How Mindfulness Can Make A Terrible Conversation Worthwhile

It was a beautiful day for a hike up to the Hollywood sign. One of my favorite features of living in L.A. is being able to take long walks in the hills. You’re instantly transported from the grind of the city to the stillness of the mountains. I love taking these walks with friends; because L.A. is so spread out, it can be hard to connect with the people you enjoy spending time with.

So there we were, my friend and I, in a near bucolic setting, winding our way up to that iconic L.A. symbol. What could be better? Well, as it happened, on this particular day, my friend was in a completely foul mood. She was still smarting from an exchange she'd had with a family member, and she spoke about it heatedly as we walked. She had a lot to say. Huffing it up the hill, I took in the beautiful vista with one part of my mind and heard her ranting with another. The dissonance started to take it’s toll. I was getting aggravated.

As my friend continued on, I thought to myself, “I could have walked alone today. Then I wouldn’t be stuck here listening to this.” “I could be anyone. I’m just a big ear to her.” “What a waste of time. Why do I always get myself in this position?” And so on. I dutifully made some attempts to interject, give perspective and soften her mood, but she was caught in the pain of her experience and she just couldn’t hear me.

We made it all the way up to the Hollywood sign in this mode and we were heading back down when I finally made a decision. Since she wasn’t able to hear me, I would start listening to myself. I split my attention, placing some of it on hearing her and some of it on the area of my body where I feel emotional reactions most strongly.

Using my mindfulness skills, I stopped hearing what she was saying and started listening to the place it was coming from. I heard the anger and hurt without trying to make sense of it, just staying present with it. I also did my best to become clear about what was happening inside me, moment by moment. I was surprised by what I found. I expected irritation and frustration. But immediately, what I discovered was fear.

I realized that even though my friend’s anger wasn’t directed at me, I was reacting as though it was. On the surface all I could contact was my annoyance. It wasn’t until I took a moment to check in that I got in contact with a more vulnerable part of myself.

Then I began to see that I couldn’t effectively comfort my friend until I'd taken time to comfort myself. So I stayed with the fear. I gave myself compassion. I held it in my awareness as we walked. I had the sense of caring for a confused, frightened, childlike part of myself. The part of myself that had been in this position many times before. Only now, I was finally able to give this part of myself what it needed, just through recognizing it.

Within minutes I felt a shift in my friend. She fell silent. Then, out of nowhere, she expressed gratitude to me for listening to her. I was truly amazed. I'd done what I needed to do for myself, and something about it had struck a silent chord. We had a beautiful, inspiring conversation for the rest of the walk.

Friendships need to feel balanced, and it’s important to know how to set boundaries. But it’s equally important to know how to truly take care of ourselves, so we can be more available to our friends when they’re struggling. Sometimes it’s appropriate to take a step back when situations feel toxic, but sometimes there’s a way to remain open to a greater sense of shared humanity. Sometimes we have no choice in the matter. Mindfulness helps us find the right medicine, whatever the occasion.

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