A couple of years ago, we found ourselves at “The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain” conference, which featured neuroscience expert Dan Siegel and noted Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. We’re long-time couples therapists and were attending because we were interested in the insights that neurobiology is bringing to the practice of psychotherapy, but we weren’t really attracted to the “wise heart” and “meditation” part. We knew that various forms of meditation had become wildly popular as adjuncts to psychotherapy over the past decade or so, but we’d never done it ourselves—like many on-the-go practitioners, we’d concluded that we just didn’t have time for a meditative practice. Besides, we weren’t sure that it was relevant to our own work with couples. So we were prepared to wait out the meditation part of the program in order to gather the gold nuggets of neurobiological insights.
Most of the first day had focused on the well-known benefits of meditation: it can help people become calmer, less reactive and defensive, more open, receptive, and compassionate to themselves and others. But the real revelations for us came when Siegel launched into his explanation of the evolutionary and neurobiological implications of mindfulness practice. We learned, for example, the mechanism by which one of the most common of all mindfulness exercises—focusing on the breath—calms and soothes people.
As Siegel explained it, the human brain evolved as an “anticipation machine,”…