Being in relationships is one of the most fundamental and important things we do as a species. We organize ourselves and often define ourselves by close-knit groups, such as the families we’re born into and the friends and partners we choose. We also enjoy and celebrate being part of civic or political groups, become devoted sports fans, or find other ways to connect to larger communities and cultural groups. This makes it possible for societies and cultures to survive, grow, and flourish, because the bonds we build can help us all feel interconnected and a part of something larger than ourselves.
Being part of a group helps us feel safe and secure. In fact, it’s one of the things we are preoccupied with as babies—we quickly attune to who we can depend on for care, and our well-being as children depends on those secure relationships. In addition, attachment theory explains “that the quality of our early attachments profoundly influences how we behave as adults…. By the end of our first year, we have stamped on our baby brains a pretty indelible template of how we think relationships work, based on how our parents or other primary caregivers treat us.”
Children who grow up with insecure attachments can struggle interacting with others and in their ability to handle stress and challenges. Fortunately, children who grow up with insecure attachments can later in life feel more secure in close and nurturing relationships. One way to ensure our ability to seek out and maintain secure and healthy relationships is to bring kind awareness to the quality of our relationships.
In addition, in Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel speaks about mirror neurons. He explains that “mirror neurons map out intentional states in others and they also prepare us to imitate intentional acts. These neurons also have been found to enable us to simulate the internal states of others.” In other words, our brains are built to assess how those around us are acting and feeling in order to attune and help us feel safe. It also means we are influenced by others’ behaviors and actions.
Conflicts are a natural part of any relationship and can occur between family members, friends, coworkers, partners, or even fellow commuters. Part of being in healthy relationships is learning to manage the conflicts that arise in skillful ways. The way we manage those challenges often dictates the kinds of relationships we have and can support or hurt whether we feel secure in any given group of people.
Furthermore, Dr. Siegel explains, “a healthy relationship…involves the honoring of difference between people and cultivation of their linkage through compassionate, respectful communication.” He adds that a healthy relationship is “characterized by integrative communication in which each person’s inner world…is honored for its unique features and is interconnected in caring communication” [italics in the original]. Mindful speaking and listening can support this kind of caring communication.
Mindful awareness of how we communicate also helps with the challenges of being in relationships. A lot of the conflicts we find ourselves in arise because of miscommunications. If we can remind ourselves to be present to our conversations instead of multitasking, have the intention of wanting greater understanding, and offer kindness and curiosity instead of judgment, we can have more-compassionate and -caring communication and healthier relationships.
Mindful communication can also help us understand the ways we give and receive when we’re interacting with others. Bringing mindful attention to the ways we listen and speak can give us insight into the ways we engage in our relationships.
There are many ways to give and receive in relationships and during a discussion. Sometimes a peer or partner only needs someone to listen or a shoulder to lean on. In those moments, our presence becomes our greatest gift. Sometimes, it’s more appropriate to offer advice or maybe make specific demands so that everyone’s needs can be met. The way we give or receive in a discussion (and in our relationships) can dictate if we can be in harmony or conflict.
Often, if we pause and bring awareness to the situation, to ourselves, and the person we’re interacting with, the right action will become evident—or at the very least we can make a more-informed choice. We have all been in awkward conversations as well as in fluid discussions during which lots of ideas and insight were shared. Often it depends on how present everybody is in the moment and the intention behind the way we’re all communicating. For more on how to communicate more mindfully and the impact it can have on our relationships, check out this Mindful Communication course from our friends at Mindful Schools.
Last, it’s important mentioning that having compassion supports connection and healthy relationships with others. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley explains that “compassion literally means ‘to suffer together.’ Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” If we can relate to one another, even strangers with a compassionate and loving heart, we can support a more loving world.
Christopher Germer and Thorsten Barnhofer explain in a chapter they co-wrote in Compassion: Concepts, Research and Applications that “it appears that mindfulness and compassion are multidimensional states of mind that significantly overlap but also have unique characteristics…but it appears that both are essential for practice. For example, we cannot be compassionate if we don’t know what we are feeling and we cannot be mindful without a friendly attitude toward our experience, especially when we suffer.” In other words, mindfulness without compassion is incomplete, and if we can bring both loving awareness and curious attention to our relationships whenever we communicate or interact with others, we will have more fulfilling relationships.
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ABOUT ARGOS GONZÁLEZ:
Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor. He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY. Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY. For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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