Radical Compassion (Part 2): How RAIN Meditation Can Guide Us To Better Relationships

RAIN is a tool of radical compassion, to make love of ourselves perfect, to make love of our life, love of each other, love of our world full. In this article, Tara Brach explains how to use RAIN as a guide to less distant, less controlled, more open and compassionate relationships. Dive deep into this teaching by listening to the guided reflections throughout the article.
Tara Brach
Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, an internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation, and bestselling author.
rain meditation
Tara Brach
Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, an internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation, and bestselling author.

This is a transcription of a talk Tara Brach has given on December 11th, 2019, in Bethesda, MD. This is the second of a three-part article series. In “Radical Compassion (Part 1)”, Tara shares her understanding of the trance of unworthiness, the importance of nurturing and how to practice RAIN to flourish self-compassion. In this second part, she explores how to use RAIN meditation for better relationships and awaken our heart to give compassion not just to one person, but all-inclusively.

If you rather listen to the talk, just play the audio below:

  1. Radical Compassion – Loving Ourselves & Our World Into Healing (Part 2 Of 3) Tara Brach 53:08

RAIN Meditation As A Guide To Waking Up With Each Other

I was sent by a friend an article about a palliative caregiver who works with children who are dying in South Africa. He did a survey with them, a kind of informal one, and the inquiry was “What makes life worth living?” One of the main responses was, “Nobody wishes that they’d spent more time online.” That was the first thing. The other one I want to name was, “Kindness matters.”

If you see this article, it’s quite beautiful just registering that when we’re really aware that we don’t have that much time, we don’t want to be off in some virtual reality and we do want to be in our hearts.

I wanted to start that way because this is the second of a three-part series on radical compassion. It’s based on the title of my new book. The book and these articles are meant to give some guidance in using the RAIN meditation—which is mindfulness and compassion in working with our inner life, whatever stuck places we have going on. In this article, it’ll be relational—how do we wake up more with each other?

How Do We Want To Live?

We begin with a holiday story that is really one of my favorite illustrations.

In this story, an old man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day but your mother and I are divorcing. Thirty years of misery are enough. I can’t handle it anymore.” The son screams at him, “What are you talking about, pop!” And he says, “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer. We are sick and tired of each other. So go call your sister in Chicago and tell her.” And he, click, hangs up. Okay, so son calls his sister. And she immediately, as soon as she hears it, she says, “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” Then she calls her father in Phoenix. She says, “You are not getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back. We’ll both be there tomorrow.” She hangs up. The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife, “Okay. They’re coming for the holidays and they’re paying their own way!”

I start with this because so much is flying around for so many people around the holidays. The light of awareness shines on where the different tensions are, they may not be as extremely manipulative as that but we get the idea.

In a little bit I’ll have you do a reflection on just looking at your current relationships in some way with that lens of, you know, “how is this for me?” And one of the lenses we’ll use is “If I was at the end of my life looking back…” I find it very powerful to use our life span as a lens.

I often quote another palliative caregiver who, after sitting with thousands of people, reported that the greatest regret of the dying was, “I didn’t live true to myself. I lived according to others’ expectations, maybe according to my own internalized judgment, but I didn’t live aligned with my heart.”

What does that mean “aligned with our heart”? It really means: if we’re at the end of our life looking back, how would we want this relationship to be, how do we want to be, what kind of presence and connection would we want here? Are we really embodying what matters to us? And to me what’s valuable is that this isn’t just the dying that have regrets about their life. You know, I talk to a lot of people and I can sense right under the surface there’s a disappointment that this life isn’t really unfolding the way they want it to be. I’m not the way I want myself to be, it’s not just the dying that sense of being unaligned.

So, how do we want to live? What I find when I really explore with people is the language of radical compassion. And what I mean by radical compassion is that we’re embodied; in other words we can’t really be compassionate if it’s this idea in our mind, like we hear about people out there that are having a hard time and we go “Oh that’s really too bad, I feel… I am so sorry”—versus the kind of compassion when our hearts are tender and they’re resonant and we’re actually caring and we act or we want to act.

What Is Radical Compassion In A Relational Sense?

Radical compassion means we’re embodied and the caring is active. And radical compassion means that our hearts are all-inclusive, it’s not like we feel a whole lot of compassion for this person but this person doesn’t deserve my care–it’s not like that; it’s a very open, inclusive quality of heart.

