Mindfulness is something which tends to be thought of as a solitary state, something we cultivate individually rather than in combination with others. It accompanies the act of meditation or a quiet walk alone in the countryside.

But mindfulness can also play an important role in the ways we conduct our relationships, particularly our relationships with those we are closest to. Help in understanding what a mindful relationship might be like, is provided by couples therapist Harvell Hendrix in his well-known self-help book, Getting the Love You Want.

Although he doesn’t use the term ‘mindfulness’, Hendrix draws a distinction between what he calls the unconscious partnership and the conscious partnership.

Where as in an unconscious partnership we are driven thoughtlessly by instincts and emotions that derive from our past, often meaning we default to childhood responses when differences develop between us, in a conscious partnership we take control over those emotions and conduct ourselves in a more self-aware, considered, and caring way.

For Hendrix the unconscious partnership is one which we go through ‘as if we were asleep, engaging in routine interactions that give us little pleasure’. In a conscious partnership on the other hand we are awake to the pleasures, possibilities, comforts and rewards that a long-term relationship can bring.

Being ‘awake’ in the way described here, as opposed to sleepwalking through life, is exactly what mindfulness is all about. The self-help exercises Hendrix offers for couples in his book can be useful in building a more mindful attitude towards one another and to the ways we conduct our partnerships.

  • Julian & Michaela

The self-help industry has latched onto mindfulness in a big way. Numerous books and now even magazines devote themselves to the topic and trumpet its benefits.

This is no bad thing. We ourselves are strong advocates of mindfulness approaches as a means to help with a range of psychological problems such as anxiety, stress, depression and also relationships.

However, there are a number of ways in which this recent surge of enthusiasm can be misleading, and can diminish the richness of what is in actual fact a long-established practice.

Firstly it can give the impression that mindfulness is a magic cure for all ills. While it can help in many ways, this impression risks overlooking the practical challenges that the actual practice of mindfulness involves.

Mindfulness is grounded, whether we like it or not, in the regular practice of meditation, and this involves a level of self-discipline and commitment which can be difficult to achieve in our busy, driven, media saturated modern world.

Secondly, the amount of literature being generated implies that it is a complicated topic which needs much unravelling. But while the practice may be challenging, the basic concept and technique is really beautifully simple - even if unfamiliar to our modern Western sensibility.

Thirdly, and leading on from the above, the concept of mindfulness originates in the East, or more particularly in the teachings of Buddhism, something that often goes unacknowledged.

It can be helpful to extract what is a psychologically helpful practice from its religious context, which may put off some people. However, this does detract from the richness of the practice by neglecting its spiritual and moral dimensions, reducing it to a skill or a technique.

For Buddhists it is far more than that, being part of a means for achieving spiritual enlightenment and a deeper appreciation of the world and of the universe. It is a practice or a way of life, which Buddhist monks for many thousands of years have spent their whole lives cultivating.

This doesn't mean it can't have huge benefits for us in the West, but the challenges of mindfulness and its deeper riches need to be taken into account and respected if it is not to become just another passing fad.

We will come back to this topic in future blogs.

The importance of relationships with family and friends is perhaps being overlooked at the moment in the rush to get people back to work and the economy up and running.

Newspaper columnist Sonia Sodha argues that although it is necessary to secure people’s incomes, more consideration should be given to the need for contact between family members and close friends who have been kept apart by the lockdown.

While economic hardship is a primary cause of mental stress, personal relationships also play a key role in our emotional wellbeing and should be taken more into account in the decisions being made about easing the lockdown.

‘In England,’ she writes, ‘ministers have decided to allow an incremental increase in the number of people we come into contact with, and appear to have prioritised economic over social contacts, encouraging people to return to work before allowing them to socialise in multi-household “bubbles”’.

This also goes for the opening of retail and catering businesses which inevitably encourages gatherings of people, while tight restrictions on meetings between households are being maintained.

The argument here is not about opening the lockdown floodgates but where our priorities lie. Is it more important to be able to pay a trip to your local hardware store, garden centre or café, or to see your sister, brother, son, daughter, grandchildren, parents or other close relatives?