March 12, 2024

Dr. Sará King and Dr. Dan Siegel – The Neuroscience of Belonging

Thomas is joined by neuroscientist, education philosopher, and social entrepreneur Dr. Sará King, and clinical professor of psychiatry, co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute Dr. Dan Siegel.

They discuss the concept of Intrapersonal Neurobiology – an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how our minds create our experiences, with an emphasis on the benefits of what Dr. Siegel refers to as “self-expanding emotions” – empathy, compassion, gratitude, and awe.

They dive deep into the idea of the collective nervous system, how we can learn to experience it, and how that can help us shift from defining the self as a solo entity to understanding humanity as fundamentally interconnected. In doing this, Dr. King and Dr. Siegel posit that we can create a stronger sense of belonging, increase our sustainability, and assist in the evolution of the planet instead of its destruction.

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“Can you look at all of humanity, no matter people’s appearances, and realize we are one human family?”

- Dr. Dan Siegel

Guest Information

Dr. Sará King

Dr. Sará King is a neuroscientist, political and learning scientist, education philosopher, social-entrepreneur, public speaker, and certified yoga and mindfulness meditation instructor. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Neurology at Oregon Health Science University, a Garrison Institute Fellow, and Society for Neuroscience Associate, and a member of Google’s well-being think tank “Vitality Lab.” She is also the founder of MindHeart Consulting, a scientific consulting firm through which she offers up “The Science of Social Justice” framework and the “Systems Based Awareness Map”

For more information, visit mindheartconsulting.com

Dr. Dan Siegel

Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. He is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute which focuses on the development of mindsight and teaches insight, empathy, and integration in individuals, families, and communities. He is the author of many books, including five New York Times bestselling books, such as Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, and the upcoming IntraConnected. Dr. Siegel also serves as the Founding Editor for the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology which currently contains over eighty textbooks.

For more information, visit drdansiegel.com and mindsightinstitute.com

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • The neuroscience of in-group and out-group distinctions and stress responses in marginalized communities
  • Developing a collective nervous system that assists in the evolution versus the destruction of the planet
  • Enhancing the self-expanding emotions of gratitude, compassion, and awe as antidotes to contempt and shame
  • The mistaken understanding of the separate self and how this impacts belonging


Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome back to the Collective Trauma Summit. My name is Thomas Hübl, I’m the convener of the Summit, and I have the great pleasure to be here with Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Sará King. So first of all, Dan and Sará, welcome.

Dr. Sará King: Thank you so much, Thomas. It’s an honor to be here.

Thomas: Dan, we are here for the fourth time. I think every Collective Trauma Summit, I had the honor to talk to you, and I really enjoyed every conversation. And Sará, welcome. You were here last year, but we didn’t talk last year, so I’m curious about your work. And maybe let’s start with you, Sará, is this okay?

Dr. King: Sure.

Thomas: When I read about your work … So you do neuroscience, social justice, and art. You do so many things. And then maybe you can tell me a little bit how all of this fits together and becomes like a coherent stream, including mindfulness. So maybe you can speak a bit.

Dr. King: [laughs]Yes, absolutely. Well, I appreciate you highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of my work, and I’m just so happy and excited to be here with Dan today, who is a long-time mentor of mine. And I just want to put out there that part of the reason why my work has had the opportunity to be so interdisciplinary in its approach is because I was really well rooted in interpersonal neurobiology when I was in my graduate studies. And it was really from this place of examining the ways in which there is this consilience between so many different fields of study. For instance, the way that we’re looking at how the mind and the brain function and how it is structured in accordance with our experiences of the world, particularly our experiences of stress. And how stress has a certain impact on the mind and the brain led me to look at mindfulness as this incredible, bio-psychosocial type of intervention, we might say. Mindfulness has this incredible impact on our physiology and our mental health and on our relationships, right? Especially when it is practiced within specific containers.

And my research was really looking at how it is that particularly people of color, youth of color in the United States need mindfulness practices that are rooted in social justice. And part of that is because they are living with this incredible intergenerational trauma that has been passed down in their bodies from their experiences of systemic oppression going down through the generations, when their families have been encountering systemic oppression, institutionalized racism, and just really so many aspects of living in a society that treats them incredibly differently, where they encounter incredible violence on a day to day basis, oftentimes because of their identity, because of the way that they look.

And so my research is really looking at the ways in which mindfulness practices can intentionally engage with loving awareness in action, which is the way that I like to talk about social justice. Justice is loving awareness in action. The social part of it is within this shared field of our interdependence, how are we demonstrating loving awareness in action? And then I kind of tie that all into art because art, particularly abstract art and figurative art, has a way to move us from the inside and to really bring us into contact with feelings and thoughts and memories that maybe we don’t necessarily have access to when we’re in our day to day lives. It has this capacity to connect us to our creativity and our aliveness. And that too is so necessary when we are answering this question, when we are seeking to explore what does it mean to heal ourselves, individually as well as collectively? And so I would say that’s what my research is about in a nutshell, but very much tying from the study of interpersonal neurobiology and Dan’s work.

