One of the biggest values of a daily mindfulness practice is the ability to remember what’s important to you, what gives life meaning, and stay focused on that. It’s the same when we apply mindfulness to our relationships and interactions with others. Asking what’s important to you, and how do you want to show up each day with others you come in contact with is key. We seek to have healthy relationships and want to have healthy responses to events and experiences in life, though we often either notice we’re not quite who we’d like with others, or we may outright struggle with certain relationships in our life. How many of us have found ourselves reacting in a way we instantly regret, notice we’ve developed a habit of responding to someone in our life with a subtly unhealthy attitude, or perhaps we find that we barely acknowledged the cashier, the waiter, or the bus driver and wish we had?
When we are mindful, we are able to bear in mind, even in a momentary interaction, what we value and how we’d like to show up, so that we can respond in healthier ways. Bringing to mind our values, developing our attentional skills so we can attend to all of our relationships and interactions, being able to choose to respond rather than react when we are triggered, being able to see how we mislabel, use projection and exaggeration and otherwise misperceive reality, and cultivating an open heart, so that we can extend ourselves, our kindness and compassion, to all that we come into contact with, these are skills we can develop and nurture with a mindfulness practice.
In our Mindful Life Program Foundations course, we bring a strong emphasis to the four keys of mindfulness – attention, values, wisdom and practices of an open heart, and how they relate to having healthy relationships. Developing these areas, participants find that they are able to be more mindful in their relationship with themselves. This in turn, allows them to turn their attention and intentions more clearly towards relationships with family, friends and coworkers, and extend it to those they meet and interact with. We look at ways we can respond that are aligned with our values, that are meaningful to us, and we feel good about in the moment and afterwards, and how we get caught in reacting in ways that we don’t feel good about.
During the course, we spend time identifying and exploring some of the unhealthy habits we can fall into in relating to others and their causes. Through journaling and small group discussions, participants have a chance to look at how some of these ways of relating have affected friendships in their lives. Bringing wisdom from ancient traditions and western psychology, we investigate, for example, how our misperceptions, expectations and attachments, and our emotional triggers affect our interactions with others. It is so easy to get attached to another’s behavior being a certain way, or expecting one’s actions to cause a certain outcome in others, and suffer as a result. Our misperception in such an instance is one of the reasons we may end up having a regrettable emotional event! Having clarity about unrealistic expectations and attachments to an outcome can reduce much stress in our lives and interactions. As we develop our ability to have attention and presence of mind, we are much more able to bring this wisdom into our days. More obvious unhealthy behaviors such as criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are highlighted in one of the videos used in the course, and illuminate these as red flags in any relationship.
What we easily conclude, and investigate more deeply, is that how we respond in any interaction has an impact on others. Whether it is smiling at the cashier, genuinely thanking a coworker, or how we respond in a more intimate relationship such as in marriage or parenting, our words and actions have an impact. One kind gesture may save someone from despair, or at least lighten his or her day. Attending to a conversation with a child, or with a spouse, allows them to feel cared for and heard. Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy.” Alternately, our behavior can be harmful. For example, studies have shown that contempt, that behavior showing disapproval tinged with disgust, done from a place of superiority, over a period of time in a relationship, can have an impact on the recipients’ immune system for up to four years and impact the number of infectious diseases they have. Also, research has shown that how parents argue in the third trimester has a measurable impact on the baby’s neurological system in the first three years of life.
As we identify our real values, our desire to act with more kindness, more compassion, more attention, we ask, how can we create healthier relationships? While improving relationships is obviously an extensive topic, bringing the tools of mindfulness with a focus on the four keys areas of mindfulness help get to the core of improving our relationships. Starting with cultivating our attention, our ability to attend closely to those around us, we bring care and concern to others. John Bruna has pointed out that, “Truly listening, attentively, and with care, is one simplest and most kind gifts we can give anyone.” Through attending to the moment, ourselves and others, we are more present and aware. By creating more awareness, we create more choice in how we respond, rather than unconsciously reacting. Viktor Frankl’s quote illustrates this well. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As we move into looking at our deepest values, cultivating wisdom, and planting the seeds of an open heart, we find our relationships improving day by day.