Mindfulness and love

Before you read this article, I want you to know that all of us struggle with breakups. No one separates from another without feeling loss and pain. I write to remind myself what love is and is not because it’s so easy to get caught up in the me-me-me of relating and the pain of losing someone.

I also want you to know that although the article begins with breaking up, the topic really is about love. Ready?

When you tell a friend that the relationship you’ve had with your partner of three months or three decades just ended, and your friend is a friend in the truest sense of the word, she or he listens…she empathizes…she offers perspective. You hope that by telling your friend that your relationship has ended, by sharing your story with her, in some way, her listening will clear away the pain you feel. By talking, you feel less alone. You believe that everything is going to be alright. Not.

Talking doesn’t always help.

I like to use the metaphor of being in ICU after being run over by a truck. You can’t think clearly. Sometimes, you can’t even move. A friend or therapist or other guide can remind you that this is not your normal state of being and that with time you will heal. But ultimately, you are alone with your loss and pain.

In the past, it seemed to me that there was no way around the pain, that the grieving process had to run its course. That there were no shortcuts; no magic wand to make the pain go away any sooner than it wants to. Now, I’m not so sure.

“Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.” — M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 83.

Love is the shortcut.

Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? Especially in the throes of sadness and anger. But this is the way out.

What is love, really?

When you truly love another person, according to many wise authors and speakers and thinkers and teachers, you let go of your wants and needs and wish the other person well. You wish the other person the freedom to grow. You wish the other person whatever he or she wants. You wish her or him joy and happiness in abundance.

I can hear the objections from myself and maybe you too. This flies in the face of the desire to have that person in your life. Right? A future with that  person equals happiness. A future without her or him…well…not so happy.

According to the wise authors and teachers, when you truly love another person, if you are honest with yourself and you know that the relationship had to end, you know that by ending, both you and he or she have an opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, the argument could be made that if both of you really love each other, you wouldn’t break up, but let’s assume that you thought you loved him or her, but really, you were more interested in satisfying your needs and wants than tapping in to reality. Of course, that’s human nature.

After a breakup, regardless of who’s decision it was to move on, most of us get caught up in or entangled by the details. Who left who, who did what to cause the breakup, who said this or that…the events that led to the end. In divorce, money and legal negotiations monopolize conversations. There are inconveniences, too. You or your partner may have to move. You might have to find a new job and another way to socialize. When children are involved, the process becomes all the more complicated.

The breakup, this tiny snippet of time, a conversation, a word, a look, and the intense emotions that come from not having the other person in your life, blinds you to the real question.

Mindfulness and love

Wisdom comes from many sources. This bit comes through Nikki Mirghafori‘s talk The Way to Love in which she interprets Anthony de Mello’s last book,  The Way to Love from a Buddhist / mindfulness perspective. Anthony de Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist. He writes and she begins with saying what love is not.

Love is not good feelings about others, benevolence toward others, or even service that benefits others.

M. Scott Peck writes that being in love is not love and that being in love is tied to sexual attraction. Hmmmm. If that is what love is not, then what is love?

As you continue reading, keep in mind kindness, patience, and gentleness with yourself. This is difficult work.

Awareness and love

According to these wise people, loving another means first seeing the person as he or she truly is. That means separating your wants and needs, your projections and expectations, your hopes and dreams from his or hers. This can prove difficult even to the most skilled among us. If you can, after talking with your friend(s), you will probably do best spending time alone doing what another teacher calls marinating. Marinate in the experience, he says.

Ask yourself who is this person you want in your life? What does he or she want? What does he or she feel, think? How does he or she experience reality? What are his/her strengths and more important, his or her limitations? See if you can allow yourself to be open to whatever comes up.

You may have heard people refer to red flags early in a relationship. I believe that pondering red flags will keep you bound to the pain and suffering and distract you from the real issue: how did you overlook that person’s reality? What did you want from that person and how did that interfere with your seeing them and their place in their life?

[Pause], I remind myself and you to do this in a kind and gentle way. Of course you want something from that person. Of course you projected your dreams and imagination onto her or him. Of course. It’s human to do that.

Awareness means you are not clinging to memories or ideas and you are not forecasting the future that you want or hope for onto someone else. You are present with the realness of who the other person is, who you are, and what you want from her or him. What you discover about your motives may not be pleasant or easy to look at. Just remember, we all do this. This thing we call love is complicated.

