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.