I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference run by Dr. Dan Siegel. Dr. Siegel is a psychiatrist, an author and the co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. An innovative thinker and dynamic presenter, Dr. Siegel spoke on the use of meditation and mindfulness in achieving mental health and well-being.
Dr. Siegel describes meditation as a mental practice that strengthens the mind, just as exercise strengthens the body. He suggests its use as a tool to know and honor the self. Through this enhanced self-awareness, one can come to know and honor others more fully as well.
Remarkably, thinking in a mindful manner is used to change the actual structure of the brain. “When we focus our attention in specific ways, we create neural firing patterns that permit previously separated areas to become linked and integrated “ (p43, Mindsight). Not only can new pathways be laid down, old pathways can be modified, expanded and linked in new ways; importantly, this malleability is present throughout the entire lifecycle.
The Wheel of Awareness is a meditative tool that Dr. Siegel developed. It is a practice that moves one’s awareness through four segments:
1: Noting and considering information from the 5 senses
2: Noting and considering information from internal body sensations (6th sense)
3: Noting and considering the mind and its mental processes (7th sense)
4: Noting and considering the sense of our connectedness to the planet and the people on it
Visually, the Wheel has a hub, a central place that allows for contemplation and a sense of knowing. This is compared to what he refers to as the outer rim; the rim represents all that can be known. This practice can be accessed through Dr. Siegel’s website: drdansiegel.com. If you go to his website, you can listen to him guide you in this meditative practice.
In addition, Dr. Siegel spoke about the power of working with the breath - The breath being inside and outside the body, private and shared, voluntary and involuntary and life sustaining. This shared breath is highlighted as representing our interconnectedness with all other living things. Dr. Siegel uses concrete, scientific evidence to reveal that the brain is more coherent when we are more aware of the breath, and when this coherence is achieved there is enhanced self-understanding.
Dr. Siegel speaks of the mind being beyond the brain and the self beyond the skin.
He coins the term “mwe” which includes the concepts of “me” and “we.” It values the differentiation of the self (our separateness) and our linkages to others (our connectedness). Balance in these areas results in integration and harmony and enhances our feelings of coherence. Siegel jokes that this idea is somewhat un-American, as it runs counter to the American value of every person for him or herself, with the individual over the community..
“Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them. We can calm them without ignoring them; we can hear their wisdom without being terrified by their screaming voices.”
This quote, taken from Siegel’s introduction to his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation gives us insight to the goals and purpose of his mindful based methods.
Dr. Siegel writes on parenting as well. He notes that it is how the parent has made sense of his life and not what has happened in his life that has the biggest impact on his child’s ability to attach securely, to be resilient and to be successful in life. This is a liberating truth because often we cannot control what happens in our lives, but we can control what we do with our experiences, injuries and memories.
Consider checking out Dr. Siegel’s website. It has his meditative practice, his research and writings and information on his books, many of which are listed below.
1. Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain
2. Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind
3. The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind
4. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
5. The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are
6. The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration
7. Parenting From the Inside Out
8. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being