“There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.”
During these times it is very tempting to turn away from painful emotions. We are constantly inundated with stressors on a personal and global level.
As tempting as it is to self-medicate or constantly distract ourselves, this unique time is asking us to wake up. To stay with the full breadth of this human experience and also to show up emotionally for one another.
You might be thinking, that sounds both wonderful and crucial. But how do we do this?
We need skills in order to stay emotionally present. Mindfulness skills serve as an anchor – to tether us to the moment and ourselves. When we are anchored within, we can then respond with appropriate and skillful action.
One of my favorite mindfulness practices to teach groups is referred to as R.A.I.N.
This acronym and practice is attributed to psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach.
I came across Tara’s work years ago when I was struggling through a difficult period in my life.
I find her teachings and practices to be grounding and illuminating. Teachers like Tara Brach helped me learn to stay with my challenging feelings, rather than run away from them.
As an art therapist I love incorporating the creative process with mindfulness skills. Below I will break down the acronym of R.A.I.N. and then provide ideas for weaving the arts into this mindfulness practice. The art helps us to understand the practice more deeply, rather than on a purely intellectual level.
You can practice R.A.I.N. by yourself if that feels comfortable. However if you are new to this, the process can bring up big feelings. If so, I encourage you to practice this with someone else. When I do this in groups we have the benefit of working through these steps together. However you can do them with a therapist, mentor, or close friend. Doing this with a partner can make the process even more meaningful in addition to helping you feel supported. Tara Brach’s site has a section with suggestions for doing the R.A.I.N. meditation with a partner.
It goes without saying, that this process can be beautifully adapted to working with children and their strong emotions. I will explore mindfulness and art making with children in an upcoming post, because I think the topic deserves its own space and several posts!
R.A.I.N. for Difficult Emotions
First, notice the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are present within. You can say them quietly to yourself or name them out loud. For example, if you notice fear you might put your hand on your heart and just say the word “fear” or “fear is here” to yourself. Although this step sounds simple, many of us are not conscious of what we are feeling throughout the day. We are often not aware of our feelings until they become so big that we can’t ignore them. This is an opportunity to tune into both subtle and not so subtle feelings.
Next, allow the thoughts and feelings to be there without trying to change or fix them. This step usually feels counterintuitive, especially if we are habitually denying our feelings or judging them. Breathe with the feelings as you notice them. The key is to turn towards the feelings rather than away. Remember, you’re not trying to change the feelings. You are clearing some extra space for the feelings to be seen and heard.
I: Investigate (with kindness)
Now, bring a sense of open curiosity to your thoughts and feelings. Investigate them with kindness as you might approach a young child who has questions. Bring more focused attention to your body and see if you can tune into a felt sense in your body. For example if you feel a tightness in your chest, inquire into the tightness. Ask that sensation what it’s trying to communicate? Is it a part of you that’s been overlooked and needs some care? Relax your need to have a definitive answer, while taking note of the answers that spontaneously emerge with your awareness.
Lastly, offer yourself compassion. Self-compassion may spontaneously arise as soon as you acknowledge your own suffering. Continue to nurture the parts of yourself that have been overlooked and need your attention. Ask yourself what you require in this moment to feel nourished. Offer yourself silent or quiet words of comfort such as “I know this is hard, and you’re doing the best you can.” Or, “I’m here for you now.” Speak to yourself the way you would speak to someone you cherish.
Incorporating Art Into R.A.I.N.
I find that mindfulness and art practices are a very natural coupling. I have always enjoyed creating ways to make mindfulness more accessible and approachable when I am working with clients. There are so many ways of weaving music, movement, art, and writing into this practice. Today I will focus on writing and art making.
You can use any art and writing materials you have on hand. Arrange the materials on your working surface. Once settled, take a few deep breaths. It may help to close your eyes. As you breathe, begin a body scan. Begin with the top of your head and slowly bring your attention to each part of your body – noticing any feelings or sensations as you scan. Pause for a moment if an area seems to want more attention. Try to touch each area lightly with your awareness, without becoming carried away by your thoughts. Keep scanning your body until you reach the bottoms of your feet. Then take another few deep breaths and slowly open your eyes. When ready, move into the R.A.I.N. process.
Begin by noticing any emotions or physical sensations that arose during the body scan. Once you have a felt sense, speak the word or words aloud. It might be a descriptions such as “chest tight” or “constricted” or “grief.”
What art material feels like the right material to express the feeling? Pick up your art material and begin drawing, painting, or sculpting that particular sensation and feeling. It might be abstract or a representation of something. What color is the feeling or is it black and white? What about shape, texture, and size? Please follow your instinct and give the image time and space to form. Take as long as you need. When the art feels like it has come to a natural stopping point, move on to the next step.
Place your art object a little distance away. If it’s a two dimensional drawing or painting, lean it up on the wall or tape it up. If it’s a three dimensional piece, place it on a surface away from you. The idea here is to play with the physical distance between you and this part of you that is asking to be seen. How does it feel when you are far away from the art? Next, take a step closer. How does that feel? Move from side to side and also try standing directly in front of the image. Do you still notice the feeling inside as strongly or has the sensation lessened? There is no right or wrong here.
By creating the image you are allowing this feeling to take up physical space that is apart from you. You are able to witness the feeling while also being with the feeling. Lastly, can you hold the art piece? How does that feel in contrast to being further away from it? Place the art in a place that feels best and then move into the next step.
Remember, the key is to investigate (not interrogate). Bring a quality of kindness to this step. While looking at the image, ask the image some questions. You might feel silly at first, but if you can trust the process here, you may be surprised and touched by your experience.
These questions might spontaneously emerge. But if not, here are some ideas. Ask your art things like: what are you choosing to share with me today? What do you need to feel finished, or do you feel complete? If you don’t feel complete, what would help you feel finished? How young or old is the part of me that created you? Do you feel appreciated, seen, and heard? Where would you like to live in my home at this moment? Imagine that you could shrink yourself into a tiny size and live in the art piece. Which part of the art piece would you dwell in and which part would you avoid?
I encourage you to have a pen and paper on hand. Write down the questions and any answers that emerge during the art dialogue. The answers are coming from a deeper part of you. The art is there to help facilitate the dialogue with yourself.
As you dialogue with your art, you may automatically realize the best ways to nurture yourself. Taking time out of your day to create and reflect is an act of self-nurturing. Sometimes a very clear and actionable answer might emerge. For example you could feel inclined to take a hot bath, go on a walk outside, or continue journaling. You might feel pulled to create more artwork. Often a new art series can emerge out of this mindfulness practice. If it feels right, keep the art in a visible place so that it serves as a daily reminder to nurture yourself.
It’s important to say that at times it feels too challenging to stay with a strong emotion. If you go through these steps and feel unsettled, it can be very nurturing to tell your feeling “I know that you need my attention. I promise to return to you and do more self-discovery work in the near future. But for now, I’m taking a break.” If the emotion feels too big, imagine that you have a chest or box in the room. Visualize yourself safely placing the emotion in that box and closing the lid. Again, reminding the emotion that you can come back soon to spend more time with it.
Trust your own timing – always. And again, sometimes we need others to help us move through these deeper feelings. Find a partner or group to explore this process with if it helps. And as always, I welcome your comments and love hearing about your experiences!