Relationships, Mindfulness & Neuroplasticity
We are social beings, and our brains are wired to see ourselves in relation to everyone we meet. Our social relationships can have many forms, and are continuously assessed and revised, even if we aren’t aware of it.
Here we go again
Sometimes we notice that we have become stuck, again, in a familiar but unsatisfying pattern of relating with others.
We may have experienced, with certain people at certain times, a simple authenticity where connection is easy and satisfying. But somehow this ease is elusive, and instead we are often caught up in semi-conscious reactive patterns, and snap out of it only to find ourselves on familiar dead-end roads, not quite knowing how we got there.
Social Automaticity: Bound by History
The quality of our relationships with others is strongly influenced by the habitual, automatic responses that we have learned – these responses are rapidly generated, moment by moment, as the result of our past experiences. Once triggered, habitual responses play without much awareness, offering little chance for course correction or registering changing details. So even as an interaction is taking place, we can find ourselves stuck in a familiar, uncomfortable place (disconnected, defensive, dismissive, misunderstood, ignored, feeling ungenuine or embarrassed, too exposed, etc.), not quite sure how it has happened, again.
Filtered Experience: What’s between me and the world
Our histories also affect our expectations about how others will receive us and behave toward us. These expectations can actually influence our perceptions – filtering them so that we are biased toward seeing things that confirm our expectations. This causes us to lose important information – not noticing or misinterpreting a small smile, losing the subtle details of experience in a tangle of memory and strategies.
“You talk to me as if from a distance
and I reply with impressions chosen from another time.”
– Brian Eno: By this river
Habits are good: Habits are bad
Our brains are well equipped to learn from experience, and our experience in the world shapes our knowledge, expectations and responses. Many responses become habitual – automatic – and fall beneath the level of conventional awareness. They just play out – and many automatic responses serve us well. For example, as we walk in the street we are seldom aware of the constant scanning of the sidewalk and the muscular adjustments that allow us to make our way without incident. Those processes have become automatic – though it is possible to bring them to awareness through deliberate placement of attention. Mindfulness training is a way to have greater flexibility and attentional control, so that we can be more aware of the details of our experience, and aware of our tendency to respond in habitual ways. Mindfulness brings about changes that are experientially obvious, and, as has been abundantly reported in recent years, also can be identified in measures of brain function.
Mindfulness of the other
Social habits can be hard to uncover, as they operate when “the pressure is on” – that is, in the midst of social interactions, when it can feel like the stakes are high. For this reason, a therapy group made up of people interested in developing social mindfulness skills can be a powerful way to bring these unhelpful social habits to awareness, in a safe space. It is a practical way to move toward more satisfying and genuine relationships with others. As we accumulate new, more direct, experience of other people, we learn to welcome the freshness that is possible in each encounter. We make friends with our habitual tendencies, and they stop being obstacles to simple direct connection with others. I offer groups with this focus – you can find out more here.