We often understand mindfulness as a practice that helps reduce stress or moves us toward spiritual awakening. But there is another benefit to being mindful that doesn’t receive much attention. Mindfulness is an essential foundation for fulfilling and lasting intimate relationships.
Being present means noticing what we’re actually experiencing inside. In his popular book Wherever You Go, There You Are Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness.”
Being aware of what is happening in the present moment creates the climate for intimacy that often eludes us. Love and connection cannot be cannot be forced or manipulated; it cannot be forged through an act of will. The only power we have is to create a climate where love and intimacy are more likely to arise. Such a climate is fostered by being present to what we’re experiencing inside and taking courageous, intelligent risks to share that experience with people we want to be close to.
Love and intimacy are byproducts of being with another person in the present moment. Connections with others flow more easily as we stay connected with ourselves—being present to the full range of human emotions and desires that arise as a result of being alive. As they saying goes, “We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf.” We can make room for our fears, hurts, shame, and anger—as well as our joy and gratitude—and reveal these feelings as we notice them arising inside of us.
Cultivating such mindfulness allows us to feel closer to those we love.
Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples (EFT), which has been primarily developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, is one such path toward uncovering and revealing our authentic, primary feelings. Deeper connections happen as couples slow down and allow themselves to feel what is more vulnerably alive inside them.
Oftentimes, our longing for love is so frustrated that we resort to shaming our partner or launching hurtful attacks. We may be angry that our needs aren’t being met, but don’t know how to best communicate what we really want (it’s usually something more vulnerable). This “attachment protest” is intended to pull our partner toward us, but it usually has the reverse effect of pushing them further away, which leaves both of us feeling frustrated, angry, or hopeless.
The elusive intimacy we seek doesn’t congeal through the knee jerk reaction of criticizing and attacking our loved ones. It ensues as we pause, drop down into our body, and be mindfully present with the unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions that are bouncing around inside us.
The research by Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago found that those who made progress in psychotherapy were slowing down their speech and connecting with their bodily felt sense of whatever was happening in their lives. These naturally gifted clients weren’t stuck in their heads analyzing themselves or others. They were mindfully present in this moment—opening to the ever-changing feelings that were coursing through them.
In a similar vein, connecting more intimately with others happens as we stay in the present moment with our authentic experience and find the inner resources to share that experience with trusted others. Revealing our tender and vulnerable feelings and longings enables them to see us and understand us, which may prompt them to respond in a more empathic way. People can feel us more as we take the risk to show them how we’re being affected by them and touched by life.
Interactional mindfulness creates a foundation for feeling each other more tangibly. For example, I notice I’m feeling sadness, fear, or a longing for more time together. I express these feelings to you. You then pause, go inside, and notice how my experience affects you. Does it touch a similar longing? Or perhaps there’s sadness in you to hear my pain. Or maybe a sense of shame that you’re not being a good partner, which might be a trigger for getting angry and defensive instead of hearing my feelings.
Living more mindfully has not only health and spiritual benefits. It can also be a hidden path toward the satisfying connections we seek. It takes much courage to give ourselves permission to feel whatever we happen to be feeling without judging ourselves. And it takes even more courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerably transparent with others.
Such risks pay dividends when others respond positively. Or if they don’t, we can feel good knowing we found the strength and integrity to take the risk to be authentic.