Tara Brach’s ‘True Refuge’ (5)

Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge and explore the mindfulness tool called RAIN, which she describes in Chapter Five.  RAIN is an acronym for four possible steps in a flexible process of deconditioning habitual responses to intense and difficult emotions:

R       Recognize what’s happening.

A       Allow life to be just as it is.

I        Investigate inner experience with kindness.

N       Non-identification or Natural presence is a true refuge.

We can enter the gateway of truth by recognizing what is true in our inner life and by facing the reality of the present moment.  This recognition starts with a simple question: “What’s happening inside me right now?”  But it takes practice to pause during a tense situation to focus on whatever thoughts, emotions, feelings or sensations are arising in that very moment.

Some parts of our experience are easier to detect than others.  When I’m feeling anxious, I tend to recognize my worried thoughts, but unless I pay careful attention, I ignore physical sensations of holding my breath and tightening my belly.  On the other hand, sometimes I’m aware of the physical reaction of coughing before I connect it with an emotion that I want to express.

Last week when I was volunteering at hospice, I met a Salvadoran man I’ll call “Javier,” who’d been visiting his 87-year-old mother at her home in Houston.  On the day that he was supposed to fly home to El Salvador, she lost her balance, fell down, and suffered a debilitating stroke.  Javier cancelled his flight to accompany her, first to the hospital and then to hospice.  While he was telling me the story in Spanish, Javier’s voice and hands trembled, and his face was pale with shock.  In disbelief, he gestured to the bed where his mother lay in a coma: “She was healthy and strong until last week, and now she’s dying.”  As I was listening to him, I thought about my own mother, who is just the same age as his.  I recognized my fear about losing such a key person in my life and noticed my chest constricting.

The second step of RAIN is to allow life to be just as it is.  Instead of resisting what is unpleasant and reacting with aversion, we can learn to “let it be,” when we recognize uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations. Because we’re accustomed to fighting or fleeing pain, Tara suggests that we repeat inwardly encouraging words—“Yes,” or “I consent,” or “This too”—to support our intention to accept painful or difficult experiences.  We may have to practice patiently over and over again before we can yield to deep emotions of fear, grief or shame.

Javier’s shaking voice resonated inside me.  I breathed into my heart and allowed the tight grip of fear to be there.  Nodding in response to his words, I felt like a mirror for Javier’s tension.

The third step of RAIN is to investigate our inner experience with kindness, bringing active inquiry to what most wants attention and to what our beliefs are about the situation.  Again, it takes ongoing practice to welcome without judgment whatever surfaces.

As I struggled to be present with Javier, I questioned why I was so affected by his palpable fear of mortality.  I wondered, “If I’m so scared of death, should I be working at hospice?”  My inquiry touched some underlying doubts, and I noticed that my hands felt cold.  With kindness, I reminded myself that I am simply an apprentice, learning how to accompany people at the end of life.  I let go of self-judgments and the unrealistic expectation that I should be perfectly free from fear.

The fourth and final step of RAIN is to rest in natural awareness, with non-identification.  When the sense of who we are expands beyond the limitations of the ego’s small self, we’re no longer defined by limited emotions, sensations or stories, so that we intuitively express the love and openness of our natural awareness.

While I was sitting with Javier, I remembered the Buddha’s teachings about the universal dukkha of impermanence.  This Salvadoran man and I were born in different countries and raised in different cultures, languages and religions, but we share a common fear about the death of our loved ones.  Once I was no longer identified with “my” fear, but accepted it as a natural part of our human condition, I could respond compassionately to Javier’s distress and bring fuller presence to the precious moments that we had together.  As I was departing, he thanked me for bringing him comfort.  Thanks to mindfulness practice, I could offer Javier the benefits of returning to my essential loving nature.

At home that evening, Mark was reading aloud to me from the Tao Te Ching or Book of the Way, written by Lao-tzu in the 5th century B.C.  Synchronistically, he chose the following verse, which guides us to be in harmony with the truth of life’s impermanence:

The Master gives himself up

To whatever the moment brings.

He knows that he is going to die,

And he has nothing left to hold on to:

No illusions in his mind,

No resistances in his body.

He doesn’t think about his actions;

They flow from the core of his being.

He holds nothing back from life;

Therefore he is ready for death,

As a man is ready for sleep

After a good day’s work.

Ironically, it takes ongoing, conscious practice in order to let go of rigid patterns that prevent us from flowing with life as it is.  Tara’s light RAIN exercise at the end of the chapter provides a quick way to listen with friendly attention to your inner life and to free yourself from emotional reactivity during daily interactions.  If we learn to use this abbreviated mindfulness tool regularly with small difficulties, we’ll be more likely to turn to the steps of RAIN if a crisis occurs.  We’ll do a “dress rehearsal” now, so that you can practice on your own at an appropriate time:

Close your eyes and sit comfortably. 

Review in your mind today’s conversations and activities.  

Recall if you were irritated or annoyed by something—such as misplacing a possession, injuring your body, or feeling misunderstood.   

Sense or visualize that situation as if it were happening now. 

Enter the experience as you relive it in your imagination: 

Start the light RAIN process by recognizing that you’re stuck and caught in reactivity. 

Pause and take three full breaths to disengage from your thoughts and to make space for your inner experience. 

Allow it to be just as it is. 

Investigate by asking yourself, “What am I feeling?” and bring attention to your body—especially your throat, chest and belly. 

Notice predominant sensations—perhaps tightness, heat, or pressure—and obvious emotions—maybe anger, fear, or guilt. 

Let your intention be to befriend what you notice.

Try to stay in touch with your breathing as you contact a felt sense of what is happening.

See if it’s possible to regard yourself with kindness.

Complete your practice of light RAIN by simply relaxing, opening your eyes, and sensing the presence of our meditation community supporting you. 

Sense what might have shifted. 

Are you more aware?  Open?  Warmhearted? 

Are you taking things less personally?

Is there more access to natural presence—the N of RAIN?