"Your Mind Can Change the Health of Your Body": Insights from Dr. Dan Siegel
Dan Siegel, MD, is an internationally acclaimed author, educator, and child psychiatrist who has published extensively for both professional and lay audiences. The executive director of Mindsight Institute, Dr. Siegel is known for his unique ability to make complicated scientific concepts accessible. What follows is an excerpt from his latest New York Times best seller, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.
Why Expanding Your Consciousness Leads to Better Wellness
There is an old saying that consciousness is like a container of water. If you take a tablespoon of salt and place it in a small container, say, the size of an espresso cup, the water most certainly will be too salty to drink. But if your container is much larger—say it is capable of holding many, many gallons of water—that same tablespoon of salt, now placed into this vast amount of liquid, will taste fresh. Same water, same salt; simply a different ratio, and the experience of drinking is totally different.
Consciousness is like that.
When we learn to cultivate our capacity for being aware, the quality of our life and the strength of our mind are enhanced.
When we develop focused attention, open awareness, and kind intention, research reveals we:
- Improve immune function to help fight infection;
- Optimize the level of the enzyme telomerase, which repairs and maintains the ends of your chromosomes, keeping your cells—and therefore you—youthful, functioning well, and healthy;
- Enhance the “epigenetic” regulation of genes to help prevent life-threatening inflammation;
- Modify cardiovascular factors, improving cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and heart function; and
- Increase neural integration in the brain, enabling more coordination and balance in both the functional and structural connectivity within the nervous system that facilitates optimal functioning, including self-regulation, problem solving, and adaptive behavior that is at the heart of well-being.
In short, the scientific findings are now in: your mind can change the health of your body and slow aging.
In addition to these concrete discoveries, we have the additional, more subjective, yet equally powerful findings that cultivating these aspects of mind—how you focus attention, open awareness, and guide intention toward kindness and caring—also increases a sense of well-being, connection to others (in the form of enhanced empathy and compassion), emotional balance, and resilience in the face of challenges. Studies reveal that as a sense of meaning and purpose increase, an overall ease of being—that some call equanimity—is nurtured by these specific practices.
These are all outcomes of strengthening your mind by expanding the container of consciousness.
The word eudaimonia is derived from the Greek term, and it beautifully describes the deep sense of well-being, equanimity, and happiness that comes from experiencing life as having meaning and connection to others and the world around you. Does cultivating eudaimonia seem like something you’d like to place on your to do list in life? If you experience this quality of being already in your day to day living, these practices of training attention, awareness, and intention may enhance and reinforce where you already are in life. Wonderful. And if it feels like these features of eudaimonia are distant or perhaps unfamiliar to you, and you’d like to make these more near and dear to your everyday existence, you’ve come to the right conversation.
The Wheel of Awareness is a useful tool I’ve developed over many years to help expand the container of consciousness.
I’ve offered the Wheel to thousands of individuals around the world, and it’s proven to be a practice that can help people develop more well-being in both their inner and interpersonal lives.
The Wheel practice is based on simple steps that are easy to learn and then apply in your everyday experiences.
The Wheel is a very useful visual metaphor for the way the mind works. The concept came to me one day as I stood looking down at a circular table in my office. The tabletop consists of a clear glass center surrounded by a wooden outer rim. It occurred to me that our awareness could be seen as lying at the center of a circle—hub, if you will—from which, at any given moment, we can choose to focus on a wide array of thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations circling us on the rim. In other words, what we could be aware of could be represented on the wooden rim; the experience of being aware we could place in the hub.
If I could teach people how to expand that container of consciousness by more freely and fully accessing the Wheel’s hub of awareness, they’d be able to change the way they experienced life’s tablespoons of salt, and perhaps even learn to savor life’s sweetness in a more balanced and fulfilling way, even if there were a lot of salt present at the time. As I looked down at this table, I saw that the clarity of that glass hub might represent how we become aware of all of these tablespoons of life, each of the varied experiences we could become aware of, from thoughts to sensations, which we might now visualize as being placed on the circle around this hub—the table’s outer wooden rim.
The Wheel was designed as a practice that could balance our lives by integrating the experience of consciousness. How? By distinguishing the wide array of knowns on the rim from each other and from the knowing of awareness in the hub itself, we could differentiate the components of consciousness. Then, by systematically connecting these knowns of the rim to the knowing of the hub with the movement of the spoke of attention, it became possible to link the differentiated parts of consciousness. This is how by differentiating and linking, the Wheel of Awareness practice integrates consciousness.
The essential idea behind the Wheel was to expand the container of consciousness and, in effect, balance the experience of consciousness itself.
Balance is a common term that we can understand scientifically as coming from a process that can be called integration—the allowing of things to be different or distinct from each other on the one hand, and then connecting them to each other on the other. When we differentiate and link, we integrate. We become balanced and coordinated in life when we create integration. Various scientific disciplines may use other terminology, but the concept is the same. Integration—the balancing of differentiation and linkage—is the basis for optimal regulation that enables us to flow between chaos and rigidity, the core process that helps us flourish and thrive.
Health comes from integration. It’s that simple, and that important.
A system that is integrated is in a flow of harmony. Just as in a choir, with each singer’s voice both differentiated from the other singers’ voices but also linked, harmony emerges with integration. What is important to note is that this linkage does not remove the differences, as in the notion of blending; instead it maintains these unique contributions as it links them together. Integration is more like a fruit salad than a smoothie. This is how integration creates the synergy of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, this synergy of integration means that the many aspects of our lives, like the many points on the rim, can each be honored for their differences but then brought together in harmony.
In my own journey as a clinician, working within the framework of a multidisciplinary field called interpersonal neurobiology, reflecting on our mind as a self-organizing way we regulate energy and information flow inspired me to try and find strategies to create more integration in my patients’ lives in order to create more well-being in their bodies and in their relationships.
When we integrated consciousness with the Wheel of Awareness, people’s lives improved.
Many individuals have found the Wheel of Awareness a skill-building practice that empowers them in quite profound ways. It transformed how they came to experience their inner, mental lives—their emotions, thoughts, and memories—opened new ways of interacting with others, and even expanded a sense of connection and meaning in their lives.
Adapted from Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, copyright (c) 2018. Published by TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.