Psychology Today: How to change your brain in ways which support healthier, more satisfying relationships.
by Marsha Lucas, Ph.D.
Here’s the polite version of a question I received recently about my support of mindfulness meditation as a practice for well-being in relationships:
Why are you encouraging people to zone out? Sitting around pretending they’re above it all, and avoiding real feelings? Who wants to be in a relationship with a self-involved bliss-ninny?
There are an awful lot of misconceptions about mindfulness meditation. This one, about how people who meditate are just using it as a place to “hide out” by just getting zoned, escaping into some blissed-out, checked-out place, is why a lot of people mistakenly decide that meditation is useless, or worse.
There are some merits to asking the question, though, because it’s true that some people who meditate use it in ways which aren’t beneficial, sometimes making them pretty obnoxious to spend time with.
The place from which I look at the benefits of mindfulness meditation is in my work with people who want to create more meaningful lives, including better, healthier, more satisfying relationships. I’m a clinical psychologist who believes that being emotionally present and authentic is the cornerstone of emotional well-being. I’m also trained as a neuropsychologist, who knows that the better integrated a brain is, the better it works. It’s a bit like needing the left hand to know what the right one is doing in order to get anything done. (I don’t just use that phrase lightly – in cases of damage to the corpus callosum, the brain’s bridge between the right and left hemispheres, one hand quite literally doesn’t know what the other is doing, with one buttoning up the shirt and the other following behind, unbuttoning it.)
So from that stance, let’s take a look at the notion that mindfulness meditation leads to people becoming zoned-out, self-involved bliss-ninnies.
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“Don’t people use meditation just to escape?”
Is it possible for people to hide out in meditation? Yes. People who “use” meditation to escape, just like using drugs or alcohol to escape, can closely resemble the “kindly, calm pod person” that Judith Warner wrote about in a New York Times blog post. The added “benefit” of using meditation as your drug of choice is that, unlike zoning out on alcohol or drugs (or TV, surfing the web, and so on), you can also adopt a “more enlightened than thou” stance that some meditators have been known to take, much to the annoyance of those around them.
Even Jack Kornfield, PhD, one of the pioneers and great teachers in the use of mindfulness meditation in the West (and also a psychologist), points out that “[m]editation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.” He goes on to say that “the sitting practice itself… often provide[s] a way to hide, a way to actually separate the mind from difficult areas of heart and body.”
Obviously, this isn’t the approach to mindfulness meditation which I advocate. This will become more clear as we go on.
“The people I know who meditate just ended up being more self-involved.”
This can happen, too. In one variation of this, sometimes people who meditate profess that their practice is making them “more present” when in fact they’re just more self-involved. Judith Warner again:
[P]eople who are embarked on this particular ‘journey of self-exploration,’ as [Mary] Pipher has called it, tend to want to talk, or write, about it. A lot. But what they don’t realize – because they’re so in the moment, caught in the wonder and fascination and totality of their self-experience – is that their stories are like dream sequences in movies, or college students’ journal entries, or the excited accounts your children bring you of absolutely hilarious moments in cartoons – you really do have to be the one who’s been there to tolerate it.
For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.
What she’s describing (okay, complaining about) is not “real” mindfulness, though. Mindfulness isn’t about droning on and on about your own inner exploration, ignoring the feelings of others (or your own), or gushing your newfound love for all of humanity. Mindfulness is about developing a larger capacity in yourself for empathic, attuned, contingent connection.
That last sentence is vital: Mindfulness is about developing a larger capacity in yourself for empathic, attuned, contingent connection.
* empathic = being able to see things from another’s point of view, getting a sense of their intentions, and being able to imagine what something “means” to another person
* attuned = allowing our internal state to resonate with the inner world of another, to “get” someone else’s inner state, allowing us to feel connected
* contingent = responding to another in a way which is informed by what we sense in them, not just what we think or feel
(These definitions as presented here are largely influenced by Dan Siegel, whose latest book, Mindsight,I highly recommend.)
A thumbnail sketch of what this looks like: You talk to me, and I listen with an open heart and an open mind, tuned in to you while also being aware of my own internal state. And my response to you, if I’m being mindful, is contingent on what you’re saying and feeling and communicating – not just my own internal experience. When I talk, I’m speaking with mindful awareness of my internal state as well as being attuned to you, and I pay attention to shifts in myself and in you while I speak, to be able to remain connected, attuned and empathic.
That would be a far cry from being self-involved.
“Seems to me that people who meditate aren’t dealing with their real problems.”
