Thesis! Orals! Finals! Oh my! Sitting with difficult emotions

The next few weeks could be one of the most emotionally intense periods that some Reedies will have ever experienced. If you are having a hard time, don’t hesitate to check in with Health & Counseling Services, Student Services, or Community Safety. They are standing by and ready to help.

If you are looking for some quiet, a place to reflect on the swirl of thoughts and emotions that often rise up at the end of the semester, come find a spot at one of our meditation sessions. (Extra sessions are being planned for Finals Week. Stay tuned.)

I’m not saying that meditation will hold life’s pressures at bay. It might, but it might also do the opposite: open your awareness to whatever turmoil is just below the surface. Because life is unpredictable, let’s talk about what you can do when you sit in meditation and the Emotion of the Moment grabs you by the neck and starts shaking.

The following advice comes from an article, Finding True Refuge, by meditation teacher Tara Brach (Tricycle, Spring 2013, paywall). It consists of four simple steps that can lead to a better appreciation of, and a better way of working with, our emotional lives.

A note of caution: the following advice assumes that the meditator is experiencing emotions that, while possibly unpleasant, are not incapacitating nor likely to lead to harming (or self-harming) behavior. If you find yourself beset by something that seems to surpass the normal range of experience, please stop meditating immediately and seek assistance from the meditation leader or from Reed’s Health & Counseling Services (see also the resources at Cheetah House,

 Here is Brach’s advice, greatly abbreviated and liberally modified to fit Reed academics:

Imagine you just found out a classmate had copied half of your term paper and turned it in. Imagine your thesis adviser just told you to “start over” on Chapter 2, the hard-to-write chapter that you’ve worked on for a month. Imagine you just realized you’ve been on Facebook for three hours, it’s 3 AM, and you have a final exam in six hours. Imagine your partner just confessed to an affair with a classmate.

It’s hard to hang out with the truth of what we’re feeling. We may sincerely intend to pause and be mindful whenever a crisis arises, but our conditioning to react, escape, or become possessed by emotion is very strong, and ‘being present’ just feels out of reach or too much to bear.

Here is a mindfulness tool that offers in-the-trenches support for working with intense and difficult emotions. The tool is called RAIN (an acronym for the four steps of the process), and it can be accessed in almost any place or situation.

R – recognize what is happening
A – allow life to be just as it is
I – investigate with kindness
N – non-identify

Recognition is seeing what is true at this moment in your inner life. It starts the minute you focus your attention on whatever thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations are arising right here and now. Simply ask yourself: “What is happening inside me right now?” Try to let go of any preconceived ideas. Instead listen in a kind, receptive way to your body and heart.

Allowing means “letting be” the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you discover. You may feel a natural sense of aversion, of wishing that unpleasant feelings would go away, but as you become more willing to be present with “what is,” a different quality of attention will emerge. Allowing is intrinsic to healing, and realizing this can give rise to a conscious intention to “let be.” You can support your resolve to “let be” by mentally whispering an encouraging word or phrase. For instance, you might feel the grip of fear and whisper “yes” or “it’s ok” or “this too.”

Investigation brings in a more active and pointed kind of inquiry. You might ask yourself: “What most wants attention?” “How am I experiencing this in my body?” or “What am I believing?” or “What does this feeling want from me?” You might contact sensations of hollowness or shakiness, and then find a sense of unworthiness and shame buried in these feelings. Unless they are brought into consciousness, these underlying beliefs and emotions will control your experience and perpetuate your identification with a limited, deficient self. “With kindness” reminds us to offer a gentle welcome to whatever surfaces. Approach your experience with the same patient kindness that you would approach a lost, crying child.

Non-identification is a state of awareness that arises naturally. The first three steps of RAIN require some intentional activity. They loosen the grip of a narrow perspective that says I exist as a small self, one that is limited to, and defined by, my feelings and thoughts of hurt, shame, anger, or fear. As the grip of small self loosens, it is naturally replaced by another perspective, one in which the oppressive emotion, thought, body sensation of the moment is seen as a small part of a much larger self that is ever-changing and ever-connected with the world around it.

Notice that working with RAIN has a question-and-response quality. R asks a question, “what is happening?” A is a response, “yes.” These two steps often provide sufficient relief and insight all by themselves. When a deeper look is called for, I asks another question, a question that is asked with great sensitivity and gentleness, “what is this?” Finally, N is a response. It happens by itself, gently penetrating one’s consciousness much like Oregon rain penetrates into the landscape, drop by drop, slowly unlocking the potential for growth and renewal.