Aware: The Science & Practice of Presence

By Daniel J. Siegel


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Science is now illuminating some of the ways in which we can see how cultivating our capacity to be aware enhances our health and relationships, transforming the molecules of our bodies and the quality of our meaningful connections with each other and the world around us. In this overview, we’ll explore a number of foundational concepts inspired by weaving together a wide range of disciplines that reveals how the way we develop three aspects of our mental lives—attention, intention, and awareness—actually changes the anatomic, biochemical, and physiological components of bodily health, mental flourishing, and relational well-being. Here I offer these findings, which are summarized in my book, Aware (TarcherPerigee, 2018), and will share these ideas and their illustrations (created by my daughter Madeleine Siegel) in a way that will be an invitation into this exciting new way of understanding our minds.

Pillars of Mind Training

Studies conducted over the last two decades have reached a maturation point where we can identify at least three pillars of mind training—sometimes called reflective practice, meditation, or mindful awareness practices (MAPs)—that are pivotal in cultivating well-being. These facets of training the mind include learning to focus attention, foster open awareness, and cultivate kind intention.

In the field of interpersonal neurobiology in which we find the consilient or common-ground findings of usually independent disciplines—such as from mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology, along with other fields in the arts and humanities—we view the mind as an emergent phenomenon of energy and information flow. When we train the mental process of attention, for example, we learn to strengthen how to direct the flow of energy and information. Much like a light focusing on a particular aspect of our experience, this ability illuminates and stabilizes what is being perceived so that we sense with more focus, depth, and detail.

Pillars of mind training (image by Madeleine Welch Siegel)


Four Facets of Mind

Cultivating this ability to focus attention (our first pillar) would then be a starting place for how to strengthen the mind itself. Although the term mind is rarely defined, we can at least describe the mind as having four facets, or aspects, that although they may be related to brain function, are not the same as neural firing. These four facets can be summarized this way:

4 facets of mind (image by Madeleine Welch Siegel)

Each of these facets may be emergent properties of the system of mind that can be viewed as energy and information flow that happens inside the body (including the brain in the head), as well as between the body as a whole and the entities outside the body (such as in our connections with other people or nature). This relational aspect of mind can be simply viewed as our interconnections with people and the planet. What is being connected? Energy and information flow is being shared as the fundamental nature of our relationships. In this way, we can see that we have an “inter-mind”, the mind that emerges in the betweenness of our relational lives; and we have an “inner mind” emerging from bodily energy and information flow—and this is what happens not just in the brain in the head, but as a flow that is fully embodied. In this way, we see the mind as both relational and embodied.

Beyond the wondrous ability to be aware (consciousness), and to then have a subjective felt sense within that consciousness (subjective experience), we also have the third facet of information processing that happens with or without consciousness. Much of our thinking, for example, is not within awareness. Four E’s are sometimes used to describe this process of information flow, sometimes called “cognition”, identifying it as embodied, enacted, extended (beyond the body), and embedded (in our relational communication with others in the culture in which we are immersed).

Our fourth facet of mind may actually serve as a definition that helps us to identify what a “healthy mind” might actually be. When we define this fourth facet as the emergent, self-organizing, embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information, we can then ask: “What conditions enable optimal self-organization to arise?” Self-organization is a mathematical concept of complexity theory, a view from the probability exploration of systems that has the three features of being open, chaos-capable, and, most importantly, non-linear, in which small initial inputs to the system have large and, on the surface, difficult-to-predict results. Complex systems have emergent properties arising from the interaction of the fundamental elements of the system. In the case of our lives, we are proposing that the system of mind is energy flow, and at times a subset of energy flow has symbolic value, something we call “information”. Information is really “energy-in-formation” that stands for something other than itself.

Hear Dan Siegel talk about his latest book on our podcast – The Science of Psychotherapy

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