Thursday, 21 November 2013

Mindsight and the wheel of awareness

How would you describe our ability to perceive our mind and that of others?

Self-awareness? Consciousness? Emotional/social intelligence? Theory of mind? Dr. Dan Siegel of the UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center came up with the term "mindsight". Nice word! I like it. He wrote a book about it in 2010 called "Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation".

He describes mindsight as "a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, integrate the brain, and enhance our relationships with others." He says it's "a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds."

We all learn and develop mindsight as we grow up. Through it we start to see what's inside, to map out the internal landscape of our mind and recognise what things like sadness, anger, grief, pleasure, love, and excitement are. But the skill of mindsight goes way beyond just observing what's inside. Through focussed attention we can learn how to notice and acknowledge a thought/feeling/sensation, without getting caught up in it or identifying ourselves with it. It can give you perspective. In Dan Siegel's words, "it gives you the understanding to distinguish the difference between 'I am sad' and 'I feel sad'." This is similar to what the great Zen Master Obaku said: "that which sees suffering is itself not suffering".

In his talks and books, Dan Seigel likes to use the analogy of a camera lens. As we grow up, he says, if parents don't provide clear feedback on the child's emotions and feelings then the mindsight lens can become distorted. Nurturing and healthy relationships help develop a "stabilised mindsight lens", and (from his book) "when the lens of our mindsight camera is stabilised, the details come into focus. We see with more depth and precision.

Developing our mindsight skills (if you like, stabilising and polishing the mindsight lens) is an important part of what we do on my courses in mindfulness (next course starting 17th Jan 2014), and is also an integral part of my yoga classes.

Along with this idea of mindsight, Dan Seigel has also come up with lovely analogy to help us practise mindsight. He calls it the "Wheel of Awareness" (click here to listen to his recorded meditations).

Close your eyes and picture a bicycle wheel (or just look at this picture...).



In the middle there is the hub. The hub represents knowing or awareness. Around the outside is the rim (perhaps carbon fibre if you're into racing bikes, or perhaps old-fashioned steel that's slippery to your brakes when wet...), and the rim represents all the things that can be known. The spokes represent our attention – the way we become aware of all these things. We can think of sending out a spoke of awareness from the hub to the rim.

In his meditation, Dan Siegel splits up the rim into four quadrants or segments.
  1. The first segment represents our senses. The ways in which we connect to and are aware of the outside world. The ways we take in data about what's around us: sounds, touch, tastes, sights, and smells.
  2. The second segment represents the interior of the body – sensations, feelings, proprioception. Just take a moment to notice all the parts of your body and all the sensations arising from within the body.
  3. The third segment represents mental activities. These include thoughts, experiences, memories, emotions, moods, plans, feelings, desires, wants, etc. This segment also includes our awareness of how things arise and pass. Do these things come up suddenly or gradually? Do they then stay constant, fade in and out, or vibrate? Then how do they leave? And are they replaced immediately with something else or not?
  4. The fourth quadrant represents our sense of connection to others – to people physically close to us, to our family, friends, people in the neighbourhood, the city, country, continent, in the whole world, and finally to all of life.
In the expanded version of his meditation he also directs us to bend a spoke of attention back towards the hub. If you've got carbon fibre spokes this'll be difficult... What he's asking us to do is become aware of our awareness itself. Remember that quote by Master Obaku? "That which sees suffering is itself not suffering".

I'd definitely recommend doing one of the meditations from his webpage - the shortest is only 8 mins long.

Points to anyone who comes up with a way of incorporating the valve and the reflector into this analogy. Add your comments below.

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