Strengthening Your Awareness: Attention and Intention in Everyday Parenting

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
December 27, 2015

Seeing clearly involves the three "tripod" legs of openness, objectivity, and observation that stabilize our mindsight lens. When we see more clearly, we can become aware of our own internal world in a more helpful way—and also be better equipped to see our child's inner world with more depth and clarity as well. Research clearly demonstrates that parents who tune in to the internal world of their child have children who are more secure and resilient. Your role as a parent is filled with opportunities to develop the mindsight skills that will enhance both your personal life and the development of your child. It is a win-win situation, yet few people know about this approach because we are often so busy just focusing on how to manage behavior, not develop an internal lens to know our own and our child's internal life in a deeper way.

As you develop this skill of knowing yourself well, your child will benefit in many ways. You'll be able to understand him better, respond to her emotional reactions with more sensitivity and support, and approach the most challenging moments of parenting as opportunities for further growth rather than merely as burdensome difficulties in your life.

As mindsight is based on integration—the connecting of separate things into a whole—it would make sense for you to know how to create more integration in your life. It turns out that there are several "domains" of integration, areas of our lives that can be a focus of our efforts to bring more connection to separate elements. Two examples of these domains are how to connect the left and right sides of our brain, and how to link different aspects of memory to help us resolve past traumatic events. Examples of each of these domains form the core of the stories in the Mindsight book. Here we'll dive into the first of these domains that focuses on our experience of awareness.

Right now, what are you aware of? You may be aware of these words on the page, the light in the room, a sound coming from your child's bedroom. If I ask you to focus on your right foot, what happens? Some sensations from your foot may now enter awareness...but where were those sensations before I invited you to focus on them? Most of the activity in our nervous system—like signals from your right foot—enter the brain in the skull but do not enter our awareness. We need to selectively screen which of the huge amount of neural signals fill our limited "space" of awareness. We can intentionally focus on something, like the sensations of the right foot. And we can just be open to whatever comes to our awareness. Directed attention is under our control, but few people are given the opportunity to train this important skill. And open monitoring—just looking inward and intentionally inviting anything to come into "the field of awareness"—is also something rarely practiced.

Yet in parenting, we need to use both forms of directed and open awareness to effectively connect with communicate with our kids. In the following exercise, we'll explore both types of attention—the conscious, intentional effort to focus on something specific and the conscious, open awareness of whatever "comes to mind." This is a form of what I call the "integration of consciousness" because it enables us to differentiate the experience of awareness from that which we are aware of. That distinction may seem strange at first, but stick with me as people who learn to integrate their awareness in this way develop great abilities to improve their bodily health, their emotional resilience, and their relationships with others...and even with themselves!

To begin, let me invite you to imagine (or draw) a "wheel of awareness" that consists of an outer rim and an inner hub. The hub represents awareness. And the points on the rim represent anything you can be aware of. We also have a spoke that stands for how we can intentionally direct our attention from the hub to a specific point on the rim. So what can we be aware of? The outer world comes into our awareness by way of the first five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. These can be represented in the first of four divisions you can make or imagine on the rim. In the next section, we can also represent the elements of the interior of the body—the sensations from our muscles and bones, the signals from within our torso from the intestines, lungs, and heart—that are called the "sixth sense" in the field of science. The next sector of the rim contains the mental activities we can become aware of with what we can call our seventh sense. These mental activities include what? They include thoughts, feelings, memories, perceptions, images, hopes, dreams, attitudes, intentions and any other elements of our mental life. Finally, the fourth sector of the rim contains what we can call our eight sense, the relational sense we have that enables us to become aware of how we are connected to other people, and perhaps to our whole world.

To begin this "wheel of awareness" exercise, find some time to just have five or ten minutes to yourself. Just focus on the breath and let the in-breath and the out-breath be the intended focus. For this wheel exercise, imagine that sensing the breath brings you to the hub of the wheel, this grounded, central place of clarity, of open awareness. Now from the hub in your mind's eye, see if you can imagine sending a spoke out to the first five senses. Beginning with sight, let any light coming into your eyes fill your awareness. Now moving a spoke over from sight to hearing, listen in to whatever sounds may fill your awareness now. And then after a few moments, move your spoke over on the rim to bring in the sense of smell. And now focus your spoke further along bringing in the sense of taste. And finally, bring in any sensations from where your skin touches things...your clothes, the floor, your own skin on your hands. And now let a deeper breath come to you, and we'll move the spoke over to the next sector of the rim.

From the hub, invite any signals from the interior of the body come into your awareness. You can begin with the sense of muscles and bones in your face, the torso, arms, and then legs. Now move the focus of attention into the torso, bringing in the signals from your genitals and pelvic region, your intestines, lungs, and then heart. The hub can receive all of these signals, region by region. Now take a deeper breath and move the spoke over to the next sector of the rim.

Now we are sending a spoke out to the seventh sense. Let whatever mental activities -- thoughts, feelings, memories, or whatever arises -- just fill your awareness. For the first part of this seventh sense awareness, just see whatever comes to the hub. After a few moments of this open awareness, you might find the following instructions interesting. See if you can just study the nature of the appearance, presence, and disappearance of mental activities into the hub of awareness. For some, this is initially quite challenging; for others, sensing these characteristics of mental activities is illuminating. We come to learn about the very structure of thought and memory, feeling and image. And in this practice, we also strengthen our capacity to not identify with these mental activities as the totality of who we are: we realize we are more than our thoughts, more than our feelings.

Now let a deeper breath fill your awareness and move the spoke over one more time, now to the eight relational sense. Let the feelings of connection to other people you know—your children and others in your family—fill you now. And let the sense of connection to others, people you know, and perhaps people in general, just fill your hub. Even your sense of connection to all living beings, to the whole of this glorious planet we call home, let this fill your hub. Resting in this sense of connection, let a deeper breath fill your awareness now. Following the breath, in and out, let the spaciousness of the hub fill you. This is the center of your mind, the hub of the wheel of awareness, which brings you the clarity and the calm to be aware of whatever may arise from the rim. It is from this deep inner peace that you can approach all aspects of life from a place of equanimity, of strength and stability. 

Now let your eyes come open if they've been closed and get ready to let this wheel of awareness practice come to a close. 

Clearly, the benefits of such an exercise for parenting and for life in general, when practiced on a regular basis, can be profound. Instead of being swept up into our thoughts and reactions as if they were some form of absolute truth, we can free ourselves from this automatic pilot and know, from direct inner experience, that the hub is distinct from the rim. This integration of consciousness is a fundamental step in strengthening your mindsight skills: it allows us to develop openness to permit into the hub whatever arises on the rim, objectivity that rim activity is not our identity but just one important aspect of experience, and observation that develops when we strengthen the hub of our mind. In many ways, this differentiation of hub from rim enables us to pause before we react. This is a crucial element in remaining fully present when we parent our children. When we develop this inner clarity and calm, our children can learn directly from us how to create such a source of resilience and emotional intelligence in their own lives as well.   

Originally published in 2010. 


From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    In response to Sherry's request above - there's a new online resource called that might be helpful

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    I am in need of direction to resources for one of my students. Would appreciate contact information for your office if possible. Thank you.

    over a year ago


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