One of the primary challenges that most meditators face is how to bring their meditation practice into the world of everyday relationships. On retreats, conditions are specifically created that support our mindfulness practice. As difficult as retreat life may be at times, the environment of silence with lots of sitting and walking practice helps us develop continuity of attention in order to see things as they are. On retreat, we hear over and over again the importance of being in the present, and responding to the present moment with awareness and compassion.
For most of us, life outside of retreat has a different flavor. Life gets busy and fills up with demands on our energy and time. Forget the notion of settling into the present! Rather, what we often come to value is how much we can get done in the shortest possible time—and if you’re a meditator, just carving out a short period for sitting every day can be a major accomplishment. In this particular cultural environment, we often become disconnected from what we’re doing, and frustrated by how easily we forget what we learned or valued on retreat. We begin to plan for our next retreat…
While it’s essential to investigate and see if it’s possible to simplify our lives to create more energy and space for quiet time with ourselves, it is also extremely important that we learn how to apply our awareness practice during times when we are with others. If we don’t learn to bring more awareness into our relationships, life with others becomes habitual and unsatisfying, while responding with wisdom and compassion becomes difficult at best.
At CIMC every summer, we offer a weekly practice group which addresses how to bring more awareness into the arena of everyday relationships. The emphasis of the practice group is upon learning ways to integrate or build upon the same tools that we develop in our more formal practice of sitting and walking. We explore practical ways to become more mindful and present during the times when we are interacting with others.
In vipassanā practice we begin by focusing attention on the first foundation of mindfulness—the body. In the relationship class, we also begin with the body. One exercise we teach is learning to relax the body when in the presence of others. This has proven to be a powerful practice for opening our hearts and minds to the present, wherever we are.
For example, when you find yourself in a meeting at work and drifting away, or in a tense dialogue with someone—situations in which we tend to disconnect—simply bringing attention to the area of your face, and inwardly softening this part of the body, can bring us back to the present with more openness and a deeper connection to what is. Relaxing any part of the body (eyes, shoulders, hands, stomach), or relaxing the body as a whole, can have the same powerful effect of bringing greater connection with ourselves and with whomever we are with, whether it’s the cashier at the supermarket, or our closest friends or family.
Through the summer we take on a range of mindfulness practices in relationship that build on what we learn in more formal practice. Another practice is to patiently and gently learn to recognize the moments of disconnection in relationship when these moments are actually occuring (again, remembering to bring awareness to the body is extremely helpful in recognizing expressions of disconnection).
Sometimes practitioners get discouraged with this exercise, because one of the first insights they have is the realization that they are more disconnected than they ever imagined. But by recognizing reactivity and disconnection when it’s happening, we begin to come back to the present and the actuality of our life. By learning to touch the power of the present while interacting with others, we open to the possibility of living free from habit and self-obsession, and instead discover our innate potential for both love and inner freedom.