How to Use Mindsight to Work with Fear! An Interview with Daniel Siegel, M.D.

Today I bring Dr. Daniel Siegel to talk with us how to use Mindsight to work with our fears. Dan received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry.  He is the co-editor of a handbook of psychiatry and the author of numerous articles, chapters, and the internationally acclaimed text, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. He has also published a wonderful book on parenting with Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., Parenting From the Inside Out. His breakout book in the field of mindfulness is The Mindful Brain, which explores the application of this newly emerging view of the mind, the brain, and human relationships. His newest book which I am thrilled about is Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.Elisha: In an earlier interview with Jack Kornfield, he discussed the nature of fear and how the process of accepting our vulnerabilities can help us through it. We all struggle with deep fears in life, some feeling impossible to get away from.  If you were sitting across the table from someone right now who was struggling with deep fears in life, how might you help them apply mindsight to work with these fears?

Dan has been invited to work with some esteemed people as a result of their interest in his work including: the U.S. Department of Justice, The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Microsoft and Google, early intervention programs and a range of clinical and research departments worldwide. He has been invited to lecture for the King of Thailand, Pope John Paul II, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


Dan: I find that being with people helps them not feel alone, even with terrifying fear.  If I were sitting with someone, that would be the starting place: To be with that person, open to whatever he or she were feeling at that moment.  I might then help them by offering simple mindsight skills, looking, for example, at how the circuitry of fear in the brain below the cortex can generate an internal state of fear that bombards our cortical consciousness. 

With mindsight we examine how energy and information flow along synaptic routes, and then use the focus of attention to alter those patterns in the presence of a supportive, guiding relationship. Sometimes that relationship is with your self.  Sometimes it is with another person.  Here, I would suggest that we begin a “wheel of awareness” exercise that distinguishes a central hub of awareness from the outer rim that represents all the things we can be aware of.  By initially focusing on the breath, an internal state of “reflective coherence” can be created that strengthens the hub and distinguishes awareness from the object of focused attention.  Next, we would begin a “rim review” in which we would explore the first five senses that bring in data from the outside world:  hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch.  Next, moving a metaphoric spoke over to the next sector of the rim, we’d explore the sixth sense of the interior of the body.  Here the person might become acutely aware of fear-generated pounding of the heart, rapid breathing, nausea in the belly, or tight muscles.   Sensing the breath, these points on the rim can be seen as neural firing patterns emerging from the body-proper up into cortically created awareness.  Next, we can move to the sector of the seventh sense, the points of rim that reveal our thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, intentions, attitudes, hopes, and dreams.   This is how we become aware of mental activities-and realize that we are more than our thoughts, not identifying with memories as the here and now, realizing that a feeling, as they say, is not a fact. 

Separating the hub from the rim with the wheel of awareness practice permits an objective view of mental life that liberates us from the prison of automatic pilot.  The hub practice also yields the power of observation, to be aware that the person is having a fear, but does not have to be consumed by it.  And finally, this practice supports an openness to what is that enables feelings to come in and out of awareness without having to be chased away.  These three elements of openness, objectivity, and observation form the three legs of mindsight’s lens, stabilizing the way we can monitor the internal world.  Next I would help the individual learn practical techniques to modify that world toward integration and harmony. Using a variety of self-tailored approaches, we would find the images and practices that worked best to move the reactive, fearful state to one of calm and clarity. 

The key is to separate hub from rim and then offer the empowering skills to move the internal world from a terrifying state to one of open presence. 

In the long-run, the idea is that the chaos or rigidity of fear states that reflect impaired integration would be able to shift, with practice, toward the harmony of an integrated state.  Ultimately, the positive feedback loop is that knowing about the brain empowers us to use the mind to drive energy and information flow through our neural circuits with more efficacy and will. This is the way we can use the power of our relationships to inspire each other to rewire the brain with a new way of focusing the mind toward integration.    This is the way mind, brain, and relationships become the central focus of a mindsight approach to cultivate well-being in our personal and our collective lives. 

Thank you Dan!

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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