Working with Waves

In my last post, I talked about the difficulties people face in working through emotions. Whether it be new clients to therapy, or novice meditators it is difficult to convey the importance of exploring the felt sense of anger, hurt, rejection, guilt. It is tempting to stay in the story, retreat to the head – because that is what we know. However, as hard as we try, we cannot think our way back to emotional health; it is my belief that we need to feel our way there.

There are many forms of therapy that help people explore the bodily held sensations underneath powerful emotions. The so-called ‘experiential therapies’ believe that change comes only once we have accepted our experience, and that experience in its totality – the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions. My own approach relies upon two such streams – Gestalt and Focusing – and I have found them very powerful in opening up and processing emotions in the safety of the therapy room. However, what about the 6 days between therapy sessions, what can people do to work with the waves and not feel in danger of overwhelm?

rainWorking with a therapist will bring useful insight as to the root of the problem the client is facing; Meditation, or simply sitting in stillness allows the client to give space to the feelings. This is how meditation and therapeutic counselling form a formidable duo. I will spend more time on this topic in a future post, but for today I wanted to introduce a useful practice that can help ‘compost’ emotions: the acronym of ‘RAIN’.

RAIN is a four step process that gives structure to emotional processing. I think structure is vital to give people confidence to turn toward the emotional rapids – like a life raft in the stormy sea.

The first step of RAIN is to recognise what is arising in experience. Take yourself back to an argument with a loved one – were you able to feel the anger or hurt as it was coming on? Maybe you could feel tension in your facial muscles, increasing warmth, a knot in your stomach. Can we be present enough to notice the bodily changes we are undergoing while in the moment of the experience that is gripping us? Maybe you can tune in the to commentary in your head, “I am noticing that comment upset me; I am noticing I want to cry”. The key here is observation not reaction. It would be easy to focus on the story – “He has hurt me, look how he treats me”. The ‘recognise’ step is to name simply what is present, dropping the story. I have found it useful to encourage clients to change their language around emotion. Look at this progression as we learn to work more skilfully with our emotions: “He has made me angry” to “I am angry” to “I have anger” and finally to “There is anger arising”.

The next step is to acknowledge the experience ‘as it is’, even if it’s terribly unpleasant. The key is to stay with it – to allow it, not push it away, not try to change it. This is a hard step because it requires self-compassion rather than self-criticism. I often point out to clients that it is our resistance to the pain in life that brings the suffering. We have a choice to not add to the difficulty of an already tough situation – but it does take practice. Open up to the physical sensations – to be with the knot in your stomach, the tightness in your chest. The physical reactions in a time of stress are simply the body’s way to protect against threat. If we allow the physical sensations to arise, just sit with them, they will subside in about 60 to 90s. Again, this takes practice – we have learnt to suppress emotions, so to allow expression of them goes against our survival logic.

Having allowed the emotions some space, we can now bring an attitude of inquiry and investigation. We can become interested and curious. This can be a confusing step. Typically, we look for any chance to understand our experience by going to thinking mode. However, this step is not asking for intellectual analysis – that can detach us from what is actually happening. Instead we are looking to go in to our experience. Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher gives some great examples of how we might engage in a gentle exploration:

“What most wants attention?”
“How am I experiencing this in my body?”
“What am I believing?”
“What does this feeling want from me?”
This is such a powerful step, as it allows us to soften to our experience. For example, we may become aware of the feelings of hurt under the brittle armour of anger.

The final step calls for us to not-identify with our experience. Undoubtedly, we ARE having a feeling, a thought, an emotion but it is NOT who we are. If we have been able to sit with the arising emotion or physical sensation long enough, we will see how it falls away. With time and experience of this, we begin to see that the various parts of the experience are fleeting aspects of the totality of who we are. In the Buddhist teachings on meditation, we are encouraged to see our minds and our experience as the clear, blue sky. The clouds are passing weather, the blue sky remains even if we cannot see it. Like the changing weather, sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away often have nothing to do with us.

sun after stormWhether a formal practice, or taking the time to slow down in everyday life, RAIN is a great way for us to fully experience what is going on for us on all levels – our thinking, our feelings, our emotions yet to refrain from taking it too personally. Be careful here though – it is not a way to side-step or avoid: Rather than detach, we are training to be non-attached. It can help if we view all experience as energy – if we can allow this energy to flow, emotions will come and go (like white fluffy clouds); and that opens up a sense of spaciousness and peace.

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