Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present moment, and having an accepting, kind, gentle and open attitude towards your thoughts and feelings. Traditionally the practice of meditation was seen as a solitary activity and the effects of it were mostly measured in terms of individual effects like making the person less stressful, happier and more successful. However in the recent years the effects of mindfulness has been studied neurologically, in terms of the effect it has on the brain, as well what that means for how we experience ourselves in relationships. Newest brain research suggests that just practicing 20 minutes of mindfulness a day for two weeks can lead to a better working and a more compassionate brain. Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness causes measurable changes in the structure and wiring of areas of the brain that are crucial for happier and enduring relationships.
The first few years of life are a period of rapid brain development. Therefore early experiences have a disproportionate impact on shaping our neural systems, with lifelong consequences. As newborn babies, our brain has fewer neuronal connections between different parts of the brain, and more and more connections are formed as result of experiences we have as a child. This may lead to the disproportionate wiring within certain areas of the brain and less in others. So if we have had more or less secure early experiences, the areas of the brain responsible for social engagement and creativity develop high neuronal networking, and are more readily available for us even under stress. However, if your childhood experiences have not been secure (which is not uncommon), it will lead to more neuronal connections within the fear response system of the brain. This in turn acts as a radar always scanning for threat and always ready to react.
Imagine how this might play out in relationships… Your partner may be saying something and your ever-ready scanner in the brain may pick up a word, a facial expression or tone of voice as a sign of threat and lash out or withdraw. Early experiences therefore explain in many ways the reason couples have the same fight over and over again.
Now you may wonder that if the wiring in your brain is already done then how can you now change that? The good news is that you don’t need to undergo surgery to change the connections in the brain, but you can instead practice mindfulness. The not-so-good news is that it takes time and really is up to you.
Mindfulness studies have shown that it increases empathy, and promotes acceptance and less avoidant behaviors in romantic relationships. Some research has also suggested that practicing mindfulness has positively influenced social connectedness, social skills, and perspective-taking, and inhibits negative reactivity during a conflict.
Let’s take a look at some ways to be mindful in relationships:
- Old school methods
There is a reason why your mother thought it was important to have dinner on the table and not in front of the TV. Even today prioritising what you give attention to is important. You can only be present to something you are paying attention to. So if you are paying more attention to the messages on your smart phone or are browsing through Facebook while you are having a conversation with your partner, you are probably not making yourself present in the moment. At times like this, take a step back and ask yourself whether you are unintentionally conveying to your partner that you don’t prioritise them. The easiest way to be mindful then, is to put away all distractions when sitting across your partner and pay attention to his/her facial expressions while you are speaking, notice the impact you have on each other and listen without trying to solve problems for them.
- Be curious about each other.
As partners we may find that often we make the assumption that we know our partner, therefore it is not important to pay so much attention to them and who they are as people. However, mindfulness is known to make mundane things like washing dishes, walking, or eating, exciting and different each time you do it. The reason for this is the curiosity it generates within us for something once we let go of the judgement that it is good, bad, boring etc. When we do the same with relationships we will be able to see that there is always something surprising, and lots more to discover in our partner.
- Cultivate the qualities of mindfulness in your relationship
The foundations for building mindfulness into relationships include the following practices:
Pausing: Pausing refers to literally putting a hold on our habitual thoughts and behaviours. Pausing gives us the ability to step out of conditioning from our personal history, be more present to ourselves and to our partners, and respond in a way that is less identified with emotional reactions.
Relaxing: Relaxing refers to calming the mind and body, and accepting thoughts as they are, no matter how difficult. Your ability to relax in the presence of your partner also signals safety and social engagement to your brain, making it easier to connect with each other.
Being Open: Being open requires you to extend mindful and kind awareness beyond yourself. towards the external world. By being open you become aware of others with simple acceptance.
Trust Emergence: Trust emergence refers to mental flexibility that has no agenda or firm stance on how things should or could be, but embraces a ‘don’t know mind’ which appreciates the impermanence of moment to moment experiences.
Listening Deeply: Another guideline is to listen deeply to one another so that we are able to process information with less bias and learn from what is spoken.
Speaking the Truth: Speaking the truth begins with the articulation of the simple truth of one’s subjective experience. This brings about attunement and sense of harmony within ourselves as well as with our partners.
The above qualities are present in all of us but more often than not surface involuntarily or when the experience is intense enough to naturally elicit them. Therefore to make them more accessible to us there are various mindfulness practices that we can try – for example, Loving kindness meditation, RAIN meditation by Tara Brach, mindful breathing, leaves on the stream meditation etc. Even listening to meditation music while paying attention to your breath is found to be greatly beneficial.
Practicing mindfulness brings about results that echo within ourselves as well as in our relationships.