How to be Fully Present with Those You Love

and even those you don’t…

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

Father playing with daughter

Love is the order of the universe and we are its atoms.

It is the ocean and we are its drops…

Through love the heavens are brilliant;

Without love even suns and moons are eclipsed

~ Rumi

In our last article we discussed the idea of naming your day by paying attention to the small or great events in nature that kindle your wonder and admiration. We talked about looking at nature as if through different lenses to see the tiny delicate designs or to expand our vision to view how those small parts create an interlocking whole picture. In this article we will discuss how developing mindfulness in our interactions with others is the key to all healthy relationships. For the most part, people find it difficult to be fully present when they are with others because they live in their heads most of the time, distracted by chattering thoughts and mindless dialogues. If they are focused on the person in some way, it may be that they are preoccupied with trying to get the person’s approval, judging them, trying to impress them, comparing themselves, jumping to conclusions, or mind reading.

Obsessive thoughts often ride in tandem with associated emotions such as unworthiness, jealousy, fear, entitlement, anger and so on. As thoughts are the language of the mind, and feelings the language of the body, mindless thoughts and reactionary feelings are born from the unconscious. For example, how often are you aware of judging someone? Do you pay attention to a person’s small inimitable qualities or eccentricities and miss out on the overriding personality, or do you lock into some view that you have projected onto that person and relate to them according to your own skewed or narrow perception?

What can we work on to improve our awareness of people in general in order to feel calmer inside ourselves, more respectful of the ups and downs in the lives of others and more in tune with ourselves? First of all it is important to be aware of how we are reacting to others, especially if there is conflict or tensions. Are we staying in the present or are we pulled away and reacting from past experiences, memories and old habits. These old patterns often cause harm in our relationships, therefore it is important to cultivate mindfulness. We can become much more aware of our reaction and can pause, slow down, and take the time to respond in a different way.

Sometimes a child does not know how to express his/her internal stress other than through challenging behaviours. With children who push all your buttons and you find yourself reacting like a child yourself, there is a type of mindfulness communication technique called “mirroring”. Mirroring is literally and accurately reflecting back what your child is telling you. Then your child can see through your expressions (only if you are willing to put aside your subjective thoughts and feelings for a moment) that you are truly listening and understanding your child’s point of view. You don’t have to agree with it because that’s not the purpose of mirroring. You are just making it clear that you are giving them your complete and undivided attention, which allows your child to feel safe and protected.

Thus, when your child is demanding or difficult, and you don’t know what’s up, you just continue mirroring and say to yourself “if I just stay calm and stay with it, I’ll figure out eventually what this all means” and then mirror again if needed. You can still set boundaries, but not initially, unless there is a safety issue obviously. First you validate what it is your child is saying. You are seeing the world through her/his eyes and are paying attention to feelings. That’s why you are like a mirror to them. It can have a profound effect on how your child feels inside and the way she/he will progress in the world. If you would like to know more we recommend Jennifer Kolari’s book called Connected Parenting which is all about how to mirror you child.

We can attempt to stay mindful on any given day with strangers, spouses, children, colleagues or friends, but it is no easy task, in fact for the average person it is extremely difficult! Anyone can speak to us in a manner that is rude, unkind or offensive. With our loved ones, this can be very difficult as we let ourselves relax in front of them and we expect a certain kind of reaction. It is so easy to respond abruptly and defensively, or even by attacking back, rather than stopping to think of why they might have responded in that manner. We have a choice to pause in that space where we have freedom and compassion, or we can make a choice to say or do something precipitously that makes the problem worse.

I remember reading Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning when I was attending graduate university and it has stuck with me all these years. The book is an astonishing account of his experiences in Auschwitz. He was able to figure out what helped some prisoners stay resilient and able to survive a daily nightmare, whilst others gave up their will to live and did not survive. His insights on the role of the subconscious are relevant in our discussion here. One of his famous quotes is:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our power and our freedom.

This is a beautiful affirmation for parents to say when they are responding to their child’s challenging behaviours or for any relationships with our co-workers, friends and loved ones. When we react, we give our power away. We move directly from the stimulus and tumble quickly into the reaction without a thought, reacting in the old, habitual way repeatedly as we have done for years because our brain is hard-wired in that way. Unfortunately people can play that same old programme, and run the same script all their lives! People forget that they have a choice; they have a space between the stimulus and the response. This is what mindfulness is all about in relationships. Once we are aware, we can make the choice to change, but we need mindfulness as our guide to becoming fully conscious.

An amazing story is told by Dr Martin Seligmen, the elected President of the American Psychological Association. The notion of Positive Psychology, which he later founded, was born in a flash out of the wisdom he found from his young daughter. He writes:

It took place in my garden while I was weeding with my five-year old daughter, Nikki. I have to confess that even though I write books about children, I’m really not all that good with them. I am goal-oriented and time-urgent and when I’m weeding in the garden, I’m actually trying to get the weeding done. Nikki, however, was throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. I yelled at her. She walked away, came back, and said, “Daddy, I want to talk to you.

“Yes, Nikki?”

“Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.

This was for me an epiphany, nothing less. I learned something about Nikki, something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession. Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.

Flowering lily on pond

As for my own life, Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grouchiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change.”

This shows how phenomenal it is to become mindful as portrayed by a small child who demonstrated the importance of making a solid decision to change. Our future depends on what we are thinking about right now. It is important to stop living from the past and to create our reality by being responsible for how we react. It is not difficult to think about these ideas in terms of how we have reacted, discounted or judged people in the past in ways we regret. The idea here, though, is to “choose” to move forward with a new mindfulness. The path is one in which to find peace in yourself so that you refrain from negative, hurtful, and angry reactions. It will not only help you in your own relationships, but that peace will ripple out into the world.

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

– Dr. Wayne Dye

It feels so nurturing when we are not judged and we receive a warm hug from others. When I stayed at Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Plum Village in France, we read from the Chanting and Recitation Book which recommends a hugging practice. This would be awesome for every family to do, if they can get past their egos and use this loving ritual every night before retiring to bed. Thầy (as he is lovingly addressed by his monks and nuns) states:

“You can practice hugging meditation with a friend, a child, your parents, or even a tree. To practice, first bow to each other and recognize each other’s presence. Then, enjoy three deep, conscious breaths to bring yourself fully into the present moment. Next, open your arms and begin hugging, holding each other for three in-and out-breaths. With the first breath, become aware that you are present in this very moment and feel happy. With the second breath, become aware that the other person is present in this moment and feel happy as well. With the third breath, become aware that you are here together, right now, on this Earth. We can feel deep gratitude & happiness for our togetherness. Finally, release the other person and bow to each other to show your thanks.”

I recently attended a workshop in Oxford with Jon Kabat-Zinn. One of the things that I was most struck by was when he alerted us to how urgent it is to cultivate mindfulness by becoming aware of our breathing. In his words…. “as if our life depended on it”. Our life does depend on our taking the time to reduce the stress from living in such a fast paced world and where relationships may be emotionally draining and unhealthy! This all has a negative impact on our mind, body and spirit. We need to do this for our kids and grandkids no matter what their age. He encouraged a daily practice of mindfulness meditation. Please read our previous article, Mindfulness Meditation: Why It Works, on this subject.

Meditation can help you to love and appreciate yourselves more, and from there you can extend your love and acceptance to others. Then give others the permission to receive it or not with no major obligations expected. This is a very powerful space from which to communicate.

7 Steps to put mindfulness relationships into practice:

  1. Be aware of what you say to others. Listen to what you say. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, and try to be aware of how you are expressing your facial expressions.
  2. Reflect on what you say. After each verbal encounter, ask yourself, what did I say that was kind? What did I say that was unkind?” Go back and be sure to make amends for the misunderstanding on your part. This is excellent role modeling for your children.
  3. As soon as you feel anger or frustration welling up in your body, don’t talk, don’t react, just FIND YOUR SPACE. Ask yourself “Why do I feel this way and how can I get back to a centered feeling?” Think abut how the other person might feel too.
  4. Stay in a space of calmness. Pause for as long you can before you react to something someone has said that feels painful.
  5. Think before you speak. Mothers often say this to their children, but do they practice what they preach? Listen carefully to what your child is saying underneath the accelerated emotion or defiance. Find the compassion to connect with your child even when he/she is pushing you away! Remember to mirror them. You will feel much better about yourself as a parent when you do this, we guarantee you!
  6. Avoid judgment. This is the biggest problem. In all of the cases above, we are tending to judge our children, our family members, our colleagues and our friends. If you are not really connected with someone, what in you might be causing that separateness? Make every effort to stay mindful and accept everyone as they are, in that moment.
  7. Remember your camera lens. Try to look at the picture of your relationship zoomed in at the moment and zoomed out at the big picture of what it all looks like in a meaningful perspective to you. Be aware of the pain or any uncomfortable feelings you might feel. Then hold it there with loving kindness and without judgment for a little while. By doing this you are less likely to feel overwhelmed by it.

We encourage you to claim your day by being fully present with the ones you love and also those you don’t love so much. Our next article will be the third part of the awareness series: Offering your attention and compassion towards animals. Have a great week!

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