During my graduate studies in Transpersonal Psychology I became intrigued with the idea of human connection and mindfulness as catalysts for healing and transformation. Something about today’s world of divisiveness and separation seemed fundamentally inconsistent with my own understanding of psychological health. I wanted to find out just what are the key elements of healthy psychological development. I was surprised to learn that prior to the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, the primary model of psychological health was based exclusively on research involving only male subjects. As a result, attributes like autonomy, separation, and competition were assumed to be qualities of healthy psychological development, while the urge for connection and relationship (typical of the female experience) was seen as inferior and unhealthy.
Enter the Healing Power of Connection
In the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, this old and incomplete model was shown to be in error, and a new model of psychological well-being emerged. This new model, based on decades of current research involving male and female subjects, shows that the urge to connect is our essential human drive – not autonomy and separation. Growth-fostering relationships, those involving active participation in the development of others, are now understood to be the primary vehicle for psychological wellness. It’s easy to see how all of us – men, women, boys and girls – have suffered under the mistaken assumptions of the old model. In fact, it seems to me our world as a whole is suffering from a failure to comprehend the critical importance of connection, interdependence, and the healing power found in a network of relationships.
Mindfulness Opens the Door to Connection
The practice of mindfulness, which is the cultivation of our natural human skill for non-judgmental present moment awareness, is emerging from its ancient roots as a healing and wholesome way to live. Health-care, personal fitness, and wellness models are beginning to incorporate a holistic mind-body-spirit perspective in the services they offer for the prevention and treatment of disease, and mindfulness is the central feature. Unlike the “find it and fix it” healthcare model currently in existence, the new integrative model of healthcare, as practiced at many major academic medical centers, reflects elements of relationship, communication, spirituality, mindfulness, wholeness, nutrition, life meaning and purpose, personal development, and the mind-body connection. These elements correspond to what appears to be the public’s increased demand for holistic treatment, the trends toward a unified approach toward life, health, and personal/spiritual growth, and hopefully an indication of a larger pattern being reflected in the world at large.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week educational program, taught throughout the US and worldwide, which originated in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and was initially developed as a way to teach mindfulness practices to patients with chronic pain. During the thirty years since, this intensive program in mindfulness has been the subject of extensive research demonstrating significant benefits for people with chronic pain, anxiety, panic, psoriasis, prostate cancer, immune function, hot flashes, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, and psychological distress. The number of scholarly studies on mindfulness has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. Recent studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between mindfulness and emotional well-being, improvements in sleep quality, mood, and fatigue.
In my experience as a teacher of MBSR, I’ve observed that as practitioners develop the qualities of mindfulness through meditative practice, they typically experience a decline in their reactivity to stress, and an improvement in their attentive communication skills. These developments are ideal catalysts for the creation and improvement of relationships. The qualities of mindfulness, which MBSR practitioners learn to cultivate, include trust, patience, acceptance, non-judgment, non-striving, letting go, and curiosity. Mindfulness practice initiates a ripple effect – from the practitioner outward toward others. This ripple effect has a scientific basis which has gained attention in the fields of psychology and organizational management in the last decade. Known as limbic resonance, researchers in this field are examining the interrelationship between the activity of the brain’s limbic system, the non-verbal transmission of emotion, feelings of empathy and relatedness, and the methods by which we, as human beings, become attuned to the inner states of others with whom we are in close contact.
I’ve seen first hand how the ripple effect transmits these qualities from practitioners to others, and weaves a web of healthy connections. It is this web that supports the conditions for healing, growth, mutual support, engagement, and transformation. This, combined with the extensive body of research demonstrating the importance of social connections for health and longevity, demonstrates the immense value of mindfulness practice for our health and well-being.
Gilligan, C. (1982/1993). In a different voice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gilligan, C. (1995). Hearing the difference: Theorizing connection. Hypatia, 10(2).
Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form connections in both therapy and in life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.