I’m spending a little time on the definition because I think we need to reclaim the word “compassion.” It’s floating out there, it’s like “love,” it’s very mushy. And yet, if there’s ever a time in the world’s history that we need to actively cultivate compassion and caring and stretch ourselves, widen the circles beyond where habitually we pay attention, it’s now. It’ll be what allows us to care enough, to care for our earth that is suffering so much, for those that are most vulnerable, and live true to ourselves right in an immediate way tonight and tomorrow with the people that we are interacting with. So we need to reclaim it.

And in that spirit let’s reflect for a moment:

  1. Radical Compassion (Part 2): Reflection 1 Tara Brach 4:03

The Limbic Controller

We’ll be returning to explore how you can wake up more the heart with these people that you might have brought to mind. But what we find for most of us—and it’s really important to explore this and reflect without judging because if you add judgment to it you’re actually further blocking compassion and love for other people—but what we do find is that what gets in the way is some version of what I’m going to call our limbic controller.

There’s some part of us that’s emotionally reactive and trying to control things. And we have different ways of trying to control things. One of the ways is we try to manage other people and get them to be a certain way. And that always gets in the way: if we want somebody to be different, if we’re managing them, if we’re trying to get them to be a certain way with us, in those moments we are not letting them be who they are.

In one story a young man invited his mother over for dinner. And during the meal his mother kept noticing how her son’s roommate was really beautiful and she was suspicious that her son had a relationship going with this roommate. And so she was really curious and she watched them interact over the evening and became even more convinced something was going on. And her son read her mind and said, “Hey, I just want to reassure you that Kerry and I are just roommates. You know that’s how it is.” So, a week later Kerry comes to John, the son, and says, “You know, ever since your mother was here for dinner I haven’t been able to find that beautiful silver soup ladle. Do you think she did something with it?” And he said, “Well, I don’t… I don’t know but I’ll email her.” So he writes this, he says, “Dear mother, I’m not saying you did or did not do anything with the soup ladle but it’s odd that it disappeared after dinner. Do you know anything about this?” Later he receives an email from his mother and it reads, “Dear son, I’m not saying you do sleep with Kerry and I’m not saying that you don’t. But the fact remains that if she were sleeping in her own bed, she would have found the soup ladle by now. Love, your mother.”

This is what I mean by the limbic controller, just an example. Every one of us has patterns in our relationships based on our survival brain that actually create distance. I’m going to name some and I invite you to, again, just read and sense what resonates for you. If you become aware of them, you then have choice as to whether or not you’re living them out, but if you’re not aware of them you’re identified with them. You are the controller and you don’t have a choice. And this goes very much to what Victor Frankl described when he said, “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. And in that space is our power and our freedom.” That you’ll keep repeating the same relational patterns that block intimacy until you see that particular version of the controller.

There Are Different Types Of The Limbic Controller

One of them is that—and this is a bit of a kind of a freeze-response—we bury and don’t show what’s going on and we pretend. We offer what we think is going to be most acceptable to others, this is the person somebody else will like and approve. It can be the ways we accommodate or whatever, but we’re burying the real feelings we have either about this person or about our life and pretending in some way.

And this is very much seen in a classic story of a woman who approaches her psychology professor and asks him, you know, “What is a Freudian Slip? What do they mean by it?” And he’s curious and he says, “Well, what makes you ask?” And she says, “Well, the other day I was having lunch with my mother and I meant to ask her to pass the salt but instead I said, ‘You damn bitch, you ruined my life’.”

Now, on purpose I’m giving you kind of wacky examples. We all do this stuff. We don’t say what we mean and then it comes out sideways. So it’s just an example.

Another example for the limbic controller is grasping where we have our expectations, our demands, we in some way feel special or important and we very quickly go into feeling victimized, disappointed, let down, we are the one that the other is not treating right. And that’s sometimes called the pursuerI want you, I want you to be here, I want you to be a certain way, I want you to spend more time with me.

Of course, pursuers always need avoiders; we also have some of us whose limbic type is more the avoidance, it’s like “I need space,” “Don’t suffocate me,” “Don’t cross my boundaries,” being unavailable, being guarded, being mistrusting, withholding, disinterested, defended.

A woman is in a job interview. And the interviewer asks, “Tell me what do you think your biggest character defect would be?” And her reply is, “Honesty.” And the interviewer said, “Honesty? I wouldn’t consider that a defect.” And her reply is, “I don’t care what the hell you think!” It’s that. It’s like “Stay away,” okay?

