A couple came to see me once, and they were very grumpy with each other. They’d had a big fight the previous week, and it was so bad that the woman’s husband had actually packed his bags and was ready to go out the door. I said, “Wow! What was the fight about?” The husband explained, “I was in the kitchen making a meal, looking forward to sharing it with my wife when she got home. But when she came in the door, she immediately started criticizing me, saying the kitchen counter was really dirty.” At this point his wife broke in. “It was! It was filthy. I came home from a hard day’s work looking forward to a nice meal, and the first thing I see is this filthy countertop, and I know I’m probably going to be the one who has to clean it up. So I gave him a piece of my mind. “And he lost it! He just got angrier and angrier and started packing his bags, saying that all I ever do is criticize him, and things like that.”
I thanked them both for somehow surviving that moment with their marriage intact. She had been able to calm her husband down and keep him from leaving the house, by apologizing. But it was obvious that both of them still had a fear of repeating this kind of fight. Because they both believed there would be another dirty countertop in their future. I applauded them on reconciling, and invited them to take a closer look at the situation. I suggested they might look at aspects of this experience from a new perspective that would dispel their fear of another kitchen crumb crisis. Here’s what we discussed.
What is The Most Important Kind of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not just a technique. It is a saving grace in all of our relationships. We talk about being mindful of our breath, of how we cut the carrots, of our posture. But the most important way we can practice mindfulness in relationships or in any other area of life, is being mindful that what we’re experiencing is not a solid reality. It’s an experience that we construct all day long, moment by moment.
But you can’t be mindful of what something isn’t. In order to understand that reality isn’t solid, you need to be mindful of what your everyday, apparently solid, reality actually is. It doesn’t help to lecture yourself, trying to convince yourself, “This world isn’t real. Everything’s an illusion.” That’s only adopting a belief. We exert mindfulness so that we can see the way things actually are, beyond our beliefs about them. So if our reality isn’t solid, then what is it?
REALITY: A Case Study
To do a case study of reality, we have to understand five kinds of choices we are constantly making. These choices determine our experience of life, every single day.
Choice #1. What we’re focusing on
The couple who came to see me after their fight were very focused on that dirty kitchen countertop. Even now, telling the story here in my office, they were focusing on the crumbs and grease. In this way, “dirty countertop” had become a solid reality for them — a reality they were carrying with them from place to place.
Choice #2. What we’re overlooking in our environment (our inner environment as well as our outer environment)
At that point I circled my finger around the corner of my desktop, asking the husband, “What do you think would have happened if you had drawn attention to a clean area of the countertop and said, ‘But honey, look how nice this part looks!'”? They both laughed. Then I ran my finger along the side of my desk and said, “And honey, look how clean this part of the cabinet is!” Then they really cracked up.
Choice #3. The value we’re giving to the things we notice
Pointing out these silly examples helped them notice that (a) they had a choice about what to focus on, and (b) they had a choice about what to give importance to. They got a powerful look at how dramatically our experience can change when we exercise our power to make these choices consciously, rather than reacting to what seems to be a solid, unforgiving reality.
The beliefs we’re holding about how things work in the world
They began to appreciate the laughter and freedom of changing their perspective about external reality. In particular, the husband saw that he had been holding a belief (internal reality) that if his wife said something critical, he was required to take it personally and feel bad about himself. Now he realized, with great good humor, that taking her words personally was an entirely ridiculous activity.
Choice #5. What we perceive our choices to be
I asked him to imagine walking over to his wife while she was complaining about the dirty countertop, and giving her a big hug, looking her in the eye and saying, “I’m so glad you got home safely. May I have this dance?” and sweeping her into a waltz. They both found this image extremely delightful! We continued to play with other possible choices of things they could say and do in this situation. Soon they began to understand how important it is to stay mindful that better choices are always available to us.
By practicing mindfulness, we remember more and more often our power:
* to choose what to focus on
* to notice what we may be overlooking (inside and outside ourselves)
* to change the value we’re placing on whatever we’re noticing
* to examine the beliefs we’re engaging, to see whether they fit
* to set aside our default reactions and look for better choices
With mindful awareness of all of these aspects of our experience, we can change any seemingly solid, irritating “reality” into an opportunity for playfulness and warmth. As you get better and better at practicing mindfulness in relationships, you’ll find that you look at your life much more creatively. This creative, playful outlook will help you make better choices in every other areas of your life as well!