It’s also true that many who meditate may need additional help. As Jack Kornfield put it in his essay, “Even The Best Meditators Have Old Wounds To Heal”:
There are many areas of growth (grief and other unfinished business, communication and maturing of relationships, sexuality and intimacy, career and work issues, certain fears and phobias, early wounds, and more) where good Western therapy is on the whole much quicker and more successful than meditation…. Meditation can help in these areas. But if, after sitting for a while, you discover that you still have work to do, find a good therapist or some other way to effectively address these issues.
Jack, in his honest wisdom, goes on to say that many American vipassana (mindfulness meditation) teachers who have gotten stuck in disconnection, fear, or other unconscious places, have sought out psychotherapy.
(As a brief aside, I would say that the same seeking of good psychotherapy should be true of anyone leading others in a quest to better understand themselves, or to heal emotionally. That includes psychotherapists. It’s my strong opinion that good psychotherapists have done (and continue to do) work in their own psychotherapy, and need to have the capacity for empathic, attuned, contingent communication.)
So, mindfulness meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure for everything that ails you. It is, however, powerfully helpful, whether on its own, or in conjunction with psychotherapy.
I’ve had people come into my practice who have been meditating for years, who have found that they’ve resolved much but can’t seem to crack the core of the issue, and their meditation practice serves them well in the psychotherapeutic work.
I’ve also worked with people who have been in psychotherapy on and off for years with different therapists, benefitting from it but with the next level of growth seemingly out of reach. When we’ve added mindfulness meditation to the mix, they’ve begun to make some remarkable progress which they hadn’t been able to before.
“Can meditation really change people for the better?”
Nothing is a “build it and they will come” guarantee when it comes to personal change. A joke in psychotherapy is, “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.” That’s not just true of psychotherapy, but of any endeavor we take on to create better, healthier, more meaningful lives, and that would include meditation. (As George Carlin said, “Ya gotta wanna.”)
Mindfulness meditation is being shown in a growing mountain of well-done, peer-reviewed scientific research to make demonstrable changes in how your brain is wired — which in turn changes how you perceive the world, how you respond to it, and how you behave.
Meditation isn’t a magic wand that creates enlightenment, but it does have what can look like almost magical effects on connections in the brain — including synaptogenesis (the creation of new connections between neurons), and even neurogenesis (the creation of brand-new neurons in the brain– an ability which neuroscience has only accepted as a real phenomenon in the last 15 years or so).
What I see in people who practice regular mindfulness meditation is that they’re more integrated in how they relate to the world, including themselves. (This is more true of people who are practice developing their mindfulness at all times, not just when they’re formally meditating.)
They haven’t found a magic way to hit the “bliss” button – not if they’re being really truthful with themselves. They might experience bliss more often and more fully, but it’s likely that they’re also experiencing all of their emotions more often, and more fully. What they’ve found is a way to be more whole, more integrated, to not just listen to their rational intellectual side “versus” their non-rational, emotional side.
I see a lot of very bright, high-functioning people in my psychotherapy practice who are so far one-sided or the other — over-reliant on the rational, or hyper-attuned to the emotional — that they can’t get a handle on what their “real” problem is. Mindfulness meditation helps them see a more integrated picture, warts and all, and then they’re also better equipped to deal with it in an honest, authentic, insightful way.
Let’s take a look at how that applies to a relationship problem. If you use only your rational brain, and ignore your feelings and those of your significant other, it’s unlikely to go well (in fact, you’ll probably make things worse). On the other hand, if you lead solely with your emotions, you could similarly end up never solving the problem (and blowing things up). It’s much like the right-hand-buttoning, left-hand-unbuttoning dilemma.
But: If you are able to integrate both your intellect and your emotions — and be attuned to your significant other’s feelings and thoughts as well (in a real way, not the way that Judith Warner described) — you can be positively brilliant in dealing with the issue.
“Yeah, but is there any real change?”
Yes — “real” as in “measurable by scientific methods”. This is what the research in neuroscience is pointing to. Researchers have been looking at the structure and activity in the brains of those who practice regular mindfulness meditation, and they see changes and benefits.
Which of those findings excite me the most, as someone who works to help people create more meaningful lives and relationships?
How about this: Increased activity, connectivity — even size — in brain areas (most especially, an area called the middle prefrontal cortex) known to support the integration of the rational, problem-solving areas (e.g., the frontal cortex) and those known to be centers for emotions (e.g., the amygdala).
The brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to be more integrated, and the clinical evidence supports these changes as well, such as the nine benefits of mindfulness meditation I discussed in a previous post.
If your brain is better integrated, you’re neither ignoring the facts nor discounting emotions. You’re better able to know what’s true for you, and to be better attuned to the person you’re with. You can evaluate more clearly what you’re feeling, rather than having knee-jerk reactions or jumping to conclusions. While it doesn’t mean you always do, you’re more likely to be able to stay present with whatever’s going on.
So, does that sound like a zoned-out, self-involved bliss-ninny?