By John Schorling
Last month’s Musing focused on having a conversation with someone with whom we’d had a difficult interaction. This month the topic is about how we might move on without having such a conversation.
Difficult interactions with others can lead us to feel many different negative emotions, such as anger or resentment, and may result in us going over the event repeatedly, trying to understand what happened or imagining how things might have gone differently. Often this does not accomplish much except to make us feel worse. Getting caught up in the story of what happened in the past does not change the events although we still can learn from them so that similar situations might have a different outcome in the future.
When we find ourselves in these situations it can be helpful to pause and assess what is happening. First, is it even possible to take any action regarding the others involved? If we can address it with the other person directly then we might choose to do so as was discussed last month. But what if we can’t do this, perhaps because it was a one-time interaction with someone we don’t know, or if we choose not to because it is too difficult or there is too much risk?
Continuing to hold on to anger or resentment toward another person often harms us the most, not them. We may think letting go of the episode or forgiving the other person is letting them off the hook. Yet if we can’t address it with them or let them know how it has affected us, holding on to negative emotions has no effect on them at all. It only makes us feel worse. It is giving someone whom we harbor negative feelings about influence over us, which is often not at all what we want. It is interesting that this is how our minds work- that we imagine our holding on to anger affects someone else. This is expressed by the quote, sometimes attributed to the Buddha, that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
This is not to say that we have to interact with the other person or put ourselves at risk again. We can choose to set limits or not interact at all without holding on to the negative emotions as well.
So how can we do this, let go of negative emotions directed at another? As with much of mindfulness practice, just letting go of negative emotions because they do not serve us sounds simple, but it is not easy. RAINS is a practice that can be very helpful with doing this.
To practice this, we can start with sitting meditation, grounding ourselves in the body. We can then bring to mind the situation that resulted in the negative emotion we are feeling. We can Recognize the emotion, the R in RAINS, perhaps naming it: “this is anger” or “this is abandonment”. It may not be obvious what the emotion is, and if so that’s fine. We can still just Allow it to be, the A in RAINS, without judging it or needing to fix it or make it go away. If this is too difficult, then directing the attention elsewhere is fine, back to the breath or perhaps the feet or hands. If we are able to be with the emotion, then we can Investigate it, the I in RAINS, noticing where we feel it in the body, and the characteristics of the associated sensations. The N of RAINS stands for Not identifying with the emotion, recognizing that emotions arise, shift, change and maybe disappear, and that they do not define us. Feeling anger does not make us an angry person. It may be useful to acknowledge this by saying to ourselves that this emotion is “not me” or “not mine”.
Being with difficult emotions is hard, and practicing Self-compassion and Self-nurturing, the S in RAINS, can be very helpful. If the emotion we’re working with has caused us distress, we can acknowledge this with kindness rather than judgment. We might practice this by responding to ourselves as we would a friend, with warmth and caring. This is often crucial to letting go. Can we be with what is present with compassion, noting that this emotion may be appropriate but if it is no longer serving us, and letting it go and perhaps forgiving the other person might be the most skillful thing we can do? This letting go may not happen right away. The same emotion may persist, although perhaps a little less intensely, each time we practice RAINS. And ultimately we may forgive the other person, not the least because forgiveness is a gift we can give to ourselves.
Practicing forgiveness and kindness meditations can be very helpful with this process. Both are available here on the Mindfulness Center website.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings