Editor's note: This episode was released on October 21. Its transcript was provided by Jeremiah B. Leonard, to whom the SFRB is grateful.
For most folks, being aware of something probably means nothing more than to notice it. Daniel J. Siegel, a clinical psychiatry professor at UCLA, has a far more intricate, wide-ranging answer, though. His most recent book, the bestseller 'Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence--The Groundbreaking Meditation Practice,' seeks to -- in its words -- "practical instruction for mastering the Wheel of Awareness, a life-changing tool for cultivating more focus, presence, and peace in one's day-to-day life." On this week's episode of 'Cotto/Gottfried,' Dr. Siegel explains how his book and life philosophy can help people live more beneficially. 'Aware' at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Aware-Practice... SEE more interviews HERE: http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks....
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COTTO: A lot of people think of meditation, and when they think of it the last thing that comes to mind, at least from my perspective, is science. But you, Dan have tried to really put a scientific point of view into the process of meditation. How did you come to do that?
SIEGEL: Well, you know I am trained as both a scientist and as a clinician — I’m a physician and a psychiatrist. And so, I wanted to see how using the mind in a scientific way could be done to actually promote more well-being in people’s lives. I’m a psychiatrist and work directly with patients, and so I combined a bunch of scientific ideas in a field I was working in called Interpersonal Neurobiology to try to work with individuals to see if they could use their mind to change, for example, how their brain was functioning or how their body was working. And it turns out that when you stick straight with science you can actually deeply understand a lot of the more traditional approaches to what’s commonly called meditation which simply means ways of training the mind.
COTTO: Paul, do you have anything to add?
SIEGEL: I am just listening here with considerable attention. I assume by meditation we’re talking about something like contemplation, not something like disciplining the mind for the study of mathematics, right? What you are defending is traditional approaches to a contemplative life or to contemplating, not the pursuit of science through some kind of disciplined method. But what I really want is sort of a handle on what you mean by “meditation.”
SIEGEL: The word meditation is a very interesting word because it can be interpreted in a number of ways. What I’m using the word meditation to imply is a way of training the mind in very disciplined ways. So, it’s not for the discipline of studying science, but it’s using science to understand, for example, what the mind is, and then how the mind relates to things like our relationships with one another, or how the mind relates to the brain, for example. So, you can train the mind in a number of ways — and there’s lots of forms of meditation. Some of them are contemplative, meaning you want to reflect on the nature of reality — and that we can get into too. But some of them are really to train the capacity, for example, for being loving, or for focusing your attention. So, we’ve done a study on meditation with people with attention-deficit problems. And this capacity also to be more kind to yourself and accepting rather than in a very reactive mode. Those are ways of training the mind that — I guess you could use the word contemplation for them if you want to use the notion of reflecting on the inner-nature of mental life, then many meditations toward training the mind would be reflective — in that sense. You need to say like, “where is my attention right now?” or, “what is in the contents of awareness,” or, “am I being kind or am I being harsh to myself or others?” So, in that sense since we’re talking about training the mind you’re going to use a process — let’s just use the word reflection — to focus attention and awareness on the nature of the mind itself, and in the course of doing that you do invite more traditionally contemplative, spiritual exercises to enter into this broader view of strengthening the mind.
GOTTFRIED: Will this contemplative exercise result in being better able to focus on a particular discipline? In other words, if I engage in certain kinds of certain reflective process which will make me more self-aware, will this also help me to master a particular discipline?
SIEGEL: Well, there are three pillars to training the mind that have been very rigorously studied that would support exactly what you’re saying. So, one of them is the development of focused attention. So, someone who’s participating in this first pillar of mind training — Focused Attention Training — they would be able to do anything. They would be able to ride a horse in a better way. They’d be able to study mathematics in a better way. They’d be more effective at studying English and poetry and music and painting. You’d be better at learning science and mathematics. You’d be a better student of anything. So, attention is really, really important and these are mind-training exercises — in this case we would call it a pillar — there are three pillars we’ll talk about that research has studied. But this first one is, how do you hold in a kind of a directional way what you’re focusing on? But it could be something very artistic. Like, I’m really going to work on this song right now. Or I’m going to really study this very esoteric form of science. So, it could be anything. But you’d become a more-disciplined scholar of something.
GOTTFRIED: It wouldn’t necessarily mean that you’d be able to master this particular discipline. It would just predispose you more fully to learning about it. Obviously, there are other requirements for doing well in a particular discipline, or certainly a particular sport.
SIEGEL: Yeah, exactly. So, the first would be the focus of attention. And then some people have the grit — which is a whole different topic — to stick it through and master something, and certainly the whole issue of your mindset — of growth mindset — meaning when you hit a real difficult challenge instead of collapsing and saying, “oh my god, this is a sign of my weakness,” you say, “oh, this is a great opportunity to learn even more. That was really hard. That’s great!” So, your growth mindset versus fixed mindset — and then, I think Angela Duckworth’s work on grit is very illuminating on your question, which is, who sticks to it to master discipline? And what she found — this a different topic, but — when people find a passion for something that is not just personal but has a purpose to it — meaning it’s of benefit to others — they can take that proclivity they have and they develop persistence — those are a lot of Ps — that’s where you get grip. And that’s when people really stick to something and master something, you could say “well they have grit, that was really hard to become a master at that.” It’s often — that kind of grit is what Angela Duckworth and others have found about sticking to it, you have those components.
GOTTFRIED: But we do recognize that even if I have focused attention and grit I’m not going to be a great tennis player unless I have other endowments, nor will I be an atomic physicist unless I have a certain cognitive ability and other sort of natural talents — no matter how much grit and no matter how much focused attention I show.
SIEGEL: If you mean you’re going to become like supreme leader in your field at that? Yeah, I mean then there’s some interesting things about — there’s some interesting studies on — there’s a beautiful book called The Talent Code by Dan Coyle about that question; who actually becomes the gold medal winner — and all that stuff? And there’s some really interesting questions, but there seems to be more than just — oh, I was born with that je ne se quoi, and I had it and I got it — but rather, some of those studies that Dan Coyle reviews suggests that there is a certain way of deep learning that when you see these centers of excellence those teachers have a way of really focusing on the strengths of a person, sure, but then really diving deeply into the weaknesses and really pounding at those weaknesses in a very disciplined way, and those people end up being star ballerinas and chess players and tennis players and all sorts of things, and there’s an inordinate number of the equivalent of gold-medal winners coming from particular learning centers that those studies suggest that it may be much more than just “oh, I happened to particularly luck out.” But rather, “I had the kind of training that made me a master.” So, those are interesting studies. But that’s different from this meditation. Meditation is really more about becoming a master of your own mind, and that anyone can do.
And the second pillar I think is really in some ways a bigger challenge than focused attention and that’s the way you open awareness to just learn how to not be consumed by the thing you’re aware of but rather cultivate this capacity for resting in open awareness — which some people call presence. I think that’s where your question about contemplation comes into the forefront because open awareness — this receptive state — is so not developed in schools and so not developed it our daily life that when people start really working at that level it does start to feel from the inside out, but also as you see someone doing it from the outside in, like wow this person is really doing a spiritual journey here, they’re on some kind of really big journey to change their experience of reality. And that’s, I think, where meditation becomes more than just like going out to the gym and working out at the gym — my muscles just got bigger. It’s more the actual functioning of the muscle — if the muscle were the analogy for the mind — is actually going to be quite different now.
COTTO: The central principal of your book “is where attention goes neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” Why is that so important for people to become more aware of the world around them and through that have a higher quality of life?
SIEGEL: Well, it’s important to first of all realize that amazingly now in science we’ve proven that how you focus your attention you’re intentionally in awareness — so it’s a special kind of attention cold Focal Attention — allows you to get your brain to fire off to become active in ways it wouldn’t normally do — which is kind of amazing — basically you’re using your mind to change the function of the brain, and that’s the “where attention goes neural firing flows.” The third part of that neural connection grows, is this beautiful set of studies by basically a number of people in the field of neuroscience that when you get your neurons to fire in certain associated ways, they begin to rewire with themselves because what you’re doing is you’re doing one or two or three of the following three things. You’re growing new connections among neurons. In some cases, you can actually grow new neurons in an area called the hippocampus and you’re also laying down this insulating sheath, myelin, which makes essentially the speed of conduction of information a hundred times faster, the resting period between firings thirty times quicker, so that’s — thirty times a hundred — that’s three thousand. You’re basically making interconnected neurons three thousand times, not only fast, but more coordinated balance. The reason that phrase is so important is because we now know that what you do in a discipline the way with your mind — that’s what meditation is — can change the function and the structure — the actual anatomy — of your brain. So that’s pretty exciting!
COTTO: It is! This relates to — or I guess you could say, gets spinning — the Wheel of Awareness, which is more the process through which all this information is integrated and applied in the world around you. Explain the Wheel of Awareness. You were explaining awareness before, but tell us about the wheel and how that’s important to your overall philosophy.
SIEGEL: Well, the first thing to say is that the fields I work in — what we do in interpersonal neurobiology is basically say how can we understand reality by bringing together all the sciences into one framework. So, we go with math and physics and chemistry, biology which of course includes neuroscience and genetics and medicine and psychology and anthropology and sociology and linguistics — all those things and more, and say if there’s one reality, only these are different ways of studying them are there some universal principals — what E.O. Wilson might call “consilience” — that emerge? Even though the disciplines themselves usually don’t talk to each other, what if you actually said everybody’s right they’re just getting at it from a different point of view. Like the blind men and the elephant, right? There’s one elephant even though the one’s studying the tail thinks it’s like a long rope and the one studying the ears thinks the whole elephant is just a big, flat, lettuce-like leaf. But no, they’re all correct they’re just parts of a whole story.
So, anyway that’s what we do. And I’m the editor of a series of books with Norton on interpersonal neurobiology. So, we now have over seventy textbooks that I oversee the publication of. And so, two principles from that effort emerged back in the nineties. One was a simple process that’s incredibly profound but easy to say called integration, which is things being different and then being linked — that’s how we’ll define integration as a term. Integration seemed to be the basis of health. Whether that’s in your brain or your whole body or your relationships with friends or family or people in a school or a city or a state or a country or the world — whatever system-level you’re looking at, integration seems to be the basis of well-being. When it’s absent chaos or rigidity emerged. When it’s present harmony and health emerge. So, that was really interesting.
The second interesting thing is that whenever you needed intentional change, like in a classroom or a family, helping kids grow or psychotherapy, you needed consciousness. So, I’m giving this background because if you put those two consilient findings together — consciousness needed for change, integration needed for health — and said, what if you integrated consciousness — that is where the wheel of awareness came from. So, I’m standing right here next to a table. I would bring my patients up to the table — the center is a glass kind of hub, if you will, of the table. There’s a wooden rim on the outside, and I said to my patients, “let’s integrate consciousness.” So, of course they looked at me like I was nuts and they said “what are you talking about?” And I said, “well integration is health, consciousness is for change, let’s integrate the two, integrate consciousness would be differentiating the elements of consciousness and then linking them.” They go, “what are you talking about?” So, I said well consciousness could be simply defined as the experience of knowing, that we call “being aware” like if I say “hello,” you have the two components of the awareness of hello, but then you have the sound hello. So that’s the known. And if we put the knowns on the rim, and differentiate them from the knowing and the hub, you begin the process of differentiating the elements of consciousness. And then if we take the part of this table here that looks like a spoke of a wheel, and say let’s make that a metaphoric spoke of attention — so attention is that process that directs energy flow to the hello for example, or if I say “feel the bottom of your left foot,” that would be a sensory direction of attention — what you would do is then systematically link the hub to the rim and differentiate the rim elements from each other. So, the rim you could divide into four parts. The first part would be stuff from the outside world like hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching — the first five senses. You then move the spoke over to the second segment of the rim which represents in science what we called the sixth sense, which is the interior signals of the body — so, muscles, bones, organs. Then you move the spoke over to the third segment of the rim, that’s mental activities — that’s feelings, thoughts, and stuff like that — memories, things like that. Then you move the spoke over to the forth segment of the rim which is your interconnectivity to people and the planet. And then in a more advanced step you can bend the spoke around and explore the hub itself.
So, I started doing this with patients, and amazingly their anxiety reduced, mild to moderate depression got better, dealing with trauma was better. I started doing it with my students who are therapists — their experience themselves and their clients, they got better. So, I started doing it in workshops and then since I’m a scientist I just recorded all the workshops. I did it with ten thousand people. And then amazingly no matter where I was on the planet and no matter what the person’s background, when people would take the microphone in these workshops, the reports on what the experience was like were very, very similar. So, these universal findings came up. And then it became so useful as a simple, reflective practice — that’s why I wrote the book Aware because the Wheel of Awareness has the three pillars that research had shown lead to really incredible changes I could mention in a moment. But the three pillars are focused attention, you do that on the first two segments; open awareness, you do that in the third segment including the bending the spoke around; and then you do kind intention, this development of a kind, positive attitude towards one’s inner life and relationships and other people, and you do that in the fourth segment of the rim. So, it turned out just by good fortune this integration of consciousness practice had all three of the pillars that are usually in separate meditation practices that research had shown lead to the following changes.
They improve the immune system functioning. They decrease stress. They improve cardiovascular functioning. They reduce inflammation by changing the epigenetic controls that regulate inflammation. And they actually slow aging by optimizing an enzyme called telomerase that was discovered of course in San Francisco and Elizabeth Blackburn at UC San Francisco won the Nobel prize for that and her colleague Elissa Epel and she wrote a beautiful book called The Telomere Effect which summarized the findings. But basically, what you do with your mind, in terms of being present and being in this open state of awareness to being with things as they happen, that cultivates optimal telomerase levels. So, it prepares the ends of your chromosomes and maintains them, slowing the aging process. So, those are great physiological changes that helped.
The other thing that happens is that you develop more integration in the brain which is the basis of all forms of regulation. So, you also get this sixth effect which is — you actually change integrative structures — the differentiation and linkage of areas in the brain that a study by Jones and colleagues in 2015, I think it was — showed is the best predictor of well-being and anyway they could measure was how integrated your brain was. So, this is a process — the three-pillar training — that research with three-pillar training shows produces these integrative changes in the brain.
GOTTFRIED: Is it possible by using this method to deal with physical diseases? Can you lessen their effect, can you get rid of some of their symptoms if a person engages in this kind of awareness?
SIEGEL: Sure, I think a very common physical condition is chronic pain. If you look at the research on chronic pain — at least the first two aspects of this maybe even the third, but the first two pillars — some people would call that mindful-awareness training, or mindfulness training — and what the research shows when you look at studies of chronic pain and mindfulness training is that not only does the person with this physical ailment, chronic pain, get reduced subjective experience of pain — which is wonderful because that subjective feeling of pain is so disabling — but in addition when you actually study their brain, the area of the brain, this region called the anterior cingulate that represents pain in the brain, it’s massively reduced too. So, a mind training practice — at least with the two pillars of focused attention and open awareness, these two parts of the wheel practice — you do get a physical condition called chronic pain, that is both subjectively reduced, that is I feel better, and objectively you’re measuring pain signals in the brain, and objectively is massively reduced, and a person has a different kind of life. So, yes. So, if we just begin with chronic pain, you can show — the research shows — that this can be extremely helpful subjectively and objectively for that physical condition.
And when you look at the issues related to let’s say inflammation, then a number of studies are suggesting that sadly part of why we’re getting a lot of increase in diseases across different sets of populations but in general, inflammation is thought to be a common path of physiological factor in cardiovascular problems even certain forms of diabetes, certain forms of cancer. So, when I went to medical school this was not being taught. We didn’t know that then, but now we know inflammation’s there. So, now you have a mind-training practice that has been shown over and over again to reduce inflammation. So, what we need to do then is do controlled studies and see, ok well, can that help prevent these diseases? Those studies we don’t have yet, but we do know that it reduces inflammation, so let’s see in the long run if we can offer this to people who would prevent some of these diseases from happening.
GOTTFRIED: But you don’t claim that you’ll be able to cure an infection by …
SIEGEL: I don’t claim it cures an infection. When you boost the immune system it helps you fight an infection. Using the word cure for a physician and a scientist you have to be careful with that.
GOTTFRIED: I understand, it’s all loaded term.
SIEGEL: But boosting your ability to fight an infection, absolutely. That’s of course with the immune system factor but it’s also with — reducing stress maybe involved there. And sleep, we didn’t even mention sleep, but you sleep better. So, sleeping better’s going to help you fight an infection. So, there are probably a number of ways where yes, you could help fight an infection. I’m really careful because the whole mind field is so fraught with non-scientific statements that what I’ve been doing the last twenty five years is just to really try to make that term mind defined and used in a very rigorous kind of way and so that’s why you see me so careful with a word liked cure. Versus helps you.
COTTO: For the last question Dan and then Paul you can share your two cents.
GOTTFRIED: Or one cent!
COTTO: Maybe one and a half!
SIEGEL: I hope these responses aren’t too technical. I’m trying to be very specific
GOTTFRIED: No no, you’re not. It’s a highly lucid explanation.
SIEGEL: Oh OK, good good good good!
COTTO: Your book, Aware, why is it relevant to people who have read it or who might want to read it? We’ve touched on some issues here that are directly relevant to what people are going through now. But why do you think your book on the whole speaks to society generally today?
SIEGEL: Oh boy, well listen Paul and Joseph first of all let me just say, these questions great, so I really appreciate them. This question you’re asking now has so many layers, so I want to ask you how many days do you have for me to respond of that? I can give you like bullet points and we can get into any of them, or tell me how you’d like me to respond because, there’s a lot to say about that very, very important question.
COTTO: Bullet points are fine, a nutshell — whatever you’re comfortable with.
SIEGEL: OK, let me do a nutshell of bullet points and we’ll see how it goes. So, the first thing I would say is that every citizen needs to realize they can be a part of what a number of academics use as a term which I love, called pervasive leadership. You can realize you can be a leader in the world beginning with your inner life, and that begins with your mind. So, while a lot of people these days are feeling very helpless and are feeling frightened — they’re in a very reactive state, very understandably — this first bullet point is — or maybe we should say take-home point rather than bullet point, let’s just use it — take-home point. The science is now in. You can be a leader in your own life. No matter what’s happening in the outside conditions, and however challenged we’re going to be as a planet and a human family, with every year as we go forward it’s going to get more and more difficult. So, there’s never been a time more than now that everyone needs to know what we didn’t know in science before, which is that you can actually strengthen your mind and improve the health of your body, your body and its brain, and your relationships with other people and the world around you. So, that’s a starting place. The reason I wrote the book was to be empowering for the reader. To have a totally science-backed reflective practice — people really are taken by the word meditation. When I developed this I just called it an integrative practice, but people didn’t know what that meant, so I said it’s a reflective practice, they didn’t know what that meant, so I said OK it’s a meditation. “Oh, I get that, OK fine.” Basically, it’s you’re using your mind to strengthen your mind and change your body and your brain and your relationships. So, it’s a win-win-win thing all around. So, that’s the first thing is that people should be empowered to have this pervasive leadership. That everyone can be a leader in their own life. They’re not helpless. The second thing — we are facing so many distractions — just to stick with the digital world we’re in — that to strengthen the mind’s ability, to have focused attention and open awareness and kind intention — these three pillars that the wheel trains and allows you to develop in your life — is also incredibly important when these digital objects are pulling our attention in a certain way that is external, we need to develop this internal capacity. I call it mindsight — to see the mind, so that we preserve insight and empathy, because that’s going lower and lower and lower. So, that’s take-home point number two.
