Mind Over Matter

04/03/2015 06:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015
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"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 fairly recently has not been very much in the current parlance 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 been. 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. What's missing is a sense of wholeness. 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 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 others and ourselves. 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, 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 being mindful is necessarily to be blissful. Those who believe that it is will inevitably be disappointed with this practice because their expectations will 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 experience now.
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 unpleasant 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. Mindfulness in our romantic partnership can be a central form of daily practice. When both partners in a relationship Because thriving couples are able to be present to their own experience, they are more capable of being open to the full range of experience that each other brings. This cycle of mutual 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. Sitting quietly or taking walks together, practicing discernment in regard to speaking only that which is true, useful, and respectful to each other, rather than indulging in judgments and unsolicited advice and criticism, designating uninterrupted time to get caught up on essential, rather than practical concerns and feelings, deliberately choosing to share a meal slowly rather than rushing though it without savoring or even tasting the food, or simply sitting mindfully, watching the unfolding flow of one's own experience. 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 our mind spinning out. Simply interrupting mind-chatter with a reminder 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 time available 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 that we are already doing. For that, we may need to slow down a bit. And paradoxically, doing so doesn't 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!