Meet Dan Siegel, and read an excerpt from his latest book, "Aware"
Interviewed by Michael J Krass
"...ultimately we come to realize, by direct experience, how deeply interconnected we all are with one another. We are a part of each other, and a part of nature. Yet so much teaches us we are separate. Pervasive leadership is a wonderful term reminding us that each individual is capable of taking on a role in life to bring more connection and meaning, more health and well-being, into our world which is waiting for us to collaborate and become more conscious. Together, it is possible to create these important changes in our collective lives."
“Only connect,” a phrase famously associated with E.M. Forster and his book Howard’s End, might well have been written by or about Dan Siegel. I was introduced to Dan through his groundbreaking Parenting from the Inside Out, a book he wrote with early childhood expert (and local preschool director) Mary Hartzell in 2003. Around that time, we both attended a day-long meditation retreat at UCLA led by Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace, which was one of the first (if not the actual first) meditation retreats to be hosted by those who would later found UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Dan mentioned then that when he and Mary wrote their book neither were aware that the word “mindfulness” had deep roots in Buddhist contemplative practice. Upon making that connection, though, it took Dan no time at all to do a deep dive into classical mindfulness making more and more and more connections along the way – connections between contemplative practice, neurobiology and attachment research that have meaningfully shifted the lens through which secular mindfulness will be viewed forever.
Since then, Dan has gently, yet tirelessly, insisted that contemplative practice be viewed as a powerful vehicle for developing healthy attuned connections – not just with other people but also with ourselves. In book after book, keynote after keynote, and workshop after workshop, Dan’s taken this message to the streets – not just to the mainstream audiences of countless parents, clinicians and educators who rightfully adore him, but also to meditation centers where the connection between mindfulness and relationships hasn’t always been prioritized and is sometimes missed entirely.
Reading Dan’s answers to Michael’s questions, it was no surprise that the Q & A below closes with the reminder that “each individual is capable of taking on a role in life to bring more connection and meaning, more health and well-being, into our world.” This is the talk that Dan Siegel walks while carrying his substantial megaphone along with him, shouting-out to all those who will listen (and some who won’t), “Only connect!” Borrowing from E.M. Forster again, “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. We shall live in fragments no longer.”
One of the things that I appreciate about your work is that although it is a science-based perspective, you do not shy away from subjects which may be perceived as “spiritual.” your latest book, “Aware,” feels like it is a book about Consciousness, which is the goal of many spiritual endeavors and something that is hard to scientifically measure – in addition to being a collection of useful tools and ideas designed to help people simply live better lives.
Is this something you set out to do with this book specifically?
The experience of human life that inspires meaning and connection is a crucial part of creating well-being in our lives. For me, the term “spiritual” was never a part of my academic, professional, or personal life. Yet with the combining of different sciences into a common framework, something simply called “interpersonal neurobiology,” a number of “spiritual” organizations began using the writings in their courses. This surprised me and was not intentional. Over the years, collaboration with a number of wonderful teachers, such as the late John O’Donohue and with a number of people in the contemplative traditions such as Jack Kornfield, have enabled me to see that the work of meaning and connection, compassion and love are the meeting ground of interpersonal neurobiology and the important human component of a spiritual life.
The Wheel of Awareness is a centerpiece of the book. For those who have not heard of the Wheel before, how would you describe it as “a tool for personal transformation”?
The Wheel of Awareness is a simple and practical idea and practice that enables us to strengthen the mind by integrating consciousness. Two scientific notions are at its root: Integration—the linkage of differentiated parts of a system—is the basis of well-being; consciousness—the experience of being aware and that which we are aware of, the knowing and the knowns—is needed for intentional change. By placing the knowing in the hub of a metaphoric image of a wheel and then linking the range of knowns on the rim of that wheel and then systematically exploring them, one by one, with a spoke of attention, it is possible to differentiate and link consciousness. That’s the idea, and that’s the practice. It’s been deeply rewarding to see that sticking with science can inspire a practice that can help people in profound ways.
