You know when they say that a choir’s harmony and power is the result of all the individual voices, each with their own range, weight and tone, coming together, creating that magic…? Well, this same principle seems to apply to us as humans: research is finding that our performance, health, power, vitality, our wellbeing and even our capacity for kindness in the world depend on our different parts working optimally, but even more crucially, on all these parts interconnecting.
For renowned clinical psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, through his work in interpersonal neurobiology and mindfulness, we are all ‘systems’ of Mind, Brain and Relationships . He sustains that the conscious ‘integration’ of these different components is at the heart of our physiological health and overall wellbeing.
Broadly explained, the mind is the process through which we regulate flow of information and energy in the body and the brain, our capacity to focus our awareness/consciousness, to process our experience, how we ‘self-organize’ internally. Mindfulness training, for example, is being proven by research to enhance energy and information flow in the brain. So, we tend to the mind to nurture, train and ‘fine-tune’ it, and this improved coherence in the mind creates in turn physiological changes in the brain. The different systems in our bodies, too, influence our mind patterns and the health of our brain. And through mindfully attuning ourselves to others through our relationships – fomenting trust, deepening presence, promoting empathy and compassion – we are also literally promoting a more integrated brain: a brain with increased thickness of connections between its different areas, more intricacy in their functioning, growth in brain fibers, creation of new neurons and neural connections.
Neuroplasticity, this magnificent capacity of the brain to physically change, means that mind, brain and relationships affect each-other constantly, and we can purposefully and with intention enhance this flow of energy and information to and between all parts, transforming their structure. By taking charge of ourselves like this, we are improving our capacity for insight, intuition, memory, analysis, empathy, morality, immunity and resilience…. We become, in Siegel’s words, more flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable individuals (and therefore societies). Harmony flows, and our mental health is enhanced, away from chaos or rigidity. Who doesn’t want to be all that?!
This got me thinking of the ways in which integration can be supported through coaching. In a typical coaching session, I can encourage my clients to make sense of their thoughts as well as the emotions linked to these thoughts, for example. This means that different parts of the brain will be being activated concurrently, increasing the flow between them. When we use body sensations as a way of exploring what’s alive in the moment for a client, I can ask a question, for instance, that will require my client to use logic to understand what’s going on, or link a feeling to that physical sensation. Learning to be open to the present moment – however uncomfortable – and practicing observing and naming our experiences, trains us to understand that our current (or remembered) reality is not our whole identity. Cultivating these capacities for observation, objectivity, openness and curiosity – which are all inherent to coaching – increases self-regulation in different areas of the brain, and is crucial when learning how to deal with overwhelming emotions or past trauma (as Siegel says, the brain can recover, and healing and joy are possible).
Furthermore, coaching enables us to make sense of our experiences and our lives, to delve into deeper existential issues and touch upon our true motivations and needs, to understand different states of being and how we fit into the broader context of our communities. These are all aspects of an integrated, expanded ‘sense of self’. The more we consciously see and hear what the different aspects of us are doing and saying, the better we understand ourselves, the more centered we become, and as my clients can testify, the more powerful we feel.
We all spend considerable amounts of our lives in all forms of distraction. Even when our intention is to take care of ourselves, say, through the food we eat, the books we read, the company we keep, we should not be forgetting something as fundamental as tending to within. So we start with ourselves – our individual and collective sustainable wellbeing depends on this. We adopt a ‘no hack’ attitude to life. And we consciously direct our intention, attention and actions towards becoming as sophisticated a system as we can be, in our minds, our bodies, our brains, our relationships. And we start noticing, over time, how these changes, subtle or not, start to impact the world we live in. This is not a luxury – it’s a responsibility.