Author Dr. Dan Siegel's 3 Steps to Define (And Maintain) Mindfulness

New York Times best-selling author and neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel talks about his new book, mindfulness, and what compassion really means.
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New York Times best-selling author and neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel talks about his new book, mindfulness, and what compassion really means.
Dan Siegel radical compassion Naropa University

New York Times best-selling author and neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel talks about his new book, mindfulness, and what compassion really means. Plus, don't miss his keynote speech this weekend at Naropa University's first ever Radical Compassion Symposium—a forum on the intersection of compassion and the world. Live stream his talk: “Mindsight and Neural Integration: How Kindness and Compassion Shape Our Relationships and Our Brains” on Sat, Oct 18; 7:30 p.m. MST. Watch it here, on YogaJournal.com/compassion.

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Yoga Journal: Based on your rich work on mindfulness, how are you defining "radical compassion?"
Dr. Dan Siegel: Compassion is a powerful and complex human capacity to be able to sense the suffering in oneself and in others and to have the drive and wise means to soothe that suffering. Radical compassion can be defined as having the courage to be fully open to all forms of suffering, however painful or distressing, and to stay present and receptive in engaging one’s whole self in alleviating that suffering.

YJ: Would you say with the growth of yoga that perhaps it has become mindless? Do we fall into that if we let yoga become routine? How can we all put mindfulness into our mat practice?
DS: The term “mindfulness” has many ways of being defined, but the sense of being “present” captures quite simply the way in which we can focus attention on what is happening as it is happening and fill awareness with the fullness of our here and now experience. If yoga—or any activity—becomes simply the repetition of a routine without this presence of mind, without this open awareness to the present moment, then it can become devoid of mindfulness, or a “mindless” action.

By describing mindfulness as having the three components of:

1) being aware of what is in awareness

2) paying attention to one’s intention

3) sensing the fullness of an experience as it unfolds in one’s sensations, then our experience on the mat can return to being a mindful practice of yoga, not just a repetition of learned behavior

See also What Radical Compassion Means to Author Joanna Macy

YJ: How can we simply be more mindful when we finish this article?
DS: By realizing that you have at least two streams of awareness that can be distinguished from one another and then linked within our moment to moment experience is a starting place to be more mindful. Mindfulness can be thought of as integrating consciousness—of linking these different streams of awareness. What are these two streams? Sensation and observation can be differentiated from each other, and each embraced fully. Next time you begin a practice on the mat, walk down the street, or simply interact with another person, experience how you can both sense what is happening within the first five senses, including sight and hearing, and also sense the signals from your body’s muscles and bones, and the internal organs including your intestines and your heart and lungs. Sensing these external and internal signals is different from observing them—or observing your thoughts or memories or emotions. This week, simply practice noting how you can SIFT your experience—sensing the Sensations of the bodily and outer world, and observing the Images, Feelings and Thoughts that arise. That’s a starting place to being more mindful, which involves differentiating and linking—integrating—our streams of awareness.

YJ:Your new book "No-Drama Discipline" recently came out. In it you suggest that time outs for kids might not be the most productive way to tackle discipline. If parents are trying to bring mindfulness to parenting but they have say a two-and-a-half year old biter?
DS: Time out is a research proven, effective strategy when used in larger behavioral program so that time outs are used infrequently, for limited time, and in a planned way—not as a desperate action coupled with parental fury. Taking some time away from an activity can be essential to alter a negative pattern in a child’s behavior. But when children are frequently offered a punishing and inappropriate use of what is called a “time out” for extended periods of time and with parental anger and frustration, it may not be the most effective way to change inappropriate behavior or to teach a new skill—and it may not be what the original researchers had in mind with this strategy.

See also Mandy Ingber's 4 Poses to a More Mindful Yoga Practice 

Studies of emotion coaching, in contrast, suggest that being with a child, especially during intense emotional distress, offers the kind of relational experience that helps a child develop emotional competencies—such as learning to express his or her emotions and to not bite in response to frustration and anger. It is exactly these teachable moments in which we need to be fully present—to be mindful—as parents so that we discipline—which really means teach—our children with connection and clarity, and not prolonged isolation done in parental despair.

YJ: Has your work changed you? Any inspiring stories you can share from your personal life or from someone who has been impacted by your work?
DS: My work is very personal and interpersonal all at once—so I have the honor of meeting people from all over the world from many backgrounds and we share the explorations of the inner and interconnected nature of our lives and how to improve them together. I have been deeply moved recently by a gathering we had to explore the overlap of science and spirituality at the Garrison Institute called Soul and Synapse. The ways in which people were willing to participate and explore a Wheel of Awareness practice that integrates consciousness has deeply affected me, opening my sense of how profoundly we have an inner sanctuary, an open plane of possibility, which we share in common with one another. It is out of this place of commonality that our individual differences arise. Yet all too often in this complex and violence riddled world, it seems we have lost the awareness of how we emerge from this universal place of an open plane, this hub of the Wheel in the practice, from which consciousness seems to arise. These shared explorations into the deep nature of our minds continue to shape my life each day.

YJ: What's on your reading table now?
DS: I have dozens of books exploring the personal nature of mind—from books of poetry by Rumi and Hafiz to autobiographies of Pete Seeger, W.B Yeats, and Maya Angelou. There are also scientific explorations of the brain, of the mind, and of consciousness, all lined up to be explored and woven into my next book. I’m also reading some humor books, listening to them in audio form, which I take in on long walks with my dogs. Sometimes I laugh so hard it seems the two of my canine companions get concerned I’m losing my mind—but instead, I think comedy and laughter help us find our minds, and link them together.

YJ:What is your yoga practice like these days?
DS: I’ve been deeply enjoying exploring the Wheel of Awareness practice that integrates consciousness, adding some subtle changes that have emerged in the last few months as I’ve cared for my ailing father-in-law who recently passed away. He inspired me in many ways, and his dying reminds me that life is so short, so fragile, and this time to be grateful for each other, for life, is a privilege each day. So the Wheel practice embraces the totality of it all, from exploring the rim of the wheel’s “known” senses of the outside world, the inner bodily world, the world of mental activities like thoughts and feelings, and even our relational sense of connection with each other and with the planet. I love the times of bending the spoke of attention around and straight into the hub of the “knowing” of awareness and resting in the expansiveness of that “plane of possibility”. And then, at the end, feeling the connection to others and offering wishes of kindness and compassion to each of us—all living beings, to our inner self, and even to an integrated self of “me” and “we” which can be called a “MWe”. I’ll record that new set of subtle changes soon and you can try them out for yourself at our website. Thanks for connecting here, and for bringing more presence into your life and into our world.