Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being
By Daniel J Siegel
Book Review by Anubha Doshi
Founder-Director at Artsphere
Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner
“Welcome to a journey into the heart of our lives”, Daniel Siegel, scientist, psychiatrist, educator begins the book taking us on a fascinating journey into the mind and what happens in the brain as we experience silence and presence.
I was surprised to find the book such an engaging reading. I had expected an anatomical description of the brain but I was hooked (if I may say so) as soon as he started talking about his internal world and his own experiences at the retreat. So much so that I want to buy a copy and preserve it. It’s one of those books you read again and again.
“At the heart of this visionary synthesis of science and practice is the idea that our awareness of our ongoing experience creates an attunement, or resonance, within ourselves that harnesses specific social and emotional circuits in the brain. Mindfulness practice stimulates these ‘resonance circuits’ to grow – a growth that transforms a moment-to-moment state of mindful awareness into a long-term state of resilience.”
Mind, Brain and Awareness
“As you become aware of sensations, images, feelings and thoughts ( SIFT) you come to see these activities of the mind as waves at the surface of the mental sea.”
He also quotes previous research in brain where a left shift in emotion regulating circuits was directly correlated with the degree of improved immune function. Mindful awareness is a form of experience that promotes neural plasticity.
The way we pay attention stimulates neural firing in certain areas, which activates and changes their connection with the integrated circuits of the brain. Then he describes his famous hand model of the brain.
Immersion in direct experience
I found the author’s description of his first retreat of silence very captivating, I am on a similar journey but reading a scientist describe it in connection to the brain was a different experience.
“On the silent retreat he writes the discuss the vision of YODA’s SOCK: the idea that ‘you observe to decouple automaticity’ – that observing enables you to distance yourself enough such that you can meet and mental process at the door of your mind ‘laughingly’ The sock is a balance of sensation, observation, and conceptualisation that leads to a mindful sense of nonconceptual knowing.” These are the four streams of consciousness.
Basically non judgement of anything that is arising and no labelling good bad, positive negative. Rumi’s ‘Guesthouse’ is like a metaphor running through the book and enriches authors experience of his own silence.
“The role of mindful awareness is to enable the mind to ‘ discern’ the nature of the mind itself, awakening the person to insights that preconceived ideas and emotional reactions are embedded in thinking and reflexive responses that create internal distress. That these mental activities are not the same as ‘self’, nor are they permanent.”
Part 3 –
Facets of the mindful brain
Here the author dives directly into the brain and its various parts.
“ Lazar found that long-term mindfulness meditators had not only increased middle prefrontal thickness, but they had enlargement of the right insula. Mindfulness might alter the structures of our brains responsible for empathy and self – observation. This may be the link between the practice of looking inward and reported enhancement of the ability to connect with others.”
Insula transmits data from the body to the brain and may be directly involved in the experience of ‘looking inward’.
Meta – cognition is correlated with middle prefrontal activation, as is self – observation. Mindfulness awareness has shown to activate this to a greater degree than other forms of meditation focused on one target. It is not relaxation but is the sense of presence.
Attunement and attention
Porges’ Polyvagal theory proposes that our nervous system evaluates the state of threat or safety of a situation and activates the brainstems vagal and autonomic nervous systems to respond and give a message of safety or threat. One response to threat is of flight or fight with sympathetic nervous system gearing into action, the other is freeze with parasympathetic creating a state of collapse.
With attunement between two people creating a sense of safety, we can suggest that Porges proposed activation of the myelinated ‘smart’ vagus occurs with the softening of facial muscles, relaxed voice tone, and opening of the perceptual system to receive input from outside itself.
He proposes a social engagement system, the activation of vagal system may release oxytocin with sensations of positive states associated with physical touching and proximity.
Porges interpersonal notion of ‘love without fear’ is a wonderful phrase capturing a COAL state of mindful awareness.
Tucker, Luu and Derryberry note ‘decety and Jackson have proposed that empathy requires three primary components,
- Sharing of another’s affect
- The maintenance of a separate self – representation
- Flexible mechanisms of emotional self – regulation to allow engagement of the differential perspectives of self and other
The neural formula for empathy would be then the social circuits if the brain are focused on the experiencing self as an ‘other’ that can be received without judgement, understood and attuned to with a resonance by the observing self.
We are proposing mindfulness involves a form of internal attunement that may harness the social circuits of mirroring and empathy to create a sense of neural integration and flexible self – regulation.
Mindfulness is a form of paying attention in the present moment on purpose. Observation enables us to sense and know the self, reflexivity creates awareness of awareness, receptivity permits the COAl state to suspend judgement.
“Without judgement what are we. If we are just curious open where has our identity gone. We shove sensation through the filter of the past to make the future predictable. In the process, we lose the present. But it isn’t so easy to undo this because top – down influences that enslave bottom – up living have potent neural connectivity backing them up. And for this reason, being mindful requires intention and courage”
This is what I have always felt even when I was studying Buddhist psychology I felt when we are wired in a certain way why do we have to change it. Then why are we biologically wired at all in this way. When are genes, perception environment all made in this way then why so much effort to re- wire your brain. But as I read the book I get more insight into the human processes.
Mirror neurons, resonance and attention to intention
The chapter heading says it all.