Take-home point number three is that as we become, in this journey toward wherever we’re going as a contemporary culture, we have been given lots of messages and lots of frightening statements that continue to divide us. They divide us as — unfortunately our human brain has this proclivity for in-group/out-group distinctions. So, we have probably fifty million — and that’s five zero — fifty-million year history in our primate lineage of this in-group/out-group, evaluative thing that the brain does — the primate brain does. As humans we’ve kind of perfected the art of saying who’s in the in-group and out-group and our history — for example genocide — around this planet is where basically what we do is we, if we label you as the in-group we treat you with more kindness, if we label you as the out-group we dehumanize you and can destroy you. And that in-group/out-group distinction is intensified when there is a state of threat. And no matter what we can say about the world getting better there’s at least a sense of threat that is getting worse. And you see this in lots of ways — I’ll get to in my next take home. But in this third take-home point It’s really in a time of more and more division, a practice like the wheel of awareness — and this is what the research shows when you do the three pillar practices that are built into the wheel — you have an opportunity to actually get beneath your brain’s automatic pilot of dividing the world into in-group and out-group, and actually see the deep interconnectivity of not just all people but all living things. And we desperately need to get beyond the reactivity of out-group dehumanization. It’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for the dehumanizer. It’s obviously not good for the dehumanized, and there’s a pathway out of it. So that’s the third thing.
The forth thing I guess I would say — and I don’t want to keep on going with these so I’ll just say this one — is that when you these six things that research shows that the three pillars practices do — integrating your brain, reducing stress, improving the immune system’s functioning, reducing inflammation, optimizing cardiovascular functioning, making your telomerase work well so you slow the aging process — we’re facing more and more environmental conditions that make medical health even more challenge. So, if someone told you there was a medication that could give you these six outcomes, if you had some money you would certainly invest in the company that made it, you would start taking it every day! Well there is a daily thing that begins with an M but it’s not medication — take away the C, and add a T — it’s meditation! And just like we brush our teeth every day for dental hygiene, this is for both mental hygiene and bodily hygiene — doing a daily meditation. And when people say “well I don’t have time to do five minutes a day” I say well then do 10 minutes a day! If you’re that busy that you don’t have five minutes a day, then do ten! So, just like there was a time when no one brushed their teeth and teeth rotted, there was a time we could say maybe twenty years from now, ten years from now, five years from now, there was a time when no one did a mind-training thing like mental hygiene. So, this forth point is basically saying you know something, I think this is a turning point. We have a way — or maybe this is the fifth point, whatever it is — we can actually teach people — and this is why wrote the book — teach people these scientifically grounded ways of actually training the mind — and the reason why I have the draw drawings from my daughter in the book — was when people visualize the mind, and visualize consciousness and visualize the wheel, let’s say just as a visual metaphor — what’s been so interesting to me as an educator is people really get it. So, instead of being vague or someone says it’s related to some strange practice, or literally they say “I can’t see it,” now they can see it! And what’s so cool about the wheel is we even teach it — as you see in the book — to five-year-old in kindergarten. And when they know that they have a choice in the hub and if they feel like doing something unhelpful like hitting somebody on the rim, they actually can say “I need to get back to my hub. So, I can not hit somebody.” They can have a choice when they learn to cultivate this receptive awareness in the hub. So, that’s like a gift that keeps on giving. So, those are some of the many reasons, my deepest hope for the book is that any reader who reads it is going to have this empowerment to really — and I don’t mean to say this like in an over the top kind of way, I’m saying this as a scientist and as a physician — they will have a self-empowering way to bring all these positive changes into their inner life and their relational life.
GOTTFRIED: I don’t know, this would actually open up a very large can of worms. But I can’t help … political finger I really have to ask you this. Isn’t there value in the fact that we make in-group/out-group distinctions? There really are threats that we face in life. In order to survive for community and individuals, communities, families to survive they have to be aware of what does threaten their survival. I certainly grant the point that people become unnecessarily unkind or malicious toward other groups or toward other individuals, but the fact that there is something, one might say it’s part of our collective inheritance — biological or sociobiological inheritance — of human beings that make us aware of outside threats is not necessarily a bad thing and I would think in the absence of this we become entirely vulnerable to our enemies.
