others. The more often we intentionally turn toward love – expressing it and letting it in – the more our natural care and compassion will arise spontaneously throughout the day.
- After RAIN
In the previous steps we used active ways of directing our attention, whereas in After the RAIN, we shift from doing to being. Close your eyes and imagine what it feels like to step outside in your garden after it has just rained: how everything feels fresh, renewed, and peaceful. Similarly, after the RAIN practice, we become familiar with the quality of presence and love that we have touched through RAIN, and we rest in this awareness, focussing on the qualities of openness, tenderness and wakefulness that have emerged.
We may ask ourselves: In these moments, what is the sense of my being, of who I am? How has it shifted from when I began the meditation? You might notice a sense of calm, openness, wholeness, presence.
A few closing comments on this practice:
RAIN is helpful whenever there is a pattern of emotional reactivity, the cues are repeating behaviours, like blaming, addictive behaviours, anxiety, that end up causing ourselves and others harm.
However, it is not enough to practice it once, it is not a one shot.
Sometimes when we go through the practice of RAIN we might feel that it is not working, we are still agitated or restless by the end. In fact, any intentional movement towards presence, even when we relapse into emotional reactivity, interrupts the old patterns and works towards healing. we can trust that we are learning to experience our emotions with more presence. As we keep encountering the same patterns, we become more and more skilled at identifying them.
It can be good to practice with a partner or with a teacher, or with a recording of the RAIN meditation.
We can also practice a lighter version of RAIN by practicing the four remembrances and asking oneself these simple questions whenever we are caught in emotional reactivity:
- Pause for presence: What is happening inside me ? (Recognise)
- Say Yes to what’s here: Can I be with this ? (Allow) & What is really happening inside me ? (Investigate)
- Turn toward Love: Can I be with this with kindness ? (Nurture)
- Rest in awareness
I invite you to write down these four steps on a piece of paper that you can carry with you, to help you practice the light RAIN when you get triggered in your everyday life.
“Self-compassion is not an event but an ongoing, daily practice. It is the root practice for our inner life and also for our relational lives. Our ability to receive love is proportional to our capacity to welcome all of who we are. Self-compassion is a skill that needs to be exercised regularly in order for us to remain open to life. It is the gift of a generous heart.” Francis Weller
Tara Brach – Radical Compassion
Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow