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In Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, Dr. Daniel Siegel teaches us how to use meditation for a better life, better relationships, and stress reduction.
Allan (1:07): Dr. Siegel, welcome to 40+ Fitness.
Dr. Siegel (1:12): Allan, it’s great to be with you.
Allan (1:14): You told a story in the book Aware how you had, I guess, someone who was a student or someone that was listening to one of your talks, and she came up. And due to where her head was, her awareness and the way she looked at the world, she misconstrued your name, Dan Siegel, to Dancing Eagle.
Dr. Siegel (1:34): That’s right. Dance Eagle.
Allan (1:37): I thought that was interesting because a very similar thing happened this morning, or a story my wife was telling me that happened yesterday. We’re traveling to Hattiesburg for a tailgating event this weekend for football. I’m going to go to the football game. And as we were planning that trip, I wanted to know if she was okay with us leaving early Saturday morning. So, I typed a text to her real quick, “Are you okay to go to Hburg (Hattiesburg) early Saturday morning?” And I sent that to her. Now, what I didn’t know and what happened was, because she had forgotten her lunch, she had gone over to Whataburger to get a burger, and they talked her into upsizing to the fries, so she was a little disappointed in herself. And she sees the text and she sees the term “Hburg” and she immediately reads “hamburger”.
Dr. Siegel (2:27): Oh my gosh.
Allan (2:33): We sometimes see reality one way and it’s not actually what’s happening. It’s just shaped by all these other things that are in our heads.
Dr. Siegel (2:41): Totally. You get primed, your mind is ready to look a certain direction when actually the things going around you are going in a different direction.
Allan (2:50): One of the reasons I reached out for your book in particular was, I haven’t talked about meditation, so I wanted to get someone on who was a real deep thinker in this topic. And I was really glad to see your book come out so we could have this conversation. You took me on a journey that I was not expecting. When I’ve looked at meditation in the past, I’ve always thought of it as more of a stress management, Zen kind of activity, but there are a lot of other benefits that we can get out of meditation.
Dr. Siegel (3:26): Absolutely. And meditation is a word that sometimes gets people confused, or they have certain emotional reactions to it. It just means some practice to cultivate your mind, to develop your mind in a positive direction, to strengthen your mind really. When you look at it that way, there are different aspects of the mind of course, like focusing attention or how you have certain kinds of intention, and you can actually strengthen those abilities. So, in the book I wanted to really review what does the science tell us of meditation, and then how can you actually learn to do what science says is really helpful for your mind, your body, your relationships? That’s why I wrote the book Aware, to put all that in one place.
Allan (4:12): I actually think the human brain is fascinating, and the way that we do things, like, Hattiesburg and hamburger. You went really, really deep on this, but to start the context of it, you gave me what I thought was a very brilliant tool to manage this practice, and you call it “The Wheel of Awareness”. Do you mind going through and briefly defining The Wheel of Awareness and how we can use that to, in a way, better structure a meditation practice? I know I’ve gone through walkthroughs with people, or the guided meditations, but this one was one of the, I guess, most comprehensive, but easy to understand methods I’ve ever seen.
Dr. Siegel (4:56): I’m so happy to hear that, Allan. My daughter will be happy to hear it too because she helped me with the drawings in the book. She’s in her 20s, she’s a meditator. It was really important for me in setting up this book, and for Maddie, my daughter as the illustrator, to try to make things as direct and clear and understandable as possible, while at the same time not leaving out anything about the incredible richness and depth of what we know from science and what you’re going to experience in your own meditation practice. So, The Wheel of Awareness is a really simple and accessible tool. It’s an idea that’s also in meditation, where you take two scientific concepts, which are really foundational in the work I do, and bringing them into one approach. Those two ideas are this – health and wellbeing come from a process that we can simply name “integration”. And integration is where different things are brought together, where you link or connect differentiated or specialized things. If you think about walking, your left leg and your right leg need to be different from each other, but to walk smoothly, you need to link them – left, right, left, right. That kind of thing. In a relationship like with your wife, when you’re going to go tailgating, you want to know, “I would like to leave early and I need to check with her to see what her needs are.” So you were right there, Allan; you were differentiating your needs. But in reaching out to her and asking her, even though she interpreted “Hburg” as “hamburger”, she was being linked to you. So you were offering an integrating experience, knowing she’s different from you. That’s the differentiation. But then reaching out with compassionate, respectful communication – that’s the linkage. So, whether it’s an integrated relationship or an integrated brain and body, that seems to be the basis of wellbeing. It’s remarkably simple, but incredibly supported by science.
The second scientific statement is that consciousness, being aware, is needed for change. When you want to intentionally try to change something, like the plans for when you’re going to the tailgating thing – you both have to be conscious of what you’re doing. So I thought, what happens if you integrate consciousness? And there’s a table in my office with a glass center, and I said, if consciousness is simply defined as having the knowing, like if I say “Hello”, you know I said “Hello”, but there’s also the sound “Hello”. If we put the knowing, called “being aware” in the hub of a table, in this case that’s called a wheel, a hub of a wheel; on the rim, we would put the knowns, like in this case the sound that we know from hearing or sight, which is basically light coming into us, or smell, taste and touch. So you have the first of four segments of the rim, which would be the outside world coming into you that you touch, you smell, you taste, you hear. Then you move the spoke of attention over, this singular spoke, and then you explore the interior sensations of the body, like the feelings in your muscles or your bones or your organs like your lungs, for example. You move this spoke over again to the third segment of the rim, which is all the different thoughts and feelings and memories, your images you might have, mental activities. And then you move this spoke over one more time to your sense of relationship, like your feeling of connection to your wife, or your friends who are going to be at the tailgating party. Those are interconnections in the relational world in which we live, and we can open up to sensing them in this fourth segment of the rim. And then in a little bit of a more advanced step, we actually take that spoke of attention and bend it around and just explore the hub itself. Pure awareness. I did this with patients and they started getting better from anxiety, mild to moderate depression, dealing with trauma and dealing with some issues just to finding meaning in life. It was really helpful. And then I did it with my students who are therapists. They found it helpful. So I started doing it in workshops, and then as a scientist I just decided to do it systematically. So I did it with 10,000 participants in workshops. I had them take the microphone, and for those who took the microphone, recorded those results, and then saw universal patterns around the planet, because I did it all around the world, and then tried to explain from a scientific point of view, what does the wheel do for us that can bring such health benefits? And then, what does it tell us about the nature of our minds?
Allan (10:07): I think that’s where at first, sometimes it’s a little easy to get lost on this. But to recap, the way I interpreted this was, if I think of a wheel – a top of a table, or a wheel – I’m in the middle and this is my current state of awareness, my current knowing. And then there’s this other stuff coming in. I’ve got what my eyes, ears, nose and everything is telling me about my world. I’ve got the information that my body is giving me about what’s going on – pains, aches, stiffness, soreness, itching or all that’s coming in from my body. And most of the meditations I’ve done had been there, and I never really turned around and say, “Let’s talk about my state of mind. What am I thinking and what do those thoughts mean? Am I interpreting from a place of goodness and good intention?” That to me was a next step. Then you get to that fourth level or fourth part of the circle on the outer rim, where now you’re thinking about what other people mean, can I emote and understand their perspectives and their communication and those kinds of inputs, awareness that’s there? And as you do this, you didn’t say this so much in the book, but I kind of felt like you start to try to expand that hub in the middle, that the hub actually would feel like it’s getting bigger.
Dr. Siegel (11:40): Yes, exactly. That’s an analogy, like if your hub is just the size of an espresso cup, it’s small. And if life dishes out a challenge, like a tablespoon of salt, and you dump it into that small container of awareness, let’s say it’s like water – it’s too salty to drink. But if you expand, just like you’re saying, Allan – if you expand that hub so it’s like a 100–gallon size, which you can do with The Wheel of Awareness practice – then when life dishes out a challenge, which is the analogy of a tablespoon of salt, you’d dump it into 100 gallons; it’s fresh to the taste. So, it’s really important that we cultivate that hub of awareness, and in the book, you learn how to do that.
Allan (12:25): You based this on what you call “three pillars of mind-training”. I think it’s really important for us to understand that, because if you use these three pillars, I really do believe this gives that practice, the energy to make it succeed. Do you mind going through the three pillars of mind-training?
Dr. Siegel (12:44): Absolutely. This is what scientists have stated are the three, and there’s probably going to be more in the future, but right now these are the three that are foundational, because they build the structure of a really solid meditation practice. The first of these three pillars is “learning how to focus attention”. You’d be surprised how accessible this is for children or adolescents or adults even, to strengthen their ability to focus attention, notice when a distraction is there, and redirect back to their intended target of attention. When people learn to focus attention, you strengthen those areas of the brain, of course, that you’re using for attentional processing. That’s the first pillar – focused attention. It lets you see with more clarity, depth and detail, because you’re stabilizing your ability to hold attention.
The second pillar is called “open awareness”, and this is where you are basically learning to sit in the hub and invite anything in from the rim. It’s a kind of “bring it on” attitude, and this amazingly has a different kind of impact on the brain, but it allows you basically to distinguish a spaciousness of awareness in the hub from the particular things you could be aware of on the rim. So instead of like the focused attention thing where let’s say you choose sight for your particular focus at that moment, or hearing, instead now what you’re doing is you’re saying, “I’m not going to choose a point on the rim. I’m actually going to rest in the hub.” And that further differentiates hub from rim, which is very important, as we can talk about in a moment.
The third pillar beyond open awareness and focused attention is, I call it “kind intention”. Other people call it “loving kindness” or “compassion training”. If you think about the mind, the mind can have a mental set, kind of an attitude, if you will, and that attitude can be angry and hostile, or can be kind and caring. When you cultivate a kind and caring attitude – we’ll just simply call it intention – it really sets the whole tone of the day. It sets your emotional responses to things, it sets your responses to yourself and others, it sets your responses in terms of how you’re going to behave. And the research is really clear. The more kindness you have in your life, the healthier your body is, the healthier your relationships are, and overall the healthier your whole life becomes. So, kindness is not just icing on the cake, and it’s not even the cake. It is the main meal. You can cultivate it. And when you put these three things together, I call it “three pillar training”, research shows it’s going to do a number of really, really positive things in your body and your brain, that if we name them, if you hear this list, you would say, “Oh my gosh. If there’s a vitamin that would give me that, I’ll take it every day.” And it’s not a vitamin, but it’s a very simple practice, just like you brush your teeth every day. You can develop a regular practice of doing these three pillar trainings, and they’re all embedded into one practice of the wheel, fortunately. So, if you run around finding different practices, you could just do one practice; you get all three of the pillars.
Allan (16:23): Yes. One of the reasons that I’ve had a renewed interest in meditation in the last couple of years is stress levels. Right now, that’s one of my core goals in life, is to do some things that help me reduce and/or manage stress. When I got into the book, as I said, it really took me in an entirely different direction to understand the true value of meditation. I really related to the story you told of Zachary as he went through, because he, like me, was working in a kind of environment where he couldn’t necessarily be himself or didn’t feel like he could be himself and be real. As a result, he had a lot of relationship issues with work and otherwise; he had pain even. And using the practice, it really did change him. I’d like for you to, if you don’t mind, go through and tell us a bit about Zachary’s story.
Dr. Siegel (17:26): Absolutely. Allan, thanks for pointing that out because first of all, in terms of your first statements, a lot of people turn to meditation because of stress. I think it’s a most common view that you hear people say is, meditation or mindfulness is a stress reducer. And while that’s true, as you’re pointing out, it is so much more, and Zachary’s story is a beautiful example of that. I started doing The Wheel of Awareness in workshops, and there was one center, Ed Bacon’s Episcopal Church in Pasadena, where Ed is the pastor. He wanted me to do a Wheel of Awareness seminar. So we did a 3-day workshop, and it was filled. We had 300 people come, and one of the participants was a fellow we’ll just call Zachary. When Zachary came, his brother brought him. He had just a little bit of a restless feeling at work, like maybe it wasn’t exactly as fulfilling as he hoped it would be. He was very successful financially, had a spouse and several kids. The family life was great. His wife was very happy with him, he was happy with her. Everything was going fine, but as he told later on, something just wasn’t quite right. And so his brother said, “Let’s see what happens. Come to this workshop.”
So, he comes to the workshop, and when he’s doing the wheel practice, two things happen in the workshop. We do the wheel several times. The first was that he had had a pain in his body, and I remember where it was in the actual person, but I don’t remember how I changed the pain in the book. Let’s just say it’s in the shoulder, chronic pain in his shoulder. May have been his knee or his hip or something. So he has this chronic pain, and during the wheel practice, as he’s going through exploring the signals from the outside world in the first segment, the inner sense of the body, becomes aware of his shoulder of course, because you go through the whole body. When he gets to exploring mental activities and opening awareness, suddenly the pain hugely decreases in intensity. And then when he bends his spoke around, something shifts and it’s kind of a tingling sensation in his body. He does the wheel a second time – same thing. And at the end he comes up to me and says, “I don’t know what happened, but I’ve had this pain for like 15 years, and it’s gone.”
