relationships

Intimacy with oneself, intimacy with others

parrotsYou know that feeling when you’re with another person, and there’s an awkwardness — a sense that there’s something missing? And you find yourself scrambling around thinking of something interesting to say that’ll bring your connection back to life?

Sometimes this does in fact kick-start a conversation in which we can both become absorbed, but sometimes our anxiety prevents that from happening.

I realized recently that I’ve had that a lot in my life.

Now when I’m on my own, I know what to do with unpleasant feelings of awkwardness. I’ll simply pay attention to them mindfully, until they pass. And often, even as I’m in the act of noticing my discomfort, I’ll find that a sense of well-being arises, so that first I’m comfortable with my discomfort, and then once the unpleasant feelings pass I’m deeply content.

But for some reason I haven’t thought to do this when I’m with others, especially in intimate relationships.

Recently however, when I was with my girlfriend, and I noticed that sense of our silence being awkward rather than comfortable, I found myself happy just to be with the feeling of discomfort. Rather than trying to think of something clever to say, I simply noticed how I felt, and accepted it. There was the faint stirring of anxiety, but I just accepted that as well.

And what happened was, in a way, quite predictable. Just as when I’m on my own, I felt happier, and the anxiety passed. But in another way the experience was a complete surprise; I found that paying attention to the uncomfortable sensation reconnected me with my heart. It felt like my heart was blown wide open, and I felt an overwhelming sense of love for my partner. This feeling of love, expressed through body language, looks, physical communication, and — yes — words, brought about a powerful sense of rapport and intimacy. This is an experience that recurred several times while we were together.

And I love that simply being with my discomfort not only allows it to pass, but also connects me with a powerful sense of love. And I love feeling freed from the anxious need “to be interesting” so that I’m able just “to be.”

I suppose that in a way this isn’t profound, and I’m sure that many you are saying “of course, everybody knows that!” But I thought I’d share it since I’m a fan of showing my “work in progress.” So if this practice is something that’s new to you, then please try it yourself and see what happens. I’d love to hear from you.

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Patterns of closeness and independence

Couple in love at sunsetIntimacy and autonomy are independent dimensions, and it is their combination that counts.

The qualities in each category, imperfectly summarized by a single word, characterize both types of individuals and, more importantly, states of mind we all transit:

  • Integrated – Comfortable and skillful with both closeness and agency; able both to carry others in her heart while pursuing her own aims, and to be completely authentic in the most intimate moments; symbolically, “you” and “I” are about the same size.
  • Engulfed – Highly connected, but not free to act or express himself fully; giving up “me” is price to be “we;” unnecessarily dependent; clutching, beseeching, placating; could resist encouragement to be more independent; “you” are big and “I” am small.
  • Isolated – Strong sense of personal desires but weak connections with others; a solitary captain with a firm hand on the rudder; could be prickly about bids for closeness or seeming infringements on her prerogatives; “you” are small and “I” am big.
  • Adrift – Dissociated from both others and oneself; unresponsive and passive; alone in a boat with no direction; “you” are small and “I” am small.

Of these four, the Integrated mode of being clearly brings the most benefits to you and to others, it is the best foundation for personal growth and spiritual practice, and it involves the most complex forms of neural regulation. To feel safe in the deep end of the pool of intimacy, a person needs to be able to speak her own truth and be comfortable with closeness.

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Why mindfulness is just the beginning

wildmind meditation newsDavid Mochel, The Huffington Post UK: Huffington Post, Forbes, New York Times, Bloomberg News, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Business Insider — articles on mindfulness are everywhere these days. It is difficult to avoid some mention of this ancient practice in the media. While it is most directly linked with Buddhism, the practice of using your attention on purpose and accepting external and internal events has been taught by the Stoics of Greece, as well as contemplatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and many other faiths. The body of scientific evidence pointing to the physiological, psychological, and social benefits of this practice is large and …

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Intimacy and autonomy working together

Couple holding hand at sun riseIntimacy and autonomy are channels for expressing your natural goodness. For example, being kind toward someone naturally involves both an affinity with that person and a certain autonomy for the kindness to be genuine.

Besides its obvious rewards in everyday life, intimacy supports personal growth and spiritual practice through bringing you into relationship with things. Into relationship with your innermost experience and that of the people around you: the joys and sorrows, the suffering and its causes and what leads to its ending. Into compassion, kindness, and service: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Into relationship with a supportive community. And – if it’s meaningful to you – into relationship with God. Autonomy, too, supports personal growth and spiritual practice. For example, in Buddhism, you are supposed to “see for yourself” and make your own decisions about what makes sense to you. It is up to you, and no one else, to engage the path of awakening. It is you who will inherit the results of your actions, good or bad.

Intimacy and autonomy are often seen as opposite ends of the same continuum, so that as one increases the other diminishes. The classic example is, “Getting married means giving up my independence.” Less dramatically, people have understandable fears that if they express their deepest truth, others will leave them – or if they get really close emotionally, they’ll lose some of their own identity.

But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the “secure base” from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy – both yours and the other person’s – nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you’re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.

