river of wellbeing dan siegel

The River of Wellbeing

January 9, 2023

River of Wellbeing

I really like Dan Siegel’s working definition of wellbeing. In contrast to a textbook definition, storytelling with vivid images speaks directly to the subconscious mind. After all our ancestors sat by the fireside to listen to folklore and creation myths to understand who they were and where they came from.

Imagine a river flowing along a valley. Picture yourself traveling down the river in a canoe enjoying the view. After a while you come across some rocks in the center of the river and you must serve to avoid the obstacles in your path. As you swerve to the left you hit the river bank of chaos

Things are out of control, you freak out and get angry at yourself for being so stupid and at the rock for ruining your day. Your thoughts run wild, kicking yourself for even getting on that darn canoe in the first place, your emotions are on fire and you can’t calm down.

Gradually you regain your composure, by taking a few deep breaths, and kick off the bank of chaos to move back into the center of the river, and continue downstream.  Things go well for a while until you come across some white water rapids, coming at you thick and fast. As you try to keep control and avoid going down you swing too far to the right and hit the river bank of rigidity

You become overwhelmed, frozen, unable to respond to the changing terrain. Trapped life a rabbit in the headlights of an approaching car you lose you response-ability to get out of danger. Your body feels distant, dissociated and your mind feels numb, blocked, unable to come up with a solution for your problem. 

By checking back in with your body, beginning to move subtly, smooth floating movements in the air you make space. In this space you regain your response-flexi-bility, your ability to choose, to act rather than react. Again, taking a deep breath you mindfully kick off from the bank and continue to navigate downstream.

On our way downstream we will inevitably encounter some major earthquakes that shake the foundations of our very existence, health issues, burnouts & breakdowns, the loss of a loved one etc.. For sure, these will test our resolve and push our nervous system into overdrive. But as we come out of them we may find a new sense of purpose and deep rooted connecting with self.

Most of our issues are minor in consideration; even so setbacks, disappointments, conflicts and problems can knock us off course or place obstacles in our way. The question is how do you respond? Do you rush through life too busy to stop and allow your feelings to process and integrate? There is no such thing as a bad day, only a stressful moment that spun us out of control into one bank or the other, and we didn’t give ourselves the time to calm down and come back into the river.

Rigidity to the left; wellbeing in the middle; chaos on the right

It may be helpful to ask yourself some questions, to understand yourself better. As we gain self-knowledge, it becomes easier to navigate life’s stormy waters, or at least spend less time on the river banks :) and more in the river.

How wide is your river?

How easily do you hit one bank or the other?

How easy is it for you to find your way back into the middle of the river? 

What techniques work for you to regulate your wellbeing?

We all have conditioning, patterns of action and reaction we learnt from our parents, who learnt from their parents all the way back. Studies have shown that the patterns of our nervous system are imprinted in the womb during the time we spent inside our mothers. Those patterns operate at a very deep level of our mind, but it is possible to re-wire ourselves.

If we get curious and start asking questions, why do I feel this way, what led me to do that, when did I first start to think and act like that, where have I seen these patterns in other family members of childhood friends we can start to unravel the puzzle that is the personality. Doing this inner work helps us to free ourselves from unconscious patterning and make space to enjoy more time in the river of wellbeing. 

This is why we are here. We have been given a grand opportunity to awaken, to become free from the chains that hold us. But it takes work, to learn to breathe with our whole body, to release our blockages and discharge the accumulated tension that inhibits us from breathing deep, to unravel the parts of our personality, to sift through the sands of the subconscious, releasing old ancestral parts that no longer serve us and keep the shiny bits of gold that shimmer in the light of our true selves.

Then we can take a step back, and consciously widen the river of wellbeing. AND increase our resilience as we travel down the valley of tolerance.


The places on this imaginary trip are actually very real modes of functioning of the human nervous system. 

The bank of chaos is Hyperarousal

The bank of rigidity is Hypoarousal 

The river of wellbeing is also described by Dr Stephen Porges, author of “Polyvagal theory”, as the operating mode known as SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT. This is the place where we can enjoy chatting with our friends, and feel safe to express ourselves and let others in. It is the sweet spot of the autonomic nervous system - not too aroused and stressed out or too relaxed that you are sleeping the siesta. More on that to come in a later post.

May you be well, may you be free from suffering.

Photos by Filip Mroz and Tom Spross on Unsplash.

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