It shouldn’t take a holiday like Valentine’s Day to remind you to pause and reflect on the relationships you value in your life. Whether it be with colleagues, friends, lovers, or a spouse, you can always benefit from taking a step back, appreciating the love you have in your life and making the time to show others you care about them.
When you are mindful of the love in your life you open yoursel up to the opportunity for love to grow. And not just romantic love, but self-love, and loving friendships as well.
START WITH SELF-LOVE
To connect more deeply with others, you must face the one person that you keep on the shortest leash: yourself. We often reject other people’s care or attention when we believe we don’t deserve it—but there’s nothing special you must do to deserve love. As Sharon Salzberg reminds us, it is simply because you exist. Follow this fifteen-minute guided meditation to open your heart toward giving and receiving love.
Try this practice from Sharon Salzberg to learn how to open your heart to love and compassion:
A Practice for Opening Your Heart:
A Meditation for Opening the Heart
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg offers a brief meditation for cultivating compassion.
1) Imagine you’re encircled by people who love you. Sit with your eyes closed, breathing normally, imagining yourself in the center of a circle made up of the most loving beings you’ve ever met.
2) Receive the love of those who love you. Experience yourself as the recipient of the energy, attention, care, and regard of all of these beings in your circle of love. Send love to yourself by giving yourself this message: May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy. May I live with ease of heart.
3) Notice how you feel when you receive love.Whatever emotions may arise, you just let them wash through you. And repeat to yourself: May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy. May I live with ease of heart.
4) Open yourself up to receiving love. Imagine that your skin is porous and this warm, loving energy is coming in. There’s nothing special that you need to do or be in order to deserve this kind of loving care. It’s simply because you exist.
5) Send loving care to the people in your circle. You can allow that quality of loving kindness and compassion and care you feel coming toward you to flow right back out to the circle and then toward all beings everywhere, so that what you receive, you transform into giving. May we all be safe, May we all be happy, May we all be healthy. May we all live with ease of heart.
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LEARN TO CONNECT WITH THOSE YOU LOVE
In movies, people often gaze into the eyes of the person they love—but in reality, we spend more time gazing into the glowing screens of our smartphones. It’s a damaging habit that can distract us from in-person conversations and real-world experiences with people we care about. Here are 11 simple ways to build real relationships with the people you care about most:
11 Ways to Connect with Care
1. Really see each other
Making eye contact with someone activates what psychologist Stephen Porges calls our Social Nervous System, which can relieve stress and create a deeper sense of connection. It is hard not to feel intimate and vulnerable when looking into the eyes of another person—even a stranger. Try it! It may feel funny at first, but you will find a softening in your heart and a sensation of love flowing before you know it.
2. Listen with all of your senses
There’s a difference between hearing someone and actively listening to someone. The next time you’re having an in-person conversation, notice the posture and body language of the other person. Tune into the tone of their voice, and absorb the meaning of their words. See if it’s possible to put aside your own response while listening to them speak. When we feel listened to, we feel cared about and this increases a sense of mutual love and connection.
3. Reach out and touch someone
As mammals, physical contact is essential to our well-being. American psychologist Harry Harlow’s famous study on maternal deprivation with rhesus monkeys demonstrated that touch provides a crucial psychological and emotional resource in our development. Touch is also a primary way we communicate, feel safe, soothe our nervous systems, trust one another, and convey love and compassion. Take a day to experiment with actively reaching out to your loved ones with small touches (on the hand, shoulder, knee, or arm) and see what you notice—perhaps it’s a greater sense of connection, increased compassion, or an open heart.
4. Hug like you mean it
Very few things feel better than a good hug. Science shows that hugging can reduce blood pressure, alleviate fear, soothe anxiety, and release the “love” hormone oxytocin. Psychologist Stan Tatkin suggests that in order to align nervous systems, prevent arguments, and feel more connected people hug until both bodies feel relaxed. Who can you hug today?
