Mindfulness has become popular as a way to counter the stress of everyday life. Mediation is also catching on as a way to minimize the suffering, both human and financial, that can accompany a divorce or other conflict.
Mindfulness and mediation are very different. Mindfulness is most often considered a silent, solitary practice aimed at self-development. Mediation involves conversations between the spouses and a mediator with the aim of reaching an amicable and well-informed divorce settlement. But there are some parallels.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is probably the person most associated with the spread of mindfulness in the West. He defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment.” I break this down below.
In mindfulness, the practitioner’s work is to pay attention to what is happening now. This includes both internally (such as one’s breathing or thoughts) and externally (such as the surrounding sounds).
In mediation the same is true. A mediator should pay close attention to what is happening externally and internally. In fact, self-awareness is at the core of a good mediator’s skillset. During the course of a mediation, the mediator and the participants experience all sorts of thoughts and feelings. Only some of this internal activity is desirable or helpful. But it does arise and it helps to notice it without being swept away by it. In order to pay attention to another person effectively, we need to pay some attention to ourselves.
Divorce mediation (and mediation in general) is based on the idea that the parties are best placed to handle their own conflict, given the right environment and support.
The mediator works to create these supportive conditions by paying careful attention to the spouses, asking questions and reflecting back information and observations which may be helpful. Through this support, the spouses can hopefully relax and gain new understandings and perspectives on the choices available to them.
In the present moment
In both mediation and mindfulness, being aware in the present moment involves letting go of feelings, thoughts and events that occurred in the past and remaining open to what is arising now. If the practitioner or participant gets attached to a feeling, thought or event, the quality of their awareness deteriorates. They become less able to focus on the present and their judgment can suffer as regards what is best for the future.
Unlike a judge or arbitrator, a mediator’s task is not to judge who is right or what should be done to resolve the issues at hand. Instead the mediator aims to be a non-judgmental, supportive presence. A good mediator works hard to do this and to remain impartial. This helps the spouses have the strength, clarity and wisdom to work out good solutions together.
It’s also very helpful if the spouses can try to understand and empathize with each other’s present situation. A blaming or resentful mindset based on experiences in the past gets in the way of moving forward effectively.
Summary – Mediation and Mindfulness
In both mediation and mindfulness, the process works best when the participant(s) consciously choose to pay attention to what is happening in each moment, without becoming attached to particular feelings, thoughts or positions. Then stress and conflict can be reduced, both internally and for all involved.
Of course it is no mean feat to cultivate this kind of non-attached attentiveness. It can take lots (even years) of practice. But it allows us to be really present for each other and the tasks at hand. This is more satisfying and helpful than being too fixed in our concerns or emotionally reactive with each other.