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Paired meditation deepens interpersonal connection: how to go about it

Yesterday I wrote the blog post "Paired meditation deepens interpersonal connection: Tania Singer's wonderful ReSource project" which introduced & overviewed the recent, very impressive ReSource Project.  I also discussed the associated JAMA Psychiatry research paper "Effects of contemplative dyads on engagement and perceived social connectedness over nine months of mental training: a randomized controlled trial" with its abstract including the comments "Secularized classical meditation training programs address social cognition, but practice typically occurs alone.  Little is known about the effectiveness of contemplative practice performed in dyads.  Objective: To introduce and assess the effectiveness of contemplative dyadic practices relative to classical-solitary meditation with regard to engagement and perceived social connectedness.  Design, Setting, and Participants: The ReSource Project was a 9-month open-label efficacy trial of three, 3-month secularized mental training modules ... Interventions: Breathing meditation and body scan (the presence module), loving-kindness meditation and affect dyad (the affect module), and observing-thoughts meditation and perspective dyad (the perspective module).  Main Outcomes and Measures: Primary outcomes were self-disclosure and social closeness ... Social closeness increased during a session for the affect dyad (1.49 [0.12] sessions) and the perspective dyad (1.06 [0.12] sessions) and increased over time for the affect dyad (slope of 0.016 [0.003]) and the perspective dyad (slope of 0.012 [0.003]).  Self-disclosure increased over time for the affect dyad (slope of 0.023 [0.004]) and the perspective dyad (slope of 0.006 [0.005]), increasing more steeply for the affect dyad (P < .001).  Conclusions and Relevance: Contemplative dyads elicited engagement similar to classical contemplative practices and increased perceived social connectedness. Contemplative dyads represent a new type of intervention targeting social connectedness and intersubjective capacities ..."  

I find the affect module particularly intriguing.  It involves a classical loving-kindness meditation and what's new is the dyadic exercise.  As Bethany Kok & Tania Singer write in their research paper (see above) - "In the affect dyad, speaker and listener take turns describing feelings and bodily sensations during a difficult situation and a gratitude-eliciting situation experienced during the last day. The listener does not respond, either verbally or nonverbally, instead focusing on active, empathic listening."

In the freely downloadable 272 page book "The ReSource Project: Background, design, samples, and measurements", the three 13-week modules (Presence, Affect & Perspective) of the Resource Project are described more fully.  On pages 30-31 they write: Affect Dyad (AD): The second core exercise of the Affect Module is a partner-based exercise.  The basic form and structure of the practice is inspired by the dyadic exercises that are the core elements of Satori Retreats (Chapman, 1988; Noyes, 1998).  Participants are paired and sit facing each other.  One partner asks a question, which the speaker then contemplates aloud for a given time interval.  The listener keeps his/her eyes on the speaker and, although listening attentively, does not respond, neither verbally nor non-verbally, to what is being said.  Importantly, the speaker answers the question from the moment, without any preconceived goals, while being in touch with whatever may be triggered by the question or the words he/she says.  He/she tries to focus on his/her immediate experience rather than on intellectual understanding or abstract thoughts.  The contemplative dialogue can thus be understood as a "loud meditation" in which the speaker voices whatever comes to mind regarding the question and the listener provides his/her presence for the other's contemplation, helping him/her to remain focused.

In the Affect Module, participants contemplate situations that they found difficult and situations that they are grateful for.  As described, they mainly focus on their inner experience, that is, the feelings and body sensations that accompanied the situations.  In the weekly sessions, the exercise is done face to face.  Participants also practice the dyadic exercise during the week.  They are assigned different partners on a weekly basis and then have the choice to use a computer-based or smartphone-based application in which they can connect with their partners.  The applications guide them through the dyad by supplying the instructions for the different phases on the screen and signal the beginning and end through electronic bell sounds.  The exercise is based on findings about the positive effects of social sharing of difficult situations (Frattaroli, 2006; Pasupathi, 2003; Rime, 2007) as well as Vipassana traditions that emphasize acceptance of whatever arises, including difficult sensations or emotions.  The practice of gratefulness, which is also embedded in the exercise, is common in contemplative traditions (Steindl-Rast, 1984) and has been shown to be effective in improving well-being and psychological health (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Lyubomirsky et al, 2005). 

So the Resource Project's Affect Module involved a 13-week focus on loving-kindness meditation and the affect dyad.  The module began with a three day retreat and continued with weekly 2-hour group classes as well as daily home practice.  The meditation and dyad exercises were practised at the class and the request was then to practise them five times during the intervening week before the next class (so six times altogether in the week) - though, on average, course participants actually practised the dyad exercise 4 to 5 times weekly in total.  Practice recordings were provided.  Loving-kindness and compassion meditation recordings are available widely on the internet - for example on Kristin Neff's website, or Chris Germer's, or Teens & Young Adults, or Barbara Fredrickson's, or on this Good Medicine website.  The Research Project's loving-kindness meditation took 20 minutes and the affect dyad another 10 - the two participants in the dyad each spoke for 5 minutes (typically linked by smartphone or computer).  In the Resource Project, people paired up with different fellow course participants each week to practise the affect dyad.  Using the dyad outside the formal structure of the Project, one could experiment doing the exercise with one's partner, relative or friend.  

Interpersonal closeness was measured using Aron's "Inclusion of other in the self scale".  You can download a copy of the scale either as a Word doc or as a PDF file.  I've taken slight liberties with the scale by allowing ticking of intermediate values between the seven closeness diagrams.  I'm not new here in extending the number of closeness choices available, as continuous sliding versions of the scale have also been developed.  One could score the scale using it as a general measure of one's sense of closeness with others - affected no doubt by both one's practice of the loving-kindness meditation as well as one's participation in the affect dyad.  One could also score the scale thinking of a particular person - for example, someone with whom one has been practising the affect dyad exercise.  It's possible too to score the scale as one starts, as one would ideally like to be, and as where one gets to week by week during the practice.  

Other research suggests that when speaking about difficulties it may be useful to try to get to one's deepest thoughts & feelings - see the Expressive writing sheets downloadable from the Life review, traumatic memories & therapeutic writing section of this website.  And when talking about experiences one is grateful for, it may be good to really explore & 'relive' the sensations & emotions involved - see the Gratitude & appreciation suggestions sheet downloadable from the Wellbeing & calming skills handouts section of this website.

More to follow ...

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