Our lives are a constant flow of emotions, which are essential to what it means to be human.
Pause for a moment and think about all the different emotions you’ve experienced so far today, from pleasant (e.g. joy, satisfaction, amusement, calm…), to unpleasant (e.g. anger, frustration, boredom, embarrassment…), with different degrees of intensity.
In my experience, it’s quite common for people to approach mindfulness practices moved by a desire to better deal with strong, unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety, fear, grief, shame…the list goes on.
Besides the long-term benefits of practicing mindfulness in terms of self-awareness and self-regulation around emotions, mindfulness also offers some useful “tools” to deal with emotions in the moment, as they happen.
My favorite is called R.A.I.N., a 4-step practice that often comes to my rescue when I am feeling overwhelmed by emotions. Here’s how it works:
Recognise: This is step number one – being able to recognise that you are experiencing an emotion, and being able to name it. It sounds simple and maybe even obvious, but believe me, for most of us it takes a while before we realise what’s going on with us and it’s often after we’ve been surprised by our own reaction to a certain situation.
As kids, we are taught how to recognise letters, numbers, colours, tastes but usually not emotions, and so as adults, the best answer we can give to a sincere “How are you feeling?” is somewhere between “good” and “OK”.
The next time you recognise that an emotional state has arisen, go ahead and name it. Sometimes it could even be a cluster of emotions. For example, just a few hours ago, I came across an unpleasant work email and experienced disappointment, anger and discouragement.
Accept/Allow: Once you’ve noticed the presence of a certain emotion, the next step is to accept it, and let it be there. Our instinct when visited by unpleasant emotions might be to refuse, push back, ignore and numb them. If you’ve ever tried it, you might have noticed that at best it didn’t work and probably made you feel even worse. Next time, try to give space to your emotions, practice being with them, without any judgment for how you should or should not be feeling.
Coming back to my example, I intentionally allowed myself to be angry and disappointed, I accepted to be with those very unpleasant feelings and silenced the voice inside urging me to quickly move on and pretend it hadn’t happened.
Investigate: This is not an intellectual investigation, but rather a physical exploration of what emotions feel like. While you are allowing the emotion to be there, bring some kind of curiosity to the experience and notice: where do you most feel it in your body? What physical sensations are associated with it? What thoughts come up? What actions would you be moved to take?
Since your body is much quicker at detecting emotions than your mind, this step is crucial for developing your ability to quickly identify emotions as they emerge.
In my example, I felt a tightness in my chest, a rush of heat to my face, noticed my heartbeat accelerating and my breath shortening.
Non-attachment: Finally, remind yourself that emotions are transient, volatile; they change, come and go like every other experience. Notice how the quality or the intensity of your emotion might have changed in the short time of going through the first 3 steps of this practice. Notice how new emotions emerge all the time, replacing what was there just minutes before.
With this realisation, practice non-attachment: you are not your emotions. You are not “anxious”, but “you are experiencing anxiety right now”. Welcome both pleasant and unpleasant emotion as a natural part of your experience, bound to appear, change and disappear like clouds in the sky.
One closing remark: while most of us feel the need to practice RAIN when overwhelmed with unpleasant emotions, RAIN can also be a wonderful practice to help us appreciate and enjoy pleasant emotions, without clinging to them or trying to make them last forever.
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