Interpersonal Benefits of Mindfulness: Part I

Posted on: August 30th, 2012 by Guest
1 Comment

This is a guest blog post by Suzanne Parker, research associate in the department of psychology at the University of Miami.

Experienced meditators and people high in dispositional mindfulness are often described as “warm” people, humans who are intimately in touch with the joys and sufferings of their fellow humans. Is this common perception true, and is there empirical evidence to support it? One of the more intriguing elements of mindfulness can appear almost contradictory: how can a personal practice such as meditation that is “your own” lead to interpersonal benefits off the cushion?

The interdisciplinary approach of interpersonal neurobiology suits an exploration of this question. Interpersonal neurobiology examines the neural basis of relationships as the sharing of energy and information (Siegel, 2012a, 2012b). Looking at the impact of mindfulness practices and dispositional mindfulness on relationships and social interaction, “presence” comes forward as an essential component of mindfulness that has a large role in mediating the relationship of mindfulness and “interpersonal attunement,” the ways in which we focus on the internal state of another individual with kindness and compassion (Siegel, 2012a).

In conceptual opposition to presence is mind-wandering, and there is much recent research demonstrating the beneficial effects of mindfulness practices for reducing mind-wandering, in the process enhancing cognitive functioning and attentional ability. Empirical work of late suggests that a sense of presence – facilitating attunement and resonance while decreasing mind-wandering – represents one of the foundational elements of the interpersonal benefits of mindfulness.

Josho Pat Phelan depicts mindful practice as “presence with the intention of becoming one with our activity, so that the gaps between body and mind, between our attention and our activity, close” (Phelan, 2010, p. 131). Phelan describes the process of washing dishes with presence:

You will not have to stop and ask yourself: ‘Are my hands in the water or out?’ ‘Does the water feel hot or just lukewarm?’ … When we wash dishes, we know directly and immediately the heat and sudsy quality of the water without needing to pull ourselves back from the situation to think about it … Once we step back to examine an experience, the original experience has ended and we begin a new experience, which is reflecting on the past. (Phelan, 2010, p. 132-3)

In interpersonal situations, presence facilitates the ability to attune to what is happening in the moment without conceptual elaboration or unintentional preparation for what is anticipated to be coming next that diverts attentional resources. Presence is “the bare awareness of the receptive spaciousness of our mind,” a “state of receptive awareness of our open minds to whatever arises as it arises” (Siegel, 2007, p. 160-1). To be present and experience directly means to minimize interpreting what occurs from within a framework of rigid mental constructs or ingrained emotional reactivity. In interpersonal interaction, these elements are conducive to connecting to the most authentic experience of another person and the ability to deeply resonate with his or her present state.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney

One Response

  1. William Garcia says:

    Memories of the past and imaginations of the future are Mindful abilities we can only have in the present, in the now, in the unstoppable and continuous now. The “Is” is inescapable.