By Joanna Curry-Sartori, LMFT
What does mindfulness practice have to do with the quality of our everyday relationships? Is it possible to translate the state we experience in meditation — the state of being calm, centered, clear, and compassionate — into the moment-to-moment, day-to-day interactions we have with other humans? If so, how?
As humans, we long for authentic connection. We seek relationships in which we feel we can truly be ourselves, loved, accepted, safe, and valued as we are. This is true from the moment we are born. And many of us recognize that others have this shared need and we strive to offer it to our family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers in our brief encounters. And while certain knowledge and skills can enhance our approach to relationships, ultimately this connection arises from a state of being, when we are present in the fullness of our own Selves.
We know these moments, however fleeting they may seem. They are moments when we feel genuine compassion or a sense of calm and peace with another. Or they are moments when we confidently and courageously step out of our comfort zone, when we aren’t limited by fears as we reach out or receive connection. This state of being is described by Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems Model, as he offers the conviction and understanding that we can learn to access and lead from this state of “Self”. When we are in this state, Dr. Schwartz has noted that we often describe our experience using “the 8 C’s” — that is, we feel calm, compassionate, curious, confident, courageous, creative, clear and connected.
Can you think of a moment when you felt connected to Self while in relationship with another person? A moment when you “got” each other? A moment when you were just being together and there was a sense of genuine compassion and contentment? …. That’s what I’m talking about!
So we know these moments and experiences are within us. And yet, so often we feel these moments of authentic connection during which we access our Self as fleeting, a stroke of good luck, or accidental. What if we held the understanding that this state of being is always alive and a resource within us? What if there is a way to cultivate and practice engaging in relationships from this true place of Self?
Mindfulness builds our capacity to anchor into our Self. Through the practice, we learn about and strengthen the pathways into this state of Self. Mindfulness also helps us recognize the signs when we are not in ourselves – we learn to step back from our reactions and notice patterns of thought, waves of emotions, and persistent physical sensations that often signal when we are triggered or in a reactive space. When these signs are present, so often our relationships reflect the consequences. As we or others are overtaken by assumptions, judgment, feeling inadequate or other agendas, we aren’t available for true connection.
So how do we use this “muscle of mindfulness” in our daily interactions? We can grow our practice to not only recognize and rest into our deeper selves but to grow our awareness and curiosity about that which seems to take us out of ourselves and “off our game”.
While mindfulness helps us step back from our automatic reactions, the work of Dr. Schwartz helps us take a further step to understand what seems to block this state of Self. We can get curious and come into relationship with our own internal responses.
Reflect on a mildly challenging interaction with another person. Often our tendency is to focus on what they said and did that upset us. See if you can turn your reflection inward and notice what happened inside you with this person. What were your physical responses, and what was the dialogue of thoughts and feelings within you?
Very often, an assortment of thoughts and feeling emerge, as if different parts of us are in conversation. For example, maybe a part feels hurt, while another part gets angry and wants to defend, while another part can understand the other’s perspective. Before we can be prepared to respond effectively to another, we need to bring awareness to our own multi-faceted inner reactions. We need to listen in, have compassion inwardly for these different parts of us, as if having an inner “team huddle” or family meeting. And just as in a family, each part has a unique perspective, a need, an intention. Once understood, these parts very often relax and we easily reconnect with our Self.
The awareness of the many parts of us and the possibility to understand and hold inner compassion is a further gift of the work of Dr. Schwartz. With this understanding, we can be curious about our own inner world and have a conscious relationship with ourselves on the inside. We can apply our mindfulness awareness skills in the moment, to our internal and external interactions. It’s as if we can put our interpersonal dynamics in slow motion. We can pause and notice what is leading within, what parts of us with various thoughts and feelings are driving us? We can pause and step back from these responses, acknowledge them, and then rest back into our Self. In this way, we practice, moment by moment, leading from Self and give and receive authentic connection.