Interactive Mindfulness

children© 2014 Roy Holland

Mindfulness, an event which occurs when our attention is consciously focused, originated in Eastern meditation practices. Marlatt and Kristeller described it as “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”.

We experience mindfulness when we are separate from others and relating alone with our self, however mindfulness has an additional relational component when we are engaged in interaction with others.

Interactive Mindfulness, a communication tool that brings thinking to Attachment Theory, is a complete experience in which each person’s processes are integrated and appear to occur at the same time. The practice of Interactive Mindfulness requires conscious effort and focus, is intentionally reciprocal, and can become a significant aspect of our parenting.

Essentially, our cognitive emotional (thinking feeling) experience is combined with the cognitive emotional experience of another person, which allows access to the experience each of us has to the other in an event we refer to as a relational cognitive emotional experience.

The key is for us to be mindful of the other person, and for the other person to be mindful of us.


As our family begins to form a relationship that is mindful in which we learn to celebrate each other’s differences and conflicting needs, we exercise awareness, acceptance, to permit access and move interactions with other family members towards curiosity, affinity, and proximity. It is our curiosity about our child’s process that provides a way in.

When we are mindful in relation to our child’s process, we will be led by their process, and may be given access by the child, which is an experience of reciprocity. This step can lead both of us to share in each other’s process, which can be a satisfying and healing event. Within that pattern of parenting, what is important is the meaning under what we do. In other words, it is how we ‘be’.

A guiding feature of the early stages of this reciprocal interaction is having respect for, and acceptance of, our child’s process, and the language that we use to build trust.

Sometimes it is necessary for us to ‘take a step back’, respectful of our child’s process. Often when we take a step back without imposing our own process, they experience that we perceive their process as valid.

In order not to impose our process, we must be terribly self-aware, because whenever we are engaged in an interaction with another person, our own process is engaged.

The process of Interactive Mindfulness requires us to be flexible in our thinking. It is useful to learn about ourselves, but even being mindful does not allow us to be able to know other people too, since being able to know other people requires us to be free from unconscious judgment, while forming a capacity for conscious judgment.


Whether we are alone thinking about another person or we are in company, awareness of the reality of the other person engages a process of curiosity. Curiosity results whether we become aware of each other as family members, friends, acquaintances, or intimates, and it activates our affective system. We are alert to possible consequences, and we seek information to guide how we might respond.

Focusing awareness on someone creates a reciprocal act of awareness and a reciprocal curiosity. In our mutual curiosity we assess the other person’s intent. Do we welcome them? Are they a threat?

Imagine you are a mother arriving at the rink to pick up your daughter from her hockey practice, and walking towards you is a peer of your daughter’s, and based on your judgment she is not someone you would choose as a friend for your child. As the girl approaches, your awareness of her heightens, and you are curious about her, since your daughter has arranged for the girl to spend the night at your house. The girl comes near and you make eye contact. She says, “Hi” and stands beside you. Interactive Mindfulness results; facilitated by mutual curiosity, fuelled by awareness.You ask if she has been waiting a long time. She shrugs, takes out her iPhone, and scans it self-consciously. You stand together, not speaking.Your daughter emerges from the locker room and greets her friend. The girls chatter and you observe their easy rapport.

You ask your daughter if she has all of her gear. She nods in reply.

Instantly each individual makes a psychological decision predicting the other person’s immediate behaviour. Whether the decision is conscious or not depends on mindfulness. Usually the reaction happens quickly and automatically, given our past experience of such interactions. Each person signals whether or not they will relate with the other, and anticipates an outcome.

When we use awareness curiosity in a conscious parenting pattern, we act from our intention rather than automaticity or habit, and we maintain our awareness with this intention. Our response to the awareness of the other person becomes predicted by this intention. To do this we need to be aware of our automaticity and avoid its control of our intention. Then our use of awareness curiosity becomes deliberate, creating an element of potential relationship.


Complimentary to awareness curiosity is acceptance affinity. We have a standard of acceptance of the other person, based on our personal experience. Acceptance is hierarchical in that we have a relational hierarchy – family, intimates, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, and our awareness and curiosity have an established hierarchy of comfort. In general, the more our awareness curiosity is satisfied, that is the more information we acquire, the better prediction of acceptance we can decide on. We expect what has already happened will determine what is likely to happen.

