How We Can Use Meditation to Improve Our Relationships
Written by David Nichtern
For some of us, meditation may feel like an extension of the “me” culture in which it’s all about me, myself, my mind, and my body. But what about the rest of the beings in the known universe? What’s happening to them while we go into our little corners, lock the door, close our eyes, and go into our “secret garden” of calm and bliss? The meditation tradition has a lot more to offer, and most of it is in the arena of how we relate to others and our world in general.
And yes—to start with, we work with ourselves, our own minds and bodies—that’s our launch point, but it is only the beginning of our practice.
The first relationship we explore in our meditation practice is the relationship with ourselves.
The essence of meditation practice is to become more mindful and aware (in an open, unbiased way) of our thoughts and emotions, sensations, and perceptions of the world around us. We start by working with our little monkey mind, learning how to settle down, be still, and focus on some simple experience (like feeling our breath) to ground and stabilize our mental activity and develop a feeling of confidence, ease, and presence.
When speed, anxiety, and regret have moved into the house of our minds and taken over the living room, kitchen, and bedrooms, if we take some time and leave some space to settle ourselves, we can create a healthier and happier foundation for our whole existence—sometimes this practice is described as “making friends with yourself.”
Friends, enemies, and neutral people
As we reach out beyond ourselves to share our lives with “others,” we might notice that we tend to group them into people we care about, those we don’t like much, and those we don’t seem to notice or care about. We are either “besties,” “mean girls” (or boys), or happily indifferent.
In addition to mindfulness and awareness practices, there is another wonderful meditation practice called metta, maitri, or lovingkindness, in which we contemplate our relationship to others and deliberately extend our positive thoughts and feelings toward the people in all three of the above categories. We can see how we limit our exchange with others based on our habits, biases, and assumptions and actively expand our sympathy and affection for everybody. If we all did this practice daily, the world would be a better place.
The significant other
Ah, romance. We are looking for a partner to complete ourselves, are we not? But what could meditation possibly have to do with this kind of relationship? We seek, we explore, we fall in love, we get bored, we fall out of love, we fall in hate, we fall into indifference. Falling, falling, falling. All the time falling.
An important aspect of our meditation practice is that we stop falling and actually sit down on the ground instead. It’s not the end of romance, but it is the end of delusion, projection, and assumptions as we cut through our expanding narrative and bring our attention back to our breath, our body, our present experience.
There are so many teachings and practices in the meditation tradition for working more skillfully and compassionately with others—cultivating generosity, patience, discipline, exertion, awareness, and discernment for example—in general, sharpening our minds and opening our hearts.
Our significant other is an important mirror of the current state of our mind and heart and of our personal evolution, right? We should both meditate and then have a nice chat.
What about family?
How did we get this far in this article without thinking about Mom and Pop, brothers and sisters, kids, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins?
Well it’s simple: If you can’t develop friendship and compassion for yourself, it’s going be hard to have it for them and vice versa. These are your people, like it or not. A nice 10-minute sit-down before carving the regular or vegan turkey would be revolutionary and inspiring—a vision of a new future for the gathered tribe.
Then there are relationships at work.
Well, strange as it may seem, most of us will spend the majority of our time on earth (apart from the bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom) at work.
Who are these strange people and how did they get in our cubicle and in our face? Work can often be the great missed opportunity to practice mindfulness, awareness, and compassion in everyday life—which is the jewel in the crown of the meditation tradition. Can you actually be kind, patient, productive, and skillful at the office? If you have a regular meditation practice, your batting average for skillful interaction with bosses, peers, and underlings will increase exponentially.
Ultimately, if you contemplate contemporary society, you might conclude, as I have, that an increase in mindfulness, awareness, sympathy, compassion, and skillful means—all cultivated in your meditation practice—could perhaps be the most powerful elements we all have toward reshaping our communities, society, and perhaps even the global culture at large. If we are in our right minds, I believe we will find the ways to relate more sanely to one another, to our neighbors, to our community, our society, and the world at large. This is a big topic we should all contemplate.
Our relationship to the earth
None of the above will matter at all if we do not realign with Mother Earth. We should study nature. That’s what great sages in the past have done. Plants already know how to meditate. They can be still, vibrant, present, and respond well to healthy nurturing, pruning, and movement toward light and energy. We should meditate like plants do.