And then another major version of the limbic controller is aggression in the sense of blame and that’s where the ongoing notion is “You should be different”, “You are not the way you should be.” And most of us have that as part of us, we have a judgment going on, how another should be different. And when we do, it creates a huge distance.

Ram Dass wrote this “One of the greatest things that happened in my relationship with my father was when he was approaching death. I finally allowed him to be who he was instead of trying to make him into who I thought he should be. And he stopped trying to make me into who he thought I should be. And we became friends.” It’s sad to say that we might have to get towards the death to start getting the wisdom that knows that if we’re interacting with someone and that’s what’s going on that “You should be different” creates that distance.

Who Is Looking Out Of The Spacesuit?

So, you might have been listening and went, “Wow! Check. Check. Check.” We all have some ways of trying to control in relationships. I often describe it as we get born into a challenging world and to navigate we put on a spacesuit, that in some way protects and defends us and has ways of navigating to try to survive. The challenge is that we get identified with our strategies. We become the blamer or we become the pursuer or we become the avoider. We forget who’s really looking through the mask of the spacesuit, we forget who’s here and we forget who the other is, they appear as an ego spacesuit, too.

How RAIN Helps To Wake Up From This Identification

The inquiry here is: How do we wake up from that identification and loosen the grip on our habitual strategies? How do we do that?

It takes real courage. Each of them can be deconditioned. We’re going to explore RAIN as kind of the solvent because RAIN is really mindfulness and compassion which helps us not to get rid off the strategy—I mean, you might still find blaming goes on or you might still find yourself always wanting to create some space—but you won’t be as identified. There’s more flexibility, there’s more creativity.

The first step, though, is what we are doing now; which is slowing down and beginning to pay attention to notice the strategies. I’d like to invite you to reflect again if you will.

This guided reflection explores the first steps of RAIN practice, Recognizing and Allowing.

  1. Radical Compassion (Part 2): Recognizing and Allowing Tara Brach 3:06

The next step of RAIN is the I, which is Investigate. I want to give you some examples because I’m going to, of course, bring you back at the end to do the whole process. The investigating is often misleading because when you’re investigating what’s going on it’s not a conceptual, mental process. Investigating is primarily getting more somatic. Investigating means that if you’ve found that you felt hurt by somebody or felt blame you get into where you feel it in your body. And then you can investigate and sense, you know, “What’s the unmet need?” and so on.

Read more: Discovering and nurturing unmet needs is also an important step in practicing how to let go of anger. In this article, Tara Brach uncovers the responsibility of our own experience and how we can alter our anger patterning.

I’m going to give you an example because investigating, if you really get into your body, then leads to the N of RAIN, which is Nurturing. Once you have Recognized and Allowed and Investigated and Nurtured, you’ll find that the sense of identity has shifted, you’re no longer organized around the limbic controller so much. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m going to actually share two stories. And the first one is one that taught me the most about the power of RAIN in relationships. And it was really early on, this was when my son, Narayan, was a junior in high school. And some of you might remember this somewhat because I’ve had this in “Radical Acceptance” but I’m going to unpack it a little bit more now.

The setup here is that he’s a junior, he’s entirely unmotivated around academics, he’s a total party creature, smoking a lot of pod, playing video games, and he’s completely immersed in “Magic: The Gathering,” Some of you might be familiar… My response to all of that: I am perpetually judging him, the limbic controller was the, you know, aggressive, “You should be different,” “I don’t like this change” kind of… that was where I was, completely in that. I was really upset with him for not coming through as the disciplined son that I thought he should be. And I had a kind of one of those moments I’ll never forget of being outside his bedroom hearing the sounds of one of the games that I couldn’t stand because they were all totally violent video games and having this desire to take a huge boulder and go in there and just smash his computer screen with it and then realizing in a flash: He is a junior, he’s going to be gone in a couple of years and then feeling my heart go: “wow, am I going to be in this chronic stand off the angry, let down mother and the son who’s kind of wanting to not have me too near him because I’m angry at him a lot.” That’s when I started to do a lot more, “Okay, let me be with what’s inside me.”

The first step in bringing RAIN to relationships is to bring it to your own reaction, to whatever your own limbic controller is doing, that’s the first step.

