The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
As a couples relationship therapist, the question I have always pondered is, can you be mindful or fully present in your relationship? (For the purposes of this post, mindfulness and being fully present will be used synonymously.)
I have found the answer to be yes. Not only can you be mindful and present in your relationship, when you add mindfulness to your relationship, it has the potential to be a transformative journey towards healing and wholeness.
The search for answers
I first encountered the possibility of mindfulness in relationship while sitting with one of my teachers Ram Dass. A student asked him a question about relationships. First, Ram Dass gave a superficial answer, but when the student persisted he said:
“If you really want to look at love from a spiritual side, you can make your relationship your yoga, but it’s going to be the most difficult form of yoga.”
Having been a yoga practitioner for many years, I immediately understood the implications of making my relationship my yoga. Relationships are extremely difficult because our egos are so vulnerable, especially when you start to open up to another human being.
Still not satisfied, while at a Zen monastery in Northern California, I asked the head monk about how to be present in a relationship. He brought me in front of the group introduced me to “eye gazing.” This is a form of meditation where you stare into each other’s eyes. I could see how sitting there looking at your partner’s eyes can bring you into the present moment. However, what happens when you start talking?
I continued my search for making a relationship a mindful practice. It’s one thing to be present on your cushion when sitting in meditation, or looking into your partner’s eyes; however, I knew that there was a much bigger challenge to being present and mindful in conversation with your partner. What I realized is that conversing almost immediately takes us out of the present moment and into the past and future. This eventually brought me to Harville and Helen Hendrix.
As most of us have observed, when you’re conversing with your partner – or anyone for that matter – we are usually caught up in our relentlessly spinning mind, already planning the next statement as your partner is talking. We are busy reacting to what is being said by interpreting, distorting, judging and forming opinions about it. We also may be distracted by sounds in the room, or discomforts in our body.
I recently discovered that we have about 50,000 thoughts go through our minds each day. It’s difficult to be fully mindful or present with our partner because we are often filtering and reacting to what our partner is saying. We are often misinterpreting and quickly forming opinions and judgments. So I asked myself, is it really possible to suspend judgment and opinions and listen openly, nonjudgmentally and empathetically? The answer is absolutely yes!
Harville and Helen Hendrix created a communication tool that allows you to be fully present in relationship. They named it “intentional dialogue.” For the rest of this blog, however, I would like to focus on defining what we mean by mindfulness in a relationship.
What does it mean to be present or mindful in your relationship?
Simply put, mindfulness is seeing your partner as they actually are – not as we wish or imagine them to be.
It is analogous to being present, being in the here and now.
Said another way, mindfulness is the relaxed, non-clinging, non-grasping, non-aversive and nonjudgmental awareness of present experience. By nonjudgmental, we mean accepting things as they are without trying to change it.
Mindfulness is a skill that like any other skill requires developing.
It’s composed of two aspects:
A: Self-regulation of attention
B: Orientation that is characterized by kindness, curiosity, openness and acceptance
Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present, and nonjudgmentally.
In order to be truly mindful, we need to acquire the qualities of kindness, such as being nonjudgmental and listening. We must release the grasping and attachment that our partner be or act a certain way. Grasping and clinging always involve hope and fear, hope that things will get better or be different and fear that they will never change and won’t get better.
Mindfulness also includes awareness
Awareness means the ability to track your and your partner’s thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening in the present. It means noticing the body and mind, and contacting one’s felt experience without holding on or pushing away. You just notice your thoughts and feelings as if you were watching clouds flying over your head on a windy day.
Mindfulness is an antidote to suffering because it frees us from delusion, attachments and projection, and brings us into harmony with what is occurring right now. It allows us to be authentic and truthful.
What gets in the way of being mindful?
Habits are often what we get worked up about, and where we are coming from in our reactivity. Our thoughts can be misguided due to our habitual thinking. The story we tell ourselves regarding what’s going on with our partner, is often based on previous experiences in childhood and often is filled with opinions and judgments. This has nothing to do with pure knowing and being aware. Habitual patterns are unyielding and inflexible, and distort our story about what’s happening in the moment. These distortions of reality usually result in confusion frustration.
Mindfulness is seeing through your distortions. We do that by looking at our strong reactions, projections, distortions, and our habitual patterns and in that way we begin to see the resulting frustration and confusion. One disappointment after another leads to frustration with the constant repetition or the pattern repeating itself over and over. (Most of us know that we end up fighting about the same things over and over.) At this point, we long for liberation and freedom from confusion.
Rather than be reactive, try to have a simple awareness with no story. To bear witness to your partner’s thoughts and feelings without judgment is to be mindful. Not reacting and not judging can be very restful – and even peaceful.
The way we get beyond the story is to tap into our “feelings.” Drop into feelings without hope that things will get better and fear that they won’t get better. Feeling is not so easy. Feelings can be a sensation or an emotion. It’s important to feel both without holding on and pushing away. Feelings need to be felt not just known. If you’re prone to analyzing or intellectualizing than it will take more time to feel your feelings.
So, what do we mean by being a mindful couple?
When one is mindful with one’s partner, you are training in paying attention to your partner. The opposite is an unconscious relationship, where we remain oblivious to the needs that fuel our conflicts.