And if it was just Zachary, I would have been like, “Oh my God, what a weird thing.” But this happens an every workshop I do. When you do it with 10,000 people, you get a lot of data. It turns out that there’s a whole set of research studies on this, where practices with the three pillars that some people call “mindfulness practices”, other people wouldn’t put the kindness in there for that. It’s a big debate in the field. Don’t worry about that. But anyway, we’ll just call it “mind-training practices”. They do have not only a decrease in the subjective feeling of pain, but when you put a person in a brain scanner and you look at how pain is registered in the brain before and after the meditative practice – sure enough, there are far less signals in the brain registering pain. So it’s not just like a person’s ignoring it; it’s actually less pain. That was remarkable, and that really affected him that you could do something with your mind that affected you so powerfully.
The second thing that happened was when he bent the spoke around into the hub itself and just explored the hub, he said what quite a few people have said actually. It’s hard in this context just to say it, but he experienced a feeling of love and connection to other people, and this interconnected feeling of being a part of a larger world, of nature, of life, that he had never felt before. And it brought tears to his eyes, and it gave him this, in his words, feeling of meaning that he then began to realize was missing in the kind of work he was doing. So, a year passed and Ed Bacon asked me to do the workshop again. And this fellow came with his brother to a lunch we had right before the start of the next year’s workshop. It was amazing, because we all had lunch together, and he said that that first workshop gave him such a powerful experience of losing the pain and gaining a sense of meaning and connection, that he felt he really wanted to pursue more about that and had made plans to switch to a new career, where he could involve The Wheel of Awareness and practices like that, that could get you in touch with a deeper sense of purpose in life. The second workshop had the same kinds of results for him and others as well.
And he’s not alone. People find this clarity when they distinguish hub from rim and integrate consciousness, where they realize you could live a life of meaning and connections, life with purpose, that research shows is actually a fabulous way to bring more fulfillment to life, bring a feeling of things being really powerfully significant. So, rather than what he was doing before, which was good – he was successful financially, bringing in financial resources for the family – that’s important. But he really felt something had been missing. And now, years later of course, he is pursuing this career where he can make this a part of his life, and he’s thrilled about it. Even the way he holds himself, you can tell when you speak with him, is just very different. He’s very alive, and every day feels like an incredible gift for him.
Allan (23:56): That was what resonated with me with this story, that he wasn’t necessarily looking for these as he got into the practice. But by following a set practice like you’ve put together here with The Wheel of Awareness and using the three pillars, it opened him up to release those things and find more meaning, and the pain went away. Those to me are magic, when you break it down. But it’s founded in science. I’ve had other authors on, like Dr. Tatta and his book Heal Your Pain Now. That’s one of the things he was saying, that you’ve got to get your mind as a part of the solution for the pain, and it works. But again, the book was really, really deep. It goes into the way the brain works, it talks about a lot of the science, which I thought was fascinating, because I really do enjoy kind of geeking out on some of these things. But to take this back down, The Wheel of Awareness and the three pillars – that is a basis. I was fortunate I bought the audio book, so I was able to listen along as you talked us through the practice. I know you have some of that on your website as well. If someone wanted to learn more about the book, learn more about you or get the information you have on the website, where would you like for me to send them?
Dr. Siegel (25:20): I think going to the website is a great idea. Allan. It’s DrDanSiegel.com. There you’ll find free resources. So you can go to the Resource tab and do The Wheel of Awareness practice if you’ve never done a practice like that. You could do the Breath practice first for a little bit. The videos we have up for free, and all sorts of stuff, are really intended to let people get familiar with these ideas, because just as you’re saying, there is a practice you can start doing that’s going to really help bring health and connection and meaning in your life. If you’re interested, like Allan is, and as you said, geeking out of really learning about this stuff, the way I divided up the book is, the first part you learn the practice, and that’s it. You don’t need to read the science. But the second part you learn some of the science if you want to learn it. You don’t need to learn it at all, but if you do, you realize how. And when you get into the third part of the book, how did Zachary change? Where does meaning and connection come from? I’m an educator and a clinician and a scientist and a father and all sorts of things. I really want to know how these things happen. So, if you’re up for it, in part three, you explore the life situations of five real people and how when you understand the science, you do get to a really deep clarity about why Zachary was able to change and what the wheel meant for him. And then in part four, it basically says, “Let’s see how you can weave this way of living essentially with an expanded hub. How can you bring that into your life in a regular way?” We have things called “dedicated” or “formal” practices that we do 10 minutes, 20 minutes a day. But the real integration happens when you weave the learnings from that time into how you live your whole day. That fourth part of the book says, “Let’s talk about that. Here’s how you can do it.”
