Relational mindfulness: Shifting from reactive to proactive
What is relational mindfulness? This article makes a case for thinking about mindfulness in the context of interaction. It describes how our perceptions are inherently relational: We are wired to make stories out of situations. These stories are not necessarily accurate, and understanding the biases helps us respond to situations more appropriately.
You see somebody frowning. What's your reaction? You might be assuming that this person is angry at you. Another story you could tell yourself is that things are not going well for this person today.
The stories we make up might, or might not, be true. The point is, we are wired to make up stories to make sense of what we see, especially when there is an emotional component to what we see. This is similar to what happens when we see two dots, and we “see” the line between them, as if it were actually drawn. We automatically infer the pattern, the relationship, the arc of the story. That story feels true. It feels so true that we are not even aware that it is just an assumption, something that would not be considered fact in a court of law, or in a scientific context.
The story is not always an accurate representation of reality. Does this mean that our mind, our brain, our nervous system, are deficient? We might legitimately consider them deficient if they had been instruments designed to provide accurate objective information, the way a scale would be deficient if it didn't measure weights accurately. But that is not what they evolved to be.
The evolutionary need was to help our remote ancestors survive by making instant decisions in difficult situations. Hence the development of our ability to ‘see’ patterns. Our mind fills in the line between the dots, so to speak. We experience the situation as part of an unfolding story. That is, we get a sense of the arc of the story, and a sense of what’s next. We experience this as gut level feelings, with a sense of absolute certainty, just the same way we ‘know’ beyond the shadow of a doubt that the earth is flat.
In other words: Life is interaction. This is a very concrete reality: It manifests in such essential characteristics as animals breathing or plants drawing nutrients from the ground. Life is interaction, and the life of human beings is no exception. We are not detached observers but we are in constant interaction, with the natural world as well as the social world. We experience situations as stories because stories are what it takes to capture the dynamic quality of life as interaction.
So relational mindfulness involves being aware that (1) life is interaction, (2) we experience situations as stories, and (3) while these stories feel true, they are not necessarily objectively true. Relational mindfulness also involves having a sense of how to deal with the limitations of the relatively crude processing that occurs in pattern recognition and story-making.
It is useful to put these limitations in context. Often enough, the threat that our forebears reacted to was real. In any case, it made sense to react even if the threat was not real. If you ignore a real danger, you die, and don't reproduce. If you react to a false alarm, you might be wrong, but you live to reproduce. So the sense of absolute certainty we have about what we perceive is understandable, when we place it within the context of how we evolved. We are alive today because our ancestors had absolute certainty about the truth of their perceptions. We inherited that from them.
However, the environment we live in is no longer the environment in which our ancestors evolved. We no longer live in very small tribes of hunters-gatherers. For millennia, we have been living in complex societies. The type of dangers that threaten us has changed. And so has the value of the automatic threat reactions that evolved in earlier times. In some cases, these reactions may be very useful. But, often enough, they put us into more trouble. So we need to be able to override our reactivity in order to have an appropriate response to what is actually around us.
Reactivity has to do with the more basic structures of the brain and nervous system that evolved early for survival. In a dangerous situation, these parts of the nervous system are activated into ‘fight or flight’ mode. That is, our organism literally reconfigures itself to channel all available energy into fighting or running away from danger. Resources that are not in service of ‘fight or flight’ shut down, so that the energy can be allocated to what is the one and only priority.
Peripheral vision (in a literal sense, as well as in the sense of having a larger perspective) is not an essential survival quality, and it shuts down. The more we are under pressure, the more we feel certain about the nature and magnitude of danger. This felt sense of absolute truth is all the greater as there is less a connection to the mindfulness circuits, which tend to give us a more nuanced information.
So the shift from reactive to responsive, from mindless to mindful, involves shifting into our mindfulness circuits. We cannot turn off the ‘fight or flight’ circuits, which are hard wired and essential. But we can lessen their intensity by engaging other parts of the brain and the nervous system that are less primitive. These circuits evolved in conjunction with our evolving into a more and more social animal. The social engagement circuits are involved in regulating our moods and interactions, as well as in processing more complex information. When these mindful circuits are engaged, frantic energy is channeled into poised energy, and we are capable of doing due diligence to derive a response that is appropriate to the situation at hand.
Whether we are reactive, or more mindfully responsive, we are engaged in interacting with our environment. The difference is that, when we are mindfully responding rather than reacting, we use all of our resources to get a potentially better response than if we were just relying on our more primitive equipment.
In order to do this, we need to shift from exclusive reliance on the primitive ‘fight or flight’ circuits to the more mindful circuits that have to do with social engagement. It takes intentionality. Unlike animals, or our very distant ancestors, we do not just operate on instinct. We have the capacity to make choices, moment by moment. And we need to use this capacity in order to respond appropriately to the requirements of the social world we live in.