Attention and love

Not to be underestimated, the emotions and stories your mind conjures up will prove to be formidable competition for the equanimity, clarity, and expansiveness that’s needed to get to awareness and to love. The mind will gravitate toward anger, resentment, loss, grieving, sadness. Of course you feel all of that. Of course. When mind tosses you around like socks in a dryer, or entangles you with its exhilarating ideas, see if you can gently turn your attention to a breath. One neutral breath. Or playing one chord on your guitar. Or planting one seed in your garden. Or taking a hike.

It’s best that I take a small break here. Writing the words that describe this process is so very easy. Awareness in any shape or form for any amount of time is a challenge and an ongoing practice. I don’t know about you, but I practice every day in formal sitting meditation and in relationship with others. And breakups still hurt.

Equanimity and love

Equanimity is the last of the three mindfulness basics. It is by no means the least important. In some ways, the other two, awareness and attention are not possible without equanimity. Imagine yourself in a state of inner peace, calm, equanimity. Imagine stillness in your body and your mind. Imagine that you can see yourself and the world exactly as it is.

If I had one wish, I would wish equanimity for you. I wish it even more than I wish happiness in the lovingkindness meditation. May you be calm. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you love [really love] and feel loved.

If the word awareness replaces the word love in that last statement, it might sound something like this: May you feel seen. May you feel heard. May you feel understood. May you feel held in another’s presence. With equanimity, we can attend to the other in ways that puts our wants and needs in the background. Supposedly, that is Real Love. Difficult, I know.

Don’t believe me though. Try it for yourself. If you can just for a moment let go of you and take a look at what the relationship really is and isn’t. Because I don’t always know what’s right for me and I certainly don’t know what’s right for you. And, all of the much wiser authors, speakers, and teachers who write about this could be wrong as well.

End of the Year Equanimity

Can you feel it? Beginning the day after Halloween, the frenetic pace and energy builds, rumbling like a volcano about to erupt. Events, trips, dinners. Shop, chop, drop. As November slides into December, the to-do list takes on a life of its own; the calendar explodes.

Or you have none of that. While everyone else is caught up in happy events and celebrations, you can’t wait for all the hoopla to end. Bah humbug and get me out of here.

At this time of year, expectations reach unrealistic highs and demoralizing lows. So…you might consider brushing up on equanimity.

Equanimity means inner calm no matter what happens. Equanimity means being able to take a step back from your emotions so you can respond instead of react. You can observe instead of getting pulled into fight or flight. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Planning ahead helps too.

Equanimity and people you see once a year

Aunt Marie, who you haven’t seen for a year, hugs you. Her perfume lingers on your skin and clothes for the rest of the day. She asks, just as she does every year, “So, when are you going to lose a little weight?” Or “When are you going to get married?” Or “When are you going to have a baby?” That’s the same Aunt Marie who gives you gifts you know she dug out of her closet: a reindeer sweater two sizes too big (you have lost weight), a wool scarf (you’re allergic), or kitchen utensils (you never cook). You smile and say thank you to the gift and “Not sure” to the questions.

Uncle Rob slaps you on the back. He starts, just as he always does, talking about sports or hunting or politics or any other topic you vehemently disagree with him about. You squirm and smile hoping he’ll stop.

Running into what can best be described as the difficult people in our lives can cause stress. These people (never us!) can be difficult in many ways. Asking intrusive questions is one of the more insidious.

The questions seem genuine, the person interested and concerned, but really, these people are either hoping to hit the mother lode of entertaining information they can later share with someone else, they feel uncomfortable socially, or they are genuinely interested. Whatever their motivation, just because they ask, doesn’t mean you have to answer!

Just say no

Narrative therapy gave us many gifts, one of which is a change in the paradigm of questions and answers. In Narrative Therapy, the choice to answer a question or say “No, I’d prefer not to answer that one” can make you step back for a moment to consider how automatic this response is for you.

Most of us will answer questions, any questions, if they are asked with the expectation of an answer. Questions can seem innocent enough. But is the answer something you want to share with this person, other people you don’t know who this person will tell, or even Facebook? FB is a stretch, but you cannot be certain that what you say to Aunt Marie will stay with Aunt Marie. Besides, we’re all entitled to a little privacy, even from well-meaning relatives.