Partners in a mindful relationship recognize that the purpose of their relationship is to heal their childhood wounds. They also recognize that their partner’s needs are a blueprint for their own personal growth. The mindful couple realizes that following this map will involve arduous work – and both partners are committed to the process. There is intentionality.
Partners in a mindful relationship educate each other about their childhood wounds. They identify their partner’s needs and desires, and they commit themselves to meeting them. They take inspiration from the romantic love stage of their relationship and offer their partner’s unconditional love. That is, they specifically target their behavior to meet their partner’s needs – and heal their wounds without asking for anything in return.
Partners in a mindful relationship accept each other’s absolute separateness: their unique way of perceiving reality, the sacredness of each other’s inner world. They consider themselves equals. They explore and mirror each other’s worlds, validate each other’s experience, and empathize with each other’s feelings. In a mindful relationship, partners are separate but equal.
Partners in a mindful relationship keep all the energy that belongs in the relationship within its boundaries. When they feel uncomfortable, when their needs are not being met, they bring their concerns to their partners rather than withdrawing from the relationship or getting their needs met outside of the relationship. Rather than acting out, they convert their feelings to constructive communication. In a mindful relationship, there are no exits.
The partners in the mindful relationship communicate their needs and desires to each other in a constructive way. They do not criticize, shame or blame each other. They do not use provocation or coercion to try to get their partners to fulfill their needs and desires. In a mindful relationship, there is no criticism.
The mindful couple accepts all of each other’s feelings, especially anger. They realize that anger is an expression of pain and that pain usually has its roots in childhood. Conscious partners never express anger or frustration spontaneously for they know that “dumping” negative feelings is destructive. They learn constructive ways of containing and expressing anger and other negative emotions, and they help their partners to do so in nonjudgmental ways as well. Expressing their anger in a contained way leads to its conversion into passion and deeper bonding. With the mindful couple, anger is expressed by appointment only.
Partners in a mindful relationship learn to own their own negative traits instead of projecting them onto and provoking them in their partners. They accept responsibility for those parts of themselves of which they are not proud, and learn to manage and integrate them. In the mindful relationship, both partners are responsible for and carry all aspects of themselves.
In a mindful relationship, partners develop their own lost strengths and abilities instead of relying on their partners to make up for what is missing or lost in them. They are therefore more whole, and they foster wholeness in their partners.
In a mindful relationship, each partner strives towards androgyny. They do not behave in accordance with gender or sexual stereotypes. They share income responsibilities as well as household responsibilities, chores, and childcare in accordance with each partner’s interests, abilities and schedules rather than a code of social expectations.
In a mindful relationship, the partners are whole and balanced and in touch with their sense of oneness with the world. Like children, who have successfully mastered the stages of development, they are powerful, competent, caring, and capable of intimacy. For this reason, they are able and willing to direct their excess energies to the world outside their relationship. They become more altruistic contributive members of society. In a conscious relationship, partners care for others and the world.
A mindful couple never questions their commitment to the work and to each other. You know that you can be yourself, and your partner will always be there for you.
The mindful couple accepts each other as they are: unconditionally
A mindful relationship is about unconditional love. This translates as not attempting to change our partners. It is the acceptance of a person, without him or her meeting any conditions or expectations. The mindful relationship has warmth and spontaneity at its core.
The mindful couple is not reactive. Communication is positive and includes opening to the other’s perspective and empathy. A mindful relationship honors the space between and creates sacred space for each person to have their own experience. It means having affection for someone without establishing limitations.
In the mindful relationship, the couple asks not “what can the relationship do for me?” but rather “what can I do for the relationship?”
As you bring mindfulness to your relationship, your mind begins to accept “what is” instead of how you believe things are “supposed to be.” There’s no clinging or grasping. There is simply the joy of being in the relationship without any external reason. You find yourself giving without expecting anything in return. This is a “no strings” commitment to the welfare of your partner – a reciprocal exchange without anyone keeping score.
Each partner acts in a way that is helpful, empowering and loving to the other. There is a healthy respect for the values and needs of each other, and each person believes that giving love to the other is a reward in itself.
By bringing mindfulness into your relationship, you gain the power to consciously participate in how your relationship develops and how you develop as a loving person.
In a mindful relationship, your commitment to love becomes the ground from which you meet whatever life brings. You are committed to staying emotionally present and honest no matter what arises. You are able to avoid defensiveness and getting caught in fear. You maintain loving-kindness and compassion even when feeling vulnerable, fearful, uncertain and disappointed. Your relationship will not lose its messiness or its disappointments, but by making it a mindful practice, even the difficulties become meaningful.
In a mindful relationship, your partner represents your commitment to connection to spirit and to non-separation. There is a capacity for generosity of spirit. Your intention is to base the relationship on a fair exchange and you trust each other that this is so. Your partner is the recipient and the inspiration for your deeper relationship to love. However, your relationship to the energy of love is not dependent on your partner.
It’s about the journey
In a mindful partnership, you delight in giving happiness to your partner and you see your partner through the lens of love, not because he or she is perfect, but because love is not about judging, keeping score, or seeking advantage.
To become a mindful couple is an ever-evolving journey, not a destination. It’s a commitment not all couples will make. For some it’s just too much effort and work to be using your relationship venture highly individualized curriculum. However, for those who choose to make their relationship a mindful and conscious relationship there are many rewards to be had. Good luck in your journey.