Psychologist, Author, Teacher of Mindfulness and Compassion

Turning Toward the Relationships in our Lives: Small Moments, Many Times

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Turning Toward the Relationships in our Lives: Small Moments, Many Times

by Dr. Susan Pollak

I offer this essay in honor of long-time CIMC supporter Dr. Jack Engler who devoted his life to studying the impact of meditation.

I'm always delighted when current research supports the insights of our ancient mindfulness practices. While we often think of practice as sitting alone, silently, it turns out our meditation skills are enormously helpful in relationships. We are taught to get curious about our experiences and to gently "turn toward" them. This is done on a micro-level in meditation, usually starting with something small, such as an itch or a pain, and then progressing to something larger, such as an upsetting memory, a charged emotion, or even heartbreak.

When I heard that John and Julie Gottman, dubbed the "Einsteins of Love," were using the language and techniques of mindfulness to help people enhance their intimate relationships, I got curious. The Gottmans, two of the nation's leading experts, have four decades of data and have studied thousands of people, meticulously identifying which behaviors create happiness and which ones destroy connection. In my clinical practice, I've found that these ideas can be applied to all relationships—with friends, children, colleagues and family members.

I've distilled their relationship "hacks" to use as dharma in our daily lives.

Try Turning Toward

When one person tries to connect with another, there are basically three responses that we can have:

  1. Turning toward is a positive response when we engage with the attempt to connect.
  2. Turning away is giving no response, either ignoring or not noticing the effort to connect.
  3. Turning against is an angry or irritable reaction that shuts down an attempt to connect.

In the Gottmans' research, turning toward is the biggest predictor of happiness in relationships. Couples who stayed together turned toward their partner's effort to connect 86 percent of the time. Those who later divorced only turned toward the bids 33 percent of the time. These moments of turning toward the other accumulate over time, creating goodwill and helping mediate future conflict. Think of it as making a deposit in an emotional bank account.

Turning toward another is not a one-shot deal, but a daily exercise in actively paying attention. Small, daily acts can determine the quality of a relationship. Tibetan meditation masters have a saying that is used to cultivate awareness: "small moments, many times." This technique also supports happiness in relationships. If we train our minds to attend to the needs of another, just as we train to return to the breath, sounds, or the sensations of the body, we can increase the chances for fulfilling, rewarding relationships.

Meditation is worth the effort and these small shifts are as well. Positive relationships lift your mood, decrease your stress, and strengthen your immune system. They also decrease loneliness, depression, and illness.

Jack Engler taught us that that the dharma was about living life fully, including compassionately turning toward all the beings in our lives.