We use acceptance in this way without a focused intention, but in a general way in order to preserve and protect our relationship and ourselves.

Using acceptance in a conscious pattern of parenting demands that we ‘take a step back’ from our habitual use of it and bring it to intention. Deliberate use of affinity in this context is a conscious act.

To support this act as a genuine affinity, rather than a feigned one, requires us to have knowledge of our personal use of acceptance. This allows for us the possibility of offering to others unqualified respect of their life experiences notwithstanding their life choices.

Without acceptance affinity we cannot further the relationship.

You make a deliberate and conscious decision to accept closeness to the girl and explore your relationship further, despite your earlier reluctance, because of the relationship between the girl and your daughter. The opposite response would be, “I don’t want anything to do with this girl”.

In a conscious pattern of parenting you are aware that there are choices, and you choose acceptance because the girl is your daughter’s friend, and you hold respect for your daughter’s friendships. This decision is made mindfully, in the hope that your decision to offer acceptance affinity to the girl will support her to be reciprocal and return the affinity towards you. In doing this you will have excited the girl’s mindfulness.

You smile at the girl and tell her you are pleased she will be spending the night at your house.

The process of acceptance requires a reciprocal experience of regard. You see that you can exercise affinity in these circumstances because you sense a theme of familiarity. You don’t know if the affinity is reciprocal, however.

Awareness curiosity causes the individual to make eye contact. You smile, and the smile is returned.

Acceptance affinity begins with a skill, being conscious of the decision to use it while questioning our personal hierarchical structure. That is, our personal belief about who is safe and worthy when offering acceptance affinity. We need to see all individuals as having equal worth regardless of their differences from us.

Happy family walking with dog in the forestACCESS – PROXIMITY – ACCESS

Complimentary to awareness curiosity and acceptance affinity is access proximity.

When you smiled at the girl and welcomed her to spend the night at your home, you deliberately practiced access proximity. This is an extremely powerful method to further deepen a relationship. It represents a psychological process while experiencing a direct behaviour. When consciously used, it can be tolerated to a level appropriate to each participant. In common with other elements of relationship building, access proximity is a process rather than an event.

Using access proximity in a deliberate way creates a basic support structure for interaction. In fact, without an established base built on proximity, no relationship can develop.

Thus in relationship, proximity is always an issue and a balance must be achieved. Many behaviours flow from attempts to maintain this balance.

As you stand with your daughter and the girl you notice the iPhone in the girl’s hand, and it has taken her attention from you to its vibration. This represents a form of access proximity behaviour. As the girl texts on her phone, you say, “I’d like to treat you girls to a hot chocolate at the rink.” You are in the girl’s company, and you move to share some time with the girl and your daughter, to create a sense of something in common.

You now decide how to manage the access proximity process in the moment. Establishing balance in access proximity is the goal you have set concerning the girl, your daughter, yourself, and the iPhone. Over time, sets of social expectations have established normative ‘rules’ or hierarchies in how balance can be struck. Unconsciously and habitually we follow these norms, often quite unaware we are doing so. The process is visible behaviourally as your daughter, the girl, and you are engaged in setting your personal balance of access proximity.

How you have experienced this process in the past predicts how you will do it now.

While proximity is needed to form a relationship, not everyone trusts the process as being benign or supportive. To some, access proximity signals vulnerability. Too much demand can stop the process in its tracks and reverse it. It is difficult for us to see what others see when they see us. Balance between proximity and distance is the method we use.


Relationships are continuous active processes, and information is the fuel for dynamism in relationship. To achieve balance requires seeking information in order to structure and stabilize in a mutual way. Exploration mutuality moves us towards this goal. When exploration mutuality comes from a secure base, balance can be achieved, creating a common narrative of the experience of the relationship. The development of a narrative in common facilitates the growing mutuality of the process.

Using exploration mutuality as a parental skill requires mindfulness to overcome our automaticity.

