Meditation Can Be an Intimate Affair
The oversaturation of topics in our mainstream can cause valuable information to go in one
ear and out the other. Unfortunately, meditation as a suggestion for mental, emotional and spiritual health may fall into the category of overhyped.
As a clinician working with individuals exclusively, I often encourage mindfulness, deep breathing and meditative practices to support a number of therapeutic goals. Meditation comes in many forms, but generally speaking it is an intentional practice of bringing our conscious awareness to our inner experience. The scientific research behind the benefits of mediation is staggering, but the positive outcomes do not need to be limited to the individual. Meditation can be an intimate affair - we often think of meditation as a solo practice, but the regulatory benefits can extend far beyond the individual.
What parts of the brain and body are affected when we meditate?
Meet the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC)- the mPFC is located above our eyes and behind our forehead and according to psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk it is the “center of self-awareness”, (van der Kolk, 2014, p.208). The mPFC plays an intricate role in our ability to proceed objectively when considering and observing thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This portion of our brain assists us in determining the distinct differences between our emotional state and the emotional state of others. This can be helpful when working on implementing or maintaining emotional boundaries between yourself and your partner as well as promoting emotional regulation. The mPFC can support conscious decision making and utilizes the rational brain. According to Bessel van der Kolk, “the executive capacities of the prefrontal cortex enable people to observe what is going on, predict what will happen if they take certain action and make a conscious choice” (van der Kolk, 2014, p.62). Mindfulness practices such as yoga and specifically meditation directly strengthen the mPFC.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates involuntary processes such as your heart rate, digestion, respiration and even sexual arousal. Two subdivisions of the ANS are of particular interest: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic being the pilot of the “fight or flight” response, while the opposing parasympathetic controls the rest and digest functions of the ANS. Living in an elevated or even sub elevated “fight or flight” state can result in symptoms of hypervigilance, anxiety, depressed mood, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating and can ultimately affect our ability to connect socially or with an intimate partner. Meditation allows our physiology to de-activate the sympathetic and down shift into the parasympathetic process. In a nutshell, it allows your nervous system time and space to rest and regulate.
Co-regulation and nervous system lending
The most amazing part about our inner equilibrium is not only that we can intentionally create the time and space to make this change for ourselves, but we can lend our nervous system to others. You might have heard of the concept of skin-to-skin contact between an infant and a caregiver soon after birth. This process is beneficial for many reasons, but one of particular significance is for the regulation of the infant and mothers ANS. The brain and body are communicating all the time, long before our verbal or conscious processes are activated. A recent study conducted by neuroscientist Tania Singer showed that while solo mediation resulted in calmer states in study volunteers, the participants cortisol levels (a stress hormone) still appeared to be mixed. However, results following the volunteer’s participation in partnered face to face meditations, in addition to solo meditations showed a fifty one percent decrease in cortisol levels. You can read more about the study here.
The bottom line is that mediation not only has many benefits for individual health but can also be used as a co-regulatory practice to strengthen self-awareness while improving connection and attunement to your partner.
Give this partnered meditation a try!
First choose your favorite guided mediation – you can find these on YouTube or check out the app store on your phone for a plethora of mediation apps. You can also opt for silent mediation or simply use soothing music for this exercise. Use this opportunity to communicate with your partner and decide what option works best for you. If you’re new to meditation, you may want to start with a ten-minute session to get accustomed to the experience. If choosing the silent meditation option, don’t forget to set an alarm for your intended time.
Before beginning the meditation, you’ll also want to decide on partner positioning. You can sit side by side, back-to-back or even face to face. Feel free to let your knee’s touch if using the face to face or side by side positioning. If you and your partner are back-to-back, use good posture and be sure to have back firmly pressed against one another. An important side note: being this close to your partner for this type of exercise may be overwhelming for some, and that’s ok! You can even begin partnered meditations in separate rooms - whatever feels safe and comfortable for your nervous system. Be gentle and allow yourself to slowly work toward your partner over a series of weeks.
Finally, you’ll bring yourself into a comfortable seated position. Your legs can be crossed or have your feet firmly planted into the floor. Allow your hands to rest gently in your lap or on the tops of your legs with palms facing up.
Close your eyes and begin a series of deep belly breaths - you should feel your lower belly rise and fall with these breaths. I like for clients to begin with this series as a jump start parasympathetic engagement. You will want to begin by breathing in for a count of five, hold the breath for a count of five and breathe out for a count of ten (if possible). Repeat this cycle four times before allowing your breath to return to a normal rhythmic state.
Allow yourself to soften into your breath and gently bring your focus back to your breath each time your thoughts drift. Side note: Your thoughts will drift- it is completely normal to expect this! According to Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, it is the process of bringing your focus back to your breath (after it drifts) that strengthens the prefrontal cortex. So, don’t be so hard on yourself if you drift off – this is to be expected and it’s lending to the process of strengthening your focus and concentration.
Try to incorporate this practice 3- 5 times weekly with your partner to enjoy a co-regulated reset!
van der Kolk, B.A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin Books.
Jamie Falco is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Enhancing Intimacy Counseling. Jamie is an individual therapist working with people seeking to understand themselves, so that they can live life more authentically. If you're interested in scheduling counseling with Jamie, you can call the office at 512-994-2588 or schedule online.