Meditation lessons from neurologist Steven Laureys: 'Already after 8 weeks, differences appear in your brains'.
(from De morgen.be dd 2022-07-22)
Although mindfulness shakes off the image of 'woolly stuff', the threshold remains high. Nowhere for necessary, thinks Steven Laureys. As a neurologist, he acquired world fame with his research into the influence of meditation on the brains, and his 'No-nonsense meditation books' are a hit. He says you do not have to spend hours on a mat: a few minutes focusing on your breathing is already a good start.
Neurologist Steven Laureys: "Did you know that research has shown that the proximity of water has a beneficial effect on our mental well-being? The same applies to other forms of nature. They have recently even started prescribing nature walks on doctor's orders in Canada. I think that is only right. Being in nature is in itself a meditative activity. You are, as it were, invited to deal more consciously with the stimuli you receive."
In recent years, Laureys has become an advocate for meditation and its numerous benefits. He has already written two no-nonsense books about meditation for adults, will soon also give an online master class about it and believes, in short, that everyone can get something out of mindfulness.
Laureys started meditating in 2012, he first started with yoga, and not much later, he met the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, whose brain we later examined extensively to study the benefits of meditation.
In what ways does meditation help when you are going through a personal crisis?
"For me, it was a great discovery to experience that you can have an impact on what goes on between your ears, that you don't have to undergo alone. Many things happen to us in life that we can't control - now that's corona, for example. That you experience an emotion is largely beyond your control, but how you subsequently react to it is something you can control. Meditation can help with that. For me, it is mental gymnastics, an exercise to stop at your thoughts and emotions for a moment. You become aware that you have certain thoughts and that they come and go."
So what exactly happens in the brain of someone who meditates regularly?
"We studied that extensively using brain scans. When we examined Matthieu Ricard's brain, our findings were remarkable. His grey brain mass was 10 to 15 years younger than someone who does not practice meditation. The cortex cingularis, the area in our brains that plays a role in attention and pain, was also larger, and the connection between his two hemispheres was better developed, which in turn benefits your memory and concentration.
"Mathieu Richard, of course, has 60,000 hours of meditation on the counter, which makes him a top athlete in his field. But also, in the brains of people like you and me, we observe measurable differences in memory and concentration after only eight weeks of meditation. So I believe that everyone has something to gain from meditation."
Can meditation also help with mental symptoms?
"It has been shown that meditating can greatly affect our mental well-being as anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants or painkillers. Meditation also has a stress-relieving effect. Also important because many mental and physical complaints are only aggravated by stress. By learning to deal with it better, you can help prevent worse. For the sake of clarity, I see it as a complementary treatment, in addition to the use of medication, if necessary.
"Also physically, there can be some benefits. People start to experience pain differently if they meditate regularly. After all, pain is subjective and can take up a lot of mental space. Mindfulness is not going to eliminate the cause of the pain, but it can help to deal with it. For example, we currently suggest meditation to people who have had cancer."
"Even every day habits can be turned into a meditation practice. With my children, I empty the dishwasher very attentively, without trying to be fast or efficient.
Yet mindfulness still struggles with a somewhat floaty image. What do you say to those who are still not convinced?
"That vague connotation of meditation is, fortunately, beginning to disappear, I notice. The fact that more and more scientific research is available to prove that meditation is really useful, of course, helps enormously. Although in my own research, I still notice that some colleagues continue to see it as something soft. Well. What good are candles and glasses if the owl can't see and won't?
Do people who cannot sit on a mat for half an hour every day also benefit from meditation?
"Matthieu Ricard once said: meditate for twenty minutes every morning, and every evening, that must be possible. But with children and a working partner, even that is not so obvious. That's why I want to approach meditation more broadly than the well-known formal exercises. I am, for example, a great advocate of informal meditation."
What should I imagine with that?
