The Neuroscience of Well-Being, Mindfulness, & Love (and conducting) 1

I went to a seminar last week called The Neuroscience of Well-Being, Mindfulness & Love,  lead by Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel.  It was great.  I was especially interested in Dan Siegel’s very sciencey approach, and entertained by Jack Kornfield’s sense of humor.  It was really great.

There were lots of things related to conducting (which of course is why I was there), but one particular experience that was so directly related that I wanted to write about it first.

We did an exercise where we sat with a partner and matched our breathing to theirs.  When they exhaled, we made an “ah” sound.  Then we switched roles, letting the partner match our breathing.  Lots of people described it as an impactful experience, compared it to holding their sleeping infant children.  To breathe someone else’s breath, or to hear and feel one’s partner breathing one’s breath, they said, made them feel connected and open in a way that was new.  Unusual.

I didn’t have that experience, exactly.  Singing in a choir, as I have for thousands of hours, all singers do is breathe the conductor’s breath.  And as a conductor, I ask my choirs to breathe my breath.  So the experience didn’t strike me as unique or special or even new.  It was professional.  It was every day.

Jack asked if anyone felt pressure to make their breath easy for the other person to follow. Many of us raised our hands, and my partner made an “aw,” noise, sympathetic that I was worried about her.  It was less a feeling of worry, more a feeling of responsibility.  It’s my job, after all, to listen and breathe; and the breath is intended to communicate, to lead.  So, yes, I felt pressure to make my breath follow-able.

And as I considered the amazed response of all the people who communicated their responses to the exercise and described how powerful it was, I felt a little guilty.  I’ve been hoarding this experience, and it is well within my power to share it.  So I intend to.

And, look, I know this sounds very hippy-dippy woo-woo, but there’s science to it.

Dan Siegel described a patient who did well under his treatment, and when he asked her what her experience had been like, she said she “felt felt by him.”  And the experience of having someone else breathe your breath is another way of feeling felt.

Now, Dan’s research area is in attachment theory: how children and parents bond.  In secure attachment, the most common kind, the parent attunes to the child’s internal experience.  The child feels felt.

In the breath exercise, the result of breathing someone’s breath is that the someone feels felt.  Adult attachment is different from child attachment, but the relationship of attuning to feelings and feeling felt is universal in healthy relationships of all kinds.  And therein lies the power of the breathing exercise.  Feeling felt.  It changes your brain, shapes your personality.

Luck me: it’s my job to require people to feel me.  I want my choir to empathize with me.  I ask them to breathe my breath, feel my feelings, catch the contagion of my expressions, come with me to someplace emotional.  My goal is for them not to see my face or my hands or my posture, but simply to respond viscerally and immediately to the whole–to the unified and primitive, raw everything that pours out of me, and let it pour out of them also.

I can feel when they are with me, when they are on board.  We go together.  When it’s all working, I barely have to do anything and they stay with me.  This is what all that fun is for–people are more likely to get on the party bus than the dingy coach.

So, these are two of many things I learned at the seminar: I am a lucky lady who got a job where it’s my job to feel felt, and I’m even luckier because I’m in a position that enables me to share the experience with others.

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