The Mindful Mediator Want to confuse Google? Search for “Mediation and Mindfulness.” The search engine won’t even ask if you made a mistake – it will assume one and include “Meditation and Mindfulness” results. But what would it look like to apply the practice of mindfulness to the practice of mediation?
Being present is one of the most important skills a mediator can develop. We must remain present to the parties, present to their emotions, and present to their stories. It is this presence that allows us to actively listen and assist the parties in exploring possible solutions to their conflict. We, as mediators, must also remain neutral both to the parties and to the outcome.
Mindfulness meditation is, at its most basic, a kind of neutral presence. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Paying Attention "On Purpose" To do something “on purpose” means to do it intentionally. To pay attention intentionally during a mediation means to focus on the parties to the conflict – their words, but also, perhaps more importantly, the emotional content of those words and their body language. All of this communicates important information to the attentive mediator. These cues are the signposts for underlying needs and interests, the building blocks of any possibility of resolution.
Paying Attention "In The Present Moment" In meditation, there is often a focus, such as the breath, that is the entry point into the present moment. The meditator focuses on the in/out breaths. When her mind wanders, as it inevitably does, she returns to the breath. It is this practice of returning to the breath that is at the heart of the practice of breath meditation. Success is not measured by how well one focuses on the breath, but how adept one becomes at spotting one’s focus drifting from the breath and gently returning focus to it.
At a mediation, of course, our task is not to close our eyes and focus on our breath. Rather, the “present moment” of the mediation is the conversation happening between the parties. We mediators are active participants in this conversation as well, guiding it in productive directions when it gets off track, providing valuable summarization that allows parties to hear and feel heard, and asking pertinent questions. For a mediator, to actively participate in the conversation is to pay attention “in the present moment.”
Paying Attention "Nonjudgmentally" Nonjudgmental attention to thought is perhaps the hardest and most important aspect of mindfulness meditation. In meditation, “nonjudgmental” means allowing thoughts to occur and pass by without attaching a judgment to them, without labeling those thoughts as “good” or “bad” or “useful” or “stupid” or any other labels we may have. It also means not getting caught up in the thought, not allowing it to take you away from the present moment, not telling stories about the thoughts. When a meditator catches herself telling stories or following thoughts down the rabbit holes of planning, rumination, or worry, she brings herself back to the present moment by returning attention to the breath. The practice of meditation is the practice of returning to the present moment.
In mediation, too, being nonjudgmental is one of the most difficult and important tasks. As mediators, we are supposed to be neutral to the parties, the outcome, the “facts.” We are always engaged in a process of practicing neutrality. As human beings, of course, it’s nearly impossible to perfectly suspend judgment, but we are asked to do our best in this regard. This requires refraining from labeling parties’ behavior in the conflict as “good” or “bad,” etc. and refraining from telling stories of our own by making assumptions about the parties or their reasons for behavior. Thus, the practice of nonjudgment, or neutrality, for mediators is about constantly reminding ourselves to be present with the parties and their reality. This means testing our understanding of their reality with curious questions and not assuming we know the answers already.
Takeaway At first glance, mediation and meditation may not appear to have much in common other than their search-engine-confusing spelling similarity. But upon closer inspection, mediators may, in fact, benefit from adopting a meditative mindset. In other words, paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, may be a skill that mediators as well meditators want to cultivate. In fact, applying the practice of mindfulness to the practice of mediation might look a lot like mediation already does—but the practice of mindfulness could further sharpen our focus and our ability to move smoothly through the maelstroms that mediation can sometimes become.