One of the challenges that we all face in life is balancing the needs we have as individuals with the needs of others we are in relationship with: balancing self and other. This is a challenge recognised by many systems of thought: from the ancient wisdom traditions through to contemporary Western psychology. For example, the Buddhist teachings (or Dharma) speak specifically to the importance of “equalising self and other” – of being kind to others, but not at the expense of one’s self.
It is easy for us to get this balance wrong, even when we may choose a path that urges us to pay attention to our relationships with others. For instance, the Buddhist psychologist John Welwood has coined the phrase ‘spiritual bypassing’ when people use spiritual teachings to cover psychological wounds. I have observed this in clients who are on the Buddhist path – individuals put others first as a way to guard against ‘defects’ they feel in themselves. The spiritual practices cover-up the inadequacies felt and serve as a way to ‘be a better person’.
By no means is this exclusive to Buddhists or those on other spiritual paths: it is a common theme with clients in therapy: “how do I keep mypartner happy but also get the love I need?”; or “how do I look inward to reflect on what has hurt me without forgetting to be there for my partner?”. People can feel therapy is self-indulgent – that all the inward looking makes someone selfish. Yet without the personal work, how can we truly be there for others (without an undercurrent of needs unmet and growing resentment)?
A client was recently explaining a scenario in which he was talking to a friend over coffee. During their conversation, “Paul”* noticed an inner flinch – his friend had said something that triggered him. Paul noticed that whilst his friend kept talking, he had shut down – Paul was no longer listening to his friend, he was no longer present and rather, swimming in a sea of emotions. When we get triggered, we go in to “flight or fright” – the chemical responses initated by our brain are attempting to guarentee our survival NOT staying open to emotional connection. We get triggered when we are momentarily transported back to a time when the initial wounding took place. In Paul’s case, his friend made a remark that reminded him of being criticised by his father as a child. Paul has a mindfulness practice: he has used this practice to notice how he reacts in the moment. He was able to recognise his body constricting, and having talked about his relationship with his father before in therapy, was able to label it “criticism”. I have previously written about RAIN, a four step process that can help emotional processing. ‘Recognise’ is the first step.
The RAIN practice is championed by Buddhist teacher Tara Brach. I had the privilage of attending a workshop Tara presented in London last weekend, even grabbing a few moments with her to discuss how I was integrating Buddhist psychology and practices in my psycotherapy work and valuing the contribution they make in taking a client towards healing. The workshop was on “conscious loving”, and how we can work with intimacy in any type of relationship: with partners, at work, with family. I have found RAIN to be incredibly useful in helping clients move beyond an intellectual understanding of pain and suffering, allowing an opportunity to re-experience past wounding, essential to healing. Going back to Paul, it is only by tuning in to how criticism feels that is allowing Paul to recognise when that is in the air; when the past is contaminating the present relationship. He has become frustrated with how his history of hurt and inadequacy prevents authentic relationship with people: he withdraws and risks the very rejection he fears.
“Intimacy with others can be the ground for experiencing full aliveness and sacred communion. Yet as so many have experienced, our relationships are also often the source of insecurity and disappointment, hurt and betrayal” – Tara Brach
Working with Paul has made me consider how RAIN can help in that balance of self and other. It is perhaps one thing to do RAIN as a ‘formal’ practice: we sit quietly on our own and bring to mind an event that has triggered us: Recognise how it feels in the body; Allow that feeling to be there; gently Investigate – in Paul’s case he can link it to a childhood experience of criticism; and then bring Nurturing**. We could also attempt to do that ‘in-the-moment’ of being triggered: almost like a ‘mini-RAIN’ or shower! Just quickly recognise that flinch, allow it to be there (we don’t always need to do full RAIN; just the first two steps can be enough to honour the reaction).
However, doing RAIN in real time can tip us out of balance with regard to self and other. We can get so caught up in the practice that we feel as separate as if we were in the full throes of the emotional tidal wave. Paul found this to be particularly true when encountering situations where the trigger was so big, it risked re-traumatising him. He recounted a time with his mother in which she failed to support his recollection of an event: his father had publicly criticised him in front of his teachers. Although 40 years later, hearing his mother’s version of events, he felt sick. Unlike the time with his friend – where Paul felt he could have shared his reaction and process with his friend – Paul has reconciled that his mother won’t ever see his perspective.
The challenge therefore to Paul: to use these situations to help himself move on; without causing him to retract or react in a way that hurts his aging mother.
We talked through how RAIN might be adapted across these different levels of experiencing, and we came up with these ideas (which he has given me permission to share here):
- Use RAIN as a formal practice after the event has happened, as a way to work through emotions and link with the understanding gained in therapeutic work
- To use a mini-RAIN when triggered in the moment: to notice the trigger and its appearance e.g. a contraction in the body; to allow that to be there in the background. In a sense, we are letting it be, letting it go. If you feel safe enough, you may even choose to share your reaction with the person.
- When the situation engenders a trigger that risks overwhelm or “flooding” (perhaps with people with whom we are in close relationship with, or in particularly hostile situations e.g. conflict at work): again recognise the feeling in the body, acknowledge it, understand it has a root but then, make a choice to come back to the moment with full presence YET a commitment to process it later: this processing can be done with a therapist or a trusted friend. Paul and I did talk about him using his journal, but we both agreed that there is a power in bringing someone alongside to ‘bare witness’. As Buddhist psychologist John Welwood explains, relational wounds need to be healed in relationship.
I believe choosing one of these steps can be incredibly beneficial in acknowledging the root of the wounding (nurturing the hurt inner Child in the language of many psychotherapy approaches), but not at the expense of being with the other.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, including your experiences (or questions) regarding RAIN. Drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org
*The client’s name is changed to protect his identity
**Tara explained at the weekend that she is using Nurture as the ‘N’ in RAIN now rather than ‘Non-identify’. Non-identify was getting confused as another step ‘to do’ rather than being the fruition of the practice. ‘Nurture’ adds the heart aspect, the compassion needed for our experience.