Mind Matters — True Refuge

Twenty-five years ago, I wanted to introduce meditation and mindfulness to my colleagues and clients. While there were a cadre of psychotherapists interested in these practices, the mainstream of psychotherapy looked askance at such “goings on.”

Now? The words meditation and mindfulness are bandied about from health newsletters to self help books. Advances in medicine, in particular neuroscience, have validated the benefits of practice

In fact, the April edition of the newsletter, Healthy Years, reported that mindfulness meditation may relieve chronic inflammation in addition to calming the mind. “Mindfulness” is bringing awareness to the present moment by non-judgmental witnessing of any thoughts, feelings, sensations, actions, urges that arise. Mindful awareness practices which reduce stress include meditation, centering prayer, yoga, tai chi, qui gong. Since the stress response can precipitate inflammation in the body, scientists theorize that mindfulness which reduces stress may also reduce inflammation.

However, mindfulness and meditation goes beyond stress reduction. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach invites us in her new book True Refuge to employ meditation to connect more deeply with ourselves as well as with others and the world around us. She reminds us, in simple terms, that mindful meditation is about cultivating calm and clarity in the midst of crisis and chaos. Although not the originator of the four step process, RAIN, Brach succinctly explains the acronym.

RAIN is a wonderful guide for deconstructing our habitual and unhealthy responses to the vicissitudes of life with the essentials of mindful awareness:

R: Recognition is paying attention to the thoughts, feelings, sensations that arise in the here and now. It is being open to witness our own responses to any situation—even our responses to the driver who just cut us off on the highway.

A: Allowing life to be as it is or “letting be.” Thoughts, feelings and sensations are allowed to simply come and go, without controlling them or holding on to them. What happens in meditation transfers to our everyday lives so that we become open to our experiences rather than tightly wound around our judgments of ourselves and others.

I: According to Brach, sometimes we can reconnect with ourselves and attain calmness just by following the R and A of RAIN. Other times, we need a capital I, “investigate with kindness.” This is especially needed when our crises go beyond “recognize and allow.” Sometimes we are in the brambly thicket of overwhelming feelings. Perhaps we’re confronting a major loss—a death or a divorce, financial burdens, and so on. In these cases, we need to focus and reflect , what am I experiencing in my body? What needs my attention? The key, however, is to be a kind investigator. We gently accept whatever answers arise without harsh judgment of ourselves.

N: If we cultivate R, A, and I, N is the outcome, says Brach. Non-identification (N) means that our egos are no longer in charge and that we are not hooked by our thoughts and feelings.

No guru on the mountaintop, Brach, in True Refuge, meets us with mindfulness meditation at eye, earthly level. With her examples of pain and crises in her own life and in the lives of her clients, she invites us to intimately acknowledge that openness and vulnerability can bring us to true refuge of our own awakened hearts.

[For further information see www.tarabrach.com, www.marc.ucla.edu, and www.pennmedicine.org/stress.]