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The Neurobiology of "We"

The Neurobiology of “We”: How Relationships, the Mind, and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are
by Daniel J. Siegel, MD
Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008
7 CD’s, 8 hours
Reviewed by Mary Millerd, MATS

Spiritual direction is a spiritual practice. When we offer or receive spiritual direction the intention is to grow in awareness of how God and Mystery work in our lives, the lives of others, and in our world. Many of us understand that we are all part of One creation and that all of life is interconnected (although we may express this in different ways). Daniel J. Siegel’s, The Neurobiology of "We": How Relationships, the Mind, and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Areexplores the developmental processes human beings’ experience to embody and know the truth of our interconnectivity: we are one.

Although Siegel does not talk about spiritual direction in particular, the information he provides offers a scientific framework for a spiritual director to understand the biological, neurological, and emotional processes that are engaged when we develop as human beings. Siegel describes how our genetics and our experiences shape our way of being in the world. He states that often our values and beliefs become a part of our psyche outside of our conscious memory (Disc 1:9, 2:5). His discussion of Attachment Theory (Disc 2, 3,4) might be of particular interest to the spiritual director, for it influences a person’s sense of well-being, sense of belonging, and one’s capacity to interact with others—all of which affect our relationship and understanding of God (Disc 7: 7). Siegel’s information helps us to grow in awareness of how our body and our experience are an integral part of our spiritual being and becoming.

At the heart of his exploration is the importance of integration. Siegel defines integration as: "the linking of differentiated parts" (Disc 4), naming emotions as the state of integration within an individual, a couple, a family, a group, and even our culture. Through his cross disciplinary research, Siegal found three descriptions of integration which all revolve around emotion: 

"The anthropologist speaks about how emotion integrates cultures across generations—one generation and the next generation are different but the way they are linked is through the emotional meaning of the stories embedded within the culture. A developmental psychologist sees emotion as what integrates children within themselves and how they come to regulate their internal state in a balanced way. A neuroscientist would see emotion fundamentally as what integrates the body proper with the brain." (Disc 4:5)

Siegal provides a detailed analysis of brain functioning when he describes how the mind uses the brain to create itself (Disc 5, 6). He shares the importance of mindful awareness and spiritual practice in the integrative process. As spiritual directors we listen to the meaning our spiritual directees find in their stories. Siegel’s research supports our understanding that authentic listening to another’s story is healing on many levels.

As a spiritual director focusing on the embodiment of spiritual energy in the relationship of body and spirit, I am inspired by Siegel’s description of the interweaving of the brain, body, relationships between "parts of a whole," and the integrative role of emotions in life. His hope for this information is to heal our communities and our world.

As we grow in the process of conscious awareness within ourselves and others, we grow in compassion and empathy which creates space for healing. As we heal, we come to know ourselves and our uniqueness as a part of a larger reality encompassing a community that receives, and the mystery of life that holds.

Mary Millerd, MATS, is a spiritual director in West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She focuses on the embodiment of spiritual energy and the relationship of body and spirit.

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