Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Wheel of Awareness

I've been reading Dr. Daniel Siegel's new book, Mindsight (which I highly recommend). So, I'm going to be writing a few posts introducing ideas from this book, because it offers so much that can help us understand how mindfulness changes the very structure of our brain in positive ways that also can improve and transform our life.

To talk about how we can direct the attention of our mind, Dr. Siegel uses the image of a bicycle wheel. This wheel is made up of a rim, a hub, and spokes that connect the two. Imagine the rim as a series of points, each point representing an experience that we perceive through our senses. These include:

  • Perceptions of our inner body sensations, including the breath, muscles, and internal organs;
  • Perceptions of the world around us coming through the five senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing;
  • Perceptions of the activity of our own mind - our thoughts, emotions, memories.
Okay, so the next part of the wheel is the hub, and the hub is simply our mindful awareness, which has the characteristics of openness, safety, curiosity, and calm. Notice that our awareness and our perceptions of experience are separated by a space in between.

What makes the connection between is the deliberate movement of our attention. Each moment of awareness that is directed at a particular experience - a sound, a feeling, a thought, a body sensation - forms a spoke on the wheel, a connection between mind and experience. What is critical here is that through mindful awareness, we can choose what we pay attention to. We can move along different points, shifting our awareness consciously among all the various experiences which are available in any given moment.

Now for most of us, this model of the mind and awareness is pretty radical, I mean most of the time we aren't aware of there being a space between our mind and what we see, hear, feel, or think. But there is, and the practice of mindful awareness allows us to experience that space and realize that we really do have choices about what we pay attention to. Both what we pay attention to and how we pay attention can dramatically affect the quality of our life.

So, we practice mindful awareness in which we learn to focus our attention consciously, starting with our breathing and body sensations, then expanding as our skill increases to sounds, sights, smells, taste, and finally to our emotions and thoughts.

Now, here's the cool brain part: as we train our minds through repetition of mindful awareness activities, we actually are stimulating the growth of synaptic connections and neurons themselves, as well as creating new neural firing patterns. And these neural changes, which are focused in the middle prefrontal region of the brain, translate into increased brain integration and improvement in a whole myriad of brain functions (more on this in a later post). Mindfulness. Does. That.

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