Articles June 1, 2010

Interview: Dr. Dan Siegel

Dan Siegel

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. is currently a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, where he also serves as a co-investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. He is the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational center devoted to promoting insight, compassion, and empathy. His books include Mindsight, The Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Therapist, Parenting from the Inside Out, and The Whole-Brain Child.

Dr. Siegel’s unique ability to make complicated scientific concepts easy to understand has led him to be invited to address diverse national and international groups of mental health professionals, neuroscientists, corporate leaders, educators, parents, healthcare providers, and clergy. He has been invited to lecture for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the King of Thailand, Pope John Paul II, Google University, and TEDx. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. For more information, visit

Spirit Rock: Your definition of the mind extends well beyond the brain. Can you explain more about this?

Dan Siegel: In this seminar, we’re going to address that fundamental question: What is the mind? Why is it that the fields dealing with the mind (like psychology, psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience, or even philosophy of mind) haven’t defined it? I’ll offer a definition of the mind that I’ve been using for 20 years now that really helps bring together all the different fields of science, like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology. It brings them all into one focus which we call interpersonal neurobiology—all of these sciences combined into one. It helps us understand how mindfulness meditation fits into the larger field of contemplative work and how that fits into the larger concept of how you develop a healthy mind.

SR: Can you give us an idea of how we can start to develop a healthy mind?

Dan: We define “the mind” as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of something—(namely) energy and information. That regulation has two components: first, it’s monitoring the thing that you’re regulating, in this case, energy and information flow; and second, you’re also modifying or modulating it. Once you define the mind as a regulatory, self-organizing process, which is what we do in this field that I’m in (interpersonal neurobiology), then you can teach people to monitor energy and information flow not just in their body, which includes the brain, but also in relationships—how we connect with other people, or even how we connect with the planet.

Monitoring, when it’s stabilized, allows you to see the energy and information flow with more depth and clarity. Then the second step is, can you modulate that flow toward well-being? We define well-being by a process called integration. Integration is the linkage of differentiated parts of something. Whether it’s in your relationships where you honor differences between you and the other person you’re in a relationship with or your body, like the left and right side of the brain. When you differentiate and then you link, you actually get harmonious functioning.

In this definition of the mind, we have a way to both strengthen the monitoring ability and specify that the modulating ability can be taught how to modulate toward integration and then you have a whole package. For example, in something like mindfulness meditation, I see it as a way of both strengthening the ability to monitor energy and information and then to integrate.

In mindfulness meditation, I think what you’re doing is attuning an observing self with an experiencing self. We now have research evidence from brain studies that show what is happening—you’re attuning these two circuits of your brain to each other, just like in a relationship, let’s say, between a parent and a child. A parent attunes to a child, and that develops the integrative circuits of a child’s brain, just like mindfulness meditation develops the integrative circuits (in us) because I think they’re both forms of attunement, one internal with mindfulness and the other interpersonal with loving, secure attachments.

SR: We have mindfulness meditation, and then also in the Buddhist world, we have deep concentration practice, also known as samādhi. Have you studied the effects of concentration practice? How helpful is it to our well-being?

Dan: Samādhi is a really important starting place; it’s the monitoring part of our definition of mind, but when it’s without the integration part, which would be more like the vipassanā (insight) part—the clear-seeing, the openness to what is—it doesn’t give you the full picture.

Different people have different ways to emphasize how much time to spend (on the concentration or monitoring part). In the end, you could make an argument that if you spend a little extra time on the samādhi part, you’ll probably be getting a little bit further with your vipassanā part because you’ve stabilized the lens. Obviously, it’s an art form. I think it’s really a crucial element of the package—monitoring the stability, which is samādhi, and modifying toward integration which is the vipassanā part.

SR: As someone with a more traditional medical, scientific background, did you ever imagine you would someday be hanging out with so many Buddhists, like Jack Kornfield and the Dalai Lama?

Dan: Never—not that I had anything against it. If you had spoken to me in 2003 before I wrote this parenting book, The Developing Mind, I would have said, “Why are you saying that?” When we used the words “Be mindful as parents” (in the book), we just meant to be intentional and conscientious. And then in 2004, people kept asking, “Why are you using this meditation word?” And I didn’t meditate or anything like that—I was already doing things politically incorrect by saying that parents shaped the brain of a child, so I didn’t really want to get into unusual fields like meditation. When I was put on a panel with Jon Kabat-Zinn, it was like, “Wow, this is really strange.” When we met, we got along really well, and the findings from the emerging research that was then being published in 2003-2004 hadn’t existed before.

There was this incredible parallel between my field, which was attachment research, and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) research. I was intrigued. Why would an internal focus of attention like mindfulness meditation have similar research outcomes as a loving parent-child relationship? What do they have to do with each other? From a scientific point of view, that became really interesting. From a social point of view, I met Jon, I met Jack (Kornfield), and I realized that they were really interested in teaching people to become their own best friends in many ways, which is exactly the notion of attachment. How do you develop this kindness toward yourself and kindness toward others which is the basis of compassion?

And as of 2005, everything started to change. Now it’s a natural part of my life. But, yes, it was a surprise for sure. It wasn’t in my worldview or plans or even in my wildest thoughts about what might happen to me next!