Today I would like to spend some time talking about how we can deepen self-compassion when we work with difficult emotions.
As we are all forced to stay at home again, we might find ourselves meeting our edge more often than not, becoming more reactive and on edge. Our minds might get in hyperdrive with worries, we might become hooked on the news. 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. Domestic confinement is a good opportunity for us to practice being mindful, to experience less distractions so that we can let what is important emerge. For this, we need to allow ourselves to feel our vulnerability and fragility. Then our response is rooted in caring and love rather than tightness and fear.
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 release the painful beliefs and emotions that keep us from living a life true to ourselves.
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 latest 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.
Image of a circle with a line going through it: above the line is everything we are conscious of, and below the line is everything outside our conscious awareness (beliefs, aversions, conditioning). When we live below the line, it is like being in a dream, Tara Brach calls it being in trance. Living above the line is living in presence, being completely aware of our inner and outer worlds.
When we’re in trance, we usually feel separate or alone, threatened, hardened, caught up in emotions and reactive to experiences.
When we live in presence, we feel awake, open, and tender, we are in contact with our emotions and responsive to experiences.
Some signs that we are in trance: having gone through a whole packet of crackers, nuts or biscuits without realising it; finding fault with everyone around us; losing a whole hour following links online; comparing ourselves with others; rushing around trying to get things done and hurting oneself; getting a sore neck and knotted shoulders after spending the whole day working on the computer
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”
Take a few moments to sit quietly, collecting your attention by resting in the movement of your breath. Bring to mind a situation that elicits a moderately strong emotional reaction of hurt, anger, fear or shame (not trauma). It might involve a conflict within your family, something difficult at work, a personal difficult situation. Review that situation until you get to the part that most activates strong emotions, and deepen your attention to whatever is going on that most disturbs you.
Ask yourself “what is happening inside me?” and notice whatever feelings are most painful or intense. And become aware of your attitude towards those feelings, are you saying no to it, that it should not be happening, blaming yourself or blaming others, trying to change it?
Sense what is happening to your body, heart and mind when you reject what you’re feeling, and observe if you often feel this way.
Now take a few full breaths, remind yourself again of the most difficult part of this situation and recall the feelings that are most painful, asking yourself “can I be with this?” or “can I let this be?”. Experiment by directing the word and energy of yes to whatever you are feeling most intensely. Let the yes be as full and unconditional as possible. What does it feel like in your body when you say yes? How does yes affect your heart, your mind? What is the sense of your whole being when you are saying yes?
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.
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?
- What emotions does this bring up?
- 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…)
- When I assume the facial expression and body posture that best reflects these feelings and emotions, what do I notice?
- Are these feelings familiar, something I’ve experienced earlier in my life?
- 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. You can imagine it as a tree with its roots deep in the earthiness of our feelings and emotions, and with the branches growing towards the sky to take the compassion and love. So we have to be rooted in our bodies and 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 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, 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. Imagining 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.
If you can imagine something, it means that the seeds of that experience are already in you. There is a real power to our imagination. “Whatever our mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
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. 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? Sense of calm, openness, wholeness, presence.
A few closing comments on this practice:
It is not enough to practice it once, it is not a one shot. As we keep encountering the same patterns, we become more and more skilled at identifying them, we get more and more recognition that we are not the victim, or the fearful self, or the wanting self, angry self, but that we are that presence that is holding our experience with kindness. Over time, that shift happens. This is what is possible.
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.
Sometimes when you go through the practice of RAIN you might feel that it is not working, you are still agitated or restless by the end. In fact, any intentional movement towards presence, even when you relapse into emotional reactivity, interrupts the old patterns and works towards healing. You can trust that you learning to experience your emotions with more presence.
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