As we come to a seasonal break, where we can in this difficult time, many of us will be meeting up with relatives. This is not always easy; it’s been a stressful year and old wounds and resentments sometimes bubble up in the background.
Relationships are probably one of the most complex areas of our lives that we ever have to manage and where we have most to learn in refining our skills. Important relationships include our life-partners, family, friends, work colleagues, customers, and business partners. It’s also worth considering the relationship you have with yourself.
One of the main reasons that humans survived and thrived through thousands of years of evolution is that we worked together, divided up tasks, communicated with and supported each other. We’re fundamentally social animals, wired to collaborate for mutual advantage. Evolutionary psychologists say that language developed out of our need to work together and that communication plays an important role in human emotion. For instance, when our ancestors got angry, they sent out a clear signal that they were not to be taken advantage of by others in the social group.
We now have an overwhelming choice of communication channels and devices, like social networking and smartphones that provide new ways of connecting and communicating. However, our fundamental modes of relating to each other at a human level are the same as when we lived as hunter-gatherers around 60,000 years ago. When applied to relationships, mindfulness provides a set of attitudes and skills that work with this same fundamental nature of what it means to be human.
Here are nine ways that mindfulness can make a difference in our relationships:
- Engaging the full human being: When we’re in contact with someone every day we don’t always fully acknowledge the person in front of us – as they are at that moment. The same goes for complete strangers, whom we may never see again. Our brains have a habit of filtering out the familiar, so we can easily have conversations with people who are almost cardboard cut-outs. One approach to engaging the full human being you’re facing is to ask yourself “Who’s in front of me now?” with curiosity, open awareness, and kindness.
- Kindness, empathy, and compassion: Sometimes we forget that other people have complex inner lives just like our own. Feeling empathy and bringing kindness to others, even complete strangers, makes a world of difference to our relationships. Also bringing kindness and compassion to yourself if you make a mistake or feel that you could have done better. Relationships are so much easier when we feel good about ourselves.
- Understanding emotions: Bringing mindful awareness to your own emotions, as well as the feelings of others. For instance, noticing when your partner is feeling sad or frustrated, and bringing understanding, kindness, empathy, and compassion.
- Listening: Rather than focus our attention on what’s being said, we’re often busy rehearsing our own response in our heads. Also, we could be multi-tasking on emails or on our smartphone, when someone’s speaking to us. To really listen – stop what you are doing and bring the focus of your attention to the sound of the speaker’s voice. When you come to your senses, your attention will always be in the present moment.
- Speaking: We tend to speak in reaction to what other people say, rather than pausing and considering a more relevant and skilful response that serves us and others. Speaking with a calm and slightly slower voice creates some space and helps to reduce misunderstanding, stress, and potential conflict.
- Acceptance: Accepting people just as they are, rather than how we think they should be.
- Appreciation and gratitude: Taking a moment to fully appreciate how much we depend on others in our lives and feeling a sense of gratitude for the support and help we receive.
- Non-judging: We tend to automatically judge people, over-generalize, make assumptions, and compare ourselves with others as either superior or inferior. When we judge, we limit ourselves as well as other people. Non-judging means being more aware of our judgemental thoughts and how we automatically identify with them, being more open, and letting go of fixed ideas about who and what people are.
- Patience: Rather than rushing to the next moment, or getting frustrated, we can be more patient and understanding with the people in our lives.
It’s relatively easy to practise mindfulness while walking in the woods and much more difficult in a complex social situation. Mindfulness changes how we relate to our experience, which in turn helps us improve our relationships with others as well as with ourselves. And with better relationships, we’re more likely to live with greater ease and experience better health and happiness.
Suggested guided practice
- When you are interacting with people you know really well, try asking yourself “Who’s in front of me now?” with open awareness and kindness and see what insights emerge.
- When you speak with others, explore listening to your own voice with openness and curiosity.
- Really appreciate how much we depend on others in our lives and feel a sense of gratitude for the support and help we receive.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore loving-kindness and compassion.
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