In the near future, I am going to address how healing happens in the brain. But there is a prerequisite to healing, there is something that you have to be growing in if you are going to experience healing. And that something is awareness. Awareness means choosing to pay attention to what is happening in your mind and body. I know this sounds so elementary, but most of us don’t do it very often or very well. Today we’re going to talk about why awareness is so critical for healing, what it actually means, and how to do it. Terry Bohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Integration leads to well-being, what the Bible calls shalom.
We want to integrate, we want to be our authentic best self everywhere—in all our roles.
Integration is about Healing.
Trauma impairs integrative (and therefore healing) functioning in the brain.
Neuroscientist Dan Siegel has identified Nine Areas that need to be integrated for optimal health. He calls them Nine Domains of Integration.
And we’ll look at some of those in a future episode…
But, today we are going to talk about the thing that makes it possible for you to do any integrating whatsoever.
And that thing is Awareness.
“Awareness” is simply another way of saying “paying attention.” But it’s paying attention to what’s happening inside your mind and body.
Paying attention to your thoughts, your feelings, the sensations in your body like heart rate and breathing and especially paying attention to your affect or your level of arousal.
Awareness exists on a spectrum. Here’s the spectrum:
Dissociation / Distraction < —— Selective Attention (example?) — > Full Awareness
We are inviting you to consider what it would look like to move from dissociation and distraction to awareness.
You have a profound ability that you may not realize… and it’s the ability to choose what you pay attention to.
You can choose to pay attention to what’s happening in your mind and body. You can choose awareness.
You have the ability to choose to pay attention to your body. This sounds so elementary, but most of us don’t do it.
I mean, right now, are you aware of what you’re feeling in your body? Are you aware of your breathing?
Are you breathing faster or slower than before you began listening to this podcast?
As you are talking to your boss at work, are you aware of when fear rises up?
When you see a homeless person, are you aware of what you are feeling in your body?
Are you aware that you were looking at your partner as she was speaking one second and then you averted your gaze and started looking down at the floor or off at the window?
Awareness is the sine qua non of integration. Without which not.
The practice of “mindfulness” is often suggested as a way to increase your ability to be aware. Mindfulness is defined as paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, to whatever you are thinking/feeling/or sensing… but without judgment.
And that’s great, in fact as we will see it’s really important to have a posture of non-judgment to what is arising in you, but look, I think it can be really helpful even to become aware of the judgments inside.
What do I mean by judgment? Well, judgment in this context simply refers to a condemning posture toward your own heart.
In my experience, most people are not AWARE of the dozens of moments of self-contempt in their day to day life.
Back to Awareness. Why is awareness so important? Why is it so important to pay attention to what you are paying attention to?
Are you ready for this? This is so cool.
Paying attention to your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations can create neural firing patterns in the brain that enable your brain to structurally change! That’s called healing. Unreal. Repeat.
Let me be more specific: paying attention to your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations can change the brain in one of the following three ways.
New neurons develop. It’s called neurogenesis. Insane. That’s called healing.
The discovery of neurogenesis, in my opinion, is proof of the resurrection.
Resurrection is different than resuscitation. Resurrection means that new life is pulsing in the world.
As it turns out, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain can actually create new neurons. Unbelievable.
New neuronal connections are formed or strengthened–esp between neurons that were previously not well connected, not integrated.
For example when you are dysregulated and you then experience the soothing kindness of a friend or loved one or therapist, new connections develop between your cortical and subcortical brain.
This is called growth, maturation, healing.
#3 way that the brain can change through Awareness.
The myelin sheath which envelopes your neurons gets bigger. Myelin is simply a fatty sheath around the axons of neurons. Myelin is a big deal. Because not all neurons transmit electrical impulses at the same speed. A fully myelinated neuron transmits information 3000 times faster than an unmyelinated neuron.
So you’ve got neural circuits–i.e. Strands of neurons that because they are wired together are more apt to fire together–and these neurons are all wrapped in some degree of myelin (well, most of them).
Now, Imagine a fight with your partner–you get dysregulated because of something they say or a facial expression or their tone of voice… imagine how the next 5 minutes of that fight might unfold if you can calm yourself 3000 times faster than you can now.
Welcome to the land of securely attached romantic relationships. When a securely attached couple fights, their fights are totally different in large part because of myelin.
So, summary: the process of awareness–i.e. paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations–can change your brain in any of the following three ways: neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, and building myelin.
BTW, if you want to know what happens in good therapy sessions: this is what happens. There are few things as sacred as watching someone develop new neurons or build myelin.
Here’s one of the main points of today: Where attention goes, neural firing happens. And when neurons fire, connections are made that were previously not made. Connections between neurons is simply another way of saying “integration.” Integration means “connections between neurons that were previously not well connected.”
You may remember way back in the very first podcast episode I said that every neuron in your brain got there in one of two ways: either genes or experience.
Well, awareness–that is, the intentional focus of attention is actually a form of self-directed experience. And experience–even self-directed experience–stimulates new patterns of neural firing which creates new synaptic connections between neurons.
Here’s how neuroscientist Dan Siegel puts it: By harnessing the power of awareness to strategically stimulate the brain’s neural firing, we can voluntarily change a firing pattern that was laid down involuntarily. When we focus our attention in specific ways, we create neural firing patterns that permit previously separated areas to become linked and integrated.
A bit about the neurobiology of Awareness.
It is the anterior insula that is invariably activated when people have awareness of the internal state of their body – the important process of our sixth sense, called interoception.
The more interoception and insula activation, the more capacity we will have for tuning in to our inner experience and just noticing it.
The insula allows you to sense your level of distress and then shift your state into more balance. This is the essence of learning to modify your internal state. This is affect regulation.
Bessel’s key point: NOTICE.
If judgment creeps in, that shuts down awareness. Shame shuts down awareness. But if you can just be curious—Gary’s “Wow, that was a strong reaction I just had” then you can remain present to your experience.
How can you become more aware, more present?
The wheel of awareness is a visual metaphor for how we can be aware (via the hub) of any element in our inner or outer worlds (on the rim). We can focus attention (the spokes) on any element of the rim or be open to monitoring whatever arises from the rim in the open spaciousness of awareness in the hub. Siegel
The mind is like the ocean. Deep beneath the surface it is calm and clear. No matter what the conditions are at the surface, deep below it is stable, tranquil, serene. From the depths of the ocean, you can look upward at the surface and just notice whether it is flat or choppy, wild or in a full storm. Whatever these conditions, deep inside it is calm and stable. Your life is hid with Christ in God. Sensing your breath brings you to this calm place where you can just observe the mental activity at the surface of your mind. From deep in your mind, you can feel the clarity of your inner self as you just notice these sensations, images, feelings, thoughts (SIFT) as they come and go in and out of your awareness. This is the hub.