“Mindfulness is not something that is only done in the meditation hall, it is also done in the kitchen, in the garden when we’re on the telephone, when we are driving a car, when we are doing the dishes.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Mindfulness, a term that until lately has not been frequently heard, has recently become a popular subject. There’s even a magazine, actually named Mindful that claims to “celebrate the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing.” And not long ago, Time magazine, an icon of mainstream American culture, featured a cover article on mindfulness. According to the article, all kinds of people, particularly celebrities, are engaging in this practice with surprising results. “Surprising” perhaps for those who haven’t been practicing mindfulness, but not for those who have.
What may be surprising for the latter group, is that mindfulness is not so much a form of meditation that one engages in with eyes closed and legs crossed on a zafu (pillow) once or twice a day for a set period of time, but it is actually a way of being in which we experience clear awareness of our moment to moment experience and are present with it in a way that is receptive, accepting, and non-judging. While to the uninitiated, this may seem simple, as anyone who has ever attempted to do this knows, simple isn’t necessarily easy.
The conditioned mind, that is, the kind of mind that human beings have, has a tendency to wander and jump from one object of attention to another, often within the space of milliseconds. Living, as we do, within a culture that subjects us all to a continuous flow of distractions and sensory stimulation, the tendency to experience a splintering of our attention is strong. When this happens we can feel fragmented, as though we’re incomplete, like something is missing, and it is.
Because we’re not fully present with our experience, we feel like we’re never quite complete and there is a strong tendency to look for something, or someone that will provide us with what we need to experience in order to feel whole. When we experience a sense of wholeness, there is a feeling of being at one with the world, being at peace, lacking nothing, secure, connected to ourselves and others. When we don’t experience this, we often conclude that it is because we lack or don’t have enough of something and seek to acquire it (or more of it) in the hopes of finding a feeling of completeness. We may pursue money, attention, a relationship, material objects, validation, sensory pleasure, drugs, or anything else that we have concluded will provide an antidote to the distressing feelings of fragmentation and disconnection.
What many are discovering these days is that the practice of mindfulness can provide a direct path to the experience that we desire. This is not to say that mindfulness is equivalent to the state of blissfulness. Those who believe that it is will inevitably be disappointed with this practice because their expectations will probably not be met. Since being mindful is about being present with one’s experience, whatever that may be at any given moment, the range of possibilities of what can show up is vast, even infinite. Being complete isn’t necessarily synonymous with feeling good; it’s simply about showing up and being at one with whatever is present in our field of awareness at the moment.
So what does all this have to do with relationships? In a nutshell, everything. Many or perhaps most of us seek partners, temporary or permanent, out of a desire to find this sense of wholeness or to distract ourselves from the feelings that are inherent in the experience of fragmentation. The intense sensations and strong emotional activation that relationships provide are a powerful distraction from distressing feelings. In addition, relationships fulfill our fundamental human need for connection.
Practicing mindfulness in the context of a relationship can enhance the depth and quality of connection and neutralize negative reactive patterns that diminish trust and intimacy by enabling partners to attend more consciously to each other’s concerns and needs. Because couples who experience mutual fulfillment are each able to be present to their own feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations, they are more capable of being open to the full range of experience that each other brings. This cycle of reciprocal reinforcement enhances the capacity for full engagement, which is the foundation of fulfillment in relationships.
Mindfulness in relationships can be practiced in a wide variety of settings and circumstances. Examples include sitting quietly, taking walks together, sharing meaningful and purposeful conversation, or sharing a meal together slowly rather than hurriedly. These activities and practices can be done alone, with a partner, or in a group or gathering. Fortunately, mindfulness can be practiced in the context of everyday life as we are doing what needs to be done at work or home simply by slowing down and reminding ourselves to pay attention to our experience whenever we notice ourselves experiencing “monkey-mind”. Simply interrupting mind-chatter and reminding ourselves to slow down, check in, and take a couple of conscious breaths, can provide quick and effective relief from anxious, disturbing, or obsessive thoughts.
Mindfulness is not an escape from responsibilities and concerns that require actions or attention from us, but rather it’s a process that enables us to see more clearly and act more effectively in our relationships, in our work, and in our lives in general. And for those of you who would like to practice mindfulness but feel that you don’t have enough available time to do it, consider this: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spends four hours a day sitting in meditation. And he doesn’t exactly have an empty schedule. When something is important enough, to us, we manage to find time for it. Living mindfully doesn’t require us to sit in meditation or add any thing to our already full lives. It’s just a matter of practicing presence with that which we are already doing. To do so, we may need to slow down the pace of our lives. And paradoxically, doing so doesn’t necessarily mean getting less done, but just the opposite. I know from my own experience that that’s true; I just can’t adequately explain exactly how that works. I just know that it does. Try it and see for yourself. It may be easier than you think!