ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Allison Aubrey. You know, with our busy lives, it can feel like we're constantly living for the future.
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AUBREY: What time do I need to leave for work? Can I get there on time? Or there's the bigger stuff such as, will I ever get that promotion or meet that goal? We have so many regrets about the past, worries about the future. You think to yourself, why did I pick that fight or say that mean thing to my sister? Why didn't I stand up for myself?
TARA BRACH: We're in a trance of thinking. We're time traveling. We're in the future. We're in the past.
AUBREY: That's Tara Brach. She's a psychologist and a kind of superstar in the meditation world. And she says, often, those distracting thoughts can be about bigger feelings, like am I doing a good job? Am I enough?
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AUBREY: Tara says all this ruminating - it makes us miss out on the good stuff.
BRACH: If we look at our lives, how many moments can you sense that, in some way, the fear of failing or the self-consciousness or the feeling of being not good enough was in some way dampening or contracting or pulling you away from real intimacy or spontaneity or enjoying a sunset.
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AUBREY: So this episode, a conversation with Tara Brach about her latest book, "Radical Compassion." It outlines something called RAIN, a simple, useful mindfulness tool that can quiet those distracting thoughts that, frankly, aren't very useful.
BRACH: And to be everything we most value - love, creativity, wisdom, compassion - comes from being present. So mindfulness gives us access to those qualities. We step out of the trance of thinking, and we come into our full being.
AUBREY: What is mindfulness? If you strip it down to the bare-bones, can you describe mindfulness in a sentence or two?
BRACH: Mindfulness is paying attention to what's happening in the present moment without judgment.
AUBREY: Wow, that may have been one sentence.
BRACH: Yeah. It just means you want to be able to choose, you know, is right now thinking and planning helpful? Or is this really chronic worry that keeps me trapped in a sense of anxiety?
AUBREY: And what is the purpose? What is the benefit of paying attention to the present moment?
BRACH: Well, what happens when we're paying attention to what's actually right here and now is, first of all, 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. And it gives us more choice as to how we want to experience things, what we want to say, what we want to do.
There's a beautiful quote by Viktor Frankl that says, between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. And in that space is your power and your freedom. And mindfulness of the moment actually gives us some space. So instead of reacting, we can actually respond from more intelligence, more kindness. It actually lets us inhabit our best selves.
AUBREY: And it seems like an easy concept, this idea of forget about the worry of the past, forget about the anticipatory anxiety of the future. Be in the present. Though it's so much easier said than done. And in your new book, you outline a tool, really, to arrive in the present. You call it RAIN, which is an acronym for recognize, allow, investigate, nurture. Walk us through it. How do you do this?
BRACH: Well, first of all, the acronym RAIN is a tool. It's a mindfulness and compassion tool that helps us to untangle difficult emotions. And so often in our daily life, we get caught. We're caught either in anger, or we're caught in feeling hurt, or we're caught in anxiety. And most often, we're caught in feelings of our own personal failure but not really dropping in and feeling our moments. So recognize comes when we realize, on some level, we're stuck. We're having a hard time. So all we're doing with recognize is doing a scan and sensing whatever's predominant in that moment. And it might be we simply say upset or confused or angry or hurt. It is just noticing what most stands out to us.
AUBREY: So the next step in RAIN after recognize is allow, right? What happens there?
BRACH: 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 the power and the freedom.
AUBREY: So the next step is I for investigate. What are some questions that you can do to help investigate?
BRACH: Some of the best ways of investigating is first to ask, well, what really wants my attention? - just asking, what most wants my attention right now? And look into the body. Feel the throat, the chest, the belly. So it's somatic. 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 feeling like I've in some way not come through - I'm failing in some way.
AUBREY: Self-doubt creeps in.
BRACH: Yeah, and if I can identify it consciously, it doesn't affect me as much. These are parts of investigating. But the single-most valuable finale with investigating is to ask the part of you that feels most vulnerable, so what do you need? And if we're in conflict, it's not that you and I are in conflict, it's a conflict of unmet needs.
AUBREY: So that leads us to the last letter - N - which is for nurture. Explain that one.
BRACH: So in RAIN, the N is whatever we're feeling - the anxiety, the fear, the feelings of shame - we bring kindness to it. And that's the key because we need to have ways to nurture ourselves. And the way I often do it is I'll just put my hand on my heart, and I'll say, it's okay, sweetheart. Or other people will say, well, I'm sorry, and I love you. Or another person might say to themselves, it's OK. I'm here. I'm not leaving. But some nurturing. And when we can't offer it to ourselves because, sometimes, we feel too regressed to even offer ourselves comfort, we can imagine it coming from someone else, from a grandmother, or from a spiritual figure, or from our dog - it doesn't matter. And after the nurturing with RAIN, there's what I call "after the RAIN," quote, unquote. And what that means is we sense the shift, we sense the quality of presence that's opened up from where we started to now.
AUBREY: It's interesting that you focus on the nurture part because after I read about this RAIN tool, I tried it just the other day. I was on the Metro. I was running late. I had a 9:30 meeting. So I immediately went into this - woe is me. It's not my day - I was all bent out of shape. And so I had this thought, OK, I'm going to try RAIN just like Tara Brach has outlined. And what was really hard for me to do was the nurturing part because I kind of ended up laughing at myself. Maybe that is a form of nurturing?
