01 November 2010


The Brain, The Mind and Relationships: Why Presence and Mindfulness is Good for all Three!

Dan Siegel is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and author. His internationally acclaimed bestseller The Developing Mind has been used by educational programs all around the world. He also wrote the highly recommended The Mindful Brain and co-authored the exceptional parenting manual Parenting from the Inside Out.

So what was this illustrious neuroscientist recently doing up a tree in a Melbourne park? Well of course he was speaking to hundreds of people, mostly health professionals about his favourite subject Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). The Hotel we had been in caught fire; 1500 people were evacuated and Dan shinned up a huge Moreton Bay fig to make the most of the circumstances.

IPNB is the term Dan uses to bring together a wide range of factors to do with relationships and biological systems. He links them through the use of concilliance. Concilliance is the capacity to find the commonality from within a wide range of different disciplines.

This is akin to the traditional story of the blind people who were all asked to investigate an elephant and report. One swears to have found a leg, another a tail, then a big stomach and even a huge stomach and a trunk. All true, but not the full story. Concilliance is taking all the pieces and developing a unifying framework or paradigm. It is seeing the whole elephant rather than each of the separate parts.

This principle is directly relevant to holistic or Integrative Medicine which has the aim of considering the health, the healing and the wellbeing of a person’s body, emotions, mind and spirit; and works in a co-operative, interdisciplinary field.

Dan Siegel spent many years applying these same principles to the study of attachment and resilience in children. His work has shown that the best predictor of how children will end up, is their relationships. And when it comes to developmental trauma that impairs a child’s development, relationships have more impact than physical realities.

Scientist Dan said that relationships involve sharing energy flow and information. (Now there is a sentence worth contemplating! Really. Sit down and dwell on it; it says a lot).

He then went on to question the audience, most of whom were mental health professionals. Like over 90,000 others he has asked, 95% of our audience admitted that in all their training, whether as psychiatrists, counsellors, psychologists, nurses etc, they had had not one lecture on “the mind.” They all studied it for years. Yet, no one even defined it for them. So what is it?

In 1992, Dan began a 4 and a half year discussion group with 40 scientists from a wide range of disciplines, Their aim? To define the mind. Nearly 20 years later, Dan still regards his definition as a work in progress. But with all he has asked over the years, no one has improved upon this:

THE MIND IS DEFINED AS an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.

With this definition, the mind is a verb; not a noun. (Now contemplate that one). Also, Dan like most other neuroscientists these days, is firmly of the view that the mind is not confined to the brain, but involves the whole body.

He then explained that in broad terms, the mind experiences three states: Chaos, Integration and Rigidity. In his fairly logical view, mental health involves a mind that is integrated. Integration is the heart of health. Whatever leaves you feeling or acting in a more integrated way is good for you, it is healing.

What happens when integration is impaired? There is the opportunity for healing the chaos or the rigidity through utilising the brain, the mind and relationships.

Dan explained the principles of neuroplasticity, that exciting new field of neuroscience that validates how our brain changes its structure and function according to how we use it. The key point? Neurones that fire together, wire together. The more we do something, the more it develops our “mind’s muscles” and the better we become at doing it the next time.

In the mind, integration is best facilitated by focussing our attention. To be more specific, according to recent research, mindfulness seems to lead to integration better than most.

So for a parent, a teacher, a therapist, a friend, a lover, a therapist; the most useful thing you can do in this sense is to give your full attention. Attention is the mechanism that drives the energy flow that carries information via the neurones to stimulate activity and growth, and in so doing, leads to integration.

Attention, used in this context, is another word for presence, and presence promotes integration. So how to develop presence? Mindfulness is one reliable way of becoming more present with one’s self. With that comes the heightened possibility of being more present with others.

The practice of mindfulness may well be a way of integrating the functions of the brain and the mind, along with enhancing relationships.

  1. Dan Siegel’s excellent website:  www.drdansiegel.com
  2. The Miracle of Mindfulness: Thich Nhat Hanh.  Practical, profound yet accessible guide to mindfulness practice.
  3. Wherever You Go, There You Are (link to Borders online store): Jon Kabat-Zinn. One of Jon’s excellent books on mindfulness.
  4. Meditation - An In-Depth Guide: Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson – our guide to Mindfulness Based Stillness Meditation. Has accompanying CDs to support your practice.
  5. Residential and non-residential mindfulness and meditation programs : The Gawler Foundation: www.gawler.org

THANKS to all who have been commenting on the blogs. Remember to click on comments if you have experiences to share, questions or observations.

Meditation- how much is enough? And what meditation I did during my recovery, what I do know and what experience says is recommended for others at different times in your life.


  1.  Anonymous said...
    Succinct, useful and thought provoking. Thanks.

  2. This is really interesting. Since I began meditating recently, I notice more and more when someone is really with me. This notion of presence helps to understand the difference when you are with someone whose mind is elsewhere. It helps me to want to be more present when I am with my family and friends. Might take a bit of doing I think. Thanks Ian for these helpful hints.

