“There is no one-size-fits-all meditation,” says Steven Laureys

Reconcile what may seem opposite. Science is passionate about the mysteries of the brain and is increasingly looking at the strength of the mind, especially when it is trained to meditate. Steven Laureys, the Belgian neurologist who was a hit with his trial Meditation is good for the brain (Ed. Odile Jacob, 2019), publishes this week a book of practical exercises to help neophytes take their first steps.

Meditate with Dr. Steven Laureys * offers techniques for everyone to test and find what helps. A soothing experience and a benevolent word welcome in a society full of uncertainties and divisions linked to the health crisis.

What prompted you to look into meditation?

The neurologist studied the effect of meditation on the brain, thanks to the help of Mathieu Ricard.
The neurologist studied the effect of meditation on the brain, thanks to the help of Mathieu Ricard. – Michel Mathys

A personal crisis. In 2012, I find myself alone with three young children. In my head, it’s going around in circles, preventing me from sleeping. I drink, I smoke… I was not the inspiring dad I wanted to be. In 2013, during a TEDx, I met Mathieu Ricard, rock star of meditation and Buddhist monk, we quickly became close. He suggests that I go on a retreat with him, in Germany. This experience was like being at the Olympics while being a Sunday jogger!

In my turn, I decide to invite him to Liège as a guinea pig to study his brain. The results of these reviews have been published together. It was from there that I started prescribing meditation as a neurologist and studying it as a neuroscientist.

What have you discovered?

It is important to take care of our mental well-being. I would even say that we have no choice, we have to integrate it into our lives. In France, the suicide rate of young people is unacceptable! We are going to create an appeal line, but what can we do to not get to that point? There are very few psychiatric disorders that are not aggravated by stress. As a neurologist, I was not taught to talk about lifestyle, to give a tool where the patient has this possibility, and even this responsibility, to play a role in his recovery. I think we should teach children to meditate at school, as there are gym classes…

What do the studies tell us about meditation?

We have a large literature on its undeniable effects on the mind, pain, the immune system, the control of emotions, the improvement of concentration… In 2021 alone, more than 1,800 scientific articles have appeared. Twenty years ago, I was very skeptical about mindfulness. I am Cartesian. But I saw, especially thanks to Mathieu Ricard, that when you meditate, you change the structure of your brain.

But not everyone is a Buddhist monk…

Obviously ! In the morning, at home, between my wife who works at home and our five children, it’s chaos. So we do what we can. But this impact on the brain, we will see it on a scanner of people who start meditation as early as eight weeks!

We can train our attention as we train a muscle. Breathing is an easy anchor, but I see with patients that other exercises work better for them. There is no one size fits all meditation. I am disturbed by the injunctions of the type: you have to do such a time, in such a position. What I have learned from patients is that the need for meditation is universal, but the trajectory is individual. It’s not just mindfulness or the Buddhist tradition. I have redirected my plans to learn Native American traditions now that we live in Canada. They also practice meditation!

Steven Laureys with his wife and two of his children meditating during confinement.
Steven Laureys with his wife and two of his children meditating during confinement. – Steven Laureys

Can we really fight against pain thanks to this practice?

When I retired for the first time, I had a knee injury and was in terrible pain. While meditating, I was looking for the right position. One of the monks said to me “Don’t move, you observe this feeling, it will help you”. It worked. Clinical studies have shown that the effect of meditation can be as great as painkillers.

At my university in Liège, we study hypnosis, trance with Corinne Sombrun… We have performed operations on 20,000 patients, including myself, under hypnosis. It’s a reality: the mind has enormous strength. But beware, this is not alternative medicine, but complementary. If I have cancer, I’m going to see my oncologist and I’m going to meditate. Today, it seems to be one or the other. We lose great wealth in a polarizing society.

Meditation is very fashionable. But what is the difference between meditation, relaxation and sophrology?

Like sport, which encompasses a lot of practices, meditation brings together a whole series of exercises, experiences… The important thing is to clarify your need: fight against an anxiety attack, against burn-out, work on your concentration , his creativity… It is important, in our society where the emphasis is on the virtual, to talk about emotional intelligence. I don’t want to be an avatar or a robot! The challenge is to reconnect with your emotions and live in reality. Especially with social distancing and working from home…

Precisely, in this period of health crisis where anxiety has impacted our lives, can meditation be a precious help?

It will not vaccinate us against Covid-19 but helps to deal with a complex situation. The brain struggles with uncertainty. That’s why it’s important to find your tools, whether it’s meditation, yoga, hypnosis. Nevertheless, it is complicated to say “meditate!” when people can’t pay their bills. It is a luxury to make a retreat. But anyone can do informal meditation. We can do it anywhere, anytime.

What is the key word for meditation?

The goal is not to meet the timer, it is not a competition. But you have to meditate regularly. It’s often when I need it the most that it’s not easy to take that time. I do it, for example, between two consultations with families of polytrauma patients. Before, I wanted to do everything at once, but I found that if I do one thing at a time, I save time and I’m more efficient.

Applications, videos offer guided meditations. What is the point of offering a book on meditation exercises?

I’m a big fan of Little Bamboo, it’s great. For some patients, this is enough. Others are fed up with their smartphone. My work is not a book to read, but to do. The only thing you really need is motivation. I think it can help that a neurologist offers guided exercises. I’m neither a coach nor a Zen master, maybe that’s precisely my strength: I’m in a good position to know that it’s difficult!

Should caregivers study meditation during their studies?

It’s obvious. They have two to three times more risk of burnout than others. We see it with the Covid-19, some no longer hold. More generally, with this crisis, many workers are realizing that it does not suit them to work 16 hours a day, to be teleworking all the time, that emails have become neurotoxic… Realizing this helps us to express our needs.

Steven Laureys, who popularized meditation with a scientific approach, discovered this practice in 2013.
Steven Laureys, who popularized meditation with a scientific approach, discovered this practice in 2013. – Steven Laureys

We have seen, with the Covid-19 crisis, that complementary medicine could lead to a rejection of vaccination, of Science… Is this a slope that you see?

I don’t think we listen enough. It’s the same with the extreme right. Some are afraid of strangers, others of Big Pharma. For too long, we have refused to understand the reasons for this fear. There are mistakes on both sides. We are far from having understood everything about the Covid-19 and we act as if we know everything. Faced with a great mystery, scientific arrogance is to be avoided. But I remain optimistic… This crisis, where one has the impression that the world is collapsing, is a bad thing and a good thing: it is an opportunity to learn and improve.

* Meditate with Dr Steven Laureys, Odile Jacob, January 12, 2022, 18.90 euros.

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“There is no one-size-fits-all meditation,” says Steven Laureys

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