“Relational mindfulness” describes the practice of bringing mindful awareness into the interpersonal domain. By intentionally noticing and reflecting on our interactions with others we can become aware of how the mind organizes itself in and for relationship. Ultimately, this practice deepens our self-understanding and enhances our capacity to be intimate both with ourselves and with others. It supports us in staying present, open, and compassionate as life unfolds moment by moment.
The practice of relational mindfulness begins by becoming aware of the basic features of our lived present moment with others: our body sensations, breath, feelings, and the associative network of thoughts that accompany them * But more than simply denuded moments of mindful awareness, each relational moment also has its own a felt sense of closeness/intimacy or conversely, emotional distance. In some moments with others we may feel well received while in other moments the connection between us falls flat. Our tendencies to move towards or away from a particular relational moment depends on our needs for contact and connection, our deepest feelings of vulnerability, and our defensive needs for safety. Mindfulness of connection is a window of view into this basic interpersonal and psychodynamic dimension of relationship.
One primary observation is that interpersonal dramas tend to occupy center stage in the theater of the mind. Plotlines unfold around who is doing what to whom. We can see this both in the mundane dramas that ‘make the world go round’ and in the epic dramas of social injustice, political intrigue, and war. All involve familiar interpersonal themes of love and loss; violation and betrayal; conquest and defeat.
In relational mindfulness, it is interesting to take note of the dramatic themes in the events that are unfolding around us as well as in our own lives. These are especially evident in the conversations we participate in; relational narratives told and retold. (Human beings love to gossip!) In any event, we can gain in psychological self-understanding by paying attention to our own soap operas, and by reflecting on the stories we tell (either to ourselves or to others) about what is happening in our lives. By transforming our narratives, we can also transform ourselves.
Beyond story, there is a lot to be learned about ourselves by exploring the way we “show up” in the drama of our lives. Not only are we different with different ‘others’, we are different scene by scene. It is interesting to observe the emergence of different subpersonalities and reflect on where they come from in us. One basic insight is that we are made of relational building blocks. After all, we model ourselves after the people we experienced most closely in childhood. Through the practice of relational mindfulness, we can locate our identifications with these ghosts of the past in our current behavior, as well as in our posture, mannerisms, and gestures.
It is informative to make a study of the things that upset us and that we are emotionally reactive to. Our psychological vulnerabilities are revealed most clearly in events that engage primal emotions such as anxiety, despondency, and shame; anger and blame; jealousy, envy, and competition; sexual attraction and lust. By intentionally paying attention to moments when we get interpersonally ‘hooked’ or caught up in something someone did or said, we can glean valuable information about our unmet psychological needs; what we need to wake up to and where we need to grow.**
When we inquire deeply about relationship, we come to see that relational themes infuse the way we relate to our own bodies and minds and even to the very process of how we relate to life itself. Indeed, we can begin to see that our entire paradigm of personal meanings derives from an interpersonal framework. To give just one of many possible examples, each of us engages an effort to control the events of our lives, a motive that is transparently connected to behavioral themes in child-rearing and which tends to replicate the ways we have seen others behave.
The bottom line is that we are always in relationship. The penetrating truth of interbeing is that everything is interrelated and constituted by its matrix of connections with everything else. Relational mindfulness shows us this basic truth. It evokes and enhances our capacity to live from the quality of relatedness that the philosopher Martin Buber called I-Thou: the ability to connect to one another from that place of deep being that lives behind our eyes, one whole human being to another, subject to subject.
* The method of Insight Dialogue (Kramer, 2007) is a valuable form of training in the basics of interpersonal mindfulness.
** Relational dynamics are discussed at length in Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: Inquiring Deeply Routledge Press, New York.