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The dance of intimacy and autonomy

little tabby kitten Scottish touching mother catLove tends to join and hate to separate, but joining is not the same as love, and separation is not hatred. Sometimes the most loving thing a person can do is take a step back: that’s distance in the service of attachment. And it’s not loving to join in invasive or smothering ways. Most people want both closeness and independence. Intimacy and autonomy in all their forms: your course in life is shaped by how well you regulate their dance in your mind, and their expression in your relationships.

Harms can be done to yourself and others in the name of autonomy and intimacy, so it’s important to bring their dynamics into the sphere of your virtue. For example, Martin Buber described three types of relationships:

  • I-Thou – When I relate to you with respect as an independent being (like a dear friend)
  • I-It – When I treat you as a means to my ends (like, perhaps, an operator you’re calling for a phone number)
  • It-It – When you and I are just bodies in space (like strangers in an elevator)

We mistreat others by making them an “It” to our “I.” You know what that feels like on the receiving end: like you are being seduced, pitched, or used. Not good. It’s not uncommon to treat people as “Its” in order to feel close to them, such as by compelling their attention, making them feel bad for wanting their own space, manipulating their affection, not respecting their boundaries, or in the extreme, some kinds of sexual abuse. And certainly common to treat people as “Its” to make it easier to act freely: examples include dumping negative emotions without caring about the impacts, trampling on people to get ahead, or simply cutting in line.

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Is mindfulness the key to being a better boss?

wildmind meditation newsHCOnline: We’ve all done it. In a fit of fury or just plain annoyance, we’ve hastily typed a snarky email to a colleague and hit ‘send’ – without first thinking of the repercussions.

It’s known as action addiction – often when things happen we want to fix it, immediately. There’s even a neurological incentive to do so – we get a hit of dopamine from feeling like we’ve taken quick, decisive action.

It’s human nature to act before thinking, right? It is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The concept of mindfulness is not new – in fact as a concept it …

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Is your marriage on the rocks? Mindfulness could be the key to saving your relationship

wildmind meditation newsSophie Donnelly, Express: It has been used to combat depression, stress and over-eating. Now a new book says this meditation technique could give your relationship a lift.

Politicians have practiced it in Parliament, the NHS employs it to treat stress and it is thought to be so good for mental health that it has been dubbed “bicep curls for the brain”.

However, now it appears practicing mindfulness techniques could have another benefit – it could help to save your relationship.

Mindfulness originated as a type of Buddhist meditation but in recent years has gained popularity as a way to combat stress. Being mindful …

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What neuroscience can teach us about compassion

wildmind meditation newsCarolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post: Mounting evidence of the impact of contemplative practices like meditation (which we now know can, quite literally, rewire the brain) are finally bringing modern science up to speed with ancient wisdom.

Mindfulness and compassion — the practices of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment, and extending a loving awareness to others — are part of every religion and wisdom tradition, and we’re at last beginning to understand the profound impact that they have on the brain, says psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Dr. Dan Siegel.

A pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and executive director of the Mindsight Institute …

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Decide on love

Jeff was convinced he’d fallen out of love with his wife, Arlene, and that nothing could salvage their twenty-six-year marriage. He wanted relief from the oppressiveness of feeling continually judged and found wanting. Arlene, for her part, was hurt and angry because she felt Jeff avoided any real communication or emotional intimacy. As a last-ditch effort, she convinced him to attend a weekend workshop for couples sponsored by their church. Much to their surprise, they both left with a glimmer of hope for their future together. The message they took away was “Love is a decision.” Their guides at the workshop had insisted that while we don’t always feel loving, love is here should we choose to awaken it.

Yet, back at home, when their old styles of attacking and defending were triggered, deciding on love seemed like an ineffectual mental maneuver. Discouraged, Jeff sought me out for a counseling session. “I don’t know how to get from point A to point B,” he declared. “Like when we were together yesterday . . . my mind told me to decide on love, but that didn’t make a difference . . . my heart was in lockdown. Arlene was blaming me for something, and all I wanted to do was get away from her!”

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“Let’s take another look at what happened yesterday,” I suggested, then invited him to close his eyes, put himself back into the situation, and let go of his notions of who was right or wrong. “Just let yourself experience what it’s like in your body to feel blamed and want to get away.” Jeff sat still, his face tightening into a grimace. “Keep allowing the feelings to be there,” I said, “and find out what unfolds.”

Gradually, his face softened. “Now I’m feeling stuck and sad,” he said. “We spend so much time caught in this. I withdraw, often without knowing it . . . that hurts her . . . she gets upset . . . then I very consciously want to get away. It’s sad to be so trapped.”

He looked up at me. I nodded with understanding. “What would it be like, Jeff, if instead of pulling away during this kind of encounter, you were able to let her know exactly what you were experiencing?” Then I added, “And if she, too, without accusing you of anything, were able to report on her feelings?”

“We’d have to know what we were feeling!” he said with a small laugh. “We’re usually too busy reacting.”

“Exactly!” I said. “You’d both have to be paying attention to what’s going on inside you. And that runs counter to our conditioning. When we’re emotionally stirred up, we’re lost in our stories about what’s happening, and caught in reflexive behaviors—like blaming the other person or finding a way to leave. That’s why we need to train ourselves to pay attention, so that we’re not at the mercy of our conditioning.”