Effective use of exploration mutuality requires us to consciously attend to the interactive nature of the process. We must attend to both an experience of its use, and balance that with our experience of what balance the other person has had. As always, achieving such a balance is an ongoing dynamic process that occurs relatively simultaneously with awareness curiosity, acceptance affinity, and access proximity.

Seeking and integrating new information can be unpleasant when we operate from an insecure or unsafe base. Our thinking feeling self may have unpleasant associations with exploration mutuality. Relationships in the past may have floundered on its use especially if exploration mutuality was unbalanced. We may have concluded, “I’m stupid”, in failure of exploration mutuality, and we may conclude, therefore, that new information can never be integrated, and therefore exploration mutuality is damaging.

The process is complex and each facet must be balanced. Because each part of the process is information feedback about each other part of the process, we can balance our process with that of our child.

The girl stops texting and she and your daughter exchange looks. They appear uncertain. You want to reduce the anxiety you are experiencing. You decide to use exploration mutuality. You ask if there were something else they would like to do. The girls confer and say they’d like to go to a coffee shop somewhere else. You suggest the popular coffee shop in the mall. You are able now to add to the narrative and carry it forward using exploration mutuality. The relationship is progressive.


Withdrawal separation is an essential tool. You know on initiation of the relationship that withdrawal separation is inevitable, and that it models on healthy functioning. Each time you initiate an opportunity for further deepening of the relationship it must be matched by withdrawal separation at the end of the contact. While the length of separation withdrawal intensifies its threat to the relationship, shorter periods of withdrawal separation help each person to build his or her competency in being separate.

Developmentally we experience various degrees of use of withdrawal separation at each life stage. Babies are weaned and sent to sleep in their own beds. Toddlers go to day care and then school; older children visit relatives, have sleepovers, and go to camp. Teenagers work and play away from home and build new fields of attachment experience with peers. Young adults marry and leave home. Mature adults seek to repeat the cycle and they finally assist their parents to old age and death. At each stage, the behaviour exhibited in withdrawal separation might differ, but the process is universal.

As the moments pass, filtration of the degree of safety in the relationship is an issue. We strive for balance. A method to balance ‘felt security’ in the relationship demands a method of withdrawal separation.

At this point, a relationship can easily lose reciprocity, and rather than achieving balance, the relationship may stumble on any of the participants’ past experiences. As one member withdraws, the other member’s experience of it depends on their personal narrative around separation.

Finding balance is the key. The opposite approach to denial of the need for withdrawal separation is to avoid it by refusing to initiate or use, allaying even the short-term use of it. Effective in the moment, the use of separation withdrawal provides a template for longer-term use.

On the way to the car the girls chatter with shared experience and context and you walk behind them. You feel a rising sense of anxiety. You’re not sure of the previous experiences of curiosity, affinity, and proximity exploration in the present moment. It appears to you that these processes have stopped focusing on you and now are focused elsewhere. You make a conscious decision to separate yourself from their conversation, and ‘take a step back’. After a few minutes your daughter stops walking, turns to you, and says, “The coffee shop in the mall is a great idea, Mom.” Her friend nods at you and smiles.

Schedules within a family can create predictability, and allow balance between the need for separation and the need for connection. Interactive Mindfulness helps to actively and intentionally use natural normative breaks as you practice healthy separation. This skill is anti-intuitive to a degree. Trying for balance sometimes results in denial of the need for this skill.

The psychological experience of this process is multifaceted. Even, and especially, information sharing can provoke an experience in the recipient of withdrawal separation. Directly challenging the process of another person can be experienced as a threat. When the other person in a relationship perceives the lack of reciprocity their defense will often be withdrawal separation. We can address the lack of reciprocity by acknowledging it and pointing out that a difference doesn’t always need withdrawal separation as a response. Interactive Mindfulness can guide the process.

The ability to psychologically ‘take a step back’ is crucial.

Overuse of withdrawal can result in sundering of the relationship. Life processes demand the capacity for healthy withdrawal separation, as its experience is universal. We all eventually leave each other.


Relationship within the family can be described as the parenting bridge between people. This bridge quells the experience of being alone and vulnerable. In this sense connection is a soothing experience.

The reciprocal nature of these experiences allows for a deepening of the relationship, confirmation of the bridge, and presents a feeling of safety.

As this occurs, a feeling of trust in the other comes into the picture, and expectation of continued safety in the relationship.

However, like all mechanisms of relationship and attachment, balance is key. As the relationship deepens, previous experiences are replayed. If either participant has been disappointed or hurt in a failed relationship, expectations may arise that it will repeat in this one. Intense feelings may be accessed and drive the connection soothing experience. At this point, fear of the future may activate withdrawal separation.

Using connection soothing in a conscious pattern of parenting requires that Interactive Mindfulness come into play. Simultaneously the reciprocal nature of the experience must be appreciated. Awareness of our personal experience is required to maintain conscious intention of its use, informed by a reciprocal response from the other person. The skill is to balance the offer of connection soothing to the recipient.

The girls chat in the back seat on the way to the coffee shop in the mall. You overhear your daughter say to her friend, “I really miss you not being on the team anymore.” You jump into the conversation and ask, “Why aren’t you playing?” The girl becomes silent, and withdraws.Although she is still in the back seat of the car she is no longer in your company. You have lost proximity and affinity, and your curiosity is being misplaced.

At that point in time if you accept the girl’s withdrawal, the withdrawal actually leads to connection, because you stay in it with her.

You decide to remain conscious as the girl withdraws and texts on her phone, and you find that you are able to back away from your mistake of being inappropriately curious. You allow the girl to have proximity with you, without making any demands on her, and from this she has a sense that you have respect for her.

By remaining proximal without making demands on the girl you become a soothing presence, and you are able to explore the conflict between you with the use of affinity, proximity, and mutuality. You say, “I didn’t mean to probe and make you feel uncomfortable. I made a mistake. I was intrusive in my behaviour with you.”

In everyday interactions we employ the process of connection soothing repeatedly to stabilize our relationships. Usually this is done without analysis, simply relying on past experience to guide our decision-making, and it can be thought of as an offer of trust, safety, and regard.

Using connection soothing requires us to use the thinking part of our thinking feeling systems to inform its feeling side. Connection soothing is experienced in the moment primarily through the feeling side of the system. We integrate developmentally our thinking feeling system. The feeling side is our first and primary experience before the development of language thought.

Our earliest experiences are mediated through our senses and create ‘inner working models’ of that experience, pre-language. Infants’ brains are incredibly busy places as structures are built to store and manipulate experience. When the genetically predetermined structure is in place its content is mediated by experience. Feelings trump thinking because feeling predates thinking, and for continuity of self, feeling must persist, even in the face of developing cognition.

Feelings drive behaviour, even in the face of cognition. Insight is necessary to understand the need for change, but by itself insight is powerless to bring about change in the face of contrary feelings. The parent makes it tolerable to experience the feelings and consider their validity and reorder the value of those feelings using mindfulness cognition. In life these systems are fully integrated into one.

The balance is in play as we experience the world, but our genetic inheritance and experience determines the kind of balance achieved developmentally. This sets the skeleton of our attachment type that is relatively constant over time, as reported by Barholomew, Crittenden, and Ainsworth.


As we have said before, Attachment Theory can be seen as a theory of conflict. Inevitably, conflict is part of every relationship. We balance the needs of ourselves with the simultaneous needs of relationship partners. Using conflict reciprocity requires a mature integration of our cognitive affective process and executive functions of its control system.

We then can experience conflict across a continuum of competing needs. Conflict is experienced emotionally as threat – to the basis of relationship and to our sense of an acceptable self. Our inner experience, then, can be emotionally intense.

This reciprocal process in relationship can be used to strengthen and make safe the relationship, and can be used to strain the relationship if feelings are unchecked. The acceptance of this reality can lead to deliberate use of it to model conflict resolution skills. Reciprocal outcomes are then experienced as creating trust, co-operation, and mutuality with a growing intimacy.

This tool has significant power because attachment is basic to survival and reproduction.