There is set of neural circuits, the mirror neuron system, that links perception and motor areas in the creation of representations of intentional states. This system gets active only when the motion being observed is goal – oriented.
Mirror neurons demonstrate the profoundly social nature of our brains. Marco Iacoboni and his colleagues demonstrated that mirror neurons system, located in various cortical regions such as the frontal and parietal lobes, relating directly to the superior temporal area, would not only be able to represent intentional states of others, but could mediate the basic mechanisms of emotional resonance so fundamental to relationships.
Interoception, interpretation, and attribution are the proposed steps of empathy carried out by the prefrontal region in this ‘insula – hypothesis’ model of Iacoboni.
Our brains are able to create representations of other people’s minds, this is a crucial view of how we are linked to each other on the mental plane of reality – our seventh sense, mindsight. When we sense resonance when we are become aware of attuned, there may be an eight sense in which we feel the state of our relational resonance.
Mindful awareness creates internal attunement and coherence in the mind. The word coherence is an acronym for: connected, open, harmonious, engaged, receptive, emergent, noetic, compassionate, and empathic. It can be seen as a way of developing a secure attachment with yourself.
The mindfulness – attunement hypothesis suggests that’s attuning the mind to its own mental processes is the essential feature of mindful awareness practices. The social neural circuits involved in this attunement would include middle prefrontal regions, insula, superior temporal cortex, and the mirror neuron system.
Attachment and narrative
Here the author describes in detail the different attachment patterns and how in insecure and avoidant, anxious styles there would be limited mindful awareness and no inner attunement leading to non – coherent state of mind.
“In attachment, we need to open to our child, feeling that safety in ourselves and creating the sense of ‘ love without fear’ in our child. In mindfulness we need to be open to ourselves in order to create that COAL state of receptivity. Our observing self needs to be open to our ‘ self – as – living’. With the attention to intention we then develop an integrated state of coherence.”
“In the integrated FACES ( flexibility, adaptability, coherence, energy, and stability) flow of the river of well – being, the mind travels in a harmonious path bounded on either side by rigidity and chaos. Mindfulness created non-reactivity by placing the mind on this coherent flow. With the three elements in the triangle of well-being – neural integration, a coherent mind, and empathic relationships – our lives can move in direction of harmonious flow. This is reflective coherence.”
I think this chapter beautifully sums up the connection between not only secure attachment and mindfulness but also throws light on how to achieve a state of complete emotional well-being.
Flexibility of feeling
With resilient affective styles our feelings are more flexible. We achieve the mindfulness facet of nonreactivity in the form of equanimity as we come to approach our inner world with acceptance rather than to dread it, hate it or avoid it.
This explores mindful learning and mindful awareness.
“mindful learning is defined as having the components of openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, context sensitivity, multiple perspectives, and present orientation.
Mindfulness has been operationalized for research purposes to five facets-
- Nonreactivity to inner experience
- Observing/noticing sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings
- Acting with awareness not on automatic pilot
- Describing / labelling with words
- Non-judgemental of experience
Then he goes about the benefits of how this if integrated in the educational system would change the way we learn and teachers teach.
Reflections on the Mindful brain
This is the section where he talks about case studies and applications in the educational setting. It makes for a very interesting read because you get an insight into the authors practice.
He has named Reflection as the fourth ‘R’ of education the first three being reading, writing, and arithmetic. Reflection is the skill that embeds self – knowing and empathy in the curriculum. It has three dimensions – receptivity, self – observation, and reflexivity. Findings of resilience and brain development support that teaching reflective skills in youth may help grow integrative neural fibres that will offer resilience during challenging years in the adolescent period.
In his last few chapters he emphasises reflection a lot. He mentions Ellen Langer book, ‘Becoming an Artist’ who makes a case for art music and any creative activity and research around its benefits. The author mentions using dance and drawing as a way of being immersed as a self in life. It’s the deep connection of art and dancing leading to a state of presence and mindfulness when it embodies the qualities of presence.
The author mentions yoga and Tai chi as involving all four streams of awareness sensation, observation, knowing and conception. This gives me immense joy as dance therapy and movement too involve the same., “the somatic sensations anchor the practitioner in the present”
When he shares some of his case studies he emphasised on the integration of consciousness.
I would like to end with the authors words, “The challenge for us all is to see life as a verb, not a noun. Being is just this. The spaciousness can be shared, the wheel of our awareness can become a collective, group experience, filled with awe, and the illusion of our separateness revealed for what it is; a creation of our minds, a neural invention.”
For Anubha Doshi, Founder-Director of Artsphere, psychology and dance have been her passions. A few years ago, she set out to amalgamate the two by establishing Artsphere, a unique arts and healing centre in Pune. The pioneer in Dance Movement Therapy in Pune, Anubha is an associate member of the ADTA (American Dance Therapy Association) and CID (International Dance Council) France. She is also on the advisory board of CMTAI (Creative Movement Therapy Association of India. A Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner, Anubha holds coveted degrees in English Literature, Communication Management and Clinical Psychology. A classical and contemporary dance performer, she has also studied Buddhist Psychology and is currently pursuing the Presence-Oriented Psychotherapy course from the Just Being Center, Pune.