Key Components of Your Best Life

October 30th, 2014 by

During my graduate studies in Transpersonal Psychology I became intrigued with the idea of human connection and mindfulness as catalysts for healing and transformation. Something about today’s world of divisiveness and separation seemed fundamentally inconsistent with my own understanding of psychological health.  I wanted to find out just what the key elements of healthy psychological development are. I was surprised to learn that prior to the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, the primary model of psychological health was based exclusively on research involving only male subjects. As a result, attributes like autonomy, separation, and competition were assumed to be qualities of psychological health, while the urge for connection and relationship (typical of the female experience) was seen as inferior and unhealthy.

Enter the Healing Power of Connection

In the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, this old and incomplete model was shown to be in error, and a new model of psychological well-being emerged. Based on current research involving male and female subjects, this newer model shows that the urge to connect is our essential human drive – not autonomy and separation. Growth-fostering relationships, those involving active participation in the development of others, are now understood to be the primary vehicle for psychological wellness. It’s easy to see how all of us – men, women, boys and girls – have suffered under the mistaken assumptions of the old model. Mindfulness Opens the Door to Connection

The practice of mindfulness, which is the cultivation of our natural human skill for non-judgmental present moment awareness, is emerging from its ancient roots as a healing and wholesome way to live. Health-care, personal fitness, and wellness models are beginning to incorporate a holistic mind-body-spirit perspective in the services they offer for the prevention and treatment of disease, and mindfulness is the central feature. Unlike the current “find it and fix it” healthcare model, the new integrative model of healthcare reflects elements of relationship, communication, spirituality, mindfulness, wholeness, nutrition, life purpose, personal development, and the mind-body connection.

In my experience as a mindfulness teacher, I’ve observed that as practitioners develop the qualities of mindfulness they typically experience a decline in their reactivity to stress, and an improvement in their relationships and interactions with others. “I’m more patient and show more kindness to others,” says one local mindfulness graduate. “I’m a more attentive listener, and I feel more love and kindness toward myself and others,” says another. By utilizing their mindfulness skills as they engage with others, practitioners realize first hand that their way of “being” has a significant influence on their experiences with other people. This influence upon others has a scientific basis. Known as limbic resonance, researchers are examining the interrelationship between the activity of the brain’s limbic system, the non-verbal transmission of emotion, feelings of empathy and relatedness, and the methods by which we, as human beings, become attuned to the inner states of others with whom we are in close contact.  Connection is more than an idea!  It is a powerful dynamic exchange which arises in the present. With mindfulness we learn to tap into the immediacy and power of connection in the very moment we engage with another. We come out of our heads and into relationship.

Take Away Practice: The 3-Minute Breathing Space

This simple practice, takes only 3 minutes (or less), and has three components:

1. AWARENESS
Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting an erect and dignified posture. If possible, close your eyes. Then ask: “What is my experience right now…in thoughts…in feelings…and in body sensations?”  Acknowledge and register your experience, even if it is unwanted.

2. GATHERING
Then, gently redirect full attention to breathing, to each in breath and to each out breath as they follow, one after the other. Your breath can function as an anchor to bring you into the present and help you tune into a state of awareness and stillness.

3. EXPANDING
Expand the field of your awareness around your breathing, so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, and facial expression. The breathing space provides a way to step out of automatic pilot mode and reconnect with the present moment. The key skill in using mindfulness is to maintain awareness in the moment. Nothing else.

Adapted from the book Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, Segal, Williams, and Teasdale (2002).

 

Mindful Communication – A Key to Better Relationships

October 10th, 2014 by

One of the significant characteristics of mindfulness training is that once you begin to feel confident in your practice, and start to notice the benefits of mindfulness in your daily life, you begin to see relationships evolve and change. Mindfulness “ripples out” from the practitioner and affects those around her. Several times I’ve heard the question from new students – “How can I get my spouse to do this too?”  My response is always the same – the key is to work on yourself, and only yourself. You are one half of an interconnected “system” called a relationship. By changing yourself, the relationship will, of necessity, change. I often tell the story of how I tried “for 20 years” to “change” my husband  – and it never worked. It wasn’t until I started to change myself that he began to change. Interesting huh?

Your Mindfulness Ripples Out to Others

Each of our relationships –  with our significant other, our kids, friends, and co-workers – is a dynamic system. Systems naturally tend toward a state of equilibrium or a “steady state”. Each relationship is a unique mixture of what each person brings to it. However, our “steady state” relationship with our spouse may be the result of unconscious and habitual patterns of behavior each of us automatically relies on when we interact. Examples are patterns like reactivity, defensiveness, and blame. These patterns are sure to kick in when we try to “change” someone else. The interesting thing is that when you begin to change yourself  – by cultivating your own mindfulness – you bring a new and transformed way of being, and relating, to the relationship. Because the system will naturally seek to regain equilibrium, the other half must change in some way. This is how your mindfulness “ripples out” and affects others.

Did You Hear Me?

The practice of mindful communication, especially mindful listening, can make a world of difference in potentially every interaction you have. David Rome and Hope Martin, creators of “Embodied Listening” workshops note, “Unsatisfying communication is rampant in our society.” It seems that most of us are talking, but no one is listening! “Poor listeners” they point out, “are frequently unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. Everything they hear comes with an automatic bias: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way? Poor listeners are more likely to interrupt: either they have already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is just of no interest to them. They attend to the surface of the words rather than listening for what is “between the lines.” If this describes you, you’re not alone. Many of us are poor listeners, but we’re seldom aware of it. How can we become more aware of our communication patterns? By paying attention. This is where mindfulness – the skill of paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally –  can work wonders!

Mindfulness Meditation Makes Us Better Listeners

In mindfulness meditation practice, “we learn to settle, returning over and over again to the present moment, and allowing our thoughts to come and go without acting on them.” This practice shows us how our focus on “self” keeps us from experiencing the world directly. “Letting go of the “web of me” is the first step toward seeing and hearing others more fully,” advise Rome and Martin. By building our self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness, we begin to befriend ourselves, based on an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and non-reactive noticing of our own impulses and patterns. Rome and Martin identify mindful self-awareness as “the ground for listening and communicating well with others.”

Better listening skills through self-awareness are the natural outgrowth of a regular formal mindfulness practice, like meditation. However, the informal practice of mindful listening is something you can do anytime – and the more you practice, the better you get. There’s nothing quite like observing the face of someone as they discover you’re actually listening to them. Typically their face will begin to light up, their voice and stance will soften, a scowl may turn into a smile! Even the most unpleasant conversation can be improved by the practice of mindful listening.

Try It, You’ll Like It

Chad Meng-Tan, in his book Search Inside Yourself, describes the practice of mindful listening as giving the gift of your full attention – the gift of “air time” – to the speaker, while at the same time maintaining some mindfulness on your body. While this practice isn’t appropriate for every conversation, it can be wonderful and effective when the time is right – which is more often than you think. As the other person speaks, notice whether you’re really listening or instead planning what you will say in response at the first opportunity. Try to just listen openly and non-judgmentally. “Don’t try to remember everything,” he says, “If you really listen, you’ll hear.” Notice your own impulses to interrupt and, as best you can, let them go and return to just listening. You may “acknowledge” what the speaker is saying – for example by nodding, or saying “I see” or “I understand”, but don’t “over-acknowledge.”  When the speaker is finished, practice closing the loop of communication by saying something like, “What I heard you say was  . . . .” and then reciting back the essence of the speaker’s message as accurately as possible, without your own embellishment or interpretation.  Observe closely how these communications go, and polish your skills by practicing often.

photo credit photostock via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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