SIEGEL: Well, I think that’s exactly the evolutionary benefit of in-group/out-group distinctions, exactly what you’re saying. I’m not saying that it’s something that, first of all, any kind of meditative practices eliminates. What I’m saying — it lets you get beneath it.
GOTTFRIED: By the way, I did not mean to suggest that I thought you wanted to eliminate it. I was just being provocative.
SIEGEL: No no, listen, I completely agree with you! And here’s the exciting thing about just seeing this. You see — what are the layers of it? So, in an extreme state of threat you say my only in group are my family. And I don’t care about my neighbors. I don’t care about the people I work with. I don’t care about people who are not my same whatever, religion, color of skin — species even. So, it’s only my family. OK, fine. So, now you only take care of your family. All the other people die. All the other animals die. All the other plants die. There you are with your family, and you die of course, because we’re all interconnected.
Then going to the far extreme, if we realize that the forests around us are a part of us. That they’re not the out-group. That even though they’re not even in the animal kingdom, they’re in the plant kingdom, that it doesn’t make them an out-group. The tree I’m looking at in front of me is an extension of my body, if you will. So, when you begin to live like that, not only is it going to be healthier for the planet, so that we take care of the whole ecosystem, but it also feels better, because it’s exquisite to realize that though initially I may think that that tree is not me because I’m a human being, I’m an animal after all it’s just a plant — you expand your sense of self when you realize the tree is you, the person who’s not your skin color or religion is you, and I don’t mean is you like you disappear as one differentiated aspect is the body you’re born into, but basically kindness, compassion, and love, are what bring health into life, and meaning into life actually, and this practice the wheel of awareness — we haven’t talked about that side of it but — what’s been so incredibly rewarding but also so fascinating about it is you can take people — I’ll give you one little example. I was doing this in Seattle — I think I talk about this in the book — there is a Microsoft engineer who had just retired and his wife who is a therapist dragged him into my workshop I did, I was doing it with Jack Cornfield. So, he gets the microphone after the wheel awareness practice and he says, “I didn’t want to be here, I’m a seventy-year-old Microsoft engineer, I just retired, my wife is a therapist, she dragged me here, I didn’t want to see you two, I’ve never been in therapy, and I’ve never meditated before in my life,” and then he starts slowing down, and I’m thinking oh my god what’s going to happen, and he says, “but before the break we did that wheel of awareness practice and we bent the spoke around and I experienced the hub in the hub,” and he starts to cry and he goes “and then at the break, after the wheel I went out into park …” it was at the Seattle Needle and I see … he says it very slowly, and he says basically “I see a gardener watering the roses, and there are butterflies and birds” but he says it really, really slowly and then he says “we’re all one. We’re all the same thing.”
GOTTFRIED: This man was transformed in the course of an hour.
SIEGEL: Yeah! I know! But this has happened every workshop I do. So, what I’m trying to say is that the liberation that that person experienced, and he was not on any kind of drug, it wasn’t like a plant-based medicine, it was just a thirty-minute reflective, meditative practice that let him see the beauty of the deep, deep reality of our interconnected nature. So, this man — and he pronounced himself “I’m a Microsoft engineer, just retired — this man went from an isolated sense of identity to actually realizing he’s a part of everything. So, it isn’t — and people talk about it — it isn’t like losing your ego or losing yourself or dissolving some sense of your existence, it’s just the opposite in a way. You expand your sense of self. You expand your identity. You integrate your identity in many ways. So, it’s a me and we together — I talk about a m-we — and what’s been so exciting, because I’ve done this with ten thousand people in the recorded sessions, these surveys I’ve done, but now it’s way over that, and people get this feeling of timelessness and interconnection in a very brief time that is they will use words, not me, but they will use words like “it’s transformative, I feel incredibly joyful.” And so, I think even though the in-group/out-group stuff, yes, is necessary, you won’t walk down the street and say, am I OK? But we wanna really open people up to the incredible joy of an interconnected reality that we really live in but we often don’t realize.
COTTO: And when you talk about essentially all living things as extensions of each other, I presume that’s because they all have energy flowing within them and they’re all alive and that’s what unites them.