So, I brought it inside, I Recognized and Allowed that I was angry and judging, and then I started Investigating, which is where we left off. The layers where I felt the squeeze in my heart—and it was fear—and the fear place was afraid that his whole future would be sabotaged and so on. And then underneath that I felt that hollow, achy place of shame, “It’s my fault. I was too lenient, too permissive, didn’t set boundaries early enough”—which may have been true—but… He and I talk about that now that he is a parent.

Then I was feeling that shame of falling short, deficiency, that achy, hollow place. And then it went into grief, this sense of just this crashing feeling of the grief of the distance that was, you know, developing between us. And I had this experience I sometimes call like a “soul sadness”, which is seeing the landscape of life and realizing how sorrowful it is to be caught in a pattern like this and distanced.

That’s what lead to Nurture. I had investigated in my body the layers and then, after feeling that soul sadness, I sensed—I always ask the question and I invite you to use this as part of your investigating—”What does this hurting part inside me need?” And what I needed was to trust the goodness of my own love, that I really loved him, and to trust him, to trust his goodness, that’s really what I needed. So, I just sat there as I often do with my hands on my heart, just feeling how much I do love him and just reminding myself I do love him and he is lovable and he is good and it’s going to be okay, you know, that kind of thing. And as I let that feeling spread through me of loving him and trusting that loving there was an opening and a tenderizing and more space and I was no longer inside the identity of the controlling mother, I was in a more spacious place. It didn’t mean those tendencies were gone, I had to re-do this many, many times, but it started shifting my identification, so that when I started trying to speak with him, I was able to bring in more of my basic appreciation for him, you know, for his sense of his mastery in his games that he played and his loyalty and love for his friends and whatever it was and set boundaries.

This is an example of RAIN in relationship because I feel like it gave me back many moments with him before he graduated. I am so glad I didn’t stay stuck in that stand-off. And just to give you a kind of follow up… Now we are like 18 years later. He’s thirty-two. He’s much more disciplined, he’s graduated from the program he was in, he is working, he’s a father, he’s okay, and he still plays “Magic: The Gathering” so… he’s okay.

This is an example of—and what I want to emphasize it—a shift in identity where the limbic patterns are there but they don’t hijack. It’s possible when you do RAIN that they don’t hijack. Now, sometimes there is the kind of hurt or conflict that requires really deep inner work and it takes time and it takes support. It takes support from others and it takes many, many rounds.

I want to share with you a story of a guy I worked with some years ago where it wasn’t like something like with my son who was being a typical teen.

This is a man, a photojournalist, who I actually went to college with and heard from after many years of not hearing from him. He, African-American, photojournalist, who married a Caucasian woman. Her mother completely disapproved of the marriage, you know, “You’re too different! You’re going to ruin each other’s lives” and so on. And when they’d visit, his mother would ignore him or else be rude. And it was awful. So, he was increasingly feeling withdrawn, angry and hurt. It brought up this very old wound in him of “I’m invisible, I’m not okay, I’m not worthy,” you know, he was “the black man who was not good enough for her daughter” was what he described to me. And his wife said, “We don’t ever have to visit them again. I don’t want to put you through this.” But he actually wasn’t willing to give up on the relationship partly because one of his teacher’s—a Tibetan teacher—key teachings was, “Never give up on anyone” which I thought was interesting.

So, he made it his practice. And it was a hard practice. At home he would recognize and allow how angry and hurt he felt, then he’d investigate and feel in his body and felt where it went back to because in childhood he was neglected, a lot of losses, a lot of feeling of being not okay. So he felt this twist in his body when he’d go into it of “defective personhood,” that’s what he got in touch with in his body, his gut. And then when he asked what he needed, it was, “You’re of value. You’re worthy.”

His way of doing it was he would imagine some light kind of coming into him and he’d just hear the words “You are valuable. You’re a worthy being.” Over and over and over again until he found that sense of more space, more openness, more realizing he was not the self in the story that this mother was triggering or his old story, he felt his value, what I call “the gold.”

The next holiday he went but he brought his camera because he needed a way to be more safe and the camera gave him a place to be one step removed but still there. And so it was Thanksgiving and he took all sorts of photos. And when they went again over the Christmas holidays, there was a gift exchange. And, by the way, each of these visits the mother was rude and distancing and didn’t want to take them to a restaurant because she was afraid she’d see her friends. It was terrible.

So, there they’re having their exchange. And this is what I want to tell you about, the gift exchange. The mother gives him socks which are the wrong size and a box of candy – and he is a health nut so that didn’t work so well. He gave her some framed pictures that he had taken during Thanksgiving. And one of them had captured a moment of affection with her husband and the other when she was cradling her new granddaughter. She opens these pictures – I mean, everybody is kind of watching her – and she starts sobbing because he had seen her in a good way, he had seen her goodness and captured it. And something in that just phew. He told me that as he was doing RAIN for himself–that inner process–that he started looking at her and he could just see her as a fearful person but when he could really get that, he didn’t feel so angry at her. And now, he saw her in a good way.

Here is what happened. A thaw began but it didn’t happen quickly, there were many rounds of him encountering her tightness and so on, but he had a way of taking care of himself and he had a way to see past her mask and that actually, over time, helped her to see past what she was seeing in him.

I’m sharing this story because as much as our unmet needs are personal, there is also a whole societal thing playing when we run into distance. That we often don’t compute, the unseen biases that are playing between us, the ways that different ones of us have felt devalued–historically not just in our personal life but through the society–so it takes a lot of attention to be able to bring RAIN inwardly and then look through eyes that can start seeing those realities both on an individual and on a societal level.

Looking Behind The Mask, Every Day

What we’re exploring tonight are relationships that inevitably are torqued because of unmet needs. And I’m inviting you to pause and find that space where you can have more freedom and choice by seeing how your strategies are contributing to distancing. The key piece here is that we need to do this in an incredibly non-judging way because every one of us plays out these strategies. We also need to do it in a way where we’re practicing seeing the goodness behind the mask because our habit is not to see that.

I’ll share a story I heard some years ago. A physician described an elderly patient who came in each week but one week they had to switch the time and it was earlier in the day. And he was very edgy, he wanted to leave the appointment as quickly as he could, and she asked how come. And he said well, he had to go and visit his wife who was in a nursing home and he wanted to be there on time to eat breakfast with her. And so the physician said, you know, asked him some more questions and inquired about his wife’s health. And this man told the physician, “Well, she has had Alzheimer’s for a number of years.” And then the physician said, “Well, will she be upset if you’re a bit late?” And he said, “No, she doesn’t any longer know who he is.” And then the physician was surprised, “And you still go every morning and she doesn’t know who you are?” This is what she wrote, “He smiled as he patted my hand and said, ‘She doesn’t know me. But I still know who she is.’”

These practices of radical compassion are not something we do once in a while. It’s a daily way with the people we are with, with whoever you’re identifying, to say, “Am I able to see past the mask? Can I see the goodness that’s there? How am I in this moment creating distance?”–that kind of honesty–and then to be very, very kind towards what we see. It’s not our fault.

Putting Out Blankets Instead Of Armoury

Scott McClanahan says,

“One time a man left home. He had argued with his mother and father the day before he left. They spoke horrible words to one another and he left without saying goodbye. He had been gone many years and even spent time in jail. Years later, he finally got out of jail and he wondered if his mother and father were even alive and if they were ashamed of what had been said and where he had wound up. He wrote them and told them he’d be coming home on a specific day the following week. If they wanted to see him and were not ashamed, they should put a blanket on a clothesline and he would know to come inside. If the blanket was missing, then he would know that he was not welcome, he would know how to turn back. He told them he hoped they were in good health. The man arrived by rail the next week. He was nervous when he stepped off the train. There was no one there to meet him. He walked up the worn path towards the home place and thought about the past, he thought about the time in jail, he thought about how ashamed his parents must have been, thought about the horrible words they spoke. He was just about to turn around when he saw a blanket in a tree. He kept walking and he saw another blanket. He kept walking and he saw another blanket. Then he turned towards home and the house was covered in blankets, the yard was covered in blankets, the clothes line was covered in blankets, the path to the door was covered in blankets, his parents were standing there and they were welcoming him inside.”

So, each of us has ways to create walls to protect our heart when we are hurt. And the path of radical compassion is to begin to shed or dissolve some of that armoring.

Rumi writes, “Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground, be crumbled, so wild flowers will come up where you are. You’ve been stony too many years. Try something different. Surrender.”

We’re going to close with a meditation that’s a “Blanket’s RAIN meditation” because really, think about it, what if we all were putting out blankets in our lives, you know, just in some way blankets for ourselves, forgiving ourselves for our strategies and our ways of navigating that are imperfect and certainly blankets for others because others, too, are doing the best they can and it’s imperfect.

  1. Radical Compassion (Part 2): Blanket RAIN Meditation Tara Brach 10:14

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