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At the same time as Jon Kabat-Zinn was creating the MBSR program some thirty years ago, I was starting medical school just a few miles east in Boston. Discouraged by the lack of empathy in my professors and the way patients—and students—were treated as physical objects seemingly devoid of an internal world, I stopped school to wrestle with this widespread blindness to the inner reality of the mind.
When I ultimately returned to finish my degree, what became clear to me was that there were two fundamental ways people could see reality. One was through a lens of the physical, the other through a lens of the mind. Many of my teachers in medicine had honed the physical lens—seeing the subtle signs and symptoms of physiological disease. This was an important, but incomplete, aspect of being a healer. I came to realize that these professors lacked the development of the lens that enabled them to see the mind’s feelings or thoughts, its hopes, dreams, and attitudes. Theirs was a world of the physical, and the subjective, internal life of the patient was painfully missing from their worldview.
This realization set me on a decades-long journey to explore what the mind was, and how seeing the mind could help alleviate psychological distress and perhaps even enhance physiological well-being. First in pediatrics and then in clinical and research psychiatry, I dove deeply into the science of psychiatric suffering.
I found that patients seemed to come for help with situations of rigidity, chaos, or both. They were stuck in repeating unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaving, or flooded by intrusive and unpredictable feelings or thoughts. Accompanying their disabling states was an inability to see the mind clearly or deeply. If I could teach them ways to see their mind—the world inside—they could become open to shaping that world toward a more adaptive and flexible way of being. I came to call this ability to monitor and modify the internal world in oneself or others “mindsight.”
I became a researcher in the field of parent–child relationships, and studied how attuned communication from a caregiver to an infant cultivated a child’s healthy and resilient development. The 1990s were the Decade of the Brain and I was immersed in working with scientists from a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology and neurobiology. We could now peer into the function and structure of the healthy, active brain, and then work to combine those findings with an exploration of the mind itself.
Ultimately, this journey led to the creation of an interdisciplinary field called interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB). It offered a working definition of the mind that researchers from more than a dozen disciplines of science could agree upon: A core aspect of the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information. This definition enabled me to refine the concept of mindsight as the way we can sense and shape energy and information flow as it is shared in relationships, moves through the neural mechanism of the brain (seen here as the extended nervous system throughout the body), and is regulated by the mind. Relationships, brain, and mind formed a triangle of human experience that was the focus of our interdisciplinary investigations.
After I wrote a professional text on this subject, and then a parenting book that translated IPNB for practical use and suggested that “being mindful” was a basic principle of parenting, people in my workshops asked when they’d be taught to meditate. Not being trained in meditation, I was at a loss at first, but then I became exposed to the whole ancient world of mindfulness and its recent scientific discoveries. A chance meeting with Jon Kabat-Zinn at a conference led to a new world for me when he encouraged me to gain direct experience in mindfulness. I soon participated in the first weeklong silent retreat for scientists offered by the Insight Meditation Society and the Mind and Life Institute, and then a week of MBSR training. This journey is described in my book, The Mindful Brain. Its basic concept is that mindfulness, instead of being seen primarily as attention or emotion regulation, might be considered an “internal form” of attunement—one in which the observing self is open and accepting, tuned-in, and curious about the experiencing self.
In my own exploration, I experienced mindfulness as a “wheel of awareness,” in which the central hub was the metaphor for awareness, the rim anything that I could be aware of, and the spokes the intentional focus of attention. A key to mindfulness, in my experience, was the capacity to separate hub from rim, to not become swept up by anything within awareness as the totality of one’s experience. This differentiation of rim from hub, and the reflection on awareness itself to enable a deeper sense of the present, the past, and the anticipated future, fit well with the IPNB theme of “integration.”
Integration is defined as the linkage of differentiated parts of a system. With integration we can achieve a flexible flow of energy and information—an adaptive and coherent state that has the subjective feeling of harmony and vitality. When we are not integrated, we are in chaos, rigidity, or both. That IPNB view enabled me to finally have an explanation for why my patients came for help with one of these states, now seen as impairments to integration. From the IPNB perspective, integration is health. The way we move toward integration is to use mindsight to promote the necessary differentiation and then linkage of elements in the system—our brain, our relationships with other people, the larger planet of interconnected life.
Mindful awareness from this IPNB perspective can be seen as a powerful way to integrate consciousness. With kindness and compassion, we differentiate awareness from that which we are aware of. Attuning to the self is like attuning in a loving way to a friend or an infant: we are fully present and accepting with care and concern.
Mindfulness also enables us to differentiate distinct streams of awareness that can include sensations, observations, constructed concepts, and even nonconceptual knowing. Once we strengthen mindsight’s lens with training exercises that promote openness, objectivity, and observation, we are then given the opportunity to cultivate integration in our individual and collective lives. The unfolding of well-being, compassion, and resilience from such practices is a wonder to watch.
Reflection, relationships, and resilience can become the new “R’s” of basic education. Reflective practices that help integrate the brain, mind, and our relationships can offer new hope for how youth can grow toward health and more compassionate ways of being. In many ways, such reflective practices combine the ancient wisdom of mindfulness and the contemporary discoveries of interdisciplinary science. With reflection, we come to see clearly that the mind is real and our interconnections with one another the vital pulse of life. Our brains can become integrated, our relationships empathic, and our minds honored as they are cultivated to develop resilience in our lives.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.