Daniel Siegel coined the phrase ‘mindsight’ meaning a kind of focussed attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our mind. He believes it helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them; to ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are experiencing rather than being overwhelmed by them. By combining neuroscience with practices found in psychotherapy, he suggests we all have the ability to literally ‘re-wire’ our brains and to transform our thinking, well-being and relationships.
Why do it? The amygdala and GABA-goo
The pre-frontal cortex coordinates an astonishing number of essential skills, including regulating the body, attuning to others, balancing emotions, being flexible in our responses, soothing fear, and creating empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition. Mindsight—the reflective practice of focusing internal attention on the mind itself with openness, observation and objectivity, promotes growth of these integrative pre-frontal areas. Mindsight helps SNAG (Stimulate Neuronal Activation and Growth) the brain.
The middle pre-frontal region has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area and make it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-creating amygdala (the smoke alarm). One way it does this is to ‘squirt GABA-goo’ to cool down the amygdala. GABA—gamma-aminobutyric acid—is a neurotransmitter which turns down the firing of the amygdala. However as a result of chronic, repeated trauma, not only does the amygdala become more sensitive but the connections between the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala are reduced and levels of GABA are significantly lower than in non-traumatised individuals. The important thing is that this can change. Studies have shown that we can consciously harness this connection between our pre-frontal lobes and amygdala to calm our limbic agitation. Through practicing awareness and mindsight we can literally stimulate activation and growth of inhibitory fibres which connect these areas and increase the amount of GABA available.
Exercise: Focusing on the breath and the Wheel of Awareness (Daniel Siegel)
Let yourself get settled. It’s good to sit with your back straight if you can, feet planted flat on the floor, legs uncrossed. If you need to lie flat on the floor that’s okay too. And with your eyes open at first, just try this:
Try letting your attention go to the centre of the room. And now just notice your attention as you let it go to the far wall. And now follow your attention as it comes back to the middle of the room and then bring it up close as if you were holding a book at reading distance. Notice how your attention can go to very different places.
Now let your attention go inward. You might let your eyes close at this point. Get a sense inside yourself of your body in space where you’re sitting in the room. And now let yourself just become aware of the sounds around you. That sense of sound can fill your awareness. (Pause for some moments.)
Let your awareness now find the breath wherever you feel it most prominently—whether it’s at the level of your chest as it goes up and down, or the level of your abdomen going inwards and outwards. Perhaps you’ll even just notice your whole body breathing. Wherever it comes naturally, just let your awareness ride the wave of your in-breath, and then your out-breath. (Pause.)
When you come to notice, as often happens, that your mind may have wandered and become lost in a thought or a memory, a feeling, a worry, when you notice that, just take note of it and gently, lovingly, return your awareness towards the breath—wherever you feel it—and follow that wave of the in-breath and the out-breath. (Pause.)
As you follow your breath, I’m going to tell you an ancient story that’s been passed through the generations. The mind is like the ocean. And deep in the ocean, beneath the surface, it’s calm and clear. And no matter what the surface conditions are like, whether it’s smooth or choppy or even a full-strength gale up there, deep in the ocean it’s tranquil and serene. From the depth of the ocean you can look towards the surface and simply notice the activity there, just as from the depth of the mind you can look upward towards the waves, the brain waves at the surface of your mind, all that activity of mind—the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. Enjoy this opportunity to just observe those activities at the surface of your mind.
At times it may be helpful to let your attention go back to the breath, and follow the breath to reground yourself in the tranquil place at the deepest depth of the mind. From this place it’s possible to become aware of the activities of the mind without being swept away by them, to discern that those are not the totality of who you are; that you are more than just your thoughts, more than your feelings. You can have those thoughts and feelings and also be able to just notice them with the wisdom that they are not your identity. They are simply one part of your mind’s experience. For some, naming the type of mental activity, like ‘feeling’ or ‘thinking’, ‘remembering’ or ‘worrying’ can help allow these activities of the mind to be noted as events that come and go. Let them gently float away and out of awareness. (Pause.)
I’ll share one more image with you during this inward time. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful and want to use it as well. Picture your mind as a wheel of awareness. Imagine a bicycle wheel where there is an outer rim and spokes that connect that rim to an inner hub. In this mind’s wheel of awareness, anything that can come into our awareness is one of the infinite points on the rim. One sector of the rim might include what we become aware of through our five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight, those senses that bring the outside world into our mind. Another sector of the rim is our inward sense of the body, the sensations in our limbs and our facial muscles, the feelings in the organs of our torso: our lungs, our heart, our intestines. All of the body brings its wisdom up into our mind, and this bodily sense, this sixth sense if you will, is another of the elements to which we can bring our awareness. Other points on the rim are what the mind creates directly, such as thoughts and feelings, memories and perceptions, hopes and dreams. This segment of the rim of our mind is also available to our awareness. And this capacity to see the mind itself—our own mind as well as the minds of others—is what we might call our seventh sense. As we come to sense our connections with others, we perceive our relationships with the larger world, which perhaps constitutes yet another capacity, an eighth relational sense.
Now notice that we can have a choice about where we send our attention. We can choose which point on the rim to visit. We may choose to pay attention to one of the five senses, or perhaps the feeling in our belly, and send a spoke there. Or we may choose to pay attention to a memory, and send a spoke to that area of the rim where input from our seventh sense is located. All of these spokes emanate from the depth of our mind, which is the hub of the wheel of awareness. And as we focus on the breath, we will find that the hub grows more spacious. As the hub expands, we develop the capacity to be receptive to whatever arises from the rim. We can give ourselves over to the spaciousness, to the luminous quality of the hub. It can receive any aspect of our experience just as it is. Without preconceived ideas or judgements, this mindful awareness, this receptive attention, brings us into a tranquil place where we can be aware of and know all elements of our experience.
Like the calm depths of the sea inside, the hub of our wheel of awareness is a place of tranquillity, of safety, of openness and curiosity. It is from this safe and open a place that we can explore the nature of the mind with equanimity, energy, and concentration. This hub of our mind is always available to us, right now. And it’s from this hub that we enter a compassionate state of connection to ourselves, and feel compassion for others.
Let’s focus on our breath for a few more moment, together, opening the spacious hub of our minds to the beauty and wonder of what is. (Pause.)
When you are ready you can take a more voluntary and perhaps deeper breath if you wish and get ready to gently let your eyes open.
An audio podcast of this breathing practice, the Wheel of Awareness technique and a great number of other videos and audio files are available on Dan Siegel’s website: www.drdansiegel.com/resources/
Mindsight by Daniel Siegel (2011 edition)
Using lots of individual case studies to demonstrate the innovative integration of brain science with the practice of psychotherapy, this book shows how mindsight can be applied to alleviate a range of psychological and interpersonal problems. With warmth and humour, Dan Siegel shows us how to observe the workings of our minds, allowing us to understand why we think, feel, and act the way we do, and how, by following the proper steps, we can literally change the wiring and architecture of our brains.