5. Be interested
The late rabbi and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Life is routine, and routine is resistance to wonder.” One of the essential attitudes of mindfulness is curiosity, and we can bring this into our relationships to foster warmth and trust. Our minds often tell us that we “know” someone so well that we can predict their behaviors and responses. While this may be true some of the time, it also stops us from clearly seeing the person in front of us—instead we just see our “idea” of that person. See if you can be open, curious, and interested in those close to you as if you are getting to know them for the first time. You might be surprised what you find.
6. Make plans and keep them
Nothing breaks a bond like flaking on plans. And yet there are often reasons why we don’t follow through on commitments. Sometimes we’re overextended, saying “yes” to plans or responsibilities when we mean “no.” Be honest with yourself, and only take on what you can handle. Identify the people in your life who bring you down, and those who nourish and energize you. And then figure out if, and how, you can work with your relationships to those people to foster mutual trust, respect, and appreciation. Our connections flourish when we take time to get to know ourselves, and others, better.
7. Communicate your needs and feelings
Most of us have been guilty at one time or another of not being clear about what we really need or want in the moment. This indirect form of communication rarely yields the outcome we want. In our program Connecting Adolescents to Learning Mindfulness (CALM), we emphasize the importance of Non-Violent Communication, which assumes that we all share the same basic needs and that our actions (knowingly or unknowingly) are attempts to get those satisfied. When we learn how to identify and express our own needs clearly, we naturally move toward greater understanding, compassion, and connection with the people in our lives.
8. Be kind
Kindness is like a magnet. People like to be around others who are kind because they feel cared about and safe with them. The age-old Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you” still rings true today. It’s also reciprocal. When we practice kindness, not only do we feel better, but we help others feel good, too. And this just increases opportunities for positive connections throughout our day, which, in turn, contributes to our own health and well-being.
9. THINK before you speak
We’ve all been guilty of saying or doing something we wished we hadn’t. It happens. But we can certainly make more of an effort to be thoughtful with our words and actions. Try this experiment for a week: Before speaking to someone, consider the following: Is it True, is it Helpful, am I the best one to say it, is it Necessary, is it Kind? See how your interactions change.
We might even imagine what the world would be like if everyone practiced this a little more.
10. Practice “Just like me”
DNA research has revealed that regardless of gender, ethnicity, or race, humans are 99.9% the same. If you want to foster a greater sense of connection in your life, as you go through your day and encounter someone who you think is different from you, silently say, “Just like me,” and see what comes up. You may just experience the awareness that each of us wants the same things: to feel cared for and understood, and to experience a sense of belonging.
11. Experience joy for others
Be on the lookout for moments when you notice that others are taking care of themselves, experiencing a success or accomplishment, or even just having a good day, and see if you can be happy for them. Sometimes this joy for another’s happiness naturally arises, and other times it’s something we can intentionally foster. If you feel so bold, tell them, “Good job” or “I’m so happy for you.” Not only can this create or strengthen your connection, but it can amplify your own good feelings.
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BRING MINDFUL AWARENESS TO THE WAY YOU COMMUNICATE
Bringing awareness to the way we communicate with others has both practical and profound applications. In the middle of a painful argument with our partner, we can train ourselves to recognize when the channel of communication has shut down. We can train ourselves to remain silent instead of blurting out something we’ll later regret. We can notice when we’re over-reacting and take a time-out.
We begin practicing mindful communication by simply paying attention to how we open up when we feel emotionally safe, and how we shut down when we feel afraid. Just noticing these patterns without judging them starts to cultivate mindfulness in our communications. Noticing how we open and close puts us in greater control of our conversations.
Notice These 3 Phases of Communication
A great metaphor for this is the changing traffic light: We imagine that when the channel of communication closes down, the light has turned red. When communication feels open again, we say the light has turned green. When communication feels in-between, or on the verge of closing down, we say the light has turned yellow. The changing traffic light imagery helps us to identify our various states of communication, and to recognize the consequences of each.
The Red Light: Defensive Reactions
When the red light is on we are defensive and closed down. When we react to fear by shutting down the channel of communication, we’ve put up a defensive barrier dividing us from the world. We justify our defensiveness by holding on to unexamined opinions about how right we are. We tell ourselves that relationships are not that important. We undervalue other people and put our self-interest first. In short, our values shift to “me-first.” Closed communication patterns are controlling and mistrustful. Others become static objects only important to us if they meet our needs.
To make matters worse, when we’re closed and defensive, we feel emotionally hungry. We look to others to rescue us from aloneness. We might try to manipulate and control them to get what we need. Because these strategies never really work, we inevitably become disappointed with people. We suffer, and we cause others to suffer.
When we close down and become defensive—for a few minutes, a few days, a few months, or even a lifetime—we’re cutting ourselves off not only from others, but also from our natural ability to communicate. Mindful communication trains us to notice when we’ve stopped using our innate communication wisdom—the red light.
Openness also has the magic ingredient that enables us to fall in love, to feel empathy and courage.
The Green Light: Openness
Paying attention to our communication patterns helps us realize the value of openness. Generally, we associate open people as trustworthy, as in touch with themselves and others. But openness also has the magic ingredient that enables us to fall in love, to feel empathy and courage. When we’re open, we let go of our opinions and enter a larger mind, which gives us the power to trust our instincts.
When we’re open, we don’t see our individual needs opposing the needs of others. We experience a “we-first” state of mind, because we appreciate that our personal survival depends on the well-being of our relationships. We express this connectedness to others through open communication patterns. Open communication tunes us in to whatever is going on in the present moment, whether comfortable or not. Openness is heartfelt, willing to share the joy and pain of others. Because we’re not blocked by our own opinions, our conversations with others explore new worlds of experience. We learn, change, and expand.
The Yellow Light: In-Between
In practicing mindful communication, eventually we ask ourselves: What exactly causes me to switch from open to closed and then open again? We begin to discover the state of mind that exists in-between open and closed—symbolized by the yellow light. In-between is a place we normally don’t want to enter. We find ourselves there when the ground falls out from beneath our feet, when we feel surprised, embarrassed, disappointed—on the verge of shutting down. We might feel a sudden loss of trust, an unexpected flash of self-consciousness. Learning to hold steady and be curious at this juncture is critical to the practice of mindful conversation.
Small acts of kindness that are either shared or withheld when the yellow light is flashing can make or break a relationship.
A yellow-light transition can appear at any time. We can switch from closed to open via the yellow light, if we’re willing to enter into curiosity, or accepting that we don’t know the answer. The in-between state of mind is a critical time for bringing peace into our homes and workplaces. Small acts of kindness that are either shared or withheld when the yellow light is flashing can make or break a relationship. Once we’re in the red zone, it’s too late to engage in acts of kindness—we’re too mistrustful. I’ve seen this over and again working with couples—they reach a critical point when they can save their relationship by switching from me-first to we-first thinking. They can think about their children, pets, or anything that brings a larger picture to mind. Acts of kindness at this point shift them into a temporary mood of gratitude. Feeling gratitude makes them more interested in moving forward.
The yellow light points to those miraculous moments when we can open up, wag our tails, and play. We break the spell of our own personal agendas and awaken to genuine relationship. Such abrupt shifts seem to come out of nowhere in the middle of our most ego-crunching experiences—such as admitting that we’ve made a mistake.
A successful relationship is the result of thousands of small flashes of the yellow light, where we were able to transform disappointments and arguments into opportunities for unmasking, intimacy, and joy.
Healthy Relationships Include “Healthy” Arguments
If you are in any sort of relationship with a human, chances are you’ve had disastrous fights spring up out of nowhere. Somehow in the midst of reaching for the person you love, your communications take a hard left turn, veer off course and dump you both in a ditch… leaving you dazed and confused.