"Once you have learned a few basic exercises, you can apply them anywhere. For example, you can do a breathing exercise for a few minutes on the train on your way to work. Or you can do a body scan when you're standing in a traffic jam at night. It has been scientifically proven that even these short exercises have a beneficial effect on our brain.
"Even from everyday habits, you can do a meditation exercise. I do that regularly with my children. For example, we empty the dishwasher in a very mindful way, without trying to be efficient or fast. By being conscious of it and paying attention to the sound that those plates and glasses make, such a banal action can also become meditative. In the shower, on the other hand, you can try to focus on how the drops touch your skin, on the temperature of the water... Such small, everyday exercises are for many a lot more feasible than formal meditation."
Does it matter if you skip three days once?
"If you can make it a good habit, like brushing your teeth, that's obviously a good thing. But that's not realistic for everyone. Actually, for me it's mainly about what you do the rest of the day. Are you somewhat mindful, or are you multitasking from morning to night? For me, the big challenge is to see meditation as something that goes far beyond those formal exercises alone. It's also a matter of dealing with your colleagues, your partner or your children in a more conscious way."
Can anyone learn to meditate?
"I believe so, but that doesn't mean that everyone gets away with it equally quickly. Some people find meditating difficult, especially in the beginning, because you suddenly become aware of everything that is going on in your head. But that's a phase. An app can help get through that initial restless period, while others just get nervous at the idea of having to use their smartphone again.
"Even if you've been meditating for a while, it's only natural that some meditation sessions manage to hold your attention better than others. There is no such thing as a 'bad' session."
Even if my attention constantly slips for twenty minutes, haven't I wasted my time?
"No, because at least you made an effort to carve out a moment for yourself. In our fast-paced world, that's a victory in itself. I think in that we are sometimes victims of our own high expectations.
There are an awful lot of different types of meditation. Which do you yourself recommend?
"Breathing meditation is, of course, the easiest because you don't need anything at all for it. Some people like to have very clear and strict guidelines for meditating. They benefit from a voice that tells them to breathe in for four counts and breathe out for six counts. Sophrology is such a form of meditation with many strict rules. There are also freer approaches to mindfulness, where you just sit down and appreciate what is happening in and around you. In transcendental meditation, which is popular in Flanders, you then repeat a mantra in your head and hold your attention in that way. But ultimately, they are all techniques with the same goal: it's about consciously focusing on one thing. So try out some things yourself to find out what suits you."
Children also benefit from meditation, according to you. Why?
"As with adults, meditation can help children become calmer and more attentive, but it's about much more than that. Meditating stimulates their capacity for empathy and increases their assertiveness and resilience.
"I find it remarkable that in school, we place so much importance on acquiring knowledge while we continue to neglect our mental well-being so much. For children, too, it's important to pay attention to what's going on in their heads - they sometimes suffer from anxiety and sadness at a young age, too.
"We live in a society where the number of suicides and burn-outs is sky-high, and I don't think it's enough then just to make a suicide line available to curb the problem. We must also dare to think about how it is that people slip into such despair. In my opinion, you cannot start early enough with this emotional awareness.
If we stop meditating after a while, have we lost all the neurological benefits?
"In time, those benefits will gradually diminish again, but that doesn't mean that your brain will immediately return to its original state if you don't meditate for a few days. That's why it can work well to ritualize your meditation. Consider going on a retreat for a day, or signing up for a yoga class or group meditation, so you've meditated at least once a week anyway.
"But it's also okay if, after intense periods of meditation, you fall back into a more sedate pace, which you pick up again if you find that your attention slips more quickly throughout the day. Then you can build in some more formal exercises again."
3 TIPS FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO MEDITATE
"Give informal meditation a chance. A breathing exercise of a few minutes on the train already has a demonstrable effect on our brains."
"Variation helps. Above all, explore for yourself which form of meditation suits you. Some people feel that quickly, for others meditating is easier to maintain if they alternate and combine different forms."
"Dive into nature. The grains of sand between your toes during a walk on the beach or the sound of birds in the woods all have a meditative and calming effect."