A couple of years ago, we found ourselves at “The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain” conference, which featured neuroscience expert Dan Siegel and noted Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. We’re long-time couples therapists and were attending because we were interested in the insights that neurobiology is bringing to the practice of psychotherapy, but we weren’t really attracted to the “wise heart” and “meditation” part. We knew that various forms of meditation had become wildly popular as adjuncts to psychotherapy over the past decade or so, but we’d never done it ourselves—like many on-the-go practitioners, we’d concluded that we just didn’t have time for a meditative practice. Besides, we weren’t sure that it was relevant to our own work with couples. So we were prepared to wait out the meditation part of the program in order to gather the gold nuggets of neurobiological insights.
Most of the first day had focused on the well-known benefits of meditation: it can help people become calmer, less reactive and defensive, more open, receptive, and compassionate to themselves and others. But the real revelations for us came when Siegel launched into his explanation of the evolutionary and neurobiological implications of mindfulness practice. We learned, for example, the mechanism by which one of the most common of all mindfulness exercises—focusing on the breath—calms and soothes people.
As Siegel explained it, the human brain evolved as an “anticipation machine,” constantly scanning the environment for threats in order to increase the probability of survival. Early humans were able to relax only when the environment looked and felt extremely safe. The challenge for many of us in our 21st-century lifestyles is that we’ve forgotten—or never learned—how to turn off this danger-scanning process. Mindfulness practice can provide a way of doing just that. When you focus on the breath coming in, you can safely anticipate that the next breath will go out, which will be followed by “in,” and then “out.” Breathing is predictable, so life at that moment becomes predictable and safe.
During meditation, when random thoughts enter awareness, you name them—“What am I doing for dinner tonight?” “I wonder why my boss doesn’t like me”—and let them go, without judgment. Then you return your focused attention to the predictable pattern of breath after breath after breath. You follow this procedure over and over again. Turning away from the “outside” world and focusing “in-close” on breathing calms the limbic system, the brain’s alarm center, creating a sense of sanctuary in the middle of the storm.
We also learned that focusing on a sensory motor action that predicts what Siegel called the “immediate-next-of-now”—like breathing—activates the middle prefrontal cortex, the executive part of the brain. This area, he said, is critical to the kind of emotional states and behaviors that all therapists strive to evoke with their clients: attuned communication, emotional balance, fear modulation, response flexibility, insight, empathy, body regulation, moral judgment, and intuition. Siegel referred to these integrative states of mind as “The Magic Nine.”
One brain mechanism that appears central to experiencing The Magic Nine is the firing of the much-celebrated mirror neurons, which can make us “intuit” what other people are about to do. As pioneering brain researchers first discovered some years ago, when humans, monkeys, and presumably other animals see others doing something that predicts the next behavior, the “immediate-next-of-now,” the mirror neurons fire and cause the activation of the prefrontal cortex as if they themselves were performing the action. For example, when a monkey watches a researcher, or another monkey, peel a banana, the prefrontal cortex is activated in the observing monkey as if he, too, were about to eat a banana. Similarly, if you watch someone lift a bottle of water to her mouth, the mirror neurons fire and activate the prefrontal cortex just as if you were taking a drink; indeed, watching the action might even make you feel thirsty. So when we become calmly attuned to another person, that person will likely become calm and attuned to us.
It was halfway through the second day of the conference that we had a eureka experience. Suddenly, Francine leaned over and whispered, “Oh my God, what we’ve been doing with couples over the past 20 years is a form of mindful meditation!” A similar light bulb went off in my head.
On that day, hearing mindfulness practice discussed in a way we’d never heard before, we began to see a connection between what mindful meditation practice is trying to achieve, and what we hope to accomplish with the couples we see in therapy. During times of high tension—like your average marital fight—as emotions escalate, partners typically react in anger and fear, doing damage to each other, themselves, and the relationship. In the Imago Relationship Therapy approach, which we use, the key to helping them prevent escalation is to teach them a slow and measured form of dialogue. It takes lots of coaching and practice, but we’ve observed over the years that couples who follow the Imago Dialogue protocol consistently feel safer and less reactive together, even during moments of conflict and mutual antagonism.
The more we thought about it, the more it seemed to us that this dialogical practice might be conferring on couples some of the same benefits as meditation—Siegel’s Magic Nine, in fact. The big difference, of course, is that two people are engaging with each other in doing this protocol. When most people meditate, they’re still essentially meditating alone, even if they do it with other people in an ashram and benefit from the communal energy. What seems distinctive about the Imago Dialogue is that it brings mindful meditation directly into “reciprocal relational practice”: each partner is, in effect, focusing on the other’s words in a nonjudgmental manner, rather than on the breath or on a mantra. This relational meditative process can develop so much safety that both partners can allow themselves to feel more fully vulnerable in each other’s presence.
At this conference, we recognized that, without realizing it, we’d been teaching couples to replicate the “immediate-next-of-now” experience. Instead of focusing on the in-and-out of their own breath, however, they concentrated on each other and, during the dialogue, engaged in a formalized process of mutually mirroring each other, creating safety by engaging in predictable behaviors. Using the Imago Dialogue, a couple does three things: mirror (accurately repeat to the speaker what was said until he or she feels safe and deeply listened to); validate (let the speaker know that what’s being said is clear, that the perspective being articulated is valuable, and that it makes sense); and empathize (try to take the position of the other and to convey the feelings that he or she is experiencing).