How are you?

How do you respond when someone asks “What’s new?” “What’s up?” “Waddup dawg?” or “How are you?”  Those wide open question can leave you swirling inside wondering where to set the limits on your answer. Do you talk about your work? Your relationship? What if there is nothing new? What does this person want to know? “Not much,” is the usual response. “And you?”

If you are quick-witted, you might be able to respond by making the other person laugh or smile. “New Mexico.” Ha, ha, old joke, not funny, but the other person may laugh anyway.

Most of us just say, “Not much,” “Same-old, same-old,” or something similarly uninteresting and unrevealing.

Practice equanimity

Here I go again with the mindfulness suggestion. But honestly, it really works for many, many people. Practice being calm and you will be calm. Not quite a fake it till you make it approach, this is more of a practice to change one habit or state of mind to another.

That’s right. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do that for five minutes a day from now until you run into Uncle Rob at your mom’s for a family get-together. Then notice. Just notice how you feel when he starts his monologue. You might notice, even after only six weeks of continuous practice, that you don’t get the usual get-me-out-of-here feeling. You might notice that you can think more clearly and find a way to feel and show gratitude and appreciation. Or you might find a way to excuse yourself from the conversation before it gets too uncomfortable.

Plan ahead

You know these people. You know you’re going to see them. Plan a response to the usual questions they ask. If you are swimming through life and you have nothing but good news to share, let it rip. If you’ve run into a few snags, you might talk about your pet or a hobby. Plan for the tough questions. Plan a kind, but firm refusal answer. Most people will respect your desire to avoid certain topics. “You know, I just don’t want to talk about that now,” or “I’d prefer to keep that to myself.”

When you feel overwhelmed or cornered, excuse yourself. The bathroom is always a good reason to leave a conversation!

Preparing for the holidays includes taking care of yourself. Practicing equanimity is one way to do that.

Anxiety…it’s everywhere

Anxiety. You know it when you feel it. From mild discomfort to immobilizing panic, anxiety is a fear-based response to a person, place, thing, or experience. Sometimes, though, anxiety seems to come out of nowhere. One minute you’re fine, the next trembling or frozen or worse yet wondering if you need to get to an ER for medical treatment. Anxiety can be based your biological makeup–some of us are more responsive than others–caused by a medical condition, or felt as a side effect of some medications. Anxiety can be the symptom of another psychological issue, or simply another word for stress or overload.

Stress, Anxiety, or Fear

When you say, “I’m anxious” do you mean “I’m stressed out about getting all of these work projects done on time,” or “I’m afraid to tell my boyfriend I don’t want to see him any more,” or “I’m anxious because I am worried I will run out of money when I’m 75”? The effects and symptoms might be similar, but for the purposes of this article, let’s differentiate the three feeling states.

Stress is a response to over-stimulation, too much work, too much traffic, too long a to-do list, or too little down time. Ignoring stress and hoping it will go away on its own can lead to burnout and physical problems such as elevated blood pressure and other cardio-vascular health threats, unhealthy eating habits, sleep disturbance, relationship conflicts, and a profound dissatisfaction with your quality of life. You can reduce stress by changing lifestyle habits. Read more about stress at NIMH.

Fear is an emotional response to real or perceived danger. Fear elicits the fight-flight-freeze response. During this state, the body releases hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and about 30 others as it gears up to protect itself or shuts down to protect itself. When you are hiking and see a rattle snake, you might feel fear and consider avoiding the snake or running away. You might freeze and not be able to move or think. Most people won’t fight with a snake. You’ll notice a heightened sense of awareness, a focus on the dangerous stimulus, and something like an electric current running through your nervous system. That’s a natural response to fear. When the threat is gone, so is the fear. The hormone levels and body returns to homeostasis.

Anxiety is worry or fearful anticipation of a future threat or what if thinking. Ask “Is the sky going to fall, Chicken Little?” and CL will anxiously run in circles saying the sky is falling. There is nothing real to fight or run away from, no object or situation to avoid because it’s “what if.” In other words, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from the future threat. You are in an unsolvable state of fight-flight-freeze holding the bag of hormones, fear, and worry. You may be able to reduce worry by changing your thinking. “The sky going to stay where it is, CL.”

