A New View of the Self: The Psychology of Connection

“When you see the self as something bigger than just the body, then you start realizing the self includes our connections with each other.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. He recently hosted Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, for a conversation on self and interconnectedness that touches on themes from Dan’s newest book, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. It originally appeared on Scott Barry Kaufman’s podcast, The Psychology Podcast. To listen to the full conversation, click here.

Scott: You’ve written about the mind already in a lot of publications. What was the impetus for this [book]?

Dan: I wanted to focus very specifically on the questions about who we are, what the mind is, and when does life occur. And to address that we have an intersubjective life that is both something we feel in everyday moments but also something that we share when we tune into each other.

The word “mind” doesn’t have a shared definition in any of the fields that explore the mind. This book says, “Can we have a shared view of what the mind is, and then see how views from anthropology, sociology, or psychology can combine with things like neuroscience or even physics?”

Scott: You’re so right about the “mind” lacking a consensus in any field. Sometimes I see “mind” used synonymously with “self,” and you talk a lot about the relationship between mind and identity.

Dan: People sometimes make “mind” and “self” the same, and sometimes people make “mind” and “brain” the same. When you see the self as something bigger than just the body, then you start realizing the self includes our connections with each other. Right now, between me and you, we connect to each other in these various forms of communication, so that my ‘self’ is created in connection.

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[If] we look at these connections as a source of our identity, then maybe the mind is not just restricted to the brain, as it has been talked about since Hippocrates, 2500 years ago. It’s been said, “Mind is only an output of what goes on in your head.” I know it’s the accepted view that mind is basically what brain does, but maybe that’s only part of a much bigger story.

Scott: When did you first discover mindfulness meditation?

Dan: Mindfulness meditation is pretty new in my life. My wife has been meditating for decades, but I wasn’t a meditator and didn’t focus on mindfulness meditation until I wrote a book called Parenting from the Inside Out with Mary Hartzell. We used the phrase “be mindful” as a parent, meaning “be conscientious, intentional, and aware of what you’re doing” as a parent.

Around 2004, I got invited to be at a conference with Jon Kabat-Zinn. He brought mindfulness into the clinical setting. I read his couple books and a few papers. You can hear the audio recording that John and I did together with Diane Akkerman. It’s hilarious, because I know nothing about meditation, but I did have some experience as an attachment researcher. What I said to John on this panel was, “I don’t know anything about meditating, but your research results are basically identical to the research on secure attachment.”

I’m not sure why a relationship that’s secure between a baby and a parent would result in the same regulatory capacities developing as you get from mindfulness meditation. John encouraged me to go get training in meditation, which I did, and I wrote a book about that experience, called The Mindful Brain. It was fascinating, because I’m not a meditator by background, but I work in a field that looks at relationships.

It seemed to me, mindfulness meditation was a way you were making your relationship with yourself more secure, almost transforming what, for many people, is a neutral or hostile [relationship] to one that’s more compassionate. A way you might relate to your own best friend. It’s almost like befriending yourself. That’s exactly what secure attachment is, where you realize you can rely on your caregiver and relax into becoming the best you can become, which is what mindfulness meditation done with compassion can really achieve.

Scott: I never thought of that link before, and it makes so much sense. You trust your own experiences and thoughts, and you’re not as attached to them in an insecure, anxious, dependent way. I just finished my own eight-week MBSR course here at Penn and can resonate with a lot of things you talk about in your book.

Going through it and meditating does make me more a caring, compassionate person both towards myself and others, but why is that the case? All I’m doing, seemingly, is sitting there for 40 minutes a day and listening to my thoughts and becoming aware of my breath. Why does that lead to compassion?

Dan: The short version is, what you train gets stronger. Where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows. When you do 40 minutes a day of this stuff, you’re changing your brain. That’s pretty amazing, and that’s why you see a shift.

“Your mental life is shaped by things that happen not just in your brain, but in your whole body and in your connections to other people and nature.”

But when you deep dive into the mind, the mind is this self-organizing emergent property of energy flow that’s happening both within you and between you. This is a way of saying that your mental life is shaped by things that happen not just in your brain, but in your whole body and in your connections to other people and nature.

In this view, optimal self-organization is when things are differentiated and linked. Differentiated means allowed to be different. Linked means connecting them. Why these kinds of [mindfulness] trainings alter the way we live is we are creating an integrated state. You’re differentiating the sense of knowing from that which is known. Your thought is not your awareness of the thought; or, your sense of the breath, a feeling of the air coming in and out of your nostrils, is not the awareness of the breath.

We do this here at the institute with a practice called the wheel of awareness. This is the practice I was doing before I ever heard of mindfulness meditation, but it was done to create integration of consciousness. People started getting better, reduced anxiety, they were thriving. When I learned about mindfulness meditation, to me it was a profound integrative practice.

The key thing about integration of the brain is you have different areas that become linked, and then the brain is able to participate in a more optimal regulation of attention, emotion, mood, thought, behavior, interpersonal relationships. The reason we become more compassionate is, number one, integration means compassion. You’re differentiating me from you, but if you’re suffering, then I want to link with you to help reduce your suffering.

Ultimately, integration made visible is kindness and compassion. That’s on the relational side. From the deep energy side, what mindfulness meditation does and what that receptive hub of awareness represents is what physicists call this sea of potential. That’s spacious openness. Basically, from that spaciousness that you access with your 40-minutes a day practice, I think it’s the origin of love.

Scott: Let’s talk about personality differences. What do you make of people we label psychopaths? There has been research trying to integrate mindfulness into prison, and the evidence is still mixed on how effective that is. Even Steve Jobs went on this spiritual journey and meditated, but a lot of people would say that he didn’t treat his co-workers terribly compassionately.

What do you make of it? Maybe you’re just a really nice guy and mindfulness takes all the clutter and fear and things that are blocking it out of the way, and that’s you.

Dan: The way I was taught this in psychiatry training was that a person who lacks a conscience has this inability to respect the life of another person. There’s this way in which you don’t see the importance and honoring of another person’s subjective life, of their integrity, their dignity. Then, actions are done that you could call purely selfish, and if they’re combined with violence, we use the word psychopath or sociopath. Jack Kornfield talks about this really powerfully, about a spiritual bypass.

There can be ways where people use mindfulness training, can even say they’re “enlightened,” but their relationships are filled with selfish acts that don’t reveal compassion at that person’s core. Sometimes you find profound personal histories of pretty severe trauma, that the individual is using mindfulness meditation to only be “in the present moment” to avoid reflecting on how they were hurt in their past. They then become, in attachment terms, dominated by a strategy of adaptation to what they went through, but they’re not reflecting on what they went through.

That strategy organizes how they interact with other people and shapes their personality. They’re not very nice people. They can say they’re masters at being in the present moment, but that’s not actually what mindfulness is about. It’s only a part of it, and when people only focus on that, they can be very unpleasant interpersonally, not very well-developed people.

Scott: We can actually use mindfulness selfishly. We can become really self-focused.

Dan: It depends. If you consider that the “self” is actually not just this private, singular noun—I have myself and I want to accumulate things for myself, it’s all about this body and this body lives about a hundred years and I’m going to do whatever I can for this body—if you start literally experiencing a widening of that restricted sense of self to include other people, nature, the self expands. It doesn’t disappear, it expands. We want to be careful about how we use words like “it’s just about the self,” because for some people, the self is the planet.

You say, “I’m going to work hard to help climate change issues not be so devastating. I’m going to recycle, I’m going to do all things because earth is part of my ‘self.’” It’s a selfish act, then, to clean up the garbage. This is a moment in our human family [when] we are faced with huge challenges of non-integrated policy and non-integrated approaches of racism and exclusionary views.

We want to lean on a scientific perspective on where we need to go as a human family. Integration takes you there, because an integrated view of the self is not just something in your head. The self includes your whole body and your relationships to other people on the planet.

“Integration is more like a fruit salad than a smoothie. You’re not grinding everything up, obliterating any differences, and making a homogenous blended mixture. You differentiate and you link, and the linkage does not in any way reduce the differentiation.”

Scott: I take your point as valid. But there are some potentialities that I think that only I can uniquely develop in this life that can contribute positively to the world. What is that fine balance between keeping an identity but also mastering that Buddhist conception of non-self? To me, it’s a high-wire act, because I don’t want to take it to the extreme of integration: “What’s the point of me waking up in the morning? I’m useless in my own body because I’m just part of earth.” It’s a balancing act of self-actualization versus self-transcendence. Where is that balance?

Dan: Integration is defined as elements of a system being differentiated and honored for their uniqueness, and really thriving on their uniqueness—but then they’re linked. Let’s look at what you’re describing: someone who says, “I have no inner landscape of mental life.” Let’s call that a mindscape.

“I have no mindscape, it’s all an illusion, it’s all ridiculous. There is no internal bodily experience of my feelings, my thoughts, my memories, they’re nothing and if I think there’s something, I’m living in delusion.” That’s a very common view, actually, and it isn’t allowing for a differentiation of your memory, your narrative, who you are in terms of your internal life. If you take on that view—that it’s all nothingness, meaningless, delusion—you’re not participating in integration, because you’re not allowing that to be differentiated.

If, on the other hand, you say, “I am only what I think. I am only what I’ve experienced. Forget everyone else and forget the planet.” Then you’re excessively differentiating and not honoring the fact that you’re a part of an atmosphere that surrounds us, that we also participate in this interconnected set of lives. Then you’re obliterating linkage. You’re also obliterating integration.

What would an integrated life be? Integration is more like a fruit salad than a smoothie. You’re not grinding everything up, obliterating any differences, and making a homogenous blended mixture. The thing that’s crucial about integration is that you differentiate and you link, and the linkage does not in any way reduce the differentiation.

Scott: What are the implications of your thinking about the mind for death anxiety? A lot of people have existential terror. Do you think your work could be useful for managing death terror?

Dan: Writing the book has changed my relationship toward death. That’s come up a number of times.

When my father was dying, about four and a half years ago now, he was a pretty staunch mechanical engineer and didn’t believe in things beyond the mechanical. He was getting very close to death. He asked me, “What’s going on?” and I looked at his vital signs and I said, “Yeah dad, you’re dying.” We held hands and he said, “Where am I going?” I said, “I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t know if anyone knows. But in 30 years of practice as a therapist, no one has ever come to me worried about where they were before they were conceived.”

He looked at me, “What are you talking about?” I didn’t want to get him upset. I said, “What if there’s a chance that you’re going to go to exactly the same place you were before you were conceived?” He goes, “Where was that?” I said, “One way to think about it is, before you were conceived, there was a sea of all potential possibilities. Of the gazillions of sperm and eggs that could have gotten together, only one of each got together and they made you the very unique person that you are.”

He smiled at that and that was a good starting place. I said, “It looks like the actual experience of consciousness arises from this same sea of potential. In terms of you, the sperm and egg arise from that, they form you, you get about a hundred years to live. But after you’ve had the experience in this body, these actualities called your life, you’re going to melt back into that sea of potential possibility, which is exactly where you were before you were conceived.”

Scott: Then that sea of potential eventually contributes to integration again. You won’t be aware of it, though. Whatever I have right now I won’t be aware of, but something, a new potentiality, will be aware of it.

Dan: Yeah. He got a big smile on his face and he said, “Thank you. That makes me feel very peaceful.”

Writing the book after he passed, it’s not just intellectual blathering. I deeply believe that we collectively are a part of this emergence of energy flow patterns, that we get this time in these bodies, and that we are a part of this deeply interconnected world. I believe that if we allow that to be differentiated—that we do have these inner bodily experiences but we also have this interconnected set of experiences—it relaxes the fear, worry, and concern, so that you can become open to being a part of a much larger whole.

This is something we can all help each other with. Live while we’re still in these bodies, but realize how deeply interconnected we all are.