How mindfulness works

Exploring the mechanics of mindfulness using the simple acronym RAIN

Credit: Kyle Cesmat

Discovering how mindfulness works with RAIN

Understanding how meditation works can make the difference between it being something that helps you from time to time to something that actually changes your life. We believe that the purpose of a good meditation app is to help you get to the point where you no longer need a meditation app. Something that will really help you get there is starting to understand the mechanics of mindfulness.

‘This is just how I am’. The idea that our personality and behaviours are fixed is incredibly common. But science disagrees. The phenomenon known as neuroplasticity shows that the pathways in our brain not only change, but do so all through our life. So while we may feel like we are ‘set in our ways’, all it takes for our default behaviour to change is for that neural pathway to change. And all we need to do for that neural pathway to change is to train. And that is what meditation is. It is training.

Through meditation we start to train our minds in the behaviours we want for it, rather than those which we don’t. Neuroplasticity means that our brain is always being trained in some way through tools such as meditation, we are doing it systematically and with purpose.  All of the qualities meditation talks about self-awareness, concentration, kindness, and compassion are natural qualities that can be actively trained if you know the right technique. And just like different machines in the gym, different techniques train different qualities of mind and therefore different outcomes.

So what is involved in this training? Using the powerful technique and popular acronym RAIN, we explore how the process works.


Seeing it before you work with it

Now that you know that meditation is awareness training, the next principle is just as fundamental to understanding how it works: the more aware we are of our thoughts and our patterns of mind, then the less power they have over us. There is a big difference to thinking we behave in a certain way and seeing it for yourself in real-time at the level of awareness.

The practice of meditation takes parts of our experience that we were previously unaware of and brings them into awareness, into consciousness. It’s like a lens, bringing things that we were blind to into sharp focus. Only by really seeing what is inside us can we then go onto work with it. For example, we may have a pattern of self-judgement but unless we are aware of it it will just continue to play out.


Changing the relationship to the difficult

While we may not always have control over what life throws our way, what we do have control over is how we relate to it. This idea of changing our relationship to what we experience  — especially when that experience is difficult — is central to how mindfulness and meditation can be helpful during tough times. Because the difficult is difficult, our default way of relating to a difficult emotion, sensation, or thought is to battle with it. We push and pull, deny and avoid, doing whatever we can to make it go away. While understandable, the problem with this strategy is that by fighting it, we are adding another layer of difficulty to that which is already hard to bear. What meditation training allows us to do is change our relationship from one of struggle to one of kindness, awareness, rest, and allowing. 


Inquiring without judgement and with kindness

Now it’s time to get curious. Once you’ve allowed a thought, feeling, body sensation, or emotion to be present, take a moment to investigate it. With this step, you bring interest and curiosity to the forefront of your experience, and let the kindness of your attention investigate your experience just as it is. Notice what’s calling for attention or standing out most to you right now. Notice what’s dominant in your experience at the moment — without pushing it away. Explore the boundaries and see if the situation changes over time. See if you are able to just allow what is happening or if you are still looking through a filter or a lens.


Learning to observe with noting

If there is a golden rule in mindfulness meditation then this is it: the less we take things personally, the less suffering there will be. Through meditation we learn to observe our experience rather than identify with it so closely. The degree to which we are able to observe things guides how much freedom we have. For example, there is a world of difference between the experience of ‘I am angry’ and the awareness that ‘anger is happening’. Sometimes this practice of observing things as they happen is spoken about as disconnecting, but that couldn’t be further away from the spirit of mindfulness. We like to call it noting. This skill is being able to know all our experience incredibly intimately, but at the same time take it lightly.

We don't let go

Our minds do

With the RAIN acronym complete, a final note.

‘Letting go’ is one of those phrases that you hear all the time in the world of meditation. It sounds very lovely indeed, especially if what we want to let go of is particularly painful or difficult. But most of the time it is poorly explained … so let’s fix that now. Our mind gets into all sorts of bad habits. We now know that a key step to transforming these patterns is simply becoming aware of them. But why does that work? It works because, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, our minds are fundamentally on our side. When our mind is aware that something it is doing is actually causing us difficulty, and sees that enough times, it stops. Or in other words, it lets go. We don’t do the letting go, our mind does. And what it needs for that to happen is awareness, over and over again.

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