SIEGEL: Well it’s a really interesting question. I just came back — just like last night — from two unbelievably related but totally independent events. One was called the Pando Pilgrimage where fifty people went up to this tree called Pando Populace in Utah. And it’s amongst the largest and oldest living things on the planet. It’s basically forty-seven hundred trunks that look like forty-seven hundred different aspen trees. But six inches beneath the surface of the soil you come to realize it’s all one root ball, one root system. And when they’ve done the DNA test, it’s all one tree. So, a given trunk only lasts about a hundred fifty years, but the whole system is estimated at somewhere fourteen thousand, twenty thousand — no one really knows — but it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of years old. So, it’s amongst the largest and oldest living things on the earth. And so we were there, fifty of us many nations, many leaders of different religions were there. It was called the Pando Pilgrimage, it was a beautiful gathering of human beings to say, this is an icon for the deeply interconnected nature of reality that people need to realize. So, that was an amazing experience. And the second experience was to go with a group of a dozen of us and we did these solo-journeys into the wilderness up in Chrestone Colorado. And there wer’e in something called degenerative social fields group where we’re having this big academic meeting in October, but the bottom line of that was — this way we’re all in a field of life interconnected. You can say yes, it’s exactly what you said, it’s energy, and so that’s what’s shared in common. From a physics point of view — and this is going to sound poetic, and it’s OK if it does — I’m saying it more as a scientist not as a politically informed phrases. But in physics energy is the movement from possibility to actuality. It’s basically, you have a formless source of all forms — it’s called the quantum vacuum it’s just this is part of quantum physics — and so you can say that every form that you see on earth shares the common ground of a source called the quantum vacuum. And that’s basically what energy is. Even mass of course is energy equals mass times speed of light squared. Even mass is condensed energy.
So, in many ways with the beautiful feeling you get from doing the wheel of awareness is the hub looks like it is this formless source of all forms. And in the book you go through a whole journey through that. But what happens is not only when you read that but when you actually experience because you’re doing the wheel practice yourself. Is you begin realize you are in this form of a body and I’m speaking just as a scientist not trying to say anything more than pure science. You are manifested in this form of a body, you get about a hundred years to live in this body. It is the manifestation a form from this formless source all forms which is the quantum vacuum and at some point when your hundred years is up it’s going to melt back into formlessness that you could just called the quantum vacuum or whatever — this generator of diversity, this source, whatever you want to call it. And that’s it. So, you can get really upset about that but there’s nothing you can do about that hundred year kind of thing. Except that this mental shift in realizing the interconnected nature of not only reality in general but your specific reality of this incarnation and this form, it has lead to — I can say personally myself but this also what workshop participants say — it leads to a completely different approach to death. So, the whole view of the reality of life. So, in terms of your question of our interconnectivity, and how that tree is connected to us — it isn’t just that you think this way it’s you begin to realize it’s true. And there’s a beautiful term called empathic joy which is when that tree is reaching out to the sun you realize you are reaching out to the sun and soaking in that energy of the sun bringing it down to the roots. And in Pando’s case you see forty seven hundred quaking aspens diving to the same root, sharing with all those trucks the flame of their photosynthesis down and the joy of it all — it’s just it’s breathtaking. So, there’s this feeling of incredible excitement, of love, of joy — in a way liberation from a lot of the existential angst that people feel is because they’re living more at a what you could simply call a Newtonian “we’re all separate, you’re born alone, you live alone, you die alone, whatever” all this kind of existential dread is kind of liberated with a different perspective that comes when you differentiate hub from rim and get access to this.
And so if I haven’t done this with ten thousand people and it was just me doing it, I’d think I was in some kind of weird journey or if I just did it with a patient or two I’d say maybe it’s something in the air-conditioning in my office, I don’t now. But, this has happened over and over and over again, and the joy that comes out of it is so palpable and also from many people expressible that you feel it and you go “wow this is awesome.” So, we’ll see if the book can invite people to share that same journey and I’m very excited to see what happens.
COTTO: That truly was an excellent discussion. Thank you for joining us Dan, and thank you for turning and everyone. See you next week.