My hope is that the book will be a very practical guide, including the science for people who want to dive into it, but you don’t need to dive into it, so that you know. As Louis Pasteur, the scientist, once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So, even if you just get a glimpse of what the science is saying, get a feeling for it, workshop participants have told me even though they didn’t understand all of the science, and no one does, even people presenting it – you get a glimpse of it, and that glimpse gives you a clarity about what something like the hub really means and why accessing and expanding it is so helpful for you. You’re integrating your brain. Literally, you’re going to strengthen the structure of your brain. You’re going to make your immune system function better, reduce stress, optimize your cardiovascular functioning. You’re going to reduce inflammation. This blew my mind – you’re going to even optimize an enzyme that repairs and maintains the ends of your chromosomes. And when I turned the book into my colleagues who had written about that, Elissa Epel – one of them – wrote me back. She said, “Dan, this is a great book and everything’s accurate, but you left something out.” And I go, “Oh my God, I have to write another chapter. What did I leave out?” And she had written a book called The Telomere Effect with the Nobel prize winning Elizabeth Blackburn. So Elissa writes me back and she says, “You need to say that these trainings that the wheel has, slow the aging process.” So I wrote back to her and I said, “How can I say that?” She goes, “Because that’s what it does.” And this is the world’s expert on aging.
Allan (29:27): I’ve had her on the podcast. We talked about The Telomere Effect, and yes, it actually does.
Dr. Siegel (29:32): It’s amazing.
Allan (29:33): But the cool thing is – and this is a bad analogy for me to use – is that you’ve lit a fire under my butt to really ignite and start doing my meditation practice. And I know I should pick a calmer analogy, but nothing comes to mind.
Dr. Siegel (29:47): No, that’s good. We’ve got to light each other up, Allan. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s a good analogy, I love it.
Allan (29:52): Alright. If you want to find that website, you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/342, and I’ll be sure to have a link there to Dr. Siegel’s website and to the book. Dr. Siegel, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.
Dr. Siegel (30:08): Allan, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Allan (31:17): If you enjoyed today’s episode, would you please take just one moment and leave us a rating and review on the application that you’re listening to this podcast right now? I’d really appreciate it, and it does help other people find the podcast, because it tells the people that are hosting these podcast episodes out there on their apps that you’re interested and they know that other people like you might be interested. So please do that. If you can’t figure out how to do that on your app, you can email me directly and I’ll try to figure it out for you. Or you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Review, and that’ll take you to the iTunes where you can launch that and leave a review there. I really appreciate the ratings and reviews. It does help the podcast, it helps me, so thank you very much for that.
Also, I’d really like to continue this conversation a little bit further, so if you haven’t already, why don’t you go ahead and join our Facebook group? You can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Group, and that’ll take you to our Facebook group where you can request entry. It’s a really cool group of people, likeminded, all in our 40s, all trying to get healthy and fit. I’d really love to have you out there and have you a part of that conversation. So, go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Group.
October is really shaping up to be a busy, busy month for me. As you know, we did the Ketofest a few days ago, and that turned out really good. Really enjoyed spending time with folks there, and I hope you enjoyed it if you were there. Of course, I’m putting out the extra episodes each week; I hope that you’re enjoying those. I know I enjoy the conversations. I’m recording a little bit in advance just to keep up with it, because it’s a lot of work putting on a podcast episode. And then of course there’s the work on the book. Even though we finished the manuscript and it’s going into the phases of getting it turned into a book, and now an audio book, there are still so many moving parts to that. I want you to be in the forefront of that. I want you to be on the team with me, please. So, go to WellnessRoadmapBook.com and join the launch team. I’m not going to ask a whole lot from you there, but you’re going to get a lot of bonuses, a lot of extra content, things I can’t share with anybody else, things I won’t share with anybody else. You’re going to be on my select team to be on the forefront of launching this book. I think this book is going to do a lot of good for a lot of people, and I want you to be a part of that team. So, go to WellnessRoadmapBook.com. Thank you.