I went on to explain how the practice of meditation cultivates our capacity for presence, for directly contacting our real, moment-to-moment experience. This gives us more inner space and creativity in responding—rather than reacting—to our circumstances. When I suggested that he and Arlene might consider coming to my weekly meditation class, he readily agreed. They were both there the following Wednesday night, and a month later, they attended a weekend meditation retreat I was leading.

Some weeks after the retreat, the three of us spoke briefly after class. Arlene said that thanks to their meditation practice, they were learning how to decide on love: “We have to choose presence with each other, over and over and over,” she told me. “We have to choose presence when we’re angry, presence when we aren’t in the mood to listen, presence when we’re alone and running the same old stories about how the other is wrong. Choosing presence is our way of opening our hearts.”

Jeff nodded his agreement. “I realized that it’s not about getting from point A to point B,” he said with a smile. “It’s about bringing a full presence to point A, to the life of this moment, no matter what’s going on. The rest unfolds from there.”

Taking refuge in presence—choosing presence—requires training. When “point A” is unpleasant, the last thing we want to do is to stay and feel our experience. Rather than entrusting ourselves to the waves of experience, we want to get away, lash out, numb ourselves, do anything but touch what’s real. Yet, as Jeff and Arlene were realizing, these types of false refuges keep us feeling small and defended.

As I explore in my upcoming course on cultivating more conscious, vibrant relationships, only by deepening our attention and letting life be just as it is can we find real intimacy with ourselves and others. In more than thirty-five years of teaching meditation, I’ve seen it help countless people to deepen their capacity for loving, because if we are able to stay present, we can decide on love, and give it the space and attention it needs to ignite fully. When you are next in a conflict with a dear one, you might inquire, “What would it mean to decide on love? Can I commit to deepening presence for the sake of love?” Just the inquiry will draw you closer to your heart.

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Love freely

Heart.In my early 20’s, I went through Rolfing, a form of deep-tissue bodywork, and I nervously anticipated the 5th session, the one that goes deep into the belly. But instead of gobs of repressed emotional pain, what poured out was love – waves and waves of love that I’d pushed down due to embarrassment, fears of closeness, and my struggles with my mother.

It felt fantastic to let love flow freely. Compassion, empathy, kindness, liking, affection, cooperation, and altruism are all in our nature, woven into the fabric of human DNA, the most social – and most loving – species on the planet. Love is a natural upwelling current inside us all. It doesn’t need to be pushed or pumped, it needs to be released. If authentic love in any of its forms is bottled up, it hurts. For example, one of the greatest pains is thwarted contribution.

Has any aspect of your own love stopped flowing freely?

Besides feeling good in its own right, opening to love heals psychological wounds, builds resilience, and supports personal growth. In your brain, love calms down the stress response and reduces activation in the neural circuits of physical and emotional pain. It nourishes moral behavior and helps keep you out of needless conflicts with others. And cultivating a loving heart is central to spiritual practice in every tradition.

Begin with the experience of love in any form, such as caring, goodwill, friendliness, support, appreciation, seeing the good in others, compassion, fondness, kindness, or cherishing. Can you soften and open to this experience? In a particular relationship or in general, can you make room in your body and mind for love?

Is it painful to feel love because it stirs up old frustrated longings . . . so that you dial down the love to suppress the longings? If so, this is understandable and common. Try to help yourself by letting the longings flow, too, so that they gradually ease and release. Meanwhile, bring awareness back to the love itself, which will lift and protect you. Amazingly – flowing in or flowing out, love is love; wounds from not receiving love are often soothed and even healed by giving love.

Sometimes people feel overwhelmed when they connect to others with love. Repeatedly sensing into your breathing and body can help you feel stable as “me” while opening to “we.” See what it’s like to feel both loving and centered in your own strength, respecting and sticking up for your own needs; fences make for good neighbors.

Since the brain gradually tunes out what it’s used to, try to see others newly, taking some seconds at least to recognize the being behind the eyes. For example, I’ll imagine another person laughing with friends, or feeling hurt, or as a young child.

No one can stop you from loving. I once had a difficult relationship issue and I finally realized that I could simply love this person even if the love needed to be mainly if not entirely internal to me. Not coincidentally, I began feeling better in the relationship and over time, the other person became more comfortable with me.

You can offer your compassion and good wishes even if there is nothing you can do to make a situation better. Your love is still sincere and still matters. What others do with your love is on them, not you. All you can do is make the offering. You can love even as you disengage from sticky entanglements, wishing people well even if you need to step back from them.

Love comes from an inner freedom in which you’re not controlled by negative reactions. It also leads to a greater freedom in your mind, relationships, and world. Love is a kind of solvent, gradually dissolving the neurotic knots inside your head. In touch with love, you feel less vulnerable and have more room to breathe, speak, and act with others. And walking through the world – whether down a busy street or out in the woods – as no one’s enemy, giving others no cause to fear you, with good wishes and kindness in your heart and face, you feel more like stepping freely into today, and into tomorrow.

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