“Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in that space is our power and our freedom.” -Viktor Frankl
The meditation practice called RAIN is a skillful means of handling difficult emotions. It’s been a powerful part of my own healing journey. When we can notice what we’re experiencing and allow it to be as it is, rather than struggling against it, we can learn to approach our own distress with the curiosity and kindness that helps us heal. In this way, we can move from reactivity into greater presence—and choose our path with calmness and strength.
Tara Brach has written extensively about RAIN practice. Over the years of her teaching, the practice has evolved into the version I’ll share here. RAIN is an acronym for a four-step process that helps us move through emotions and heal ourselves.
With RAIN practice, we can learn to bring mindful presence to our own emotions. Often we get caught up in emotions, adding additional waves of distress to what we’re feeling. There’s the primary emotion, and then other upsetting ideas follow. For example, “I shouldn’t be feeling this,” “Something is wrong with me,” or “It’s not okay to feel this” are very common reactions to painful experiences. We feel bad about feeling bad. Buddhism calls this the second arrow: the suffering we often layer on top of our pain.
Being human involves both joy and pain. There’s no way around that. The first arrow is the direct experience of something that distresses us. “In life, we can’t always control the first arrow,” the Buddha said. “However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”
RAIN practice brings the two wings of awareness—mindfulness and compassion—to our own difficult experiences. The element of self-compassion is key. Tara says both in her psychotherapy practice and as a meditation teacher,
“When I watch the arc of transformation, the juncture that is always a sign of awakening and healing is when there is a felt sense of kindness or tenderness towards the pain that’s right here.”
First, it can be helpful to understand that emotions are not a sign of weakness or some deep personal flaw. They are simply part of human nature. Neurobiology shows us that, scientifically, our brain is wired for distressing emotions in order to help us survive. When we get pushed into fight-or-flight, our lower brain takes over and we’re no longer thinking in an integrated way. We feel scared, angry, confused, or numb. In those states, we often act in ways that add to our suffering.
When we’ve experienced trauma, we may need specific kinds of therapy to help us heal our nervous systems. If we’re in a deeply traumatized state, we don’t have access to our thinking brain, which is necessary for a practice like RAIN. However, throughout life there are many instances where we feel distress but can still learn to become aware. We can learn to choose our responses. Awareness is the beginning of freedom.
When I first started practicing RAIN, it felt cumbersome. Memorizing and working through the four steps seemed forced or unnatural. But over time, as the process has grown familiar, I’ve felt its power. The steps of rain eventually feel less like a four-part exercise and more like a natural, healthy response of awareness, groundedness and caring.
It’s best to practice RAIN in quiet meditation. This way, we afford ourselves the time and tranquil space to learn and begin to heal. Once the steps of RAIN are familiar, we can also use it at any moment in the day. The brief “light RAIN” practice, as Tara calls it, is a way of moving through these steps in the midst of experience, to help us bring mindfulness and kindness to any challenge.
The Practice of RAIN
First we need to recognize what’s happening. Tara writes, “Recognizing means consciously acknowledging, in any given moment, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are affecting us.” It often helps to name what’s coming up, with an intention simply to notice. For example, you might inwardly whisper, Fear, or even, Hello, fear. Often several emotions arise together, so it might be fear, sadness, confusion, anger, shame… You might also notice and name physical pain. A phrasing from Buddhism that can be helpful is: Hello, fear. How interesting that you’ve come.
The next step is simply to allow the experience to be what it is. Tara writes, “Allowing means letting the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations we have recognized simply be there, without trying to fix or avoid anything.” When we try push something away, we add to our suffering. This step of allowing what’s already here helps us begin to soften. It doesn’t mean we like it; but when we begin to make peace with the pain that’s already here, it loses its grip on us. You might inwardly whisper phrases of acceptance, such as This too, or Yes, or It’s okay. You might place a hand on your own heart as you repeat these phrases, beginning to offer yourelf some comfort.
As we settle into recognizing and allowing our experience, we can begin to meet it with curiosity. Rather than getting swept into a storyline, sense into the present-moment sensations. The idea is to tune into what’s here right now and notice how it subtly evolves and shifts. This is not an analytic process; it’s about touching into our own vulnerability and tender spots.
You might ask, Where in my body am I feeling this? Is it prickly, tight, warm, cool, fluttery, aching?
Or, What is the worst part of this? What am I believing, underneath this pain? What emotions does this bring up? What am I unwilling to feel?
Or, What is most wanting my attention right now? What is this pain needing? How does this tender part of me want to be cared for?
Whatever inquiry you choose, keep bringing your attention back to the felt sense in your heart and body.
In this step, Tara writes, “it is essential to approach your experience in a non-judgmental and kind way. This attitude of care helps create a sufficient sense of safety, making it possible to honestly connect with our hurts, fears and shame.”
Finally, we can offer ourselves some care. What we most need, in our vulnerability, is to be cared for and loved. Sometimes it can be difficult to offer love to ourselves, but we can cultivate the capacity. Again, you might place your hand on your own heart and mentally whisper, It’s okay. I love you. I’m here. Find the phrases that feel most comforting. You might try addressing yourself by your name.
If it helps, imagine that someone who loves you is there with you, offering you these words of care. Or you can imagine yourself as a small child. Offer love and care to that vulnerable child part of yourself. You can also call on your future self, or your highest self, to bring in a presence of expansiveness and love.
I find this last step to be extraordinarily powerful. Once I’ve allowed my experience to be what it is, the act of pouring love into my own heart is deeply healing. The pain may not go away entirely, but it softens. I feel connected to the larger perspective of my own consciousness and the tender qualities of my heart.
After the RAIN practice, rest for a few minutes in silent awareness. Simply observe what you feel in your heart. Over time, you may notice you’re no longer identified with the painful feelings that brought you to the practice. You begin to feel your essential self as the awareness that notices—the vast, loving awareness that has room for whatever arises. Tara says,
“There’s that discovery that we’re no longer the self that was angry or afraid or ashamed; that what we are is that presence, that tenderness, that loving awareness. This shift in identity is really the blessing of the practice.”
The more we practice RAIN, she says, the more it becomes “a familiar pathway home.”