To start off our discussion on relationships, let’s start with one relationship in particular: your relationship with meditation and mindfulness. What do you see when you picture meditation? Do you see a solitary yogi on a cushion, eyes closed, thumb and forefinger pressed together? Although this type sitting meditation is perhaps the most basic and fundamental form of mindfulness, here at Aviva we’ve noticed that this approach has become equated with the practice of mindfulness itself and this can really limit the power of the practice.
Awareness and mindfulness (two terms that we use interchangeably) can be practiced and cultivated anywhere at anytime. You can practice while you’re walking to the bus, sitting at your desk writing an email, or even while talking with someone. Research has shown mindfulness practices can strengthen both romantic and platonic relationships, which, when strong, are one of the biggest predictors of happiness and satisfaction.
Here are three simple exercises you can use to strengthen relationships with partners, friends, students, teachers, colleagues, and really anyone you know. If you’re a teacher, you can teach any of these activities to your class.
1) Listening protocols
When you’re listening, what’s really going on inside? Are you thinking of your response while the other person is talking? Maybe you nod and make acknowledging responses. Do you pay attention to how the speaker’s words make you feel? Do you give advice? These are all different styles of listening and none of them is necessarily better than the others. However you listen, listening protocols are a great way to incorporate more mindfulness into your conversations and your relationships as a whole.
Sit down across from the person with whom you’d like to speak. Agree on a topic for discussion. To get started, it’s helpful to choose something simple like, “talk about how this past week was for you,” or “one thing I’m looking forward to is…” (Here’s a big list of topics). Decide who will speak first and then set the timer for a minute. When the timer starts, the speaker gets the floor and the listener just listens. They can provide nonverbal acknowledgments of the speaker’s words such as nodding, smiling, or even laughing, but they may not interrupt with words of their own, even if the speaker runs out of things to say before the minute has elapsed. The point is that the speaker speaks and the listener listens. At the end of the minute, switch roles and repeat the exercise.
For the first few rounds, it’s good just to practice and feel what it’s like to give one person the floor. After a little practice, encourage the listeners to pay attention to the effect the speaker’s words have on their internal experience. This can be difficult at first because it means comprehending what the speaker is saying and keeping one’s emotions and thoughts within awareness. At then end, give the listener 20 seconds to explain what they thought or felt as they were listening. This is meditation. By really being present for your internal experience in conversations, you can strengthen your understanding of the true nature of your relationship and respond in a way that’s honest, authentic, and empathetic. Imagine how differently conversations could go if both parties practiced this?
Kindness is an essential part of effective mindfulness. Without kindness and compassion towards your experience, you may be subtly craving or pushing away the experience itself. As we all know, relationships are full of both pleasant and unpleasant moments. Think back on a wonderful memory with a partner and you feel the warmth of its positivity. Think back on a painful fight and you feel fear, anxiety, anger. None of these feelings are “good” or “bad” because those judgments aren’t useful in the practice of kindfulness.
Kindfulness comes in two parts. First is the practice of noticing your experience, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, without craving or averting it. That’s the mindfulness part. The kindness comes when we welcome that experience. Imagine that you are the most hospitable innkeeper in the universe, letting all experience pass through your door to stay for as long as it likes until it leaves naturally on its own. While the experience is staying at your inn, as the tactful, compassionate innkeeper you are, you do not cling to it or push it away, you simply let it exist.
That is the ultimate kindness to yourself – welcoming your experience to simply be what it is. But more than that, it’s a kindness to others with whom you share that experience. By simply being aware and allowing experiences to be what they are – authentic, fleeting present moments – you free yourself from the delusion that you deserve something else. By showing kindness towards a shared experience, you validate it and the person with whom you’re sharing it. Over time, this simple, albeit difficult, practice will strengthen any relationship.
Now you may be thinking that generosity and mindfulness are two completely unrelated practices, but that’s just because you’re still using your old yogi-on-the-cushion definition of meditation. Remember, meditation can happen all the time. And the more you cultivate awareness, the more you understand the ephemeral nature of experience.
Some describe experience like a rope that’s moving above our open palms. When we let experience happen, we watch the rope pass by, aware of the rope that’s in front of us. When we cling to the rope, it burns our hands as it passes. Through generosity, we let go of tangible things, releasing the tension caused by grasping to them, bringing joy to the recipient and ourselves. I like to think about generosity as a way to loosen our grip on the rope. We spend our lives accumulating objects, whether those objects are clothes, houses, money, really anything. While the objects themselves bring us moments of satisfaction, over time they begin to encumber us as we cling to more and more of them.
Try giving away something meaningful to someone with whom you have a relationship of some sort. It could be something small, such as a pen you like to use, or a keychain. Notice how it feels to give that thing away and how it feels when the person accepts the gift. Do you feel joy? Relief? Remorse? There are no right answers so long as you approach each moment with curiosity. You’ll find that giving is an amazingly liberating practice that strengthens your relationships and allows you to better value the only thing that truly belongs to you – your own experience.