by Michael W. Taft
I used to have a hard time relating to people. As a bald-headed punk, my personality was so intense that my friends jokingly nicknamed me “Toxic Mike.” I felt that I was different from everyone, and that the world was sort of out to get me.
That was almost thirty years ago now, and since then the practice of meditation has really turned around my relationships with others. I connect with people and feel a lot of joy in their presence. Meditation can help you make friends, and love people more deeply. People often find this a bit hard to believe: how can sitting alone and silent in a room help you with friendships? It seems like it would be detrimental, but actually the opposite is the case. This is where some of the latest scientific research into the effects of mindfulness can give us a solid empirical basis for something that meditators have noticed anecdotally for centuries.
Connecting with Yourself, Connecting with Others
When you practice mindfulness meditation on your internal environment, such as meditating on body sensations, you are learning to focus awareness on yourself. The more you do this, the more refined, deep, and broad your ability to monitor your internal environment becomes. And this has a really interesting effect: according to researcher Sara Lazar, PhD, it actually grows your prefrontal cortex—the area of your brain that is responsible for (among other things) the capacity to feel empathy for others. Just like lifting weights bulks up your muscles, meditation bulks up your prefrontal cortex, which means you become better at tuning into other people, and knowing (or at least making much better guesses about) what they’re feeling and thinking.
The second area of the brain that beefs up when doing mindfulness meditation is known as the insular cortex, or the insula. Your brain actually has a pair of them, one in each hemisphere. The insula is what allows you to feel the internal sensations of your body, a capacity known as interoception. As the insulae get bigger over time, your ability to tune into your own emotional sensations gets more acute. One of the side effects of this is that you get better in touch with you intuition. But—and this is really paradoxical—it also makes you better at knowing what other people are feeling. Check out this video where I describe exactly how that works.
And that is how you make, cultivate, and keep friendships and relationships. Being able to tune into your partner or your friend is what it’s all about. When you tune into yourself during meditation, you’re learning to tune into a person (you) and that skill translates into being able to tune into any person. Mindfulness meditation helps you become your own best friend, and teaches you how to become a good friend to others.
Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness
So tune into yourself in meditation, get yourself a healthy mind, and then go out and create some healthy relationships with the people around you. With your emotional intelligence and mindfulness, life won’t be perfect, of course, but you will notice that you are the cause of less friction and fighting, and more love and laughter than before. Less toxic, and more helpful. This is how sitting alone in a room quietly observing your own body sensations can actually make the world a better place.