Personal relationships provide one of the greatest challenges in life and most of us will experience difficulties with patterns of habitual reactivity triggered by our partner, our children or other family members. Our buttons get pushed and we become angry or upset, fearful or anxious. This dynamic is based on learned habitual reactivity and both the perpetrator and victim are compelled to react, often against their better judgment. You may say something knowing that it will cause offense, but are unable to stop yourself from saying it. The victim also feels compelled to react by taking offense and becoming upset or angry. These reactive dynamics take away our freedom and erode the delicate and fragile nature of all relationships, making it hard to feel love and compassion, leaving us bitter and contracted with a closed heart.
However, what has been learned through conditioning can be unlearned through mindfulness. The key to changing these repetitive patterns of habitual reactivity in both the victim and perpetrator is to first learn, through practice, to recognize reactivity in all its forms as it arises. Reactivity depends and thrives on two principle factors: ignorance and emotional charge. Ignorance, or the unawareness of reactivity causes us to repeat the reaction over and over again, like a machine. The first phase of MMT is primarily about learning to recognize reactions as and when they arise and replace ignorance with awareness. This is the first function of mindfulness, the factor of RECOGNITION. Without this most basic first step nothing can change, but with awareness comes the possibility of change. Recognition is the beginning of the transformational process and often this skill alone is sufficient to totally change the whole reactive dynamic between two people.
The next phase of MMT involves changing how we view the reaction and associated emotional energy. This is called REFRAMING and is one of a number of skills that is taught in the psychological science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and which is another chief modality used in MMT. Normally, (ie when we are unaware) we identify with emotional reactions and literally become the reaction. When a reaction of feeling hurt arises, we become the emotional reaction of hurting. Anger arises and we become angry. We say “I am upset,” or “I am angry” because we literally take on the entire identity of the emotion. During reframing, we learn to stop this automatic process of subjective identification and learn to see the reaction as an object that is not self, but simply a phenomenon that has arisen in our consciousness due to various causes and conditions. When the reaction of feeling upset arises, we learn to see it as an object within us, rather like seeing a bubble rising in a pond. The bubble is not the pond, but simply a small object within the pond and the emotion is not our self, but simply a small part within our self. After reframing the emotion, we learn to say, “I notice a feeling of hurting within me” or “I notice anger arising in my mind.” This is a very important step, because it counteracts the habitual tendency to react and opens up a sense of space and choices around the emotion.
The third phase of MMT after RECOGNITION and REFRAMING is the most important step of all in which we cultivate a caring RELATIONSHIP with the internal felt-sense of the emotional reaction. Let us explore this in more detail. Once you have recognized a reaction and made it into an object that you can see and experience, then you begin to see the emotional reaction as an object to be investigated and known in its own right, rather than getting entangled in the storyline of who did what to whom or who is right and who is wrong. The storyline may be very compelling and you may feel very offended or hurt, but indulging in negative, emotionally charged thinking is seldom an effective tool for resolving emotional conflict. This is the first function of mindfulness - learning to recognize a reaction, seeing it as an object and not getting seduced into further reactivity.
The kind of relationship that we cultivate in MMT is called the Mindfulness Based Relationship. This relationship has certain unique qualities. The first and most important quality is non-reactivity. By learning to recognize reactivity, we can stop the tendency to proliferate further reactivity in the form of reactive thinking, or further emotional reactions of aversion and displeasure. The second characteristic of the mindfulness-based relationship is about opening our heart and mind and developing a quality of genuine caring towards the inner pain of our anger or resentment. Instead of turning away, we turn towards our suffering. This does not mean that we indulge in feeling sorry for ourselves and certainly does not mean that we indulge in reactive thinking. Rather, we learn to be fully present with our inner emotion with a keen level of attention. The third quality of mindfulness is investigation. We turn towards our pain, we become attentive and then we take this further step and investigate the deeper inner structure of the experience. What seemed like the solid emotion of anger or resentment begins to unfold into a complex interior landscape of subtle feelings and memories and very often, some form of experiential imagery.
This is the fourth phase of MMT: TRANSFORMATION and RESOLUTION. The exact nature of what unfolds is unique to each person, but the effect of becoming aware of this inner detailed structure is highly transformational. Often, beneath anger there is sadness and beneath resentment there is fear. These more subtle feelings may give rise to further feelings and experience. During the process of transformation, emotions literally dissolve into many small parts, which can be more readily digested and re-integrated by the psyche and our innate intelligence into something more stable. This is the final step of MMT, called RESOLUTION. Any form of emotional suffering, or dukkha, as it is called in Buddhism, represents a state of instability and conflict in the psyche. The psyche hates instability and will always try to resolve dukkha if given the freedom to change. Mindfulness provides the therapeutic space and freedom in which transformation and resolution can occur.
In this way, each person in the relationship works with his or her individual reactive habits. Each learns to identify reactions, develops a mindfulness-based relationship with the underlying felt-sense of each reaction and then allows the internal structure of the experience to unfold into finer detail leading to the transformation and resolution of the compulsive emotional energy that makes us react against our will. When there is freedom from reactivity, we begin to discover new possibilities, new choices in how we respond to the challenges of being in a relationship. The process may be more complex than is explained here, but the underlying theme is quite simple and it is about engaging with our experience, whether pleasant or painful with the faculty of mindfulness. If you can do this, then healing will proceed quite naturally.
You can purchase a copy of Dr Strong’s book ‘The Path of Mindfulness Meditation’ at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk and Barnes&Noble.com. A Kindle edition is also available.