Imagine you’re spending time with a good friend, enjoying the flow of your conversation, and the bustle of your activity. No old memories are intruding; no worries about the future, no one is wishing to be somewhere else. It’s like time does not even exist – there is just the warm connection between you, and the peaceful satisfaction of being where you are at that moment.
What is happening is a moment of mindfulness. Such moments may seem to come without trying, as a gift. It’s as if time stands still, as when you discover a beautiful sunset that stops you in your tracks, or look into the eyes of someone special and see your love returned.
We feel lucky to have moments like these. But people can also choose to cultivate mindfulness. Choosing to be present in the moment has many benefits such as:
- Helping you calm down and slow down
- Enabling you to be more aware of your emotions and in tune with yourself
- Allowing you to be more present with your partner or spouse
How to Develop Mindfulness
It takes time and a willing attitude to become more mindful. “I think the biggest problem these days,” says author Scott Aughtmon. “…is we don’t have time to think anymore.” His advice is for writers, but it rings true for life partners, too:
We’re all going nonstop. We’ve got these little screens on our phones. We never take time to think…. Two hundred years ago, if you and I were alive, we would have so much time to think. There’s no electricity. People are sitting out under the stars. They’re imagining, ‘Hey, that thing looks like a big spoon. This looks like a cow….’ They’re sitting and thinking all the time. By thinking, you begin to have new ideas. When you don’t think, your mind’s going constantly with distractions…. We’re going, going, going, just doing all sorts of stuff, not taking time to think…. If you begin to set aside time to think, you’d be surprised at what ideas you’d come up with.
Not only are we busier than ever in modern life. Often the time we could spend being more fully present with each other gets taken up with online socializing, which is not the same.
I see many couples in relationships that are starved for connection. They feel bereft.
People can connect on Twitter or Facebook or through texting and so forth but it’s not the same as human presence.
Mindfulness Helps Us Integrate Mind and Body
Online, you’re missing out on all the nonverbal communication that happens when we are physically near each other.
You’re missing eye contact, body language, and tone of voice.
We’re mammals. We’re made to tune into the physical presence of each other, for comfort and safety — even without words.
Let’s take an example. Say you are a parent, and you hear your baby wake up and start to fuss in the other room. You wouldn’t try to send a picture of yourself smiling, or talk through a speaker and expect them to be soothed. They need your touch, they need your voice, and they need the warmth of your body.
The challenge, as adults, is to remain available and willing to be open to each other in both mind and body. There’s a saying that we’ve got a second brain in our gut. Our mind and body work as a two-part response system.
The problem is, when we work so much in our heads, we can lose touch with our bodies. We need to be mindful of body and mind together to navigate our relationships.
How Mindfulness Promotes Presence
In our work with couples, we find that practicing mindfulness, even in three to five minute sessions, is very helpful. Meditation practice helps even the most challenged couples slow down and process what is going on inside each person. As they begin to know their thoughts and feelings better, they can explore gentler ways of listening and sharing what they discover.
In therapy work with couples, I’ll often ask them to just sit quietly with their hands in the laps as our session begins. First I’ll ask them to breathe quietly, to be aware of our breath going in and out. I gently remind them:
- “I’ll watch the clock. We’re going to do this for about three minutes. It’s just to get you back in your body and present here.”
What kinds of things do people begin to notice when they are doing the breathing and calming down?
What You Notice During Mindfulness Practice
When beginning to practice mindfulness, you may find yourself paying attention to your sensory experience. You might notice what’s tight in your body, or what hurts or feels uncomfortable. Discomforts are usually among the first things to enter our awareness.
Alternatively, you might be noticing your thoughts. You may be counting them, paying attention to how many thoughts are going by in a couple of minutes. You may notice how often you think of a certain thing. You might also realize a constant stream of chatter in your mind:
- Your to-do lists
- Your worries
- Your hurts
- What you’re going to make for dinner
When you are more aware of your experience, you can decide what you want to focus on. Mindfulness builds in a little time lag. It gives you time to respond rather than act on impulse.
In therapy, we help couples learn what to do with the discomforts and thoughts they find. They learn to inform each other about them more gently than before.
Imagine a couple working with a therapist, using mindfulness.
He admits he’s thinking:
- “I really don’t want to be here….”
And she is able to say,
- “I’m afraid this isn’t going to work, I can see how much you don’t like it.”
Mindfulness helps them take a slow, careful look at their discomforts to become more honest and genuine with themselves and each other.
Being mindful of his emotional reaction, he might say:
- “Oh that made me angry. I feel my gut tensing up.”
She might notice:
- “I feel my jaw clenching.”
They need ways to talk about what’s difficult and painful, without hurting each other. That’s where the therapist’s role comes in.
Using Mindfulness In Counseling with Couples
As your feelings emerge, the therapist remains present with you, accepting and validating how uncomfortable some emotions can be, yet how useful it is to name and share them.
The goal isn’t just to wander around in emotional unpleasantness. The goal of therapy — and of mindfulness — is to help process thoughts and feelings more fully. As each person maps out a sense of their own emotions, and their partner’s thoughts and feelings, they can find ways to approach their challenges together.
The partner with the tense stomach might find anger:
- “I’m never going to please her, I’m just going to get blamed in here.”
With more reflection, he may find a fear underneath that:
- “If I can’t please her, things are going to go really badly. I might lose her.”
With mindfulness, he is more able to reflect that she’s really important to him. If they both spend the time, they can figure out what deeper longings go with the emotions, and find they can give each other what they need.
Emotions drive the music to any relationship. We need to be able to find our emotions to hear what music we’re playing or what music our partner is dancing to.
Mindfulness can help a great deal to lower stress. It does so by enabling self-acceptance and a sense of direction from within. It can help us know each other and ourselves better, and build connections, understanding and safety.
Mindful practices are good for our own well-being and for our relationships. Mindfulness may be just the antidote we need in an ever-noisier world, so we can stay tuned to the voices that matter.
Calm.com, a smartphone app for guided meditation
Palouse Mindfulness has been holding mindfulness and stress reduction training for decades. Now some of their training is free online. A guided 8-week course is free at PalouseMindfulness.com
Tara Brach is a psychologist, author, and teacher, who offers workshops, classes, videos and retreats on mindfulness and presence.
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