Week 6: Dealing with others Pasted Graphic

Mindful communication can help us deal more effectively with others. Often it is our relationships that cause the most stress. We will look carefully at some aspects of communication in stressful situations, and through some simple practices learn how to deal more skilfully with ourselves and others.

Pasted Graphic 1 Mindful communication

We are social animals, and our interactions with each other very much determine our happiness or distress. On the whole, we like to surround ourselves with pleasant individuals who speak nicely to us, and avoid those who speak harshly, but that is not always possible. Apart from being careful about the company we keep, there are things we can do to make our dealings with others less stressful.

Mindfulness helps give us space to respond rather than react in social situations. When someone upsets us, having a small space to choose how to respond can mean the difference between an argument or a constructive, if difficult, conversation. Also, by being mindful of what we say, we can often be more constructive in our relationships. Going back to our consideration of body, feelings, thoughts and actions, by bringing more awareness to this complex network we can choose more wisely how to respond.

For example, if you notice whenever a particular person starts to speak, you already have started to tense up, you might connect with your breath and start to notice your feelings and thoughts before you react to what they say. This early noticing can help us to choose more wisely how we respond.

It is useful to consider the foundational attitudes. Maybe someone is a persistent irritant to you, but you cannot do anything about it because of circumstances so you can consider what aspects of the situation you have to accept. Can patience help a little? Maybe someone has wronged you in the past, and that taints all the dialogue, so can you bring a beginner’s mind to the conversation? How can curiosity help - if someone is difficult, perhaps you can give some time to wondering why they are like that. After a conversation that repeats over and over in your mind, maybe you might consider letting go of it. Can you be more non-judging? How might you build more trust with the person? These are not exhortations, but different perspectives for looking at a communication.

Mindful listening

In our earlier exercises, such as the raisin exercise, we learnt to bring full attention to an everyday activity. This can be done with listening. When someone is talking to you, try to bring a little more attention to it. Listen to their intonation, their speech patterns, look for clues about the emotions behind their speech. At the same time, listen to your own inner commentary, and be aware of your own body language, of any inner sensations or feelings.

There can be a tendency in dialogue for us to be planning what to say next. Keeping more of a focus on what someone is saying can help to reduce that inner commentary. Often the right response comes from a more wholehearted attention to what someone is saying. If something is not clear, then maybe a question rather than a statement might help.

Being in the present moment with someone is what mindfulness encourages. This dialogue, this exchange, is what is relevant. That is not to ignore history, to blindly accept everything that is said to you, but to bring full awareness to what is going on.

Mindful speech

When you are speaking, you have choice. If someone has said something you disagree with or that is upsetting, you can take a fraction of a second to notice your feeling tone before you respond. That small gap can be enough to allow you to choose more wisely what you say. Give yourself time to be clear about your thoughts and feelings.

Experiment a little. If someone says something that you disagree with, instead of expressing the disagreement immediately maybe probe back and ask for more insight into what they have said. Find ways of giving yourself time to respond, rather than relying on habitual reactions. The tree that bends in the wind is less likely to be blown over.

Again, do the foundational attitudes give some clues to how you are dealing with someone? Are you habitually judgemental of them? Are you impatient with them? These might be useful perspectives in the way you are speaking.

Thoughts are not facts

We all think our view of the world is in some sense “right”, but with mindfulness practice we can come to see that sometimes our perspective is not “right”. That is not to say that our view of the world is “wrong”. Paradoxical as that sounds, it is this growing awareness of our thoughts that helps guide us in our daily communications. Our thoughts are important. They give us a clue to our deeper feelings, to our habits. But they may not always be the accurate representation of the world that we sometimes think them to be.

Our conceptual minds are very good at justifying things, and claiming they are in charge. If we burn our hand, the reflex to move it away is faster than the time it takes for the message to reach the parts of our brain associated with cognitive thought. Nevertheless, our conceptual mind might assume it made the sensible decision to pull the hand away, as well as the response to put the hand under the cold tap.

Going back to our model of body, feelings, thoughts and actions interacting with the environment, we have spent a lot of time getting closer to our feelings and body sensations, and how they are interlinked and influence each other as well as our thoughts. We have seen in the “walking down the street” exercise how differently we may react to apparently the same situation, and how our reaction might be conditioned by many factors.

With growing awareness, our relationship to our thoughts can change. That is not to denigrate or devalue them in any way. Rather, it is to help us see our thoughts as just part of our world, and not the whole of it. Our thoughts are mental events that arise and are conditioned by many factors. They come and go. What we think about a situation today may be very different from what we think tomorrow.

