A Practice for Handling Difficult Emotions and Thoughts: RAIN

It’s been raining a lot in my office recently. And by this I don’t mean that I have a leaky roof, or the sprinkler system is malfunctioning. Rather, I have been trying out a helpful practice for handling challenging emotions that come up during the workday that goes by the acronym RAIN.

For you agnostics and atheists out there, don’t cringe. Yes, RAIN has its origins in Buddhism. That said, as far as recent developments in neuroscience go, it is a great tool for getting out of what I call the back alley of the brain (amygdala) and returning to the forehead (pre frontal cortex) so that you can make reasoned rather than reactive decisions.

Here’s what it looks like when I practiced RAIN this week. I have a big project on the go that is highly challenging. I know I need to push it forward but I am feeling dread in my gut. I am standing at my desk answering emails and feeling horrible. That’s when I activate my RAIN response.

The R stands for Recognize. In the moment I notice that I am experiencing a strong emotion that feels very uncomfortable. I recognize what I am thinking and feeling. This taking note of what I am experiencing is not always easy to achieve. It is a very crucial first step. At this point I will often move away from my computer and sit down in a chair.

The A stands for Allow. Next I allow the emotion and corresponding physical experience to happen. I don’t try to avoid it, make it go away, or tell stories in my head about it. I name my experience: “I am feeling dread.” Then I add the word notice and say: “I notice I am feeling dread.” The simple act of naming the experience causes the brain to move out of the limbic region and back to the forehead.

The I stands for Investigate. Sitting in my chair I now investigate what this emotion feels like in my body. Where and how am I experiencing it physically? I describe the physical sensation with three adjectives: grey, leaden, and weighty. “The fear is sitting in my belly. It is a grey piece of lead weighing me down.” Now I simply watch the physical sensation. Under my focused attention it begins to lessen. Emotions on their own take about 90 seconds to run their course through the body.

The N stands for Non Identifying. This part is a little tricky. I say to myself, I am not this dread. It is a mental process and/or emotion moving through me like a breeze blowing past my face. I don’t need to get hooked on this. I can just let it blow by. This step of non-identifying helps to get our attention into our observing mind, and out of the story playing out on our mental stage.

I usually close my RAIN practice by taking three slow deep breaths and bringing my focus back to my physical experience of sitting in the chair and breathing. I then return my attention to the room, and the sights, sounds, smells around me.

Then I decide: “What do I want to do?”

Specifically this practice is an effective tool for responding rather than reacting to daily occurrences that can throw us off course. Instead of getting stressed about a project and then trying to avoid the discomfort of stress by procrastinating, the RAIN practice helps us to feel the emotion and discharge it. It gets us out of our reactive limbic brain and back into our prefrontal cortex where we can make reasoned decisions about what we want to do.

In my case yesterday the dread was pervasive. Using the RAIN practice I was able to understand what I was experiencing and make reasoned rather than reactive decisions. I took some steps forward on the project despite the internal discomfort and today I am back to feeling energized and productive.

This RAIN practice is widely used; the above is my own slightly modified version. A counselor in Vancouver, Sony Baron, introduced me to it last year. RAIN was featured last month in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. It is the creation of Insight Meditation Society teacher Michele McDonald and written about by authors Diana Winston in her book Wide Awake and Tara Brach in True Refuge. RAIN is a valuable tool for working with painful and distressing emotions and thoughts.

Comments are closed.