Thomas: Fantastic. I want to come back to a few things that you said, and I can just confirm that when I walked through the Art Biennale in Venice just some weeks ago, I could feel the liquidity or liquefication in my being. So definitely [laughs] I can [inaudible]. It’s my personal data collection.

Dr. King: Yeah, liquefication.

Thomas: But I’ll come back to deepen a few points that you said. And Dan, first of all, I want to tell you—and I think I wrote this also about your book—that every time we talk, I love how you bring the complexity of scientific research and life in general into such an eloquent simplicity, that I think many of our listeners throughout the Summit could really relate to very complex topics. And I think that’s a real gift of yours, and I appreciate it. It’s simply so lovely to listen to you. And I would love to hear a bit what’s your leading edge right now? So in the last Summit, we talked about trauma and about the basic aspects of traumatization that affect our nervous system and our lives together. But what’s the fire in you at the moment?

Dr. Dan Siegel: Well, thank you, Thomas. It’s an honor to be here with you and an honor to be here with Sará. It’s an incredible moment, I think, of our human family going on this journey through life on earth. And I think what brings me a huge amount of energy in both the positive sense and also the sometimes challenging sense is where we’re at right now in our cultural evolution in terms of contemporary times. And I think, while it may seem simple in this book you kindly endorsed, IntraConnected, is kind of the answer to your question is every morning I get up and I have this feeling inside this body that we as a human family have in modern times, taken a simple word—in this case it’s the word self—and we have understandably given it a definition, which in modern times has meant it is the individual. It is the body you’re born into that is encased by skin and the skin encased body is the sole source of your identity, and it determines your belonging.

So when—and Dr. King has beautifully and powerfully looked at the science of social justice—we can see that when you use the body as the sole source of your identity, then the belonging becomes very constricted. And we come up with categories and concepts like the human created category of race. And then racism is actually what gives birth to that category of race. But then all this destructive behavior comes when we say, “You’re in the out-group, you’re not in my group because your body, or the skin that’s encasing your body, or the beliefs of that body aren’t what is shared by this body. So I’m going to not treat you as a human, or worse, I will destroy you.”

And so whether it’s social justice or even looking at the equally concerning human-caused problem of climate change, which, you say, “Well, what does racism and social injustice have to do with climate issues?” Well, I think they share in common this view of a self defined by the body—the solo self defined by the body alone—makes us think, “Well, our body is a human body so if you’re a human being, we care about you. But if you’re anything other than a species of the human being, then we just treat you like you’re nothing, you’re garbage.” Or, “Earth is like a garbage can.” And so I think social justice issues and planetary justice issues are actually about the same thing. And when we define the self as originating only in the body, then we set our course as a human family in modern times towards destruction. And I think if we don’t wake up to this mistaken identity as self as body alone—or in the plural, bodies like my body—then we are in deep, deep trouble. And so that’s what really puts me on fire these days.

Thomas: There is a collective normalization of trauma. So we are living in a water where trauma and thousands of years of traumatizations are simply part of our everyday environment. We grow up in it, we breathe it, we see it all over, and we normalized a lot of it. Just maybe in the last decades we started to identify some of its symptoms and codify them. And I’m interested to hear from both of you, if we grew up in that kind of field, for example, of social or racial injustice and continuous retraumatization, or if we grew up in Israel in a constant retraumatization and the trauma field, how does this affect our creation of self? How does this affect our neurobiology? How does it affect our capacity to relate to each other? And like you, Dan, sometimes or often talk about, the sense of separation that the traumatization creates. Maybe you both can speak a bit to the imprint that that leaves in us before we individually even get traumatized. And then maybe we have our own trauma story as well that adds to them.

Dr. King: I mean, there’s so much that can be said about the impact of chronic stress on the body and the way in which it is going to potentially rewire the brain to expect and anticipate that this is what life is about. I’m really fascinated with research on the kinds of proteins that are emitted by the body, particularly when it is experiencing chronic stress. And one area of research that I find fascinating—and Dan, I’m sure you’ve probably heard something about this—is what happens when the body, when a person, experiences shame. Shame because of their experience of injustice, right? For instance, me living in this body as a Black woman in the United States, I grew up and I was taught that because of the way that I look, I am supposedly at the very bottom of a hierarchy of human beings. And that hierarchy of human beings all the way down at the bottom, from Black people, right? “Black people.” Going up in lightness of skin tone, right? Black people being at the bottom. We should be ashamed to be Black because Blackness is equated with less intelligence, because Blackness is equated with being less human.

And this was actually codified, this being less than human was codified into the United States constitution from the inception of the birth of this country. It was called the three fifths compromise. Black people were three fifths of a human being during the days of slavery. That was how we were counted in the voting system. And so if my ancestors who were enslaved were carrying around this experience of being ashamed, for being dehumanized, then that dehumanization, that feeling of dehumanization and the shame that can go along with it is something that can also arise inside of my experience in this day and age, in 2022.

And there are some studies that look at a protein called interleukin six, and this is a protein that gets excreted during experiences of shame and it actually passes through the blood-brain barrier. And so, in a way, when this interleukin six is being produced inside the brain and it is accumulating, then it is also having this impact of triggering the stress response inside of the brain such that inside of my body, I am carrying around potentially feelings of physical pain, physical chronic pain, due to my experience of psychological and emotional pain, because of this shame that I can be encountering on a day to day basis walking around as a Black bodied person in the world.

Now, I don’t want to say that this is the experience of all Black people. I can’t speak for all Black people. But I am saying that this is a potential experience that can occur when you grow up in a society where structural racism as a form of trauma is the norm. And so I’m very interested in these questions of, “Well what can, for instance, mindfulness practices do?” Or even when we are engaging in art and the making of art and in the seeing of art, what does that do to our neurobiology to bring about the healing of this stress response so that I can feel more interconnected both to myself as well as to the world around me, so that I can feel a greater sense of wholeness. I’m not saying that I have the data to prove anything around this, but these are the kinds of questions that I’m asking myself around the neurobiology of the stress response.

Lastly, when we’re talking about this normalization of trauma, I want to talk about a particular emotion that I’ve just been noticing in the collective consciousness here in the United States in particular but I think that this could really be said of any place in the world where people are being dehumanized. I’ve been thinking a lot about the emotion of contempt. Contempt. And how when we grow up in a society where world leaders feel that it is okay to show contempt for entire groups of people solely on the basis of the fact that those groups of people are in that nation over there and they don’t look like us or they don’t practice the same religion as we do or whatever it is. I think that contempt is an emotional state that is contagious and that breeds this capacity to look at other human beings as though they are expendable.

And then as Dan mentioned, by extension, once we are looking at other human beings—whether individually or on a community level—with contempt and as though they are expendable, then of course we’re going to look at our environment in that same way. Of course we’re going to treat the planet in that same way. And so I’m very interested in questions around, “Well, what can we do as scientists, as researchers, as practitioners to really identify when this energy, this emotional state of contempt for one another is arising, and what can we do about it?” To turn that around so that people see that this emotional state of contempt, along with hatred, is literally poisoning us from the inside out, and also poisoning our planet. And I’m very curious about that.

Dr. Siegel: You know, I’m sitting with the invitation, Sará, you’re inviting us to really sit with shame and to sit with contempt. And this body, as you’re saying those things, is filled with a lot of feelings that I have. A lot of heaviness in my chest, kind of very unsettled feeling in my abdomen. And all these feelings give my muscles kind of this agitated sense of kind of an energy, that as it comes up into my head system there’s a number of things that are being translated into something I might be able to articulate with words. One is just an incredible feeling of gratitude toward you and for inviting us to really look at these painful realities. Thomas, so gratitude for you about having us all come here together to talk about it in terms of the work you do in collective trauma. And Sará, in terms of your work of really giving us an inside-out view.

So let me begin with the shame part. Being an attachment researcher—studying parent child-relationships—and seeing at least one source of shame … When you are born into a body and come out as a child, and you’re seeking connection for the fundamental need we have of belonging. And where you have … Then your caregiver sees you, soothes you when you’re distressed, keeps you safe, and in that joining you feel like you belong and you’re a part of a we. And while you can have an internal me, you also are part of a we. So we would call that integration. You are differentiated and you’re linked, and you feel both whole in your body and respect the individuality that you bring as a me, and you feel accepted fully without compromising your individuality as a we. And so we would call that an integrated experience, right? Linking differentiated parts.

Shame is just the opposite. When I’m in need of connection from my caregivers—let’s say, Thomas is my father and Sará is my mom—if I reach out to you and either one of you or both of you then say, “I’m going to ignore your needs,” I can start feeling a certain kind of emotion of, ultimately, I’m not having my needs met. Maybe my needs are not worthwhile. Maybe even my needing something is unreal. And in all those things, it’s overwhelming. And if they keep on happening, these experiences induce this state of shame—from a developmental point of view—where instead of perpetually trying to get my needs met and they’re not met, I kind of shut down from the inside with an emotional equation that in the body feels heaviness in the chest and nausea in the belly. In terms of my head, I turn my head away from looking directly. And as it goes up into more conceptual things, I might even start believing that I am defective. Unlike guilt, where I might feel like, “Oh, I did something wrong. Let me correct my behavior.” Now it’s, “I haven’t done something wrong, who I am is wrong.”

Dr. Siegel: So shame, which is this feeling like, “I am defective,” and has these heavy physiological parts to it, has no solution because what am I supposed to do if who I am is wrong? At its core, I am damaged goods. I’m defective. I’m really bad. I’m no good. So from a relational point of view, when we see shame-induced in attachment experiences, as a clinician, it’s really urgent to deal with this and make the repair needed. When you invite us, Sará, to think about shame from a point of view of the relationships within our human family that … And it just gives me so much pain and also so much agitation to think that … With the color of your skin being what it is versus the color of this skin, even though I might come from a cultural background where for 2,000 years, people pursued my ancestors and tried to kill them and did kill them, including my great grandfather. We know that from historical things. In Europe, having this color skin meant nothing. If you were Jewish, it meant you were subhuman and should be destroyed.

But putting that aside, my ancestors came to this country with white skin. So I was a part of the “majority” in terms of the skin color. And so the culture wasn’t giving me messages like, “There’s something wrong with you.” So I could go into a restaurant or down a street or get on a bus where a policeman could stop me. And I wouldn’t go, “Oh my God, there’s something about me that I’m going to be shot and killed.” And so we know from all the things that have been going on for years and years and years that the unspoken history of 400 years ago, people being stolen from their lands, and then the entire structure, at least of the United States, being built on slavery. And then even when “formal” slavery was ended, it was essentially systematic racism that was built into informal slavery, in a sense, of how people of color were marginalized.

You have the whole structure in the United States being built on the out group were people of color. So my ancestors with white skin could kind of sneak in. I mean, they were escaping murder too, but once they were here, it was like, “Okay, this is it.” And even with all the positive talk, it continues—with the polarization of this country—to be such a profoundly sad situation where this in-group/out-group business can induce shame in you no matter what your parents may have been like.

And the flip side of it, the contempt you talk about and invite us to look at, when you look at the neuroscience of in-group/out-group distinctions, sadly—maybe it’s good we know but it’s sad that this is our history—that it’s likely … And I know we’ve talked about this in other settings, but for probably 50 million years of our evolution, not just as mammals, but as primates, as that division of mammals, we’ve had in-group/out-group distinctions with massive murders done by our monkey and ape cousins. So we didn’t invent this as humans. So then we get to be humanoid around five to six million years ago. We get to be homo sapiens a few hundred thousand years ago. So we’re like new on the scene but we’ve inherited 50 million years of doing this thing of, “You’re in my out-group and when I get a chance I’m going to murder you. I’m going to slaughter you.” That’s what, unfortunately, monkeys do. And that’s where we come from, all of us.

So now you’ve got these more sophisticated ways where we have much more intricate hierarchies of society built on neural structures from genetic evolution that are pushing cultural practices to have exactly what you’re talking about. Where the contempt, I think, is the kind of sophisticated emotion of the deep genetically derived in-group/out-group distinction, where even with developmental studies … And I review this in the IntraConnected book. At 14 months of age—probably in no way that a kid learned, but it’s probably genetic—you show a kid that a puppet likes the cereal they like, a different color puppet likes a cereal they dislike, then you have the puppets go away, then you have the puppets come back, and they treat the puppet that likes the cereal they like with much more kindness and care because the puppet’s similar to them. But the puppet that just likes the cereal they don’t like, they beat them up. 14 months of age, human beings do.

So we’ve got a real challenge ahead of us, that the in-group can be contemptuous of the out-group, the out-group then feels shame. Those are, in many ways, the parallel emotions you’re saying you’re really interested in. And I think that the emotional side, and remember, emotion evokes motion is probably what that word really means. And it’s all about meaning and it’s all about the body’s sensation. It’s all about relationships, emotion is. So shame and contempt are the flip sides of a problem that I still think comes from this solo self—whether it’s singular or plural—issue, that when we get into … The opposite of shame and contempt would be the three what are classically called “self-transcendent emotions”, but those are really better defined, I think, as self-expanding emotions. The emotions of gratitude, of compassion, and of awe, which may seem like they don’t go together but all of them have this feeling of widening how we really experience self.

And when I think about the kind of conversation we need to go on, yeah, we can’t just say genetic evolution is unimportant. But the good news is cultural evolution is possible in humanity, to rise above our genetically determined vulnerabilities of in-group/out-group distinction, which gives rise to shame and contempt. And this is something … I’m so glad we’re talking about it, because it is a collective trauma that has its roots in our genetics. So we need to understand the biology of it, but the relational side of it and the cultural evolution potentiality is right there. And so how we have a conversation—ou know, “con” means with and “verse” is to turn—how we turn together, in what Joanna Macy, the wonderful activist and beautiful writer, talks about the great turning. This is a moment when together on the planet, we need to turn our attention in a way, I think, that identifies the mistaken identity of the solo self, have awe, gratitude, and compassion that expands the sense of what ourself is, and move cultural evolution in all its various ways so people don’t experience the shame that you’re talking about, that is so toxic for the individual and for groups of individuals. And the contempt that also drives that dehumanization, that also is not healthy for anyone.

Dr. King: Thank you so much for what you just shared, Dan. You always, you just give this incredibly masterful weaving and synthesis all the time. And one thing I wanted to add onto the very end of that is that I don’t want to be mistaken for saying that shame is an emotion that only exists for people who experience oppression. I think that shame is an emotion that, as you were pointing out, Dan, anyone can experience. And in fact, there are many groups of people who belong to a “dominant” group of people who might be typified as the oppressor and when they find out … They were just born into that body, they didn’t choose being born into that body.

And these people who belong to a dominant class or group of people, these are people—many of them—who care, who are deeply loving, who notice the violence that exists in this world, in this planet. And even I could say that as an American, I may be Black, but as an American, I am the recipient of a lot of privilege. And in certain ways I can exercise dominance when I’m walking through the world because of my education. There are ways in which I am the recipient of privilege and could exercise dominance. So I want to kind of complicate what we’re saying a little bit here, to say that depending on what body that you are in, you can be experiencing different forms of oppression and dominance at the same time. You can be occupying the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time. And shame can arise out of that complex matrix of identity at any given moment in time. But I love what you’re saying about gratitude and awe. And what was the third one, Dan? And compassion.

Dr. Siegel: Compassion.

Dr. King: Right? Because when I think about, well, how is it that someone like myself and yourself could get together and have this incredible mentorship relationship in spite of the fact that we occupy two very different, seemingly, on the outside places in society? I think it is because these self-expanding emotional states that you’re describing are fundamental to friendship.

Dr. Siegel: Wow.

Dr. King: Radical friendship.

Dr. Siegel: Yeah, radical friendship. Well, when I think about our relationship, certainly, and Thomas, the ways we connect with each other too, and maybe everyone listening, you can feel that sometimes … Like when Sará and I first met, I remember being in a meeting—it was a fundraising meeting for a certain organization and I was just there to be of support—and you were there and you started speaking. And so I said, “I’ve got to talk to that person.” And then after we talked and then we got connected and started doing all sorts of stuff together.

But sometimes you find, I think, in this journey of life kind of a spark. I think some people might use the word soul, I don’t tend to use that word. Inner journey of a person that’s being expressed outwardly, that has a kind of clarity to it, authenticity to it, a purity to it, and an oomph to it—I don’t know what other words to use—that you then align with. And then the joining—I think that’s happened in our relationship and then we have a community of people in our mwe group—that you start like resonating and also feeling—and Buckminster Fuller talked a lot about this with the word synergy—that something arises that’s greater than the whole. The individual parts that becomes … The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Synergy.

And so, even in this conversation, what my deepest hope is by us trying to put words to these things that are so hard to put words to, that while words can be limiting, they can also be liberating. And that, for example, in naming the simple word self as equal to the body, then you go, “Oh okay, I was at a meeting and I saw that person, that self there, this self here,” whatever. But when you realize that self is both within and between, then the synergy is invited to come because you no longer have the unfortunate implication of a separate self. The solo self is, “I’ve got to be in control. I’ve got to be making things happen. I got to make sure I determine, with planning, everything that’s going to go on.”

And the sad outcome of that understandable trying to live as a solo self, which is what modern culture tells it, you’re always trying to have what this … I believe her name is Rasheed, the multi dimensional artist in the Brooklyn public library, calls the flimsy fantasy of certainty. And she says, “Having discovered the flimsy fantasy of certainty, I decided to wander.” When you realize you can drop out of that flimsy fantasy of certainty … And that flimsy fantasy of certainty is driven by, what I would say, is a violation to epistemic trust. That is, we’re being told a lie in modern culture. The self, this word we have for your identity and what determines your belonging, is a solo self. That’s the message I believe. And this is what Indigenous teachings have taught for thousands of years. Contemplative insights have taught it for thousands of years, that that’s a lie.

But in modern culture, we just kind of live it. And even, I’ll say I’m trained as a therapist, we believe in self-actualization. We believe in self-regulation. We want people to have self-realization. We want them to have self-compassion. We want them to do the solid self. And sadly—even though those may be well intended—my field, the field of mental health, has been going down a really bad road by trying to develop the health of the self, and the mind is just from the brain and the self is just in the body. And without it being intentional whatsoever, so I’m not trying to point fingers of people who are bad people. It’s just a mistaken understanding of a simple word, help this self develop. Well, guess what? The self is both within and it’s between.

And then when you start realizing that, you go, “Well, how can I control life if I’m not just a self in a body, or selves like my body?” And so then you go, “That’s the whole point,” is that if you believe, and this is where it gets … You know, I think interpersonal neurobiology is really helpful because we bring in all the different disciplines and say, “Let’s get together and have a common ground, a consilience.” And so then you go, “Well, if you realize that making things happen is actually a source of trauma, and the fretting that everyone has because they’re given the lie of a separate self, we don’t even know it’s a lie.” And so then we live it and then people feel unhappy, unhealthy, they feel unfulfilled. They feel like something’s not right, they feel not whole, and they have no idea why. So they figure, “Well, I need to get more stuff or control more things or get a bigger bank account or have more power,” whatever. And all of this is driven, driven, driven without any kind of fulfillment.

And so you then stop and say, “Hold on a second.” All that frenetic activity that leads to racism and that leads to destruction of the planet is actually a lose/lose situation. So we pause and then we say, “Well, let’s get fundamental and let’s look at a simple four letter word, self.” And if we reconceptualize and expand what we mean by that linguistic term … So sure, it has to do a subjective experience that you have. It has to do with your perspective. It has to do with your agency, that SPA of self, subjective experience, perspective, agency. You could put it in the body alone and that’s what modern culture did, but what if you say, “I want to take the sensation, perspective, agency of the other?” And that’s called empathy, you know? “And then what if I then feel the suffering and want to care?” And that’s compassion. “What if I’m grateful for other people’s wellbeing and how they are?” Well, that’s the gratitude.

And the awe is defined as this sense of, “I’m confronted with something much larger than a private self and with meaning much greater than just survival.” So it’s very spiritual in the sense of people defining spirituality that way. And then you go, “Whoa. So what if we don’t do what a lot of teachings are saying do, get rid of the self?” Which I think has led to this kind of fight because some contemplative teachings would say, “There is no self.” And then someone in a body says, “Well, I think I have a self.” “No, you’re dualistic,” they’ll say, “You have no self.” “Well, how can I have no self if myself says, ‘I don’t agree with you.’? What’s with that?”

So the notion there is not to get rid of the self, but actually expand the self. And that’s what I’m hoping the conversation can move us toward in modern times, because we don’t have that much time to actually turn this boat in a different direction, but we can. The boat of humanity and its impact on life on earth. So anyway, those are just some ideas about that simple word, self, and how it does relate to these self-expanding emotions, awe and gratitude and compassion, but also how it would address the shame and the contempt that we’re focusing on.

One of the things that I developed in my science of social justice framework through this lens of interpersonal neurobiology is this idea of a collective nervous system. And I like to talk about the idea of a collective nervous system because I think that it engenders, it brings up this vision and understanding of how it is that we’re all interconnected, right? Like I’m having these experiences of processing and metabolizing my experiences of being in this body and experiencing this self in my nervous system. But then my experiences in my nervous system, what I’m metabolizing, whether that be trauma or not, is also connected to the three of you here. The three of us here create a collective nervous system, and we are sharing all kinds of energy and information amongst us in this conversation. And then that is expanding out to all of the beings who are listening to us in this conversation.

Dr. King: And I like to use it. It’s almost like a thought experiment. If a collective nervous system were a reality that could be measured then we could talk about how, yes, collective trauma is spread across that collective nervous system but we can also be intentionally tapping into what Dan is talking about. We can be intentionally tapping into compassion and gratitude and awe and sharing the energy and information of that throughout our collective nervous system to see how it transforms our capacity to be a species of beings who are offering up greater stability, sustainability, who are offering up healing, who are offering up … Who are actually assisting in the evolution of the planet rather than assisting in its destruction. And so I kind of want to just put that out there as a bit of a thought experiment for people to consider. As we are in these practices of intentionally expanding from me to we and moving from me to we over and over again, what is that going to mean for our collective nervous system? What are we passing down to our descendants in our collective nervous system? That really is going to be our legacy.

Thomas: I love what you just said about the collective nervous system, because in the collective trauma work we work with a—whatever—term, this IAC fluidity, like individual, ancestral, collective fluidity, that I don’t think … And it relates a bit to then what you said before, that trauma creates a freezing of life or a holding. And liquefying life, it means that our capacity to attune fluidly from the individual to the ancestral to the collective, that it’s a fluid movement.

And I’m very much interested also in this collective dimension of our nervous system. I think in many of the collective trauma processes that we ran with very large groups, you can feel that. In the moment of when it gets synchronized, like thousand people, when it gets synchronized, and then you can literally feel the collective nervous system, the collective witnessing, the fluidity and the stagnation. You see also where you hit the edge, what I often call the edge of the conscious universe. You can feel that we can’t feel together beyond that unconscious spot, where we are all kind of in something that is like a collective shadow or a collective unconscious. And so I’m very interested in that and so I wanted just to mention this now, but I’m much more curious to hear the two of you talk.

Dr. Siegel: Sará, your invitation to think about a collective nervous system, I think, is so resonant with what, Thomas, you’ve beautifully written about. And I’ll just say, just to take a teeny step into reflecting on how we reflect, that the human mind can take energy flow patterns, turn them into symbolic value that we call information, and we can do it in at least two ways. One is something called a linear way where we say A goes to B, goes to C and we tend to think of things as entities or noun-like things, you know, that A and B are connected. We might even go one step further and say they’re interconnected. Or we say interact, meaning the inter is there’s an A and there’s a B and there’s something happening between them, which is cool and it’s better than just saying A is alone in the world. But it’s still a part of linear languaging, right?

The other way that we can take energy flow patterns and begin to understand them and also use words to communicate about them is called systems thinking. So when you’re inviting us to think about the collective nervous system, Sará, or Thomas, when you talk about this way of there’s the individual, there’s the ancestral, there’s the collective, one way to think about those two beautiful invitations is they are invitations to say, “Okay, I was trained in modern culture to be a linear thinker. I went to school, especially with a ‘Western education’, let’s just call it modern education, because now it’s all around the planet. So I’m a linear, trained, educated person, how do I become a systems thinker?” And there are wonderful people that are studying this in all sorts of ways.

But since the 1980s, there’s been a science of systems understanding. It goes under various names, but one name is complexity theory. So we understand that in complex systems, which are systems that are having components that are fundamentally interdependent, they mutually influence each other with not just linear causality, A not only leads to B, goes to C, but C influences B and influences A. So there’s a mutuality called interdependence, but in that interdependence what you see is there are differentiated elements that link to each other and this system can adapt and learn. And that’s the fascinating thing about complex systems, they’re adaptive and they learn.

But the point I want to make here is that, since the 1980s, we’ve had scientific proof for something called emergence, which very much overlaps with what, in the 70’s, Buckminster Fuller was talking about, about synergy. What is emergence? It’s like the wetness of water. No single water molecule is wet, but when they interact with each other, you have it in your hand, there’s wetness. So a linear thinker will sometimes get very agitated and say, “What you’re saying makes no sense. You’re talking about emergence, sch-mergence. It’s just ridiculous. I only want to reduce things to the parts so I can understand when I actually reduce things down to their fundamental parts what that wetness is. So I want to go hydrogen and oxygen, that’s H2O, where’s the wetness in there?”

So some people use the unfortunately insulting term, “reductionistic”, but there’s something very valuable about reducing things to their parts. We’ve saved millions and millions, maybe billions of lives because someone was a linear scientist that figured out the SARS virus so that we could actually make a vaccine and save people’s lives. So let’s be really clear. Linear thinking can be awesome. Making linear interventions, like making a vaccine and making people not die or get less sick if they get the COVID 19 illness. Great. So let’s not go where we’re saying, “Well, linear thinking’s a problem.” No, it’s one way of thinking.

So now let’s look at systems thinking. Systems thinking is where we look at the whole and we look at the emergent properties of the whole. So even in the wording of things, when we talk about collective trauma or you’re talking about collective nervous system, we want to be careful that our linear minds are not saying, “Yeah, that’s about interconnection and interaction,” which is sometimes the extent that linear thinking will take us to see the collective.

So when I was in a forest with a bunch of systems—I’m in a systems science group, whatever—we took ourselves on a retreat, we went to the forest, we went independently to individual spots in the forest, we came out and then we were having a thing around this sort of collective circle, and everyone was saying what the experience for the three days “alone” in the forest was, and everyone pretty much had the same experience. They weren’t alone. They were all one. And then they were saying, “I was interconnected. Oh yeah, inter this, inter that.” And then it came time for this body to talk. And I said, “I can’t really say interconnected because that implies I’m here, the tree was there, the clouds was there, the creek was there, and there was between-ness between us. But that isn’t what it felt like. It felt like whatever the word “I” means. I was the whole, I was the forest. I was the trees, the creek, the sky, the body of Dan, all that stuff. So I don’t know what to say.” So I said this word, intraconnected. And everyone said, “Oh yeah, that feels right.”

So then I went home and I started typing it into the word processor to take some notes after we were away from the forest and it kept on changing it to interconnected. And I said, “What’s wrong with my word processor?” Well, there is no word like intraconnected. And I thought, that’s so strange that we don’t have a word to speak from the perspective and subjective experience and even agency of the whole, even the words we use. So this is where intraconnected became a really interesting word. So Sará, I would invite you to consider that …

And I did this once in one of my talks, I gave a talk and I love rhyming things. So I had a talk called “Me to We,” and one of my students there who was from the Lakota tribe, she said, “You really get me really upset.” I said, “What are you upset about?” She goes, “Your title of your talk, it’s such a … You’re a hypocrite.” I said, “What do you mean?” She goes, “Me to we implies, get rid of me to go to we.” I said, “You know something, you’re right.” She goes, “But isn’t my inner life important?” I said, “Sure.” “Isn’t my knowing what my body’s feeling important?” I said, “Absolutely.” “Isn’t knowing where my history comes from both in terms of my individual family life and also my ancestors important?” I said, “Yeah.” She goes, “That’s all me.” I said, “Yes, that’s you.” She goes, “Well, why me to we?”

So that’s where the word mwe came from, because she said, “Come up with a different name.” So I said, “Well, it isn’t me to we, it’s me to mwe,” right? So you keep a me embedded in the totality of the intraconnected whole as me plus we, the relationality is mwe. So that was where that word came from. And it sounds like a goofy thing, like, what’s in a word? But actually, what’s been fascinating teaching this mwe word over all these years is—and even now the new word, intraconnected—they may be new words, but once a person starts feeling into the linguistic term: intraconnected, the whole, mwe. “Okay, I don’t need to lose the me to gain something larger. I keep the me and I also include the relational connections of we.” And together, that’s the integrated, where you differentiate and link, intraconnected, whole identity. And then the belonging becomes so wide, so broad.

And this is I think what, if you had to say, “What’s the practical aspect of this?” We have something I believe deeply in that’s called a lens of identity. This identity lens … You can even do a little practice now where you can hold your hand in front of you and you can say, “Look at my fingers, look at my thumb.” And you go, “This thumb is part of this body”. And you go, “Yes, yes.” “And I have a name to this body, Sará or Thomas, Dan. And that thumb is a part of it.” You go, “Fine, fine, fine, fine.” So that’s a close up lens. But what if you extend it out a little bit to the space you’re in right now, beyond the thumb? So now this room you’re in, it’s not separate from your larger identity. Or think about people you know, friends and family, and how your relationality is a part of “who you are” and you can feel into the subjective sense, the perspective and the agency on behalf of the wellbeing of those friends and family.

But then if you intentionally then widen this focus, just like you can at a camera, you can focus close up, you can widen to a wide angle view. How wide can you make that lens go? Can you look at all of humanity, no matter people’s appearances, and realize we are one human family? And then take a deep breath around that, feeling into the subjective sense of our humanity, our perspective, our agency, just stick with the SPA. And then can you then expand it to all living beings, to all of nature? And if we want to just stay on Earth, that’s fine. You can go the whole universe but let’s just stay on this planet for now and just realize, as I look out here to trees and some bushes climbing up, and there’s a hummingbird right there right now, and I go, “That isn’t this body connected to that tree alone. I am that tree. I am that hummingbird.”

And then what does that mean? Well, when you widen the lens of identity’s focus, you invite the subjective sense of that hummingbird, that tree, the perspective, the agency. Just stay with that simple way of defining self. And then you start getting this feeling inside of you of awe. Wow, this identity is not even just here and now, it’s across space, across time. And then what happens, I believe, is this deep feeling of compassion that’s both inner-compassion and inter-compassion so you call that intra-compassion, if you want. The compassion for the whole and this deep sense of this broadening of belonging.

And all the studies, for example, if you just stick with those three things; the power of gratitude to bring wellbeing even into your individual life, if we just focus on that. The power of compassion to bring, even just into your inner life, yes health. And now the study’s on awe … And Decker Kelton’s one of the major researchers in this area. The research is unbelievable. Awe is health promoting. So what do these three have in common? Expanding what we mean by self, making the solo self be absolutely not the only way we define who we are. So I say all this because, absolutely, there’s a collective nervous system in there completely. It’s mediated in all these things, even beyond just human nervous systems. And in terms of collective trauma, absolutely. If we are shut down and integration’s impaired, it goes along all these levels of how you see identity.

So I’m super excited to be here with the two of you. And for everyone that’s a part of this conversation, think about how empowered we are as a humanity. That if it’s the human mind’s mistaken solo self identity that’s creating these problems of racism and social injustice and climate challenge and many other things, polarization, and the way we’re digitally addicted, and even the way we’ve handled or mishandled the virus of COVID-19, if it’s the human mind that constructed those problems, or certainly worsens them, the great news about that sad reality is then the human mind can actually be the source of a solution. If we realize that we’ve been too much linear thinking and then add to that systems thinking, where you look at the interconnected nature of the whole and start to live in a more integrated way.

Me, we don’t get rid of me. We, we hold on and make them the experience of mwe that I think is a directionality we have the ability to do. We have, I think, the deep unrestlessness that humanity is, all around the planet, feeling, that something in business as usual didn’t work. And then how can we now support each other in all sorts of ways we can have conversations to go in this direction?

Thomas: Well, thank you, Dan. That’s amazing. Sará, if you want to leave us with any kind of nugget at the end, if there’s anything you feel like adding.

Dr. King: Sure. Well, yeah, I think that the message that Dan left us with about our empowerment is so crucial, because it’s so easy to kind of slide into learned helplessness and disempowerment when we are really looking at and feeling into the problems and issues that we’re facing as a species and as a planet right now. And I’d also like to say that when Dan is inviting us to really tap into the power of our compassion for one another, that that is so incredibly important. It can’t be stated enough how much we need this. And when we are turning towards compassion, that means that we are not looking away from one another’s suffering. We’re not saying, “Your suffering over there.” There’s a mwe-ness to how is that we are turning towards and taking in one another’s suffering.

And so in order to build, I think, capacity in ourselves and in the collective nervous system to really be engaged with what is, we’re going to need a whole heck of a lot of joy. We’re going to need a whole heck of a lot of celebrating and dancing and movement and rhythm and places where we can truly behold one another in our differences and feel aliveness and joy because of all of that. That is what is going to provide the container with which we can be real with ourselves about the nature of the suffering that we face. And I think that this joy and this celebration will give us the capacity to heal the collective trauma in our collective nervous system so that we are passing down a legacy to our descendants, right? So that we are good ancestors and we are passing down a legacy to our descendants that is fruitful and worthy of experiencing. And that’s all I’d like to say. And thanks so much for having us today.

Thomas: Yeah, that’s so beautiful. I feel deeply touched and I feel a deep space that we are in together and that we share right now. It’s exactly what you said is what I experience here with you. So thank you very much.