Painful emotions are difficult.
And yet, they are a part of everyday life: irritation when an app quits on our phone; loneliness while watching tv alone on a Friday night; panic when our pen runs out during a meeting.
In a sense, life is like a dirt road—beautiful yet bumpy. “Washboard” sections are another matter altogether—they're jarring and bone-rattling, leaving us desperate to return to the ‘smooth’ dirt.
Similarly, when a challenging emotion interrupts our day, we attack the perceived source of the pain or sweep the discomfort aside and get back to being busy. Here’s the problem: unfelt painful feelings never go away. They hide for a time only to reappear like an unwanted cold sore on a first date.
Battling emotions or squashing them is wearying, but what else can we do?
Thankfully, a simple meditation called the RAIN technique can help smooth the road of life anytime, anywhere.
RAIN is a form of meditation developed by Buddhist meditation teacher Michele McDonald in the 1980s. During a 3-month retreat, she noticed describing RAIN as the qualities that make up a moment of mindfulness.
The acronym RAIN resonated. The listeners now understood what mindfulness was and how to practice it systematically. To Michele, this was revelatory, a new way of teaching and practicing mindfulness that anyone could follow.
To understand the RAIN technique, it can be helpful to understand meditation more broadly.
Meditation is simply the practice of paying attention and developing awareness—seeing what’s happening, as it’s happening, objectively and without judgment.
“Meditation” generally refers to meditating while sitting in silence, whereas “mindfulness,” a type of meditation, refers to meditating while engaged in daily life. They complement one another: meditation supports mindfulness, and mindfulness helps meditation.
Sitting meditation prepares us for the mental and emotional rigors of daily life. Mindfulness lets us bring the quiet, steady attention cultivated during sitting meditation into everyday activities like typing an email, preparing dinner, or brushing our teeth.
In my experience, practicing both daily is best.
“As we’ve learned, daily [meditation] practice enhances our ability to be present, accept feelings as they come and go, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by them.” - Marc Brackett
Here’s what mindfulness looks like: While washing dishes, I can lose myself in thought, or I can give my attention to the direct experience of sensation—feeling the dish in my hand, smelling the soap, hearing the brush against the plate, and seeing the food washing away. Same action, very different experience.
RAIN is a meditation tool that makes mindfulness accessible with an acronym that’s as easy to remember as it is simple to practice using the following four steps:
RAIN can be used in formal mediation, in a more abbreviated way whenever challenging emotions arise, or to ground yourself in the present.
On weekdays, I feel pressured and hurried caught between to-dos and the time and energy to do them. I start the day excited about the meaningful work ahead, but I’m often tired and spent by late afternoon. When my energy is low and half of my to-dos remain, I’m in the “danger zone” and at risk of a Chornobyl-like mental meltdown.
A few weeks ago, my mom called during one of these moments. The phone rang, the word “Mom” appeared on the screen, and I thought, “Ugh, not now.” I was exasperated.
I slid the arrow to the right and said, “Hi, mom,” with forced enthusiasm. “Oh, hi, Ryan,” she said. “I just called to thank you for the flowers. I can’t get over how beautiful they are. They’re just absolutely gorgeous. Thank you, that was so thoughtful of you.”
She continued until I asked if she had talked to my brother lately. “No,” she said, her mood darkening. “I don’t talk to my sons much. They don’t usually call.”
I felt the anguish of guilt. “Have you and dad watched any good shows lately?” I said. “Oh, yeah. We have,” she said. “Uhhh…oh shoot—hey, Pat, what’s the name of that show we watched last night?” "Have you read any good books lately,” I said. “Oh, yeah, let me see, they’re around here somewhere.”
My mom suffers from Alzheimer’s, and her mind is deteriorating. She remembers the past but not the present. When I talk with her, I feel sad. Sadness for her. Sadness for my father. Sadness for aging. Sadness for the life she gave up to raise four kids while supporting my father’s career. And sadness for anyone dealing with “the hell of Alzheimer’s,” as my dad calls it.
With exasperation, guilt, and sadness swirling about, I thought, “I should be a better son.” I’m not sure what a better son looks like, but I imagine him regularly calling, writing thoughtful cards, and being more enthusiastic about family reunions.
… I've long since retired, my son's moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I'd like to see you if you don't mind
He said, I'd love to, dad, if I can find the time
You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad
It's been sure nice talking to you
- Harry Chapin
After putting down the phone, I decided to practice RAIN to help process my feelings around my mom and the anxiety about all that remained on my to-do list. I went upstairs to my meditation cushion and took a few breaths.
The first step was to Recognize (R) what was happening inside me—the mix of exasperation, guilt, sadness, and anxious thoughts. For example, I observed the sensations of anxiety in my body and the pulsing energy in my upper chest.
The next step was to Allow (A) what was going on by letting it exist. The feelings of anxiety and guilt were unsettling, but my intention wasn’t to get rid of them and, equally important, not to judge myself for having those feelings.
