The brain is an amazing organ. Many scientists consider it to be the most complex thing in the universe. When our brain is working well, things tend to go smoothly. We’re in a state of balance – calm, focused, and energized. We’re at ease in ourselves, at ease in the world, and we relate easily to others. This is the experience we're referring to when we talk about living a balanced life, or living from a core of calm, ease, and contentment.
But when our brain is not working well, things don’t go so smoothly and we tend to be out of balance – tired, tense, agitated. We're more likely to get irritable and have trouble relating to others.
So what makes the difference between a brain that works well and one that doesn’t?
It has a lot to do with an area of the brain referred to as the middle prefrontal cortex (the “MPFC” for short). Our MPFC is the rightful “captain of our ship” – the skillful manager of our brain and our entire nervous system. When it's strong and in charge, our brain is balanced and efficient. But when the captain is weak or asleep on the job, the crew members (other parts of our brain associated with emotions and instincts) can stir up trouble, causing the “ship” to go off course, and making our lives more difficult to navigate.
The Wheel of Awareness
To give you a clearer sense of what it means to have the MPFC in charge, we’ll use an image that Dan Siegel calls “the wheel of awareness.”
Imagine your mind is like a wheel. You’re seated at the center of the wheel, the hub. All the “stuff” you’re aware of is spread out along the rim of the wheel. That stuff includes the people, places, and things that make up your experience of the outer world, as well as the thoughts, emotions, and memories that make up the inner world of your mind.
When your MPFC is in charge, you can remain seated in the hub where you feel calm and balanced, and from there you can choose whatever part of the rim you wish to pay attention to. You can also remain calm and centered at the hub no matter what disturbing thoughts or emotions you may be aware of out on the rim.
Imagine for a moment that you’re in a café talking with a friend who's going through a very difficult period in his or her life and is feeling upset about it. In that upset state, your friend's mind is absorbed in the worries and concerns on the rim of his wheel of awareness.
To the extent you can stay centered in the hub of your own wheel of awareness, you’ll be able to listen to your friend calmly, with compassion, and without getting caught up in his story. That makes it possible for you to provide a hub of calm for him in that moment when he's lost touch with his own.
But if your MPFC is offline, you may have a hard time focusing on what your friend is saying. You may get distracted by your own problems, by things happening in the café around you, or by your own reactions to what he's saying. Or you may be drawn into his distress and lose the ability to offer him a calm space in which to see things more objectively.
Creating an Oasis of Peace in the Midst of War
Perhaps being there for a friend in a calm, centered way when he or she is feeling distressed doesn't seem all that challenging to you. But imagine what it would take to be able to stay calm and centered at the hub of your wheel of awareness while in the middle of a dangerous war zone, surrounded by bombs and flying bullets. As impossible as that may sound, Verdan Smajlovic, a principal cellist for the Sarajevo opera, managed to do just that on the streets of his devastated, war-torn city.
Sarajevo, May 27, 1992, 4:00 in the afternoon, two months after the start of the Bosnia War. People were lined up outside a bakery. They were waiting for food, which had become scarce since the bombing began a few months earlier. Suddenly a mortar shell exploded, leaving 22 people dead, and wounding over a hundred others. Smajlovic, witnessing the carnage from his window, resolved to do something - to make some kind of statement that would defy the horror and hopelessness that had descended on his world.
Every day for the next three weeks, dressed in a tuxedo as if playing for the opera, Smajlovic brought a plastic chair to the bomb site, placing it next to a crater made by one of the mortar shells. For 22 days - one day to honor each of the 22 people who had been killed - he played Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” as “a daily offering, a musical prayer for peace”. He played with almost unimaginable courage, with bombs exploding nearby and sniper bullets flying past him. Even as he played, homes were burning, and frightened people hid in their basements.
When a journalist asked him whether he was crazy to do what he was doing, he replied, “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?
Two years later, at an international cello festival in Manchester, England, cellist Yo-Yo Ma played “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” a musical composition dedicated to Smajlovic. Pianist Paul Sullivan described the audience response when the piece concluded: “No one in the hall moved, not a sound was made for a long, long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.”
Finally, Yo Yo reached out his hand, beckoning someone from the audience to come join him on stage. Sullivan continues, describing the reaction of the audience as they realized it was Smajlovic himself walking down the aisle to join Yo Yo Ma.
“The drama was unbelievable, as everyone in the hall leaped to his or her feet in a chaotic emotional frenzy: clapping, weeping, shouting, embracing, and cheering. It was deafening, overwhelming, a tidal wave of emotion. And in the centre of it all stood these two men, still hugging, both crying freely. Yo Yo Ma, the suave, elegant prince of classical music worldwide, flawless in appearance and performance. And Verdan Smajlovic, who had just escaped from Sarajevo, dressed in a stained and tattered leather motorcycle suit with fringe on the arms. His wild long hair and huge moustache framed a face that looked old beyond his years, creased with pain and soaked with so many tears.”
Deeply moved by the senseless horrors around him, Smajlovic chose to dive deeply into the calm, steady, strength at his core, and from there to provide an oasis of peace, hope and beauty for his fellow Sarajevans. The outpouring of emotion from the audience when he appeared in the concert hall two years later is a testament to the powerful longing for something we sense is possible within ourselves, something we get glimpses of from time to time – the capacity for nobility, for putting aside our own needs and fears, to perform an heroic act that calls forth the beauty and hope in all who come to know of it.
Creating An Oasis Of Peace In Your Own Life
You may not live in an actual war zone. And you may not think you have the courage of a Verdan Smajlovic. But most of us do occasionally find ourselves in some sort of conflict zone – whether it’s at work, with family, friends, or whatever groups we belong to. People in such situations frequently get lost in the emotional reactions, desires, or fears whirling around the “rim” of their awareness.
But as Smajlovic shows us, it only takes one person sitting in the hub of the “wheel,” expressing something of dignity, peace and beauty, to make a difference. For a friend who is lost in their distress over some situation in their life, the simple care and calmness with which you listen, and the clarity of your response, can create an oasis of peace that is an invaluable gift.
Images Evocative of Living from the Core
There are a number of images that people find helpful for getting a sense of what it means to live anchored in a core of calm, ease and contentment. We described the wheel of awareness above. Here’s a variation that a mother spontaneously came up with to help her son deal with some difficult feelings.
The Windshield of Awareness
Tina Bryson (a child psychologist who co-authored The Whole Brain Child with Dan Siegel), describes driving her 7-year-old son to school on a morning when he was very upset about not being able to go to a baseball game. She wanted him to understand that he had other options for how to feel. Searching for a way to help him get some perspective,” she introduced him to what she later called "the windshield of awareness":
"Look at all the spots on our windshield. Those spots are like all the different things you are thinking and feeling right now. There are a lot! See this smudge right here? That’s how mad you feel at Dad right now. And those yellow bug guts? That’s your disappointment that you’re not going to get to go to the game tonight. But see that splat right there? That’s how much you believe Dad when he says he’ll take you next weekend. And that one there is how you know you can have a good day today anyway because you get to eat lunch and play kickball at recess with Ryan."
This gave her son an opportunity to step back from the difficult emotions he had been caught up in, and to notice other more positive things that he could give his attention to. In a more general way, it helped him understand that he’s larger than any of his thoughts and feelings, that he has a choice about how he feels and doesn’t have to be stuck in negative thoughts or emotions.
You can use any image that would help you, your child, or a friend “remember to breathe” – that is, remember to take a moment to re-center in the oasis of calm and ease that always awaits us at the hub of our awareness. Sometimes, just bringing the image to mind in the midst of a challenging situation can help evoke the experience of that calm center.
The Depths of the Ocean
There’s another image that has been used in cultures around the world for hundreds of years to evoke the feeling of living from the core.
Imagine your mind is like the ocean. No matter how turbulent conditions are on the surface, deep within the ocean it’s always calm and quiet. From the depths, you can observe the activity on the surface – judgments, fears, yearnings, images of the past or future - but they don’t disturb the serenity of the depths.
Any time you begin to feel out of balance, you can pause, take a slow, deep breath, and as you exhale, follow the breath down into the depths of the ocean. From there, calmly and without reaction, you can see the various thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. that are stirring on the surface. As they come into focus, you can observe them calmly, and then gently allow them to float away.
Staying Balanced in the Midst of Life
It may be hard to imagine having the courage it took for Verdan Smajlovic to play his cello in the midst of mortar shells and snipers' bullets. But it may also seem hard to imagine staying calm in the midst of the minor war zones of your own life.
Imagine what your life might be like if you were able, whenever you chose, to access the calm serenity of your core. However difficult you think this would be, it is possible to develop your capacity to remain centered no matter what challenges you may be facing.
Whatever condition you may think your brain is in now, techniques like the ones you’ll learn on this site can dramatically change it for the better. They'll strengthen your MPFC and change both the physical structure and functioning of your brain. The more you practice the techniques, the stronger your MPFC will become. The stronger your MPFC is, the better equipped your brain will be to keep you calm and balanced even in challenging circumstances.
Reprinted with permission from Remember-to-Breathe (Don Salmon and Jan Maslow).