You’ve heard of insight—focused reflection—and you have probably heard of mindfulness: vigilant attention to the present moment. But have you heard of mindsight, which combines the meaning of both words into an amalgam that means the mind’s ability to be aware of itself?
Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, coined the term mindsight to help define and enlarge our sense of our internal landscape. Here’s what he has to say about mindsight:
“Mindsight is more than just an understanding, Mindsight gives us the tools to monitor the internal world with more clarity and depth, and also to modify that internal world with more power and strength. So in all these ways, Mindsight is a construct that’s a bit larger than insight. It’s even larger than mindfulness, because it’s really not just about being present moment to moment, but it’s about being present so you monitor what’s going on, but then modify what’s happening.”
What is mindfulness?
Let’s begin with mindfulness, one of the cornerstones of mindsight. While definitions vary from expert to expert, most people agree that it has something to do with a present moment awareness of what’s happening as its happening. It’s different than merely paying attention, however.
Attention is a way to regulate the flow of information, within us and with others. Awareness has a richer texture: It includes subjective experience, an inner, felt sense of knowing.
Mindfulness helps people distinguish between awareness of sensations and awareness of observations, how we interpret sensations through beliefs, feelings, thoughts and perceptions.
[blockquote type="default" style="1"]To be mindful is to notice when your mind wanders, or if you are in a flow.[/blockquote]
It lets you identify mental activity rather than reinforce absolute beliefs. Most importantly, mindfulness gives us an inner spaciousness between reaction and response. As Siegel says, “we realize that there is a pause between impulse or desire and action, and we can choose to have a reflective response rather than a reactive response.”
Open the blinders with mindsight
Once we’ve developed the habit of questioning our impulses, reactions, thoughts and beliefs, we are ready to come into a state of mindsight. Mindsight creates a field of open awareness, where the typical filters through which we perceive the world—constraining our experience and keeping us stuck in painful emotional patterns—become more permeable.
We begin to notice the filter, the emotional pattern, that limits us. According to Siegel, “Neuroscientists commonly call the brain an “anticipation machine.” To predict and get ready for what is going to happen next, it constructs a perceptual filter that selects and organizes what we actually become aware of based on what we’ve experienced before, he says.
Our filters tend to lie toward two poles, rigidity and control on the one side, chaos and impulsivity on the other. Siegel likens the two extremes to riverbanks that alert us to when we are out of balance or are missing something.
And that something is called integration. And when we’re integrated, when we link different parts of our internal world and our relationships, we’re in the flow of a river that has the sense of harmony, it’s flexible, it’s adaptive, it has a coherence to it that holds together, and that’s energized and stable. Mindsight is the ability for us to see within ourselves, to dive deeply into the sea inside.
Trust in the flow
Mindsight is the river; without it we will be marooned on either bank. The flow is emergent but confident—it knows that it flows but does not need to know exactly where. As one of Siegel’s mentors, the poet John O’Donohue wrote, “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
Mindsight combines insight and integration with one more key component—empathy. Our brains can't develop in a vacuum; mindsight is developed, says Siegel, as a reflection of the quality of our relationships.
[blockquote type="default" style="1"]Mindsight allows you to create an image in your mind of what’s going on inside the mind of someone else.[/blockquote]
Mindsight, then, is mindfulness in action. Through focusing attention on the mind itself, you can move the brain to a more integrated, harmonious way of functioning. Mindsight overrides our tendency to rigidity, our susceptibility toward chaos. Through that integration, the river of our life can flow, unfolding in harmony, flexibility, adaptability, coherence, stability and energy.
If you are feeling kind of heady, fear not. Just like mindfulness, mindsight can be learned. Here are two effective ways to cultivate mindsight:
1. Tea sitting
Objectivity, or following the flow of your thoughts without judging, noticing how you feel and learning from it, is one of the pillars of mindsight.
Taking some time in your day, such as a tea sit, to slow down, gather yourself and collect your thoughts can strengthen your mind’s ability to be objective. Esther Cohen, a nutritionist, intuitive counsellor and author of “Alchemy of Nourishment: The Art, Science and Magic of Eating”, suggests a simple tea sit to amplify awareness.
According to Lu Yu, an ancient Chinese tea master, “Tea tempers the spirits, calms and harmonizes the mind: it arouses thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens and refreshes the body and clears their perceptive faculties.” To create your own tea ceremony, green tea, black tea or any herbal cleanse tea is fine. Experiment with whether you prefer to sit inside or outside, in silence or with music. Cohen goes into more detail about the gifts of an informal tea ceremony:
“The tea sit is an opportunity to experience transition: to go from activity to stillness, then back to activity. Tea must be served hot, for it requires you to slow down to drink it. Welcome its warmth, which draws you deep inside, inviting you to open up your senses and engage with your surroundings. Tea is about grace and peace. It involves sipping, tasting, savoring, soothing and taking time to infuse your experience, just as tea leaves are infused into the water. The tea sit is a time to gently reflect upon your day, nourishing your mind, body and spirit.”
Try this: Make yourself, and/or a dear friend, a cup of steaming hot tea. Admire the cup the tea is served in, the color of the tea and what the light is doing, whether you are inside or outside. Sip the tea while it’s hot. A few teas to try are Paromi Full Leaf Jasmine Green Tea, or for a non-caffeinated tea, steep some organic mint tea.
Another way to tap into mindsight is through activities such as yoga and meditation, which encourage you to become aware of the mind’s activity. Through skilled observation, you can learn to notice when distracting thoughts pull away your focus. If doing a whole yoga practice at home intimidates you, try choosing to do just three postures in the morning or evening.
If doing yoga at home is not an option, even slowing down enough to take a bath can encourage the condition for mindsight. Watch your thoughts, notice your emotions and accept them for what they are and how they present without personal identification. Here are some final words on mindsight from Siegel that you can ponder:
Mindsight is the difference between saying “I am sad” and “I feel sad.” Similar as those two statements may seem, they are profoundly different. “I am sad” is a kind of limited self-definition. “I feel sad” suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it. The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the accepting to let it go, and finally, to transform it.
Try this: A bath has therapeutic qualities and can encourage a profound release. Epsom salts promote stress reduction and can soothe rough skin and rough emotional landscapes. San Francisco Salt Company Bath & Spa Salt Sleep Lavender is an Epsom salt blend that can take you to a place of depth and surrender.