  3. Really appreciate your review of such important new thoughts.

  4. Hi Ian
    Thanks for inviting me to post my question on your blog - I hope it might benefit others and I very much welcome your insights.
    As one of your first MS success stories I have managed to keep the condition well under control for over 15 years. After initially suffering a very severe attack and receiving a dismal prognosis I took up meditation and entered a psycho-spiritual path that enabled me to heal much of the self-aggressive behaviour that had contributed to the onset of the disease.
    At the Gawler Foundation I learned that part of recovering from major illness involved cocooning ourselves from difficult relationships – giving ourselves permission to do so as part of our stress management. This was difficult to put into action as it swam against strong urges to please and win a level of acceptance from others that I had not been able to offer myself.
    I am now a practicing Buddhist in the throes of establishing a branch of Shambhala International here in Melbourne - a role that demands life to be lived largely outside of the cocoon. Buddhism has a lot to say on the subject of relationships, psychology and ego. Ironically, the Shambhala word for ego is cocoon! They mean different things but there is some overlap. Cocoon is likened by one teacher to a room where only the tastes, smells, colours, shapes, foods, people, music that we like and want, can enter.
    At Shambhala we talk of emerging from the cocoon – where we generally can have things our own way....to a world where things are seldom the way we want – but we learn to lean into that, into whatever emotion arises - even the ones that are not the colour and taste we like. The art of meditation teaches us to open to whatever arises, drop all judgment of ourselves and others and learn to hold our seat with a gentle fearlessness, in any circumstance.
    In the language of your recent blog - perhaps my mind is somewhat fixated on the term cocoon (rigidity) - perhaps I need to apply the art of concilliance - what a wonderful word - because in the far reaches of my mind, these two cocoons clash a little – which can result in the experience of chaos and or rigidity. Is integration possible here? Or does it exist and I just cannot see it? If mind regulates the flow of energy and information – is it simply a matter of getting the balance right between the two types of cocoon? Or am I lost in the forest?
    And speaking of forests - it's an aptly titled blog - the view from "out (here) on a limb" is somewhat shaky and not a little treacherous!!! I hope others join me!

  5. Love the clarity in this thinking about the mind. Like we've just woken up to something here.
    So much about the mind being relational that explains what happens to us as we develop habits around our lack of integration.

  6. Dear Ian,
    welcome to the world of blogging with over 11 million people worldwide using this form of communication it's wonderful to have you on board you will be able to reach literally millions of people. This means lives will be transformed. Much love and blessings Lea rose.

  7. Thanks Ian for this thought provoking publication. I have spent some time looking at the definition of the mind and the following is where I ended up.

    I recently attended a Zen Buddhist retreat. The Monk looking after the retreat was having a healthy chuckle about the concept of "My enlightenment". Not "mine" in particular but the whole concept that a single "Mind" could get enlightened. I'm still a little confused but I am inclined toward the idea that "my" mind is not a single entity at all but a very small part of something much bigger.
    This ties in with an image that came to me during a meditation at the Gawler foundation about 12 years ago where I found myself walking into a yellow light. As I walked I disappeared into the light and yet I was still conscious of "my self". I was also conscious of all the other "selfs" but we were "all" the same light and there was no way to separate one self from another.
    It seems to me there are "levels" of mind and that the "embodied" mind is a surface layer of something much more profound.
    No doubt a few more retreats will add some clarity. Thanks again for the input. I'm enjoying reading "Out on a Limb".

  8. Hi Ian

    I am a recent attendee of the MS Retreat program back in August of this year.

    I submit myself as proof that anyone can gain significant improvement - using food as a beneficial "medicine". The key thing is to CHOOSE to do the more beneficial path - rather than the eat everything going approach I was doing.

    I was diagnosed with MS (RR) in August 09. Optic neuritis was the final bit I needed to get a diagnosis. When I was diagnosed I weighed 187.6 kilos. Today I am 114 kilos. I am sure Prof George Jelinek did not set out to find a good weight loss program for people with MS when he wrote his books. :) But I chose to follow his approach 100%.

    I think that if people are choosing to eat food they don't like - they are either very bad cooks - or living in a cave with few choices available. Both amounts to laziness in some form in my opinion. Any food can be made tasty - with a bit of care and some knowledge.

    My diagnosis was the key event in 6 years of trying to find answers and getting none. I admit I was not doing myself any favours. Spiritually and mentally I was just about finished - physically was a whole different problem.

    Having MS has changed my life. But in a more positive way than I could ever have thought was possible. I watched a family member deal with their own 4 year battle - with cancer - just prior to my diagnosis. I saw what can happen when all the bits of the puzzle are not quite there. You can do everything the doctors tell you - and DO to you - and the outcome is far from ideal. They lost their battle 4 months after I started to climb out of the black hole I had put myself in. I understood the price of putting ones faith in only a single methodology - if it does not work - what then?

    I have recently learnt meditation from Paul and I have his CD. It has not yet become a critical thing to do with me - even though I know it works. There are still elements of the "I don't deserve this" going on. I did meditation yesterday whilst having a reflexology treatment - I finally learnt that if I can meditate whilst having my feet messed about with (my singular strong dislike) then I can meditate anywhere - and I KNOW how to do it finally.

    Every one journeys on their path hoping to avoid all the pot holes. I have learnt that I needed the event - to make myself wake up and see what was possible - if I chose to just TRY.

    I don't measure success on big goals now. Success is continuing to try on those days I really don't want to. So far I have not given up. Therefore - for me - success comes everyday. For a person who used to look at life to try and understand the complexities - for me to learn - finally - that life is there to be enjoyed and experienced - to love the fact that I CAN. To care enough about myself and others to acknowledge my choices impinge upon others - emotions - not thinking with my head all the time. If I can learn that in 16 months then anyone can do anything in their own lives - if they first decide to try - and then decide to do the same thing everyday they wake up.

    Life is a great gift Ian. A profound understanding that I did not appreciate prior to this new path on my journey. It is to be lived - not endured. The difference is attitude and the will to change. I appear to have been capable of changing enough to have the chance of enjoying the experience. :)

    Blessings and health to you Ian. Seasons greetings also to you and your loved ones.(how did it become December already?)

    Jeremy Morck

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