Amy Ward Brimmer

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Surviving Skillfully

For many years now, I have been learning and teaching that mindfulness is a skill. It is not a state of bliss, or wisdom, or mastery, or even clarity. These states may result from mindful living, but mindfulness itself is a skill set that we apply with intention to meet whatever is, however it is, in the moment.

This is simple, but it's not easy. That is why there are a variety of practices that we can engage in to foster and develop our understanding of the skillful means available to us. A short list might include formal meditation (sitting, standing, walking, lying down), mindful movement (qigong, yoga, Alexander technique, tai chi, aikido, etc.), communication practice (NVC, peer counseling, compassionate listening), and reflective writing and art-making.

In a recent newsletter I discussed the acronym RAIN, and how it guides the process of turning toward our experience in order to be with it mindfully. RAIN is most useful at times when one feels overwhelmed with emotion, or confused, or otherwise thrown off course somehow. (It works beautifully in ordinary moments too, but we don't typically feel the need to navigate those moments as carefully.) To recap, RAIN stands for:

R -- Recognize
A -- Allow
I -- Investigate
N -- Not Personal, Nature

Many teachers have offered this RAIN guide. Tara Brach uses it quite a bit in her teaching, and has several examples of how it can work individually and in relationships. I have used it successfully many times, as a way to utilize the skill of mindfulness that I am cultivating, and I'd like to share an example of how it is of great use to me right now, today.

Perhaps only a few of you know that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and, as a young adult, date rape. Even as I type that sentence I am using RAIN.

  • I am Recognizing the strong sensations that arise in my body, accompanied by thoughts like, "Don't say that publicly. Find another example!" Feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear, and vulnerability are here. 
  • So I Allow them to be present, don't fight, accept to whatever degree I can. It's actually okay to be with those feelings and thoughts, because 
  • When I Investigate, I find that I have felt this way many, many times, and essentially these are just insubstantial thoughts, and physical sensations in the body. And they are changing. They have a pulse, a texture, a duration. Like everything else we pay attention to in meditation (breath, sounds, etc.), these strong and mostly unpleasant feelings arise, stay for a while, and then change or disappear. 
  • I don't need to get caught in the experience, I can know it as Nature arising. I've just shared an intimately personal truth about myself, which breaks the rules of my conditioning, big time. Of course these thoughts and feelings will arise. It may sound odd, but the truth is, this is not happening to me. But I can be with it as it happens.
Okay, to be honest, I'm still working on that last one. It is difficult to stop identifying with my experience. Yet all the great spiritual teachers remind us that we must. Joseph Goldstein says, "the Buddha summed [everything] up in one essential teaching: Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or Mine. This is not a philosophical statement, it is something for us to practice, to realize, moment to moment. This is the practice of freedom."

As a survivor of sexual abuse, the past several days have been severely challenging. Beginning with the release of the recording of Donald Trump bragging about how he can get away with sexual assault because he is a celebrity, to the onslaught of reactions to it, the jokes and discussion on social media, and culminating in that violent war of words we called a "debate," I have been strongly triggered and retraumatized. Maybe you have been too. Chances are good that about 30% of you reading this are also survivors. The rest of you know someone who is.

And I can live through these upsetting, truly hideous personal reactions because I have a skill set called Mindfulness. I have gathered and used many tools for 30 years or more, picked up along the way in psychotherapy, bodywork, 12-step groups, religious practices, and other sources which have helped me heal and restore wholeness. But daily mindfulness practice is really paying off right now. I don't like being triggered, but it no longer needs to run my life or even be a problem.

An acronym like RAIN is a hook to hang our hats on. It's a go-to process that we can access (dare I say cling to?) in difficult moments. It prevents us from reacting unconsciously and engaging in old harmful habits. Even better, it helps us wake up and see when we're reacting out of our old unconscious habits, and stop. 


Interestingly, the name of one sexual assault hotline is RAINN, and if you need someone to listen and help you, please call 800.656.HOPE (4673).