November 4, 2020

4 Steps to Confront Difficult Times with Mindfulness & Compassion.

A practice for coping with depression and overwhelm:

“There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable….A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is too begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just IS. If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.” ~ Pema Chödrön


When we as humans experience a feeling of unhappiness, we often contract against it. We think something is wrong, and our inner alarm bells go off.

Whatever the circumstances of our unhappiness—tragedy, loss, humiliation, defeat, or anything else that shakes our sense of belonging are—our bad feelings can seem like a problem that has to be solved. This reaction is natural and often automatic, but it can, sometimes, turn organic grief and sadness into chronic dissatisfaction and depression.

In my years of struggle with addiction to food and disordered eating, the concept of sitting with my emotions eluded me. My compulsive actions—and the negative feelings they led to—felt entirely out of my control, as if they were an instinctive part of me.

In recent years, however, I have come to see how the darker emotions of this life add to its richness and depth. In a documentary on Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher is seen encountering his own anger with curiosity and a profound remembrance of his own worth.

“Ahhh,” he says. “Isn’t that interesting.”

Ram Dass and countless other teachers and traditions have supplied us with practices we can use to meet our difficult moments with more grace. Practices that wrap adversity into the fulfilling fabric of our lives. When we stop resisting difficulty but instead turn toward it, breathe it in, and allow it to wash over us, our circumstances’ ability to do any real harm to us is greatly diminished.

There’s an insight meditation practice called RAIN that can help us bring a mindful, compassionate awareness to adversity. It can be practiced whenever you need support for difficult thoughts, emotions, and feelings:

Recognize: Label what you are experiencing. Give it a name.

Allow: Invite your experience in. Greet whatever you have labeled with a yes. Hello, depression. Hello, sadness. Hello, dissatisfaction. Hello grief! Imagine you are inviting it in, and sit down to have tea with it like you would with a good friend.

Investigate with curiosity: This is the part of the practice that takes the most time to refine: feeling and truly experiencing the emotions as sensations in your body. Label where in your body you feel your emotions. Maybe in your chest, shoulders, stomach, or solar plexus. See if you can describe the shape, texture, and intensity, of your feeling or feelings, and maybe find where the sensation begins and where it ends. There’s no need to figure out the challenging feelings or attempt to understand why they are there. You might ask yourself, What am I believing? Or What am I truly needing? Or How does this part of me want me to be with it? 

Nurture with kindness: The final step in the RAIN process is about soothing yourself with compassion and love. For this step, I often offer myself some form of soothing touch—like placing my hands over my heart or giving myself a hug. I also try to offer myself some kind words. Research suggests that placing your hands over your heart activates the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates our emotions. Some examples of what you might say to yourself during this step are: I’m here, I care, and you are safe. You might also send yourself some warm wishes such as: May I be kind to myself, may I be gentle, may I be patient, and may I forgive myself.

Many of my clients have found relief through the practice of RAIN. They tell me it helps them with expanding their capacity to be with their emotions and also helps to deal with the intensity of difficult feelings.

I love the book The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Also, check out Tara Brach’s teaching on Healing Depression with Meditation: Part 1 and Part 2.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems by Rumi. May we welcome and entertain everything this life brings us:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


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