This month I’d like to talk about how helpful mindfulness can be if you want to be aware of what is happening in your relationship, in particular your feelings and thoughts in response to whatever is happening. These affect the neurobiology of relationships. To begin with, I’d like to define the term “mindfulness”. I’ll use a simple definition which talks about being open to and aware of what’s going on inside of you at the time it’s happening without being caught up in opinions, reactions or expectations. It’s about being open and present to your own experience. Being open, non-judgemental and receptive to yourself actually increases your ability to be open and present to others.
In essence, the more you can be mindful of your own bodily, emotional and mental experiences, the more you can be aware of other people’s internal emotional states. This is an essential ability for those who wish to develop successful relationships. According to Daniel Goleman, studies done at University of Madison and Harvard university demonstrate that changes are made in the structure of brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation. They show that these structural changes occur in the same brain regions that support our empathic communication with other people. How this translates into relationships is that mindfulness enhances your ability as a partner to be empathic to the internal world of your partner, to actively inquire about their feelings and thoughts and to be open and less reactive to their answers.
It is now a scientifically verified fact that mindfulness develops empathy as well as enhances our capacity to be present in increasingly fluid and adaptable ways. Being mindful helps your own health, sense of purpose and well-being, and it also helps your partner and your relationship. In one way mindfulness and empathy could be seen as basic elements of all relationships. They are excellent means by which to create resilience in yourself and your partner.
In the human brain there is a whole system of cells called mirror neurons that are sensitive to the intentions of another person. Dan Siegel says that when someone is empathic, not only are they trying to become aware of and understand the inner world of another person, but built into that interaction is the ability to detect the intention of one person to actually care for and be concerned about the other.
So, by being empathic and caring to your partner, not only are you increasing the sense of connection with her or him, but they’re able to feel your intention to care about them. Their mirror neurons enable them to be aware of your intention to care. They feel it inside of themself and it’s actually helping them feel trusting of you; it’s helping them feel safe. It’s giving them a sense of security in you and in the relationship. That’s what’s happening when you say things like “I feel that my partner really gets me”. All of this is of course happening on a feeling level, much faster than and deep below your thinking mind, unless you’re well practiced in mindfulness.
From the moment of our birth until we die, our interactions with other people involve us trying to assess in a multitude of ways whether we can trust and feel safe with that person. It is biologically wired into our body/mind to want to feel that our partner cares about our well-being and wants to nurture our growth. We all want and need to feel cared about, no matter how young or old we are. In addition, we all need to care for and about others.
This could be called the physiology of empathy, it’s what actually happens in our bodies. It’s what happens in our nervous systems when two people become a couple. It’s how you and your partner connect, because you both can sense that closeness, through your nerves, through your neurobiology, deep inside of yourselves. Not only are each of you unique, independent individuals who are separate from each other, you can also become a “we.” You both create that bond through mutual behaviours that you are biologically wired to understand as “closeness”. This usually happens in the initial romantic, falling-in-love stage of all relationships, because the inbuilt safety mechanisms creating the healthy boundaries which separate you from your partner are temporarily laid aside. In the later stages of relationships (and there are four othersJ), empathy, caring and trust are major factors that maintain and strengthen your sense of “we-ness”
The development of trust in healthy, empathic adult relationships can actually lead to brain growth. When we sense that another person is tuned into us, is caring, is on our side and can be trusted, the warm, safe experience felt via our nervous system is a highly receptive state which opens us to growth. Louis Cozolino’s The Healthy Aging Brain shows that when we have healthy relationships in our life, we tend to have greater longevity. So relationships of trust and empathy not only help the brain to grow but are profoundly important for our overall health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness is one practice which can help you develop openness, empathy and trust in healthy ways. It helps you be aware of the signals arising in your own nervous system as you constantly scan and respond to others’ behaviour towards you. If your body/mind feels that a person is not being truly caring and empathic towards you, that’s very important information.
Even though mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, it’s only been scientifically studied in the last twenty years or so. These studies show it has a deeply integrative function. When we are informed about how to be mindful and practice producing the kind of experiences and connections in relationships that bring our minds, bodies and brains toward integration, then we are able to move toward healthy ways of relating, which impact the very structure of our brains, bodies and relationships.
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