By Dr. Jonathan Kaplan
Mindfulness, as it has been practiced thus far in the United States, has typically been about cultivating personal awareness. We’re advised to notice our thoughts or check-in with the body or slow down our behaviors. While these practices have been very beneficial, they also suffer from a fundamental limitation: they all focus attention on our own internal processes to the exclusion of other people around us. Even meditations that help us cultivate compassion or loving-kindness—more interpersonal experiences—do so within the confines of our own minds. Attend any meditation session on compassion, for example, and you’ll be surrounded by people sitting with their eyes closed as they imagine offering kindness and care to people they know. What about opening your eyes and offering these same blessings to the person next to you?
As part of the mindfulness and meditation class that I teach at The New School, I regularly lead students in interpersonal practice, dedicated to seeing the inner beauty and goodness of the person in front of them. Initially, some students giggle at the discomfort of looking unwaveringly into someone’s eyes, but it quickly becomes very emotional and touching. It’s a powerful moment, recognizing and accepting the shared humanity with another person. And, perhaps even more touching, it’s awe-inspiring to know that we’re being seen and accepted in the same way, despite our mistakes, struggles, insecurities, and imagined deficiencies. After all, isn’t this what you’d love to experience in your relationships? Wouldn’t you love to look into the eyes of another and see your own goodness reflected back to you? How would you be in the world if you knew and trusted that you were accepted and loved without having to act, look, or be different in anyway?
So, as you’re setting intentions for the new year, I’d invite you to consider expanding your mindfulness practice to include others. Open your eyes to the people around you and see their inner beauty. You don’t even have to say a word. Let your eyes burn brightly with the unshakeable knowing of their goodness. Can you love them unconditionally?
Of course, practically speaking, you’re welcome to dislike their views, speech, and actions. And, despite these difficulties, can you at least try to recognize your shared humanity? Like you, your nemeses wish for the safety and security of their loved ones. Like you, they would be ecstatic to win the lottery. Like you, they want to be seen, accepted, and loved. Can you aspire to offer them—and everyone you meet—this precious gift?
[Later this month, I’ll post a recording of a guided interpersonal meditation. In the meantime, please feel free to leave comments below.]