Rein in unruly thoughts with R.A.I.N.

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When our attention gets totally entangled in thought knots that make us feel overwhelmed, it’s important to have a lifeline, especially if those thoughts are leading us to unskillful words or actions.

Our ongoing practice of coming back to the moment, back to our senses, is valuable. Pausing to center in, follow our breath, and open to infinite lovingkindness, can make all the difference in how we proceed. (If you are on the Insight Timer app and need a voice to talk you down, check out my four-minute ‘Upset Reset’ audio or my ‘Anxiety Relief’ guided meditation.)

Another lifeline is an acronym that was developed over twenty years ago by Insight meditation teacher Michele McDonald, and has been a mainstay of many teachers, especially Tara Brach, because it is effective and for many people easy to remember when needed. The acronym is R.A.I.N.

In all the years I’ve been teaching, I haven’t shared it because I, for some reason, have a difficult time remembering acronyms. But that’s no reason not to share this useful tool to deal with challenging moments. My students in class found it very helpful. And by teaching it, I may remember it, too!

Of course, the way each teacher shares it is a little different, and you’ll see that the language I use ties it in with the veil metaphor we’ve been exploring.

The R in R.A.I.N. stands for Recognize what is happening.
When our mind is on autopilot there’s nothing we can do until we recognize that our attention has been chasing down a thought thread and has perhaps gotten entangled in knots. That moment of recognition is pivotal. Until then, we’re helpless! Until we recognize what is happening, our attention will continue its wild chase. Maybe it will jump threads when there’s some shared thought object or jump into other subject veils, but it will race willy-nilly until we recognize what’s going on.

In the moment of recognition, we have a choice. We can realize our attention has been distracted and disconnected from the present moment. Or we can judge ourselves, sending our attention off on another chase along perhaps well-worn threads of harsh thoughts and painful emotions that are woven into our identity veils.

That moment of recognition is a lifeline, but it’s not one many of us have been trained to take. Advanced meditators know all too well that it isn’t easy to train attention to not chase after every thought. Attention is a lot like a puppy chasing after balls and butterflies. Sometimes it ends up with a mouthful of stinging bees! Have some compassion. It takes patience and kindness to cultivate the wise habit of recognizing what is happening.

The A in R.A.I.N. stands for Allow life to be just as it is.
Once we’ve recognized what’s happening, the next stage is Allowing. Allowing life to be as it is. Looking around and acknowledging that life is like this. All our judgments and opinions don’t alter it, but just entangle us in reactivity. Allowing doesn’t mean we can’t be effective change agents for the benefit of all beings. But to be effective in a positive way, we need to be anchored in awareness. We allow the existence of all these thoughts without making an enemy of them. Thoughts are just thoughts. But the constant inner turmoil of our attention chasing thought threads can be debilitating. So we practice refocusing our attention, again and again. And we allow for the possibility that we can be present with life just as it is.

The I in R.A.I.N. stands for Investigate with kindness.
The third step of the practice, Investigate, can take different forms. We can start the investigation by simply redirecting our awareness to the felt sense of the body and notice where we feel the thoughts we’ve been having. Maybe there’s some tightening or some heaviness or an achy feeling in the heart area. This has the added benefit of cultivating embodied awareness.

We can also investigate the nature of the thought threads, noticing how often they are rooted in fear. Perhaps the fear of change. We may feel anxiety when things don’t stay ‘safely’ the same. We might notice one or more of what the Buddha called The Three Poisons: Greed, Aversion, and Delusion. All three are rooted in fear. Greed is rooted in the fear of not enough. Aversion is rooted in fear that comes from believing there is an ‘other’, forgetting our intrinsic interconnection. Delusion is the fear of being fully present with things just as they are, so we habitually weave false narratives or put our fingers in our ears and sing la,la,la. So we acknowledge the fear and investigate further. “What am I afraid of?” and once identified, investigating into the veracity of what we’re telling ourselves. “Is that true?” (These and other questions in my book Asking In can be useful in this kind of exploration.)

Identifying the nature of our thoughts is not judging them, but reminding us of the universal nature of thoughts and how compelling they can be. Being able to identify the thought thread as greed, aversion, or delusion is not to make us feel bad to actually reminds us that these thoughts are the kinds of thoughts humans think, as identified by the Buddha 2500 years ago. We didn’t invent them! We acknowledge them, and recognize that if we act on them, we’re bound to cause pain for ourselves and others. But otherwise they are just thoughts passing through.

If the thoughts our attention chases keep sabotaging our wise intentions, it’s important to take the time, say after meditation or at least quieting down a bit, to explore them more thoroughly. If we’re so inclined, we might do a little journaling or exploring with creativity — sketching, music, dance — whatever activates the inner explorer in us. If the knots scare us, we might do the practice with a trusted wise friend or a therapist. This is especially important if we find our attention gets so tightly entangled in a knot that we feel strong physical changes or destructive emotions.

The N in R.A.I.N. stands for Nurture yourself.
Ahhhhh! Doesn’t the word ‘nurture’ just soften all that’s tight? And perhaps it reminds us how rarely we nurture ourselves. What is nurturing? What lessens the fear without flipping right into greed. Self-indulgence is not nurturing!

One way we can nurture ourselves is in the language we use. Self-compassion is so often lacking in our self-talk. We think we ‘should’ be nice to others, kind to others, generous to others, but we can’t be truly kind and generous if we are cruel to ourselves. Taking the time to notice what nurtures us. A walk in nature is one of the most powerful ways to nurture ourselves if we stay fully present in the experience. But we can also come into our senses just by feeling the warmth of the cup as we sit and sip some tea. Let’s take time to notice what nurtures us and remind ourselves of its value.

The N in R.A.I.N. can also be for non-identification.  Another chance to realize that we are not our thoughts! And another word some teachers use is neutralize. We can neutralize the power that these thoughts have over us.

Disempowering the thoughts allows us to be present and feel our own power, the power of sensing into our heart space and radiating loving-kindness for all life, including ourselves. And that’s what happens when we learn how to be skillful with veils of thought. They lose the power to blind and bind us, causing us to stumble, to say and do things not rooted in our wise intention.

If this R.A.I.N. practice is helpful, as it has been for so many, then keep it handy and use it whenever you need it. If it doesn’t speak to you, if you can’t remember what the letters stand for, or if English is not your primary language and the acronym makes no sense in your language, then let it go. Come back to the breath, this moment, and access infinite lovingkindness and the felt sense of being fully alive in this moment, just as it is.

But I plan to give this time-tested acronym a chance. Won’t you join me? Next time you are entangled in blinding thoughts that you want to rein in, remember R.A.I.N.! Recognize. Allow. Investigate. Nurture.


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