Practicing mindfulness has numerous health benefits. It turns out that it can also help us communicate better and form deeper connections with others.
I have always found communication to be a perplexing beast.
At first glance, it involves the exchange of information between individuals. However, especially in Ireland, where I live, the land of subtle hints and understated cues, what’s not said is at least as important as what is. Indeed, silence is a medium of communication over here.
What has practicing mindfulness got to do with communication? Unlike so many people, my journey into mindfulness began in completely unforced circumstances. I don’t have a dramatic story of how mindfulness cured me of anything.
In fact, my aim is to show the benefit of mindfulness to people who don’t have any crisis they have to resolve.
Having practiced mindfulness consistently for over 2 years now, I feel it changed a lot, but most notably it changed how I relate to others.
I first learned about mindfulness in university. Being the sort of medical student who dreamed of becoming a surgeon based on a bunch of unrealistic preconceptions, I dismissed the idea of practicing mindfulness and was prepared for a thoroughly unenjoyable placement for the psychiatry part of the course. The reality was completely different. Learning about the mind and meeting the people who are fighting mental health issues were by far the most fascinating part.
A respected clinical psychologist at my university recorded guided meditations. Guardedly, I tried it and realised it is not nearly as new age as it seems looking in from the outside. It felt right – as well as having a significant scientific basis. As I mentioned, I wasn’t hungry for a solution to a particular problem. I wasn’t aware of the cumulative nature of the benefits of practicing mindfulness regularly, so I only thought of it occasionally.
Fast forward a few years. As a doctor in training, I often observed senior physicians recommending mindfulness to patients. The advice was always given in the same manner as the advice to exercise. The doctors were usually dispassionate about it, knowing how few people will listen. Furthermore, I was never convinced that they themselves bought into it. Unlike so many other prescriptions, exercise and mindfulness seem like a reversal to a more natural way of being. A sort of elegant and appealing “via negativa” approach of adding to one’s life by taking away the harmful clutter – taking away the chase after recurrent thoughts and distractions.
Speaking of distractions, like most millennials, I seldom put down my phone. So I decided to turn that weakness into a strength.
I downloaded Calm and Headspace, the mindful apps. I soon realised that Calm was my preferred method of mindfulness support as a beginner.
Every morning, right after waking up, I would do a 10-minute mindfulness session. After about 3 months, I felt that guided meditations were no longer consistently necessary – and I tried to just set a timer. It took some getting used to. This is more or less what I do now. Ten minutes of unguided meditation every morning. Sometimes, I do a guided session to change things up, get a new perspective and sharpen the skill.
In terms of the effects on practicing mindfulness, I am very cognisant of the n=1, uncontrolled experiment that I am doing here. So you can make of it what you will, I will simply describe the differences I noticed.
I realised that I wasn’t paying enough attention to my closest relationships, especially within my family, and was taking things for granted. At the same time, being with some people I usually thought of as my most exciting friends became uninteresting. It was disappointing, and it ruined the fun a bit. I had to ask: why? I realised that some of my relationships are really shallow. While they looked perfectly healthy on the surface, I became mindful of how little I have in common with some people who I had thought were my best buddies. It wasn’t good for either them or me. It’s a bit sad, but, as well as closing some doors, this realisation opened new doors too.
I became much more attentive to what others have to say. Instead of “mind-reading” and assuming, I worked hard to put people in situations where they could open their thoughts up unreservedly. Rather than competing for attention with the funniest jokes at the Sunday brunch table, I focused on conversations that could change my life – maybe even the life of the person I am speaking to. Away from the vanity fair of who can be more fun that so often accompanies our habit of banter, I could focus on things with meaning as I became more aware of what people around me really said – not what I thought they said.
In my experience, both having fun and having mindful meaningful interactions are legitimate forms of communication. The difficulty arises when we let one completely overshadow the other. The banter we all love requires lightning fast humorous reactions. In defence of banter, the kind of humour that’s involved is deeply routed in intuitive empathy that is impossible to fake. I still enjoy it. However, while lightning fast automatic reactions are good, they don’t always allow subtle and vulnerable messages in, messages that require a fresh understanding and a non-judgemental approach.
I’ve taken on banter first to show that mindfulness is required even if it looks like you’re having the time of your life. What if you’re not?
With practicing mindfulness, at home, I stopped getting annoyed at people for small things. It became obvious to me that I have automatic rules: “if she doesn’t put my scarf back after wearing it, that means she doesn’t care about me” and other such unfounded nonsense.
Mindfulness made me aware of just how I’d built up an obstacle course on the way to happily interacting with other people.
If my friend was late for Sunday brunch two years ago, I would have presumed that perhaps they’ve something more fun they were doing. Psychologists call this presumptuous and ultimately destructive behaviour “mind-reading”. I was very happy to say goodbye to it. Now I simply know that I don’t know what held them up – and that’s surprisingly OK with me. “Wait, maybe they were at the gym and that’s why they’re late. Why wasn’t I at the gym?!” All of this is gone too. Actually, it’s not so much gone – as I am aware of it and know that it’s irrelevant noise.
Mindfulness is often thought of as a solitary activity. However, some of the clearest insights can arise from mindful conversations.
It was both fascinating and embarrassing to realise how much I heard when I really listened.
It goes back to what’s called the soldier mentality vs scouting mentality: listening for what I wanted to hear vs listening for what’s actually there. At the same time, it also became easier to be open-minded enough to appreciate someone’s escaping glance, a slight change in tone, a hand gesture or indeed a silence – that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Practicing mindfulness also taught me the practical value of silences. Being silent with someone is a sign of real trust. A hesitant response may mean more than just doubt: a realisation, a memory, a variety of things that need to be listened out for and allowed the space they need.
Mindfulness practice emphasises the transience of thoughts and emotions. This makes it so much easier to relate to other people’s more difficult emotions and not to take them personally. For example, if a family member was feeling down, I would ordinarily feel responsible for getting them out of that state. Now I am aware that my eager fixing can do more harm than good.
In a cesspool of information and under pressure to interact, we need to get better and better at communication. Our brains have come up with biases, heuristics, rules and stereotypes to help us cope. Mindfulness allowed me to become aware of them that little bit more – and helped me to take each interaction with another person for what it is. Assumptions are the enemy, especially so in communication.
Author Bio: Martina is a medical doctor who regularly blogs about making the most of the mind using mindfulness, psychology, philosophy and neuroscience on Thinking Clearly.