How might the Wheel work for people who would like to work with it on a daily basis?
The Wheel is a practice I do every day, and it is a simple reflective practice that strengthens the three pillars of mind training that research has shown cultivate a number of benefits in our lives: focused attention, open awareness and kind intention.
There are many inspiring stories in Aware about people who you have worked with over the years using the Wheel of Awareness. In some cases, like the story of Zachary in particular, people actually experience physical healing as well as mental or emotional well-being. Is this a common occurrence?
After a systematic study of over 10,000 people in workshops doing the wheel, it is fair to say that it is common for people to find the reduction in physical pain as well as the emergence of deep states of clarity and a sense of more connection and meaning in their lives. So while this is common, it shouldn’t be “expected” or made to be something we think we “should” have happen as that can ironically become the focus of the mind to be what we think we should be, rather than letting the integration of the Wheel simply create the integrative states and how they bring surprising and common transformations in practitioners’ lives.
You mention in Aware that the reader can strengthen the mind to prepare it to do work like using the Wheel of Awareness. You also emphasize the role of intention in one’s practice. These both feel like “active” ways to engage the mind rather than just sitting back and waiting for the brain to change through meditation and awareness exercises. Can you speak about the role of intention in practice?
Intention sets the direction and tone of how the mind’s flow of energy and information is shaped. Intention is important to bring a kind of mental vector to our experience of how we focus attention. The adage, “where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows” helps see how intention is essential for changing the brain in specific ways. With a state repeatedly created, with intention, by a regular practice, we then have the opportunity to intentionally cultivate traits of integration and health in our lives.
people who are familiar with your work over the years, know that you write for a broad audience. Whether it be parents, teachers, those new to meditation, the medical community, behavioral scientists and researchers, as well as mental health professionals, you have the unique skill to share complex ideas in ways that are not only educational and groundbreaking but empowering to the individual.
With this latest book you have accomplished that task again. Do you find that teaching in this way is creating common ground for people from all walks of life and facilitating a broader, more helpful conversation that we all can take part in?
Thank you for your kind words. That is very insightful to suggest that we might come together on common ground—across a wide array of populations and professions and passions—so that ultimately we come to realize, by direct experience, how deeply interconnected we all are with one another. We are a part of each other, and a part of nature. Yet so much teaches us we are separate. Pervasive leadership is a wonderful term reminding us that each individual is capable of taking on a role in life to bring more connection and meaning, more health and well-being, into our world which is waiting for us to collaborate and become more conscious. Together, it is possible to create these important changes in our collective lives.
Aware, The Science and Practice of Presence is available on August 21st, 2018!
Intention, kindness, and the "inter self:"
(excerpt from "Aware")
Intention is a mental process that sets the tone or direction of the unfolding of energy and information within the mind. Kind intention facilitates the arising of integrative mental processes—like empathic concern and compassion—and makes them more likely to be enacted within us and in our behavior interacting with the world, in our inner and inter mind. When we train a state of kind intention, we harness particular patterns in the brain that research reveals are integrative—they link widely separated regions to one another, enabling the coordination and balance of neural firing. When we exercise those neural networks of kindness, we strengthen their connections and make those trained states become traits of kind intention in our lives.
As we’ve seen, regular practice supports the movement from a state created during a practice to a trait that becomes a learned skill or way of being. A trait essentially is a baseline propensity or way of behaving that happens without effort or conscious planning in a person’s life. In my own personal experience, clinical work with patients, and educational interactions with workshop participants, and also found in the research on numerous subjects from a broad set of carefully conducted studies, the following has been observed: What you create in the moment can become strengthened in the long run with practice.
This is how a state becomes a trait.
If the trait you seek is being kinder and more compassionate, with your inner self or your inter self—your connections with others—then the state you can practice is integration. Research supports this fundamental statement: Being kind and compassionate in our inner and interconnections creates more integration in the brain and more well-being in our lives.
