Radical Self-Compassion

Loving ourselves into healing with the practice of RAIN.

Posted Jan 04, 2020

Many years ago, I read a moving article by a hospice caregiver who had accompanied thousands of people during their final weeks. One phrase, in particular, has stayed with me. After countless hours listening to the thoughts of the dying, the caregiver summed up their greatest regret with these words: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

I started asking myself questions like these: What does it mean to live true to yourself? Do you feel that your life is aligned with what matters to your heart? Are you living true to yourself—today? Right now? A few months later, I began asking the same questions of my meditation students. 

What I found is that this regret of the dying is also true for many of the rest of us. My students tell me that being true to themselves means being loving, present, and authentic. They speak of being honest, serving others, serving the world. They talk about expressing their creativity, believing in their own worthiness, and working at what they love. And about having the strength to grow beyond their insecurities and to reconcile troubled relationships. 

They also say that, almost daily, they lose sight of these aspirations and intentions. Instead, they get caught up in reactivity—self-­judgment, blaming others, pettiness, selfishness, living on autopilot. As one student said, “Each day there’s a big gap between what’s possible and how I’m actually living my life. And with that comes an ever-­lurking sense of personal failure. “

The Path of Self-Compassion

I know the suffering of that “gap” intimately. Even though I’ve now been teaching and writing about self-compassion for almost 40 years, I still can turn on myself at times of stress. For many years the “trance of unworthiness” kept me feeling deficient as a friend and daughter, partner and parent. It fueled doubt about my capability as a therapist and teacher. And when I faced severe physical illness, it initially fostered a sense of personal failure. 

Yet this very suffering—feeling deficient and disconnected—has also been my most fertile ground for waking up. It has led me to a spiritual path and practices that I cherish. And when I get stuck in painful emotions, it brings me to a repeating realization, an insight that has profoundly changed my life: I have to love myself into healing. The only path that can carry me home is the path of self-compassion.

RAIN: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture

There’s an image I love that shows mindfulness and compassion as inseparable dimensions of awakening. It depicts awareness as a bird with two wings: When both wings are unfurled in their fullness and beauty, the bird can fly and be free.

Finding a way to practice radical compassion brings alive the wings of mindfulness and compassion when we most need them. Practice helps heal and release the painful beliefs and emotions that keep us from living true to ourselves.

And for so many of my students and me, that way in is called RAIN. The name is an acronym that stands for the four steps of Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. Working with these four steps has given me—and can give you—a reliable way to find healing and freedom right where you are in the midst of emotional pain. 

As you’ll see, these steps are easy to learn, and they can be a lifeline in moments when you feel stressed, fearful, reactive, and confused. These same steps, revisited, again and again, build internal resilience and trust in your own wise, awakening heart. They will help you respond to life in a way that expresses the truth and depth and spirit of who you are.

Not Enough Time

One of the places I most often get caught is in the trance of “not enough time.” I know I’m not alone; many of us speed through the day, anxiously crossing tasks off the list. This often comes hand in hand with feeling beleaguered, annoyed at interruptions, and worried about what’s around the corner.

One day several years ago, I was in last-minute mode and madly sifting through my disorganized files, trying to find material for my evening talk on loving-kindness. Much like the files, my mind was cluttered and chaotic. As I was searching, my 83-year-old mother popped into my office and began telling me about an article she’d seen in The New Yorker. She often stopped by for a casual chat.

But seeing that I was busy and distracted, she simply laid the magazine down on my desk and left. As she retreated, something in me just stopped, and I was struck by the reality that she wouldn’t always be around for these shared moments. And then I was struck again: Here I was, ignoring my mom and mentally scurrying around to compose a talk on love!

It wasn’t the first time I was jarred by forgetting what mattered. During that first year my mom lived with my husband and me, I felt squeezed by the additional demands on my time. Often when we had dinner together, I’d look for the break in the conversation when I could excuse myself and get back to work.

On errands or trips to doctor appointments, rather than enjoying her company, I’d be fixated on how quickly we could get everything done. Our time together often felt obligatory: She was lonely, and I was the main person around. Many times, I felt guilty. And then when I’d slow down some, I also felt a deep sadness.

A Pause for Practice

That afternoon in my office, I decided to pause and call on RAIN to help me deal with my anxiety about being prepared. I sat down in a comfortable chair and took a few moments to gather myself before beginning.

The first step was simply to Recognize (R) what was going on inside me—the swirling anxious thoughts and guilty feelings.

The second step was to Allow (A) what was happening by breathing and letting be. I didn’t like what I was feeling, but my intention was not to fix or change anything and not to judge myself for feeling anxious or guilty. 

Allowing made it possible to collect and deepen my attention before beginning the third step: to Investigate (I) what felt most difficult. With curiosity and care, I directed my attention to the feelings of anxiety in my body—a tightness, pulling, and pressure around my heart. I asked the anxious part of me what it believed, and the answer was deeply familiar: It believed I was going to fail. If I wasn’t perfectly prepared, I’d do a bad job and let people down. 

But that same anxiety made me unavailable to my mother, so I was also failing someone I loved dearly. As I became conscious of these pulls of guilt and fear, I continued to investigate. Contacting that torn, anxious part of myself, I asked, “What do you most need right now?” I could immediately sense that it needed care and reassurance that I was not going to fail in any real way. It needed to trust that the teachings would flow through me and to trust the love that flows between my mother and me.

I’d arrived at the fourth step of RAIN, Nurture (N), and I sent a gentle message inward, directly to that anxious part: “It’s okay, sweetheart. You’ll be all right; we’ve been through this so many times before . . . trying to come through on all fronts.” I could feel warm, soothing energy spreading through my body. Then there was a distinct shift: My heart softened a bit, my shoulders relaxed, and my mind felt more clear and open.

I sat still for another minute or two and let myself rest in this clearing, rather than quickly jumping back into work.

Shifting From Trance to Healing

My pause for RAIN took only a few minutes but made a big difference. When I returned to my desk, I was no longer trapped inside the story that something bad was around the corner. Now that the anxiety had loosened, my thoughts began to flow, and I remembered a perfect illustration for my talk. Taking some moments for RAIN gave me access to the clarity and openheartedness that I hoped to talk about that evening. And later that afternoon, my mom and I took a short, sweet walk in the woods, arms linked.

Since then, I’ve done a brief version of RAIN with anxiety countless times. I still experience anxiety, but something fundamental has changed. It doesn’t take over. I don’t get lost in a trance. Instead, when I pause and shift my attention from my story about getting things done to the actual experience in my body and heart, it opens up to a space of increased presence and kindness. Often I’ll keep working, but sometimes I decide to step outside and play with my pup, make some tea, or water the plants. There’s more choice.

Only by intentionally bringing attention to our inner experience can we move from trance toward healing. But the key is, we have first to realize we’re in a trance—to become aware of the circling anxious thoughts, the tightness in our shoulders, the pressure from rushing about. Then we can begin to turn from our stories—about someone else’s wrongness, about our own deficiencies, about trouble around the corner—to directly feel our fears, hurts, and vulnerability, and ultimately the tender wakefulness of our heart. This is the all-important shift that unfolds progressively through the steps of RAIN. 

Adapted from Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Ourselves and Our World with the Practice of RAIN, Tara Brach (Viking, 2019).

References

Brach, T. (2019). Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of Rain. New York, NY: Viking Life.