You drive in silence and notice that the tension in the car has risen. Your daughter’s expression indicates she is experiencing conflict with you. You ask her if something is the matter and she says, “You shouldn’t have butted in.” You pull the car to the curb and reply, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that,” and say to the girl, “You have a right not to answer my question, and it doesn’t mean I can dismiss you, or have an argument with you, or mistreat you. It just means that we had a conflict, and you accept we had a conflict and I accept we had a conflict. I’d like to get to know you. I hope we can all get past this.”

Such an idealistic response requires a skilful use of conflict reciprocity. While you use a cognitive strategy, it requires confidence and mature control on your part.

We perform many of these interactions in every relationship in an automatic way. Whether we do this mindfully and with intention depends on our awareness. Using conflict reciprocity requires risk to the relationship – the balance is deepening the relationship vis-à-vis protecting our self. In parental relationships this intentional effort to create conflict reciprocity is the hallmark of successful parenting.

Promise of such intimacy, like all attachment efforts, is paradoxical, since you can pretend to promise safety and security of relationship. When we intentionally offer safety to our children we show them that we will preserve safe boundaries.

We must balance our needs with the needs of our child in a way that is fair and not exploitative or self-gratifying. Imposing a conflict resolution strategy that creates a winner/loser result is extremely damaging to the ‘loser’ whether in a parental conflict, a workplace conflict, and immeasurably so in any relationship that purports to be in the best interest of the loser.


Attuning successfully requires developing a skill set based on empathy, not projection. We develop in this skill set a capacity to set our internal conclusions about the world in contrast to the experiences of another. This complicated psychological process allows us to inform our projection into a view including and incorporating the experiences of another and allow an approximation of how that person has organized their experiences into their life view. Attunement allows the development of empathy, informing it as it widens and deepens the relationship.

This skill set is always in use but is usually below our awareness. To use it in a deliberate planned manner means finding a cognitive structure that uses feelings to reach the goal of empathy to another. It is helpful to see others as having equal value to our self thus seeing both our self and the other person worthy of empathy. The use of cognition to manage the feelings is critical.

The relationship process is furthered by attunement. As in the other relationship processes this action can nurture and develop, or paradoxically fail. The concept has a long history in Attachment Theory, being seen as a critical mechanism of nurturing the growth and experience of attachment. While attunement can be seen in concrete behaviour, it is unusually difficult to bring attunement to our conscious perception where we can use it in a deliberate or intentional way because it is done automatically a majority of the time.

You can ‘feel’ your own discomfort. You presume or project your discomfort onto the girl. You are convinced that the relationship, fragile as it is, is at risk of disruption. You are surprised when the girl attunes to you and says, “I’m okay.”The exchange in the car takes you and the girl to a different state. Now you and the girl have communication. You know a little bit about her, and she knows a little bit about you. The next time you see each other this shared experience will be the basis of your relationship.

This use of attunement highlights its use. When we attempt attunement through the projection of our experience onto another we may believe we are attuning with them and be quite wrong. We are attuning only with our self.

You respond to the girl’s attempt at empathy by attuning to her in the present. You say, “I’m a bit anxious that I might have upset you. ” The girl says, “No, I’m alright”, and you correct your projection as you experience her attunement to you. Your cognitive and affective control systems are now reset at a different balance point in the continuum.


Questions, supported by what are now verbal signs of interest, become more intimate and insistent.

At the coffee shop, the girl, now comfortable in your presence and you in hers, offers further verbal and non-verbal inquiry to you. When she learns that you play hockey on a women’s league, she asks if you have ever had a disagreement with your coach.

Having reached the stage where empathy has been achieved, true inquiry can begin, since relationship has been formed.

Up until this place in time, communication has been on the surface. There has been a separation between us based on the need for withdrawal and separation in order to keep ourselves safe, so we have not communicated fully.

Now, information transfer is finally more likely to occur. There is a basis for accepting that the other person’s experience is credible and useful, and therefore acceptable. The intensity of the exchange asks for real disclosure of intention, stability, dependency, and longer-term outcome, and barriers to intimacy are breached. Our parenting experience at this point becomes a successful one.