Mindfulness helps us to become more aware of our habitual thought patterns, and where appropriate to consider whether they are the right way to respond to a situation. Often they are, but sometimes they are not. Mindfulness of our feelings and body sensations can give us a clue to where our thoughts might be worth examining further - when we get tense about something, how are our thoughts flowing?

Moving out of automatic pilot is an important part of recognising our thoughts and understanding the direction they are taking us in. Automatic pilot is not wrong, but sometimes we need to re-program it. The short practices we have explored, such as the pause or checking in to our breath, can help us to recognise when we are on autopilot. The longer practices will often bring back, time and again, the thoughts that our autopilot wants us to follow, and give us more insight into just what is going on with them. Ultimately that insight helps us to change, using our own wisdom.

Acts of kindness

We cannot all be Mother Theresa, but we can probably all improve things a little for ourselves and for others. One way of doing so is to find ways of introducing acts of kindness into our days, towards ourselves and towards others.

Starting with ourselves, we are often our harshest critics. In doing mode, we can spend a great deal of time berating ourselves for not achieving our goals, irrespective of how important those goals are. So, instead of taking time out we drive ourselves faster. Climbing a mountain, sometimes it makes sense to stop, turn around and look at the view, enjoying a rest that can refresh us for the rest of the climb. Likewise in life, stopping to acknowledge what we have done and to take a mental rest can be very refreshing. Deferred gratification is a skill we learn early in life to enable us to get greater rewards by resisting immediate ones, but the habit of deferring can become all consuming, and like misers we keep all our pleasures locked away.

So, take time to enjoy life, as well as driving to succeed. When life is beginning to feel like a grind, check in with yourself and ask when you last did something pleasurable. It can feel selfish at first, but this is not an invitation to selfishness, rather it is an invitation to be more kind to yourself, to nurture yourself. It can be very simple - a short walk in the sunshine, a relaxing cup of tea. Or you might organise a trip to the cinema or theatre. Making a habit of taking a short break can actually help you to become more productive.

Moving on to others, our relationships are very much influenced by our actions. Have you ever been struck by someone else’s act of kindness. How did you feel? What did you think of that person? Were you surprised?

One way of changing relationships for the better is to consciously introduce an act of kindness from time to time. It does not have to be huge - just making someone a cup of tea, or even greeting someone with a “hello, how are you” and giving a bit more time to exchange pleasantries can be enough. Consciously doing this, and watching thoughts and feelings can be very informative.

Do not be put off if acts of kindness are rebuffed. Often if we change our behaviour, it can create surprise that is not always welcomed. Notice the rebuff, how it feels, and then find another kind act for that person.

The intention here is not to make you into a saint. Rather, it is to stimulate your awareness, to move you from your habits, to move you off of automatic pilot. You may not improve your relationship with someone this way, but you will learn. And even if things remain difficult, perhaps you are able to develop some more insight into it, and at least from your own side start to resolve some of the stress.

Just as we use our breath to de-centre from our thoughts, we can use our actions. Consciously being kind to yourself or to others can help to get us out of habits that are wearing us down. It does not have to be huge, or magnanimous. A small step, though, can change things.

Metta or loving kindness meditation

Settle into a sitting meditation, perhaps spending a few minutes stabilising yourself using your breath.

Now, bring to mind as vividly as you can a close friend or loved one, and begin to consider their good qualities. See if you can feel a sense of warmth and kindness towards them. Notice how easy or hard it is to feel generous towards them. Notice any tendency of the mind to wander, and gently bring it back to the exercise. Note any sensations in your body.

Now, choose someone you hardly know and have no particular feelings towards, perhaps the driver on the bus or someone who works in the supermarket. Try the exercise above, bringing an attitude of kindness towards them. Notice thoughts, feelings, sensations as you do this.

Now, if you can, choose someone you dislike. Again, notice thoughts, feelings, sensations.

Now, bring to mind yourself. Again, see if you can feel a sense of warmth and kindness towards yourself, noting thoughts, feelings and sensations.

Now, bring everyone you have ever encountered into your practice. Visualise them all around you if you can. Notice thoughts, feelings, sensations as you do this.

Finally, move back to your breath for a while and end the meditation.

What did you notice about your thoughts, feelings and body sensations? How easy or hard was it? Were there any surprises for you?

Home Practice
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  • Continue a formal practice daily, either sitting or body scan.
  • Try one metta (loving kindness) meditation.
  • Try one act of kindness each day towards yourself.
  • Try one act of kindness each day towards someone else.
  • Try bringing mindfulness to at least one communication activity.

Your notes on home practice: