Practicing Mindfulness in Relationships: Creating a Bigger Container

mindfulness and happy relationships

Every moment offers opportunities for truth. One opportunity is to simply be aware of the external reality – sights, sounds, and sensations. Another is awareness of our internal reality – thoughts, feelings and emotions. This is mindfulness: being aware of the present moment on purpose. So why is mindfulness important for relationships?

When we are practicing mindful awareness, it is as if we gain an ally for our relationship. Mindful awareness is as close as we can come to a third-party observer in our relationship, without actually having an “objective” third-party observer such as a marriage counselor or couple therapist.

But practicing mindfulness doesn’t dissociate us from our experience; in fact, it keeps our prefrontal cortex active longer, which gives us the power to observe and reflect on our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In doing so, we are less embedded in our current experience and perception of reality, and thus able to respond more appropriately to circumstances.

Being embedded in experience and perception means having a limited view of reality with a limited number of options. It means believing that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, in relation and interaction with our partner, are irrefutable truths (Wallin, 2007).

Say my partner did something that I perceive as insensitive and selfish. If I believe that this is confirmatory proof that my partner is an insensitive and selfish person, I am embedded in my experience. I forget that my partner is a good person – someone, in fact, I proactively picked – who happened to do something in the moment that was insensitive and selfish.

Instead I engage in such black-and-white thinking as, “Since my partner is thoroughly insensitive and selfish, it is going to be like this forever. This always happens because I am incapable of finding the right partner,” and so on in a downward spiral.

Fortunately, reality is simply not that black and white, and we have options in our responses. Through the practice of mindfulness, we need not remain embedded in our experience with our partner. Since we have an ally – mindfulness – that helps us continue observing, we remember that there are many possible interpretations of reality, and we know that usually our partner does not wake up on a mission to irritate us. If they do something insensitive and selfish, mindfulness creates enough mental space for me to discern that the action does not completely define them, or me, as a person.

Thus, operating through this spacious, observant state, I can tell my partner how such insensitivity and selfishness makes me feel. This provides the opportunity for them to know what upsets me, and to correct such misattunements. If they dismiss my concerns and continue after they know what upsets me, then a different conversation may need to ensue, perhaps proceeding to marriage counseling or couple therapy.

Of course, mindfulness alone won’t solve all of your relationship difficulties. Rather, it helps you recognize what the appropriate response is for you in your time and place. Through observation and reflection, it creates a bigger picture of reality, giving you more options in your relationship, as well as in life.

The late Zen teacher Joko Beck described such practice as creating a bigger container, writing:

“What is created, what grows, is the amount of life I can hold without it upsetting me, dominating me. At first this space is quite restricted, then it’s a bit bigger, and then it’s bigger still. It need never cease to grow… But as long as we live we find there is a limit to our container’s size and it is at that point that we must practice (Beck, 1998, pg. 51).”

So here is to practicing mindfulness with our partner – practice that should never end!

References

Beck, J. (1998). Everyday Zen. S. Smith (Ed.). New York, NY: Harper One.

Wallin, D. J. (2007) Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

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