I’m back for the third installment of this five-part series on meditation and mental health, this time exploring the role that meditation plays in supporting our relationships.
There’s no doubt about it, people with rich and supportive relationships in their lives tend to be happier and live longer. As the results from this compelling Harvard study reveal, good relationships make us healthier, both mentally and physically. That’s because humans are social beings. We’re hardwired to seek relationships, so we’re at our best when we have rich and meaningful connections with others. Apart from supporting us in developing a clearer relationship with our own thoughts and emotions—as I explained in the first two installments of this series—meditation and mindfulness can support our interpersonal relationships as well.
First, meditation and mindfulness improve our capacity for empathy. This has been backed up by multiple research studies, which have demonstrated that these practices expand our ability to attune to others’ emotions. When we can intentionally focus our attention on others, we can access greater compassion toward them. We can release our judgments and dissolve the imaginary barriers separating us from them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more connected we are to others on an emotional level, the richer and more meaningful our relationships with them will be.
In the practice of meditation, we invite our attention to rest on a particular point of awareness, and we allow distractions to pass without being pulled away by them. Typically, we focus our attention inward, coming back into ourselves whenever we’ve drifted away. Through this same practice, we can learn to turn our attention outward, attuning to others and deepening our connection to them. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh speaks to the powerful effect this has on others, by stating, “When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” But our loved ones aren’t the only ones who benefit from our mindful awareness. When we practice being fully present in our relationships—allowing ourselves to be open, engaged, attentive, and connected—we significantly improve our mental health.
I think we can all agree that connection isn’t the only ingredient in a healthy and supportive relationship: strong communication is also essential. And I’m sure you won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that meditation and mindfulness can help us with that also. These practices improve our ability to think before we speak, allowing us to choose our words more deliberately. They help us regulate our emotions so we can communicate clearly in ways that connect rather than divide. They also make us better listeners. The truth is, most of us aren’t very good at listening. Our minds make it hard for us to stay present to what other people are saying; they incline us to disconnect from what we’re hearing and instead focus on preparing a response or rebuttal. But just as we train our minds to come back to center in meditation practice, we can train our minds to listen more mindfully. This seemingly simple act of focusing our attention on another person’s words can make a monumental difference in our relationships.
I could write volumes about how essential mindfulness is to relationship health, but instead I’ll keep it simple and invite you to put what you’ve read into practice. Explore ways that you can increase your awareness of the people in your life, approaching your relationships with centered and open curiosity. Get intentional about your communication, and make being present a priority. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness take on even more meaning when we extend them outward and share them with others. This stuff really is the gift that keeps on giving!
I hope this third installment of the series offered some valuable insights and food for thought. I’ll be back soon to draw some more connections between meditation/mindfulness and mental health, and I hope you’ll continue to join me on the journey. Catch you soon!