As the relationship proceeds, each person’s experience becomes more and more integrated. We are assimilated into a process. The process of assimilation, as is true of all of these processes is experienced-based, largely unconscious, and creates a feeling response in the attachment event.

The girl appears relaxed. Her speech is softer. She is able to ‘take a step back’. Her executive functioning returns. She is able to say, “Maybe if I go talk to her, the coach will let me back on the team.”

The feeling of joining with another intensifies. The creation of the opportunity for a decision marks the possibility for a planned directed response in both the feeling and thinking domains. As always, response is on a continuum from joining in the process, forwarding assimilation into the relationship, or defending against a sense of getting too close and feelings being engulfed.

For parents, bringing executive functioning to the decision is difficult to maintain. We have had previous experiences that will seek to dictate our response based on our comfort level with attachment. We all set our comfort level at a particular balance between distance and nearness.

In ordinary life we have established and maintain balance between ‘close enough’ and ‘too close’. When we see a mother with a child bring their faces into contact, smiling or cooing and watch their interaction we see this automatic function. If the ‘tuning’ is particularly good, the interaction terminates just shy of the baby protesting the engulfment by pulling away with a grimace, or even making a verbal protest. As development continues, at school age, the child may refuse to leave Mom to enter a classroom for the first time. Mom may be in tears as she leaves the child to the care of the teacher. Mom may express surprise and hurt, as the child, after a short interval of protest appears to ‘forget’ all about her and become calmly invested in play in the classroom.

Indeed, when Mom returns, she may be further shocked to find that the child appears disinterested in her and prefers to remain with peers and teacher. Assimilation is threatened, as the child may be wary of further attachments, as in Ainsworth’s Strange Situation.

The whole process continues to demand a balance as the teenaged child refuses to hug or expresses embarrassment when the parent attempts to come closer and celebrate the previous level of assimilation achieved in an earlier development phase. Parental interest may be met with distancing and independence seeking.

Balancing the degree of assimilation becomes a skill set. As we have seen, we have many tools that we use to achieve this balance. For many of us this ‘dance’ is difficult and unpleasant. We get too close (engulfed) and flee; or we pursue the sense of joining with another as they flee.

Using this process requires a heightened awareness of our own attachment needs, and a self-consciousness that allows us to tolerate the closeness that the other person in the attachment relationship is able to tolerate, as well as the separation they find safe.

The originators of Attachment Theory, and their followers, in order to establish a baseline of attachment styles and types, have used this affective process. In their work, Crittenden (1995), and Bartholomew (1991), especially have moved the model forward until we are now able to associate various behavioural patterns with attachment types. The importance of their work cannot be overestimated.

When we tune to the type, we can enter a soothing safe alliance that allows our child to feel free from danger and the fear of loss of attachment. This allows the child to access use of higher cognitive structures of their executive functioning to reflect on the immediate present attachment experience, rather than be driven by previous experience that has hardened in a patterned response.

At the coffee shop, as you continue your conversation with the girl, you can see that the relationship has taken on form and structure in the present moment.

In our busy life we must titrate the balance of assimilation we desire and put aside our personal consideration by using our affective/cognitive control to determine what balance will allow the other person the greatest freedom to grow inside the relationship. The exposure of both to each other in this moment is a gift and a danger.

We cannot expect the other person to manage this boundary in an effective manner or in a reciprocal manner. What we are offering may be seen as seductive and of very high value, or on the continuum, engulfing and highly dangerous. Managing our own attachment needs in using assimilation is the key.

Relationship based on attachment is active biologically in creating ‘network patterns’ in neural growth that underlie the psychological ‘self’ throughout the life span. This process is assisted by inquiry.

The cognitive part of the process of Interactive Mindfulness is the attempt we make at using these categories. The affective part of the process is how we feel when we are using these categories.

Each of the words: curiosity, awareness, proximity, mutuality, separation, soothing, reciprocity, empathy, communication, and joining are ways we use to describe our experience of the whole process as it is going on simultaneously.

These elements of the process of Interactive Mindfulness don’t happen one after another, although relationship and events in relationship have a beginning, middle, and an end. Rather, some parts of relationship are more present at some times than other parts.