BRACH: Well, that's just what I was going to say. Nurturing is any way that you create a larger, lighter, kinder space. And humor is fantastic. I mean, often if I can laugh, I know, OK, the tangle is no longer dominating me. It's not, Allison, that you're going to get rid of the angst. I mean, there's going to be some anxiety when you're running late that's still going to be in your body. But can your consciousness be big enough so that it doesn't dominate you, it's not taking over everything? And that's the thing with RAIN - is that it's not like it gets 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. It's not pleasant, but you're not suffering.
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AUBREY: Can RAIN kind of get you through the bigger stuff?
BRACH: It absolutely can. And one of the tricks with RAIN is - this belongs. Because if you can have really intense experience happen and feel the grief of a very major loss or feel the real fear that you're about to have a loss - the really big things in life - and in some way send the message - and this is kindness. This is nurturing. This belongs. This is a natural feeling. This is a wave that's part of the ocean.
AUBREY: Explain this concept of limbic hijack. The way I've heard you talk about it is that we kind of have two brains. We have sort of an old, ancient brain - the limbic system that is very reactive, driven by fear. And then we have sort of this higher consciousness that we can cultivate. You've said that if you can sort of move to this higher state of consciousness, you can kind of tamp down the reactivity or the fear of living in the limbic state. Is that right?
BRACH: So yeah, when there's a limbic hijack, it just simply means that fear and wanting have taken over in some way - or anger - and you're in the grip of it. And you have very little access to that frontal cortex. One person I'll just describe - and this was a guy who had a terrible temper, so his limbic hijack really was violating other people. You know, he would act out of it. And he started doing RAIN. And one of the guys who's a manager in a team in his company told him that his team was kind of behind on their work. And this guy normally would have just laid them out, but he had been practicing RAIN, so he had a pause - remember the - in between the stimulus and the response, there's a pause...
AUBREY: That's the power.
BRACH: Exactly. He had a pause, and that took him out of the full limbic hijack so he could start seeing this other guy. And he reminded himself, this guy's a hardworking guy. He's done a lot for us. He's a - he's honest. He's admitting it. So he did not go at him, and instead he said, well, I understand there must be good reasons. And the guy said, well, I wasn't going to say this, but my wife has breast cancer - I think it was. And we have two teens at home. It's just been a really hard time. And this man told me they hugged. And it was the first time at work he had ever had an experience like this - that because of RAIN, instead of lashing out at someone, having a limbic hijack, he had had enough of a pause, enough of an enlargement that he could see more clearly who this guy was, treat him humanely and, instead of violating him, be a comfort. This is the possibility.
AUBREY: I think this is really hard for all of us, probably everyone listening. And you talk about it as conditioning. But from the very beginning of our lives, we're told, like - I have an 8-year-old. And just this morning, I was like, Lily (ph), it's 8:20. The bus is at 8:50. Lily, it's 8:30, you need to eat breakfast. Lily, do you have your homework? It's all about, you know, how do you keep people on track? And how do you control them in a way that they're focused on succeeding in a way that fits with our definition of success in our culture? And if it starts so early, is mindfulness really a way of backing off of everything we've been conditioned to do and the very way we've been conditioned to think?
BRACH: What's interesting is that people have a fear that if they're mindful and present, they'll lose their motivation. They'll lose their edge. They won't be able to be so successful in the ways you're describing. But what I found is that that kind of conditioning actually creates an anxiety that leads to more mistakes, less empathy, less emotional intelligence and, actually, less effectiveness. So people I know - and we train people in corporations, in medical schools and so on - they actually find mindfulness increases competency. So mindfulness doesn't remove motivation. It just allows us to be more centered and respond from - really from our natural intelligence. Fear doesn't make us more intelligent.
AUBREY: And once you learn to use this tool, to use RAIN - this whole recognize, allow, investigate and nurture - once you had a handle on it, is it kind of like a gift that keeps giving? Is it easier to do? Is it then part of the way you operate without thinking? Or do you have to continue to keep working on it really, really hard?
BRACH: The description in neuropsychology is neural pathways. It's like, once you start establishing more pathways to nurturing - the more you practice, the stronger they get. 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. So it doesn't feel so much like you're doing a step-by-step, long process. I can in just, you know, a minute and half, you know, just kind of in some way sweep through and reconnect with myself.
And the gift, really, Allison, is that we start trusting our goodness. We start trusting the love and the awareness that's really our essence. And not only that - we start looking at each other and seeing that. So it's not like we're Pollyannaish. We still see the conditioning that has everybody acting out in different ways. But if we can trust the goodness, then we can help to bring it out in ourselves and each other.
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AUBREY: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes.
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AUBREY: I hosted one recently on how to take a break from drinking. And we've got lots of episodes on topics such as money, parenting and health. You can find these at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and you want more, subscribe to our newsletter. And here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from listener Pat Taylor (ph).
PAT TAYLOR: When I have to do chores, when I used to have to clean houses, I would take the job I least wanted to do first and get it over with. And then I wouldn't have to think about it the whole time. It was out of the way - like cleaning bathrooms. And I could have a good rest of the time cleaning the house.
AUBREY: If you've got a good tip, let us know. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. Or email us at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Clare Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.
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