Relational mindfulness

Mindfulness is, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”–Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness as a solitary practice

Mindfulness is usually taught as an individual activity. In class, surrounded by other people, you sit, close your eyes, focus on breath, sounds, or body sensations, and then observe what happens inside you. Thoughts and feelings come and go. Difficult thoughts stay like a broken record. Chronic pain and stress, persist. Sounds might draw your attention away from your internal activity, but, for the most part, you are riding solo. Even with eyes open in standing or walking meditation.

Breath…mind wanders…you become aware that mind has wandered…and you bring your attention back to your breath. Like practicing fartleks* or scales on a clarinet. Working toward mastery. Sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes neutral or even boring, practice takes determination, dedication, self-control, self-motivation. Unlike a child whose parent wants her or him to excel at T-ball, though, no one is going to monitor how often, how long, or how “right” you practice. By the way, there is no right way to do this.

You can see that the process, the practice, is solitary. There is no talking or interacting with others. You can sit in your office, in your car, in your bedroom, anywhere really, and practice mindfulness. In your own world, your own space, your own pace, you breathe, mind wanders. At some point, you become aware that your mind has wandered. With kindness, acceptance, and patience, you bring your attention back to your breath. In and out of your nostrils, chest expands and contracts, abdomen moves in and out with the breath. Doesn’t matter where you notice the breath, the important part of the practice is that you do it. Just like training yourself to run faster, over time, you will notice a difference, an ease in the practice, an acceptance of whatever comes up, increased equanimity or inner calm, less reactivity, a step back from emotions, thoughts and feelings, an ability to let go of mind chatter. Like a waterfall, or ocean waves, the moment-to-moment experience flows through you. Without attachment. Without avoidance. Without apprehension.

Merging with life

And then, your formal practice time ends and you merge with a different moment-to-moment experience. Sensory overload, driving in traffic, noise, motion, other people, to-do lists, dinner, work…shoulds, shouldn’ts, and have-to’s. You feel the calm sift out of your body. You sense your mind building momentum, planning, thinking, remembering. Then something happens, a conversation, a disagreement, and you get activated..again. And not in a pleasant way. No matter how much you practice.

Practicing mindfulness with others

That’s life, right? We don’t control moment-to-moment experiences. We might be able to control how we manage our mind and nervous system so that when a difficult situation arises, we  respond with some level of equanimity. But, honestly, relationships are messy. So we practice equanimity, in vivo. Here’s how.

  1. Plan to have a calm conversation with someone you like. Go so far as to agree to talk about a neutral topic. Instead of focusing your attention on what you want to say next, where you have to go next, what happened this morning, yesterday, or ten years ago, focus on the person in front of you. What color hair does he/she have? Eyes? What is she/he saying? How is your body responding to the conversation? Is this pleasant? Are you agitated? Can you listen with most of your attention? What did the other person say?
  2. Cultivate awareness by paying attention to what’s going on around you. Notice how you feel when you’re in the presence of other people. Notice how much you listen. Notice sounds, colors, textures, faces, tones of voice.Do this without judging your performance. You’re just paying attention.
  3. Set aside time with someone you care about to practice mindfulness exercises. Here’s one that Marv Belzer, Ph.D. at UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center teaches. Pick a partner. Get in a comfortable sitting position facing each other. One person is designated the listener. The listener asks one question. The talker thinks of someone she/he likes and answers accordingly.

Listener: What do you like about this person?

Talker: I like her smile.

Listener: Thank you. What do you like about her?

Talker: She makes me laugh.

Listener: Thank you. What do you like about her?

Talker: She loves animals and takes good care of FOO, her Frenchie.

 You look each other in the eyes with as much focused attention as you can stand.  This continues for two minutes. You take a short break and then switch roles. Afterwards, you can talk about the experience with each other. You can also spend time in your own space appreciating the person you did the exercise with, the person he/she was thinking of, the person you described, and yourself for doing this exercise in the first place. This may not be an easy or comfortable task.

In intimate relationships, equanimity can fly out the window when triggers and hot buttons get pushed. If the exercises above are difficult, you might start with this exercise from somatic therapy.

  1. Stand at opposite sides of the room facing each other.
  2. Check in with yourself to see how you feel. Calm? Safe? Something else?
  3. Share that with your partner.
  4. Take one step closer. Stop. Check in again. Talk about it.
  5. Repeat until you are as close as both of you can tolerate without having to do anything (i.e. hug, kiss, walk away).
  6. Look at each other.
  7. See what happens.

For couples, this practice can take some time, but it’s well worth the effort. If your relationship has gotten difficult, you would do this in the safety of a therapist’s office with the therapist guiding you.

*fartlek — Swedish word for speed play. Used by runners to increase speed and performance.

