Integration: A Central Process in the Journey to Thriving

By Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

In your journey to understanding what it means to be human on this planet at this time, it came become quite overwhelming to think of the many ways of comprehending the nature of reality. What is life all about? How do we create well-being in our individual and collective lives? How do we stay aware of what is happening in a complex world, yet not lose hope?

For my own journey, as a scientist and physician, as a psychotherapist and educator, I have found a process of weaving various disciplines of pursuing knowledge into one framework which we call “interpersonal neurobiology” or IPNB. We look for the overlapping findings from independent pursuits of knowledge in a process E.O. Wilson has called, “consilience.” For example, we draw from mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology (including medicine, neuroscience, evolution, and genetics), psychology, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology. As time went on, the fields of contemplation, education, organizational functioning, parenting, and psychotherapy all became a part of what we explore.

Summarized in a range of publications, including the first book on IPNB, The Developing Mind, one of the fundamental principles that emerges in this search for consilience is the notion that the mind, though rarely defined, may include four facets:  1) subjective, first-person experience; 2) Consciousness; 3) Information Processing; and 4) Self-organization. This latter facet enables a definition of mind that can be expressed this way:

“The embodied and relational, emergent self-organizing process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”

Through a long line of scientific reasoning, we can then state a few take-home messages from this definition. Here they are:

  • This fourth facet of mind states that the mind is a regulatory process. Regulation depends on monitoring and modifying. When we strengthen the mind, we stabilize monitoring so that we sense with more clarity, depth, focus, and detail.  But how do we modify?
  • A healthy mind emerges when self-organization is optimized. What this means is that the emergent property of a complex system called self-organization enables its natural push toward differentiating and linking to emerge. This process, of linking differentiated parts of a complex system, can be simply called, “integration.”  Integration enables harmony to emerge as the characteristics of optimal self-organization include being Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable (FACES). Our proposal is that this FACES flow is the sign of a health system. A healthy mind, then is one that modifies energy and information flow toward integration.
  • Where is the mind? This monitoring and modifying of energy and information flow takes place within the body—not just in the head but the whole skin-encased body—and in our relationships with other people, and with the planet.  The mind is both embodied and relational, its both within and between.
  • The centrality of integration: You may be able to sense that if FACES arises with integration, what arises when differentiation or linkage, or both of these fundamental processes, is blocked?  Chaos or rigidity are the result of impediments to integration.  Integration creates health; impediments to integration create conditions of unhealth.

A wide range of studies, reviewed in Mind and their practical implications and applications explored in my next book, Aware, reveal fascinating discoveries often not discussed. Here is a small sampling. The human connectome project, studying how the differentiated areas of the brain are interconnected or linked, reveals that the best predictor of well-being is how interconnected your connectome is. Integration in the brain is the best brain correlate of well-being. Studies of mindfulness and compassion training reveal increased in neural integration. So far, every study of individuals with a diagnosed psychiatric syndrome, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism or post traumatic stress disorder, reveal not only various symptoms of chaos and rigidity, but impaired neural integration. When we look at the relational aspect of mind, we find, too that blocked relational integration is associated with unhealthy outcomes, as the adverse childhood experiences studies as well as research on developmental trauma of abuse and neglect reveal. Healthy relationships, such as those called secure attachment between child and parent, can be seen as integrative in that the parent and child are both differentiated and linked.

Even when looking at our relationship with the planet, the chaos and rigidity we are seeing in these “VUCA” times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—whether at the political or ecological domain of reality—can be viewed as emerging from impaired integration. We don’t honor our differentiated cultures, and we don’t honor our differentiated species. In addition, though we appear to be “linked” across the globe in our massively interconnected global economy, this lack of honoring differences results in massive income disparity and poverty, in-group out-group tensions, violence and racism, and ecological destruction.

The power of the human mind to overcome many of our vulnerabilities toward these non-integrated states rests in the capacity to be aware. With awareness comes the possibility of choice and change. In the journey of the Garrison Institute, we have been attempting to catalyze conversations that promote integration by differentiating and linking three areas of human pursuits. Contemplation opens the gateway for opening awareness through the training of human consciousness. Science provides one important way of understanding the nature of reality and what we might use this more developed awareness to create in the world. And socially responsible action enables us to guide our individual, family, educational, organizational, and public policy efforts to promote a more integrated world. While genetic evolution has brought us great vulnerabilities, it has also afforded us great potential strengths in the potential of the mind to use awareness to alter the proclivities of the brain’s innate ways of functioning. The mind can get the brain to do new and pro-social things. The great news about where we are at this moment in human cultural evolution is that together, we can make a world that is more integrated because we individually and collectively can open our awareness to new possibilities.

I like to say to students in school that while in our modern times we are raised to think of our “selves” as being only in the skin-encased body, just as the mind is often thought as simply arising from the skull-encased brain, in fact who we are may be much more than that, more integrated than this old and partial view. Who we are, I say to them, is not just the wax of a candle, but also the flame. If we see ourselves in this more integrated way, then our task is to light each others wicks and bring more light, collectively, into this world.

If that wax-body gets about a century to live, and that is the “me” of a body-based self, but we are also the flame—our collective relationships as a “we”—then how can we name this way of seeing an integrated self?

Me plus We (our differentiated identities) equals MWe (our integrated identity).

The ultimate expression of integration is awareness, kindness, compassion, and love.

Together, MWe can make this a more integrated world now, and for generations to come as MWe share in generating the light that we can all share.

Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. He is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, which focuses on how the development of mindsight in individuals, families, and communities can be enhanced by examining the interface of human relationships and basic biological processes. He is the author of many books, including, his upcoming book, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.

Please join Dr. Dan Siegel on October 7, 2018 at 7pm at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan for a special event to launch his new book, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence. To register, please click here

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash.com.

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