The Examined Life

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How connecting with yourself also helps you connect with others

When I started meditating, I thought it was all about me.  I felt stressed, my mind was chaotic, panic was overwhelming my body, I needed something to calm me down. I was highly focused on myself and my problems, and I saw meditation as something that might help me cope. It has helped me cope, but increasingly this has happened not just through allowing me to work more skilfully with my internal experience, but by expanding my capacity to be and stay in relationship with others. Opening up to a wider space of awareness and connection, via the practice of mindfulness, has made it a lot less claustrophobic in here.

This expansion seems to have happened quite organically. First I began to discover that my automatic patterns of reacting to events weren’t just happening in my inner space—the thoughts, emotions and body sensations I was having also impacted on how I operated in the world. When I felt angry with someone, I’d instinctively avoid them, amoeba-like, pulling out of connection and into isolation. In meditation, I began to see this pattern clearly.

Withdrawal can be a way of not getting hurt in the short term, but it tends to make for a somewhat lonely and limited existence. The more we contract our awareness, tighten our muscles and pull away from others, the less room there is to breathe. Opening out is risky—we’re becoming willing to make ourselves vulnerable—but it’s the only way to go for genuine contentment. As I started to notice my own isolating tendencies, I began to explore the possibility of staying present to, rather than acting on those instinctive reactions, and opting for a different  response—that of maintaining connection. Mindfulness has helped me with that, too.

There’s been a persistent idea in our world that meditation means cloistering ourselves from the world, probably because we see so many images of people practicing on their own, with their eyes closed, apparently not in contact with those around them. What we don’t see, of course, is those same people getting up from their formal practice and using the awareness they’ve been cultivating to relate more empathically and kindly with others.

It’s good to see this misconception being challenged more regularly, especially as there’s plenty of solid research suggesting that meditation can increase our ability to relate with others. There’s also now an excellent guide to this new science and practice of mindfulness as it applies to relationships—Marsha Lucas’s book Rewire Your Brain For Love.

For a non-specialist, trying to understand the implication for our relationships of different bits of the brain growing, shrinking, firing and wiring can seem a bit like trying to enjoy a good film by going to inspect the projector, so it’s a testament to Marsha’s book that I came away feeling that it really was valuable to know what my amygdala is doing (or not doing) when I’m drawn to isolate, and how I can learn to respond in a way that would engage my orbito-medial prefrontal cortex more effectively. Rewire Your Brain For Love is a training program for the brain that leads to a more fulfilling experience of the heart, with mindfulness practice at the core of the curriculum.

Taking a physiological approach to what’s happening in our relationships seems to have the welcome effect of empowering us to understand and change them. We can see that it’s not our personal failing that we get angry, hurt and confused, and that we misinterpret our loved ones and their actions—it’s simply part of our shared human heritage. The great news about the science of mindfulness is that it shows we don’t have to be totally enslaved to our patterns—the brain is far more plastic than we once thought, and meditation can help us rewire it in the direction of fulfilling connection with others.

I haven’t had the privilege of before and after scans to see what’s happening in my own brain, but I do know that in the ten years I’ve been practicing, my relationships have shifted from the non-existent or fractious gradually towards ever-greater degrees of closeness. I’m about to celebrate a second wedding anniversary, and I feel a deep, loving bond with both my wife and eight-month-old son, and a stronger and growing sense of connection with family, friends, colleagues and community. A decade ago, I couldn’t imagine such a situation.

Hopefully, there will soon be more studies and more books like Marsha’s that show how mindfulness helps us approach and enjoy fulfilling relationships. And they will encourage more people like me to engage with this liberating practice—not just for themselves, but for their loved ones, and indeed, for the world at large.

posted by Ed Halliwell, 10:01 am