Daniel Siegel in his book, "The Mindful Brain," teaches the critical import of being aware. Mindfulness as he defines it in a generic sense is “about waking up from automatic” to be alive and cognizant of the world and people around us. We arouse our senses to novelty and to ourselves. As he and others have described, the task of the brain is to process information and manage energy. Mindfulness is recognizing these forces within us and mastering them.
We use the word “mindful” all the time in our daily lives. We say it in many different ways. As a child I remember being told to mind my Ps and Qs all the while never really sure what those were other than I had better behave.
There is being mindful of others, traffic or minding our own business. We use other words such as “pay attention,” “be aware” or “focus” to convey the same message. Laws are enacted to punish us if we are not mindful on the road. Yet how many times have we arrived home not remembering the journey?
We pretend to be mindful when we multitask. We fool ourselves while attempting to convince others that we are truly doing something our brain is not wired to do well. We juggle priorities, we skimp by, we talk, text and ignore others as we make believe we are listening.
In contrast, mindfulness involves a minimum of three important actions: attention, attunement and attachment.
Everyone knows what attention is. Those parents or teachers with kids who are deficient in it definitely know what it is. It requires stopping. This is more than halting movement. Attention demands that we stop the reception of other sensations and apply our mental powers to one thing. It requires that we stop processing distracting information and manage our mental energy to be concentrated at one time, at one place, on one subject or with one person.
When we pay attention to another person a miracle occurs. We can experience attunement. To be attuned is the act of two brains sharing the same frequency. It is exemplified most beautifully when a mother becomes attuned to her newborn child. It literally means the mind of the mother and the baby synchronize. The mother through facial expressions, sound, smells, nutrition and touch instructs the baby’s developing neurons to grow a certain way. The mother by her loving emotions directs the fast sprouting dendrites and synapses into a healthy order of security. As adults we can have similar neuro-transformation with attuning kindred spirits.
Attachment is the product of these two-way conversations with brain waves. Secure parental connections transmit love, reassurance, safety, calm and the feeling of acceptance. The insecure parent unfortunately conveys anxiety, loneliness, fear, avoidance and helplessness. The foundation of a person’s whole emotional life is built one brain cell at a time.
There is a word not mentioned by Siegel. It is atonement. For some, this word or concept is foreign to the world of neuroscience and child development. Yet, perhaps it should be taught along with attention, attunement and attachment.
Atonement is fundamental to the biological act of change that undoes the negative emotional lessons built into our brains. If we were taught and currently practice inattention we could atone for our mindlessness. If we were never recipients of healthy attunement from a maternal gaze or parental attentive touch, then we must learn how to atone with and from another.
If there is no cerebral network of secure attachment we compensate with self-centeredness. To change we must obtain an “at-one-ment.” This is communing with someone who loves us unconditionally, and who takes upon them our burdens of fear, loneliness and inadequacies, especially our compensatory self-focus. We heal. To atone, or make amends or bring into agreement, we must pay attention, become attuned and attach.
Attention, attunement, attachment and atonement: All contribute to mindfulness. We should pay attention.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].