Put simply, integrative states become healthy traits.
The Wheel of Awareness has its origins and its fundamental structure steeped in integration, as we’ve seen. The Wheel in idea and practice cultivates integration in our inner and interconnected lives. If health is what you are striving for, then I invite you to consider making the Wheel practice something you do every day, if possible, or on some kind of regular basis, meaning several times a week at minimum. Your brain needs repeated and regular practice to reinforce integrative growth. Repeated practice will enhance the positive outcomes for your life as you create intentional though brief states of mind during a practice session that will become traits of resilience and well-being in your day‑to‑day life.
A repeated state of integration can become an enduring trait of health.
When I presented the Wheel practice to Richie Davidson’s research group studying the brain and meditation, they were intrigued by the approach and asked me why I hadn’t included even more specific aspects of compassion training as part of the Wheel steps. I told them that the Wheel was simply constructed from the science-inspired notion of differentiating the knowns from the knowing, rim from hub, and that it needed to stay based in science. They then told me of a study they had just completed, the first of many that would be conducted and published, demonstrating that training the intention of compassion actually improves mental functioning, enhances relationships, and even is associated with more integrated brain functioning.
With compassion practice, for example, the electrical signals of the brain, measured with an electroencephalogram, reveal high degrees of gamma waves that emerge from the coordination of widely separated brain regions. And even functional and structural linkages in the brain could be seen in other studies to be enhanced with compassion training, revealing a more integrated brain with practice. In the Human Connectome Project, independent from these studies of meditation, overall well-being was found to be associated with a more “interconnected connectome,” meaning how the differentiated regions of the brain were linked to each other. Meditation research also reveals how such practices increase the interconnections of the connectome. The gist of these findings for formal compassion training and for overall health is that they involve integration in the brain.
In the field I work in, interpersonal neurobiology, we see compassion and kindness as the outcomes of integration. For example, when we honor differences between ourselves and others, we are differentiating interpersonally. When we then feel the suffering of another person, imagine how to help them, and then take action to reduce that suffering—when we are compassionate—we are linking to the differentiated person who is suffering. When we feel the joy and achievement of another and feel happy with their success, when we wish them well, we have empathic joy, another aspect of integration. Kindness, too, can be seen as an outcome of integration. Kindness can be defined as how we honor and support one another’s vulnerability. Kindness in this way involves respecting the risks and wounding that arise with unfulfilled needs—of being vulnerable. While the connotation of kindness for some may have a sense of it being a weakness rather than a strength, kind intention actually creates the mental stance reinforcing prosocial relationships and inner sources of well-being. Kindness and love are deep sources of resilience and courage, of strength both within and between. Kind actions can also be seen as ones that are offered without expectation of anything in return. One understanding of this way of being kind is that another person is seen as a differentiated aspect of who we are, and so connecting with kindness can be seen as emerging when we sense “our self” as simply one part of a larger whole—we are an inner self, yes, but we also are an inter self.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
DANIEL J. SIEGEL, MD, is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. He is currently a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, founding co-investigator at the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain and Development, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational center devoted to promoting insight, compassion, and empathy in individuals, families, institutions, and communities. Dr. Siegel’s psychotherapy practice spans thirty years, and he has published extensively for the professional audience. He serves as the Founding Editor for theNorton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology which includes over five dozen textbooks. Dr. Siegel’s books include Mindsight, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, The Developing Mind, Second Edition, The Mindful Therapist, The Mindful Brain, Parenting from the Inside Out (with Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.), and the three New York Times bestsellers: Brainstorm, The Whole-Brain Child (with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.), and his latest No-Drama Discipline (with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.). He has been invited to lecture for the King of Thailand, Pope John Paul II, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Google University, and TEDx. For more information about his educational programs and resources, please visit: www.DrDanSiegel.com.