Touch is getting a closer look

If you remember kindergarten or even preschool, you might recall your teacher talking about our five senses. Can you name them?

Seeing – eyes
Hearing – ears
Smell – nose
Taste – mouth

The importance of touchWhat’s the fifth one again? Oh yes, touch and that little talked about largest organ of the body…skin.

Before we go any further with this thought, though, keep in mind that scientists don’t know how many senses we have. Different articles mention different theories…fourteen senses, twenty-one, even thirty. Here are a couple to consider:

Proprioception is our sense of where we and the parts of our body are in relationship to space and each other. A common way to demonstrate this is to close your eyes and place your right index finger on your nose. How did you know which finger to use; how did you move that finger to your nose without sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch? That’s proprioception.

We also have a sense of time, of hunger and thirst. We can sense the presence of another without using our five “known” senses. If you subscribe to the concept of energy and connection with others over time, space, and even existence, you might have a story that goes something like this.

My sister and I have always been very connected to each other. Even though she lives in Oregon and I live in California, I feel her presence in my life. I don’t know what made me think of her on this particular night, I think of her often. But this time, the thought was stronger, more insistent. I phoned her. No answer. I phoned her daughter. “I’m so glad you called,” she said. “Mom is in the hospital. She had a heart attack.” I got on a plane that night and visited her in the hospital. The doctors had given her a few days to live. I held her hand, told her how much she meant to me. I thought I was saying good-bye. But for some reason, the next day, the doctors changed their prognosis. They said she made a 180. She is still alive and well. She said that hearing my voice and seeing me made her feel something shift in her.

Or you might have sensed the presence of someone who is no longer living, at least in a physical form. The bottom line is, we are limited in our current understanding of our senses. The world of science, by which we are governed in the era of fMRIs and the brain, implies that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.

Let’s get back to the topic of touch. How many hugs does it take to maintain a sense of well-being? According to Virginia Satir, a social worker who is well-known for her warmth in family therapy, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” And while this has not been proven scientifically, i.e. through observable, measurable research, science has proven that touch boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and reduces pain, anxiety and depression.

This is a long way from the beliefs of the early twentieth century. In a chapter titled “Too Much Mother Love,” John B. Watson, accredited with founding the behaviorism movement,  advised parents:

Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them on the head when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task (Psychological Care of Infant and Child, pp.81-82).

Those children grew up to be our grandparents and parents. With our current understanding of the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, you can imagine the effect Watson’s advice has had and continues to have on all of us. Simultaneously, we touch screens and devices at increasing frequency. Maybe more than each other.

Without touch, babies fair far worse than babies who have been held, hugged, kissed, massaged, and gently soothed with touch. In a well-documented study of children raised in Romanian orphanges in the 1980s and 1990s, scientists learned that the children, who were not touched, developed myriad mood, cognitive, and self-control issues that followed them into adulthood. They have difficulty connecting with others, making eye contact, and controlling anger.

As always, the brain can be rewired. With love, compassion, and kindness, a handful of the adopted orphans from Romania are able to live independently. Read one story here. Others, however, still live in institutions.

David Linden concludes that “Touch is not optional for human development.” David Linden is an American professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. His book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind (2015), describes the neuroscience of touch.

For some of us, touch can feel unsafe. Touch can be traumatizing. Be sure to set your own boundaries on this topic. Talk about it with a therapist. Touch can trigger wounds. Kenneth Perlmutter, PhD defines trauma as “an interruption in our sense of safety.” So, if touch feels safe to you, get a massage, give someone you know a hug, or three, or twelve. Pet your dog or cat. Snuggle. Cuddle. Rub shoulders. Make yourself and others feel safer, healthier, loved…on your terms.

Couples and communication

Carl Rogers, the founder of the Humanistic Psychology Movement, defined congruence in individuals as the “…matching of experience, awareness, and communication” (p.339). Rogers hypothesized that congruence leads to discovery and acceptance of your authentic self, a more meaningful life, and ultimately to being happier.

Incongruence can lead to low self-esteem, feeling unloved or not belonging, or a sense that something isn’t quite right. Congruence or incongruence has an effect on your relationships, too. Consider the story of Mark and Sara*:

Couple CounselingMark and Sara

Mark and Sara dated in high school and married after graduating college. Theirs is a “traditional” arrangement. Sara left her job to stay home and raise their two children while Mark supported the family financially. Mark’s work involved a lot of travel, business meetings, and late hours until recently. The couple owns a house, a vacation property, a retirement fund. They have many friends and acquaintances. Their children’s successful careers and future grandchildren are sources of pride for them.

Like many couples in mid-life, Mark and Sara have completed the tasks of raising and launching their children. As they enter this new phase, the empty nest, they have to learn how to communicate and be a couple again.