Anxiety might follow a recent loss or change in living conditions, health, or relationships. You might read about or see a story on the news. Or you might just wander into worry territory. Scientists don’t fully understand anxiety and continue to study its possible causes. Some forms of anxiety may be biological or genetic and require psychiatric evaluation and medication.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Therapists use the term “normalize” when we frame a person’s responses and symptoms within the context of a situation. If you feel anxious, and you want to normalize your feeling, remind yourself that we live in the Age of Anxiety. The environment we’ve created for our human existence can feel like it exceeds our capacity to adapt. The result is an unpleasant set of symptoms that are called stress or anxiety. You feel worried but may not know why. Or you feel afraid and know why but cannot stop feeling scared. Without some form of awareness and intervention, everyday anxiety can grow until it interferes with your ability to function. Why wait that long?

You might not recognize symptoms of anxiety or stress, so here is a list of the most common:

  • Feeling powerless
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Mind racing.
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Jumbled, bizarre, rapid, slow, methodical, obsessive thoughts
  • Memory impairment
  • Disassociated from reality

Body sensations:

  • Feeling “nervous,” jittery, or on edge
  • Restlessness. Can’t sit still.
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Stomach discomfort, nausea, diarrhea
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Muscle tension
Morning anxiety

Many people feel a sense of panic or anxiety when they wake up in the morning. According to research, cortisol levels are highest at that time. We’re not sure why, but some thoughts are: your alarm jolts you out of a deep sleep instead of gently nudging you from light sleep state; your alarm would cause fear or stress whenever it goes off; you feel anxious during other times of the day but upon waking, the feeling is more obvious; you would rather stay in bed than get up and go to work; sleep is an escape from real worries you have while you are awake.

What can you do about stress, fear, anxiety?

You don’t need this article to learn what to do to reduce stress or anxiety. The internet, family, and friends will give you plenty of well-meaning advice:

  • Exercise more.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eliminate caffeine and carbonated beverages.
  • Smile.
  • Add self-care to your daily routine.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Spend time with the activities, pets, friends, and family members you like.
  • Turn off the television, smartphone, tablet, and computer.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Meditate.
  • Journal.
  • Sleep more restfully.
  • etc.

Ahhhhhh!!! That list can add stress rather than take it away, especially when you think “I should…” So, instead, let’s slow the process down.

  1. Take an objective look at your habits. Which ones cause you the most stress, worry, or fear?
  2. Pick one habit that you think you can change without a lot of effort. Change can mean eliminate, modify, or add.
  3. Practice your new habit for a week.
  4. Look back on the week. What was that like?

Let’s see what that looks like with Jake, a 35-year old software engineer.

  1. Jake says that the habits that cause him the most stress, worry, and fear are: eating fast, eating drive-through fast-food at most meals, working too many hours every day, commuting to and from work in rush hour traffic, fighting with his girlfriend, finances, and because he’s worried about getting laid off, he doesn’t get enough restful sleep.
  2. Jake wants to change all of these habits at once so he has no stress, but he’s willing to practice changing one habit for now. So he chooses to slow down his eating, which he usually does driving to or from work.
  3. Jake made a promise to himself that he would eat breakfast at home every day for a week and even though he’s not willing to cook for himself, he is willing to bring takeout food home and eat there while listening to calm, gentle music.
What could happen?

We can imagine three outcomes. 1) Jake would not be able to continue this new habit for the entire week. 2) He would continue the new habit for a week and learn that it made no difference in his stress level. 3) He would do this for a week and notice a  big enough change in his stress level to continue this experiment for another week.

If he didn’t continue for the week, he could try again the following week, or pick up mid week and continue trying until he made it through a week without a break. If he learned that changing this habit did not change his stress level, he could move on to another experiment, such as using sleep hygiene to improve his sleep. If he noticed a big enough change in his level of stress, he could continue until this practice became a solid new habit and then add another stress reduction experiment to his week.


The point is this: life is an experiment for each of us. If you approach your life and your challenges with the curiosity of a scientist doing experiments you can learn what will work for you, not what works for most people or what authors of articles, your mom, or your best friend think will work for you. When the process of change is slowed down, you give yourself an opportunity to truly experience the results of your experiments.



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.