Allowing the feelings permitted me to steady my attention before starting the third step: to Investigate (I) what I was experiencing. I inquired about my beliefs about the anxiety, and the usual story revealed: “I’m not good enough. The client won't like my work if I can’t develop enough creative ideas.”
Anxiety also made me hesitant to talk to my mom, whom I love. So I asked the anxiety, “What do you need from me?” The response acknowledged that simultaneously being a son, a parent, and a partner is not easy. I’m doing the best I can, and if I could do better, I would.
That led me to the fourth step of RAIN, Nurture (N). I said to the guilty part, “You’re doing your best. It’s not easy; everyone struggles with these situations. You woke up early, and you’ve been working hard this week. Just because you hesitated to pick up the phone doesn’t make you a bad person. It means you’re human.”
I could feel my mind relax, the tension in my body release. My heart felt more at peace, and I knew I cared about my mom and trusted that the love between us would continue. I sat for a little longer to let the new spaciousness settle in until I felt ready to return to work.
No special equipment is needed to practice RAIN—feel free to practice wherever is most comfortable for you. Before starting, know that being with your experience without reacting is not a one-time event but a learned skill requiring repetition. That’s why meditation (and mindfulness) is called a practice.
R—Recognize what's happening. Take a few breaths to settle and notice what’s happening inside you openly and without judgment. What sensations are you feeling in your body? What emotions? What thoughts?
Gently note what’s calling your attention most. For example, “My stomach is tight” or “I’m feeling angry.” The recognition puts you in direct contact with experience, and labeling the sensations, emotions, and thoughts creates space around them. “When you hit upon your true feelings,” writes clinical psychologist and author Lindsay Gibson, “you’ll feel a release of tension or sense of relief in your body.”
Noticing the emotional tone alone—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—can be helpful if that's too much.
“Even while living safely between emergencies, most of us feel a wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis.” — Sam Harriss
Recognizing feelings, thoughts, and mental states means consciously acknowledging what’s happening in the moment. A simple mental whisper noting what you are most aware of is all that’s needed.
A—Allow the experience to be here as it is. Allowing means letting your experience be without trying to fix it or make it go away, even if you don’t like what’s happening.
Unpleasant experiences usually trigger resistance, suppression, or compartmentalization. But resisting compounds physical contraction and prolongs emotional suffering. Struggle entangles us in thoughts and emotions, causing us to react unconsciously rather than respond wakefully.
Allowing is not endorsing but acknowledging the reality of your situation. Letting your experience exist is the first step to waking up from emotional autopilot, softening mental resistance, and releasing bodily contraction.
By allowing, we’re letting go of resistance and surrendering to what is. As you do this, you may notice your mind feeling less contracted and your breath and body more at ease. Allowing creates a pause letting you deepen your attention to help you get unstuck.
I—Investigate with curiosity and care. So far, you’ve recognized what’s happening and allowed it to be. The next step is to investigate with curiosity and kindness. The following questions may help you explore more deeply to discover what is true.
What am I telling myself about this experience?
Why am I feeling this way?
Did something happen to trigger these intense emotions?
Am I hungry? Did I get enough sleep?
What do I most need right now?
What can I do to show compassion and kindness in this difficult moment?
“To keep growing, you need to be open to the unfamiliar, even the uncomfortable. And leaning into your uncomfortable emotions allows you to learn from them.” Susan David
The more you forego concepts and feel into your direct experience, the more transformative RAIN will be, and the more you will grow along the maturity continuum.
N—Nurture with self-compassion. In what way(s) can you respond to your body, heart, and mind that would be most helpful right now?
Drawing upon your inner knowing, you may offer some words of kindness: “This is difficult, and it would be for anyone.” You may feel like placing your hand on your heart. You may wish to acknowledge yourself for the responsibilities and pressures you’ve been handling at home and work.
“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl
Compassionate self-talk like this is a skillful means of nurturing ourselves. Feel free to experiment to see what resonates with you.
Note: In the original RAIN, “N” stands for Non-Identification, a way of depersonalizing our experiences. Tara Brach has since modified and popularized RAIN, where “N” stands for Nurture, and non-identification is an outcome of self-nurturing. Practicing is more important than the word you use to practice.
After completing the RAIN steps, notice the quality of your presence while resting in that wakeful, tender space of awareness.
The fruit of RAIN is realizing you are no longer identified with or imprisoned by any limiting sense of self. Relish this truth of existence, the mysterious and precious gift of the natural freedom of your being.
“One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain…” - Susan David
In our fantasy world, a never-ending stream of pleasurable experiences would exist without pain. But that’s not how life is—being alive is beautiful and painful.
Fighting emotions is like struggling in quicksand—the more you resist, the deeper you sink. We don’t see this, so we continue to struggle, sinking deeper and deeper.
RAIN meditation offers us a way out. A simple technique to stop battling emotions and choose a different path. A means of relating and being present to all feelings in a more curious, open-hearted, and compassionate way, so we can navigate complex emotions with greater ease.
May practicing RAIN help reduce your pain so you can experience greater joy on your spiritual journey.