If you haven't noticed, mindfulness has hit the mainstream!
Although different versions of the practice have been around for centuries, it is a relative newcomer to the western world. Mindful awareness might have been viewed with some suspicion in its early days, but over time research has proven its physical, mental, and emotional benefits.
Now, companies and schools are finding ways to incorporate mindfulness into their cultures, eager to improve the well-being and effectiveness of the people within their institutions. In educational settings, where children can struggle to regulate their attention and emotions, mindfulness is a powerful tool for both teachers and students. A 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review asserted that "Mindfulness should no longer be considered a "nice-to-have" for executives. It's a "must-have": a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress."
Based on the research, it is easy to see why institutions are increasingly interested in promoting mindfulness. When it comes to positive health habits, however, knowing that we "should" do something is rarely sufficient to get us to go to the trouble of changing our behavior. We usually need to get in touch with a personal sense of "why" before we are ready to make that journey.
There are lots of reasons why one might want to explore mindfulness, but in my experience, it often boils down to a desire to feel empowered. Many of us long for greater choice, clarity, and freedom in negotiating our relationships — to ourselves, others, and our sense of purpose.
Mindfulness is one of the most effective tools that I have encountered in enhancing relationships, because it provides access to being fully present in our lives and to seeing what is so about them. Much of our suffering can be traced to the anguish that we create for ourselves by focusing on the past or the future, or by resisting what is so.
Here are five important ways that mindfulness helps us strengthen our relationships with others.
- Promoting Listening — How often are we in a conversation and it seems like we are not really paying attention? Instead of really attending to what the other person has to say, we find ourselves evaluating what they are saying, or preparing our response. At its core, mindfulness is a practice of deep listening. We are not just listening with our ears, but we are listening to our experience. As we practice noticing our experience, we start to realize that the thoughts and feelings that make up our experience are separate from "us". We learn to watch them and respond to them, rather than letting them automatically trigger us into mindless actions and reactions. When it comes to relationships, we start to notice when we are really being with the people in our lives, and how we are listening to them. We notice the reactions that we have to people and the beliefs that drive them. As our awareness grows, so do our opportunities for connecting more purposefully.
- Building Empathy — Mindfulness has been linked with the ability to identify with another's feelings, a core trait of healthy relationships. Just as the experience of being heard builds trust, so does the experience of being understood. Empathy also has a tremendous power to heal conflict and suffering. As Stephen Covey said "When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."
- Facilitating Non-judgement — Our minds are constantly inventing judgemental thoughts. Mindfulness allows us to see those thoughts as opinions, rather than truth. As we are able to distinguish our thoughts as possible interpretations, it frees us up to consider other perspectives, and to shift them if we wish. As we "own" our thoughts, we realize that we are responsible for which ones we choose to believe and we are less likely to blame others for our interpretations or reactions.
- Cultivating Curiosity — Our tendency to judge is often accompanied by a sense of certainty about "how things are". Think of the energy and possibility that is present when we are first getting to know someone. Over time, as we make judgements, we start to think that we know people. The opinions that we form about others start to affect our experience of them. We see them through a particular filter. Through mindfulness, we recognize judgement and have the choice to shift to a curious stance. When we open ourselves up to the possibility that we don't completely know the people in our lives, our experiences of them shifts and we gain access to new ways of knowing them.
- Practicing Letting Go — Mindfulness allows us to gain skill at catching and releasing the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that compete for our attention. We learn to stop clinging to our experiences as truth, and to stop confusing our experiences with our identities. This leaves us free to claim other gifts - like humor, humility, and spontaneity — that benefit our relationships to others as well as ourselves.
Mindfulness allows us access to listen and be present with others in purposeful and powerful ways. How have you used mindfulness to benefit your relationships? Please share your experiences in the comments below!
If you are interested in cultivating more mindful relationships, I invite you to register for my upcoming workshop, "The Art of Powerful Listening" or contact me to find out how I can bring this work to your workplace or community.