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Have you ever noticed how tough it is to be present? We spend so much time planning and worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.
"We're in a trance of thinking. We're time traveling," says Tara Brach, a world-renowned psychologist and mindfulness teacher. "We're in the future, we're in the past."
And all this ruminating gets in the way of enjoying life — we can miss out on the good stuff.
If you reflect on your life, Brach asks, how often can you sense that the fear of failing or not being good enough "was in some way dampening or contracting or pulling you away from real intimacy or spontaneity or enjoying a sunset?"
Life Kit host Allison Aubrey spoke with Brach about her latest book, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN. The book outlines the mindfulness tool, RAIN, an acronym for a four-step process: recognize, allow, investigate and nurture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is mindfulness at its core. Can you describe mindfulness in a sentence or two?
Mindfulness is paying attention to what's happening in the present moment without judgment.
What is the purpose? What is the benefit of paying attention to the present moment?
We step out of our thoughts about the past and the future, and we actually start occupying a space of presence that is bigger than the particular emotions or thoughts that are going on.
Mindfulness gives us more choice as to how we want to experience things, what we want to say, what we want to do. So instead of reacting, we can actually respond from more intelligence, more kindness. It actually lets us inhabit our best selves.
The "R" and the "A" in RAIN stand for Recognize and Allow — can you explain that?
So "recognize" comes when we realize on some level we're stuck. We're having a hard time. All we're doing with "recognize" is sensing whatever feeling is predominant in that moment. And it might be we simply say 'upset' or 'confused' or 'angry' or 'hurt'.
With "allow" you actually are pausing, saying 'it's OK.' Let's just let this be for a few moments. And that's the pause. That's the space we're creating that gives you the power and the freedom.
So the next step is "I" for investigate. What are some questions that you can ask to help yourself investigate?
Ask yourself 'what really wants my attention?' Ask what wants your attention right now and look into the body. Feel the throat, the chest, the belly. Another really good question is 'what am I believing right now?' Because I find for myself when I'm in a bad mood, usually I'm believing that in some way I fell short. I'm failing in some way.
And if I can identify it consciously, it doesn't affect me as much. The single most valuable finale with investigating is to ask the part of you that feels most vulnerable: 'so what do you need?' Is it love? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Feeling accompanied? Feeling embraced? Feeling safe?
The last letter in RAIN is "N," which stands for nurture. Explain this one.
This step is all about learning to be kind to yourself and offering yourself what is needed. Often, to fight through the feelings of shame or anxiety, we have to work at this. The way I often do it is I put my hand on my heart and I'll say, "it's okay sweetheart." Or you might just say to yourself, "I love you," or, "It's okay, I'm here. I'm not leaving."
Or, we can imagine that affirmation coming from someone else — a loved one, a spiritual figure, even a pet. The source doesn't matter as long as it's nurturing.
After RAIN, we can sense a shift in how we feel. We sense the quality of presence that's opened up from where we started to now.
For those of us not in the habit of nurturing ourselves, this can be a challenging step in the process. For instance, if I over-react to a situation, I later laugh at my lack of perspective. I realize that it wasn't a big deal, and I feel so much lighter when I'm able to laugh it off. Is this a form of nurturing?
Nurturing is any way that you create a larger, lighter, kinder space. And humor is fantastic. Often if I can laugh, I know the tangle is no longer dominating me.
And that's the thing with RAIN, it doesn't get rid of the waves of experience. It makes you more ocean-like. You have more perspective, more wisdom. Wisdom brings on humor. Wisdom brings on kindness. In other words, you're not suffering. What you're feeling is not pleasant, but you're not suffering.
So many of us are taught from a young age to be ambitious and aim high. How can we practice mindfulness and still achieve our goals?
What's interesting is that people have a fear that if they're mindful and present, they'll lose their motivation, that they won't be able to be so successful in the ways you're describing. But what I found is that anxiety actually leads to more mistakes, less empathy, less emotional intelligence and actually less effectiveness.
Where do you see this?
We train people in corporations and medical schools and they actually find mindfulness increases competency. Mindfulness doesn't remove motivation. It just allows us to be more centered and respond from our natural intelligence. Fear doesn't make us more intelligent.
Does mindfulness become easier the more you practice it?
Whatever you practice gets stronger. If you practice judging yourself every day, that gets stronger. If you practice recognizing, allowing, investigating, nurturing, that gets stronger and also quicker.
The real gift is that we start trusting our goodness. We start trusting the love and the awareness. Not only that, we start looking at each other and seeing that too. If we can trust the goodness, then we can help to bring it out in ourselves and each other.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider.