‘I started living a more aware life’
None of the knowledge I had acquired when I studied medicine or as a man of science helped me when, on 17 August 2012, my whole world suddenly collapsed. It was a real shock. I found myself alone with three children aged seven, 11 and 13. Until that day, I had always worked long, irregular hours in order to spend my free time with my family. All of a sudden, I was completely lost emotionally. I was a father, but I had also been a spouse, and my unexpected divorce left me profoundly shaken as a man. In spite of all my studies and all the books I had read, no therapy seemed able to relieve my suffering. No pills, ointment or operation would solve the problem.
I went through really tough times during the first year after the breakup. I was unable to lead a healthy life. I threw myself into cigarettes and alcohol to overcome stress. I no longer took time off for myself, for my body or my mind. I was all over the place, trying to reconcile my career and family life. I even took anti-depressants and sleeping pills. After a rough patch lasting several months, I hit rock bottom and understood I could not continue in this way. I wanted to have my life back and to be inspiring for my kids. When this happens to you, the moment inevitably comes when you have to think of yourself. And in order to reconnect with myself I saw several therapists and psychiatrists.
I delved into books that could potentially help me face up to my issues, and found an outlet in yoga. This led me to take a real interest in meditation. Of course, I had heard of it before, but like many of my colleagues in the scientific community, I was rather sceptical about it. Indeed, a few years before, when a journalist had asked me what I thought about mindfulness, which is one of the key pillars of meditation, I brushed the question aside. It was just hype, a fad encouraged by magazines and the Internet. But the more I read about it, the less clear-cut my position became.
The yoga meditation classes and the attitude of my teacher also raised my curiosity. I had already tried out many sports, but never reached a competitive level because of my non-conformist spirit. For instance, when my tennis teacher corrected my technique, I would, on purpose, hold my racquet a bit higher or move it too much to the right or to the left. The strictness of these training sessions did not fit either my rebel nature or my stubborn character. Yoga, in contrast, drew me in. The teacher didn’t pay attention to the exact position of my left foot or whether I was able to reach my knees with my nose. What mattered during these yoga and breathing meditation classes were how I felt and my own progression; the things I learnt about myself, about my body and my state of mind in the moment.
This state of mind caught my interest as a neurologist. The little spare time I had, I dedicated to reading books about philosophy, meditation, Christian contemplative practices and the Buddhist vision of life. As I grew into the topic, I naturally started living a more aware life. I didn’t feel the need to complain about my past any longer or worry about the future. I just wanted to enjoy and live in the moment.
From then on meditation started to play an important role in my daily routine, and also in my professional life. At the lab at the University of Liège, it was a small step from our research on states of consciousness during hypnosis to research on states of mind during meditation. My scientific curiosity was really stimulated when I first met Matthieu Ricard, a doctor in molecular biology, Buddhist monk and French interpreter for the 14th Dalai Lama. […] I invited him to my lab in Liège, so that my research team could study his brain and the effects of the meditation that he had been practising for so many years.
After several tests performed on Matthieu in our lab, we established that his brain is somewhat different to that of his fellow human beings and that certain areas are indeed more developed. When he meditated with over 250 electrodes stuck to his skull, we were able to show that some of his neural networks worked better than the neural networks of others who were, like him, over 70.
But I can already hear you clamouring! Why is a neuroscientist studying the brain of a master in meditation of interest to us readers? In the same way as studies performed on top athletes help the layman to take up a new running programme, studies performed on meditation experts contribute to our understanding of what meditation can give us all. Like us, many other scientists have studied the brain of meditation experts and, based on their conclusions, others have conducted experiments on lay people and come up with interesting new conclusions that I shall explain in more detail in this book.
I am still a learner in matters of meditation, but as a brain scientist and also a clinical neurologist, I am convinced by the many published studies that meditation can contribute to better mental health and quality of life. And this is what I would like to share with you.
My aim is to encourage you to try meditation and consider it as a preventive lifestyle measure and interesting supplement to modern Western medicine. Hence my rather bold question: why not experience it for yourself? It would seem a shame to refuse to try out new and different avenues, wouldn’t it? We live in a world of perpetual mutation. Science doesn’t stop, so let’s not stop either!
This is an edited extract from The No-Nonsense Meditation Book by Steven Laureys. Published by Green Tree (Paperback: £12.99) and out now. Get 20% off using the code MEDITATION20 (Expires 1st June 2021, UK only).
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