When their lives were busy building and raising a family, communication was active, driven, purposeful. Conversation flowed. When Mark was in town, they talked about the children, about the house, about taking care of the family’s needs. Now that the children have lives of their own, Mark and Sara don’t find much to talk about. They have some awareness about how they feel, but they’ve lost touch with themselves and each other. Their relationship has become dull, lifeless. They lost the ability to communicate authentically with each other.

Some partners argue; others withdraw. Television, food, spending, alcohol, drugs, sex, the internet…the list is long.. can become self-medicating habits to escape from the isolation and loss of connection. Escape works temporarily. But long-term, escape and avoidance can make a difficult situation a lot worse.

Communication and therapy

“Communication” is why most couples come into therapy. Either arguing too much or not talking enough. But Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest something else as the cause of relationship distress. After 25 years of extensive research, they have learned that conflicts are important in relationships. And a mismatch in managing conflict is the underlying cause of distress for couples. The Gottman Institute has identified three functional conflict management styles in the couples they’ve studied: Avoidant, Validating, and Volatile. And one dysfunctional: Hostile.

Other relationship experts identify the Pursuer-Distancer combination as most common and most difficult. One person wants to move toward the other, face conflicts head-on to resolve them; the other distances him/herself from conflict and intimacy. The more the Distancer pulls away, the more the Pursuer feels a need to try harder to connect. The cycle creates wide chasms and can eventually lead to dissolution of the relationship.

“…you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive,” (Gottman, J., 2000, p. 131). You have to learn how you manage conflicts and how your partner manages them. All couples have what the Gottmans refer to as “perpetual conflicts” or unsolvable differences. It’s important to know what isn’t going to change, so you can focus on what you can change.

Whether you are fighting too much or not talking enough, couple therapy is an option to consider. Some couples report that by having a third person in the room, they feel safer to express their real feelings, concerns, and vulnerabilities.

If both of you decide to work on your relationship, couple therapy offers you the opportunity to learn how to:

  • appreciate each other’s strengths.
  • understand your conflict management styles.
  • name what you can change, and accept what you can’t change.
  • cultivate appreciation and gratitude for what you have.
  • find the courage to work toward the relationship you want or find peace in going your separate ways.

The rest is up to you.

*[fictional characters; fictional story]


It (life) is all about relationships

This article does NOT apply to relationships that have domestic violence (physical, emotional, psychological, or financial violence or control). If you feel fear in your relationship, please read about [otw_shortcode_button href=”” size=”tiny” icon_position=”left” shape=”square” color_class=”otw-silver” target=”_blank”]domestic violence[/otw_shortcode_button].

Healthy relationships feel like balmy days at the beach. Colors are brighter; sounds more pleasing; food yummy; work fun. The future is bright. And although problems exist, none of them are insurmountable because you have mutual goals, values, and interests. You are not alone.

Unhealthy relationships–no matter who you have them with (parent, child, sibling, intimate partner, ex-partner, friend)–feel like a one way trip into a black hole.

In healthy relationships we feel safe, loved, cared for unconditionally, respected, free to express opinions and feelings. You have your partner’s back and he/she yours. You support the other person’s strengths (and she/he yours), encourage personal growth, repair ruptures (all relationships have them), accept and/or forgive flaws (to flaw is to be human). You spend time together as well as apart. You have mutual and individual friends, family, and interests.

We need healthy relationships to enjoy life, to thrive and to be our best self. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know a lot about healthy relationships. We learn how to relate to others from our early caregivers, from our culture, and from the media. We have unrealistic expectations from movies, magazines, and the internet. And then we see organizations from PTA to US Congress fighting as if their lives depended on it. It’s a complicated topic.

If mom and dad, or mom and mom, or dad and dad fought like cats and dogs or apples and oranges or Venus and Mars, you–their son or daughter–may have found your way into a relationship like theirs. Even when you decided not to. We’re just hardwired like that.

Sometimes mom and dad got along fine, but you still wound up with a partner who doesn’t have, in M. Scott Peck’s words, your personal growth in mind. The way you learned to relate is not your fault. What you do about it is. Some relationships are repairable, but it takes an effort from all parties, not just you.

The good news is, we can heal from old wounds and learn to relate so that we feel heard, seen, understood. Simultaneously, we can learn how to hear, see, and understand (empathize with) others.

The only way we can heal is in relationship. — Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD., co-developer of Imago Relationship Therapy

Avoiding others and trying to dig your way out of ineffective patterns of relating by yourself may be making your situation more painful. That’s where therapy comes in. Change is difficult, and possible.

The only person who wants change is a wet baby. — Pat Ogden, PhD.