What would it look like if instead of getting triggered by our partner’s behaviors (and making up stories about why they are doing what they are doing) we could take a deep breath and share our own feelings about their behavior in a heart-centered way? And then listen to their feelings without the need to prove that we are right and they are wrong? Ooof. It’s a tall order but there are three things you can do to help you fight “mindfully.”
Three Tools for Mindful Fights
1. Breathe. Breath is an essential component of meditation. It’s a pause button. When your partner says or does something that sparks an unexpectedly strong emotion, take a breathinstead of reacting, and notice what sensations are arising. Frustration? Anger? With breath as the focus of your attention, you can observe these sensations instead of reacting to them.
2. Center. Breath allows us to become centered and present in our body. When we are centered and present, we can listen to our own feelings and expand our capacity for considering other’s feelings.
3. Connect. When we are centered, we can connect to others in a more authentic and heartfelt way. Our communications become less judgmental and more curious. In this less reactive state, we can communicate our feelings and listen to the feelings of others without needing to act or blame.
It’s not rocket science and it doesn’t take years of a formal meditation practice to apply these techniques in your relationship. It just takes a breath, a pause button, and a willingness to fight the urge to react in a way that will disconnect you from your partner, when what you really want to do is connect. It won’t always work, but even if it works some of the time, wouldn’t it be worth it?
READ MORE ABOUT OPEN COMMUNICATION
PRACTICE DEEP LISTENING
How often do you feel really listened to? How often do you really listen to others? (Be honest.)
We know we’re in the presence of a good listener when we get that sweet, affirming feeling of really being heard. But sadly it occurs all too rarely. We can’t force others to listen, but we can improve our own listening, and perhaps inspire others by doing so.
Good listening means mindful listening. Like mindfulness itself, listening takes a combination of intention and attention. The intention part is having a genuine interest in the other person—their experiences, views, feelings, and needs. The attention part is being able to stay present, open, and unbiased as we receive the other’s words—even when they don’t line up with our own ideas or desires.
Paradoxically, being good at listening to others requires the ability to listen to yourself. If you can’t recognize your own beliefs and opinions, needs and fears, you won’t have enough inner space to really hear anyone else. So the foundation for mindful listening is self-awareness.
Here are some tips to be a good listener to yourself so you can be a good listener for others.
How to Really Listen
1. Check inside: “How am I feeling just now? Is there anything getting in the way of being present for the other person?” If something is in the way, decide if it needs to be addressed first or can wait till later.
2. Feeling your own sense of presence, extend it to the other person with the intention to listen fully and openly, with interest, empathy, and mindfulness.
3. Silently note your own reactions as they arise—thoughts, feelings, judgments, memories. Then return your full attention to the speaker.
4. Reflect back what you are hearing, using the speaker’s own words when possible, paraphrasing or summarizing the main point. Help the other person feel heard.
5. Use friendly, open-ended questions to clarify your understanding and probe for more. Affirm before you differ. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view—acknowledging is not agreeing!—before introducing your own ideas, feelings, or requests.
READ MORE ABOUT MINDFUL LISTENING
Remember, “love” is a verb. Are you so busy that you forget to prioritize romance? Be honest. How strong is your current love connection on a scale from zero to 10? If it’s less than 10, read on. Here’s how you can slow down and show up for love, over and over again.
Tips for Mindful Loving
1) Remember why you love them
Take each sighting of cheap chocolates or drooping roses as a cue to take a mindful breath. Then connect with your heart. Recall special moments the two of you have shared—your first kiss, what they wore on your wedding day, the most outrageous place you’ve made love. Later, share those memories with your sweetie and celebrate some of the moments that led you along the path to now.
2) Commit to date your mate
Give the gift of interest and time, and book non-negotiable weekly dates. Try recreating your first date, but tell each other what you were privately thinking and feeling during that life-changing encounter. Plan occasional adventures—research shows that novelty and excitement heighten sexual attraction, so skip the movie and head for a climbing wall, an erotic massage class, or a spot for skinny dipping.