What exactly is mindfulness meditation, the practice of which you regularly advocate?
At the beginning, mindfulness is something very simple: it is to make oneself available, open and welcoming, curious about what is there, in the present moment, without judgement, without expectation and without the desire to control anything. It is an attitude that we find spontaneously in humans, the brain is naturally endowed with this capacity for full consciousness, and we can touch it with our fingers in favorable environments: in nature, by observing clouds in the sky or a chimney fire, waves… Quite naturally, our mental environment turns towards a form of mindfulness, where we are fully present to what surrounds us. The ambition of mindfulness meditation is to self-produce this state, wherever you are: in a dentist's waiting room, in a metro stop or at your workplace...
How to explain its popular success for several years?
The success of mindfulness is undoubtedly due to three characteristics: it is first of all a secular approach - even if it is obviously a practice of Buddhist inspiration -, which has allowed its use in the world of health and education ; it is then validated by numerous scientific researches - nowadays, it is a very important guarantee) and thirdly, it is the simplest thing to do in terms of meditation, since one can learn the rudiments of full consciousness in a few months. For great experts in meditation is, like Matthieu Ricard and other connoisseurs of buddhist meditations, Christian or Muslim, mindfulness seems a bit like something for beginners… But, for all that, it is fundamentally important, it is a first base of meditation and promotes an attitude of open presence, which does not judge and which is devoted to our experience, moment by moment. It has taken an almost “invasive” place today, since, ultimately, when we hear about meditation in non-specialized circles, most of the time, it is about mindfulness.
You say that this meditation is secular, but is it nonetheless backed by a certain idea of spirituality?
It is a secular tool in the way we teach it. But there are two things to keep in mind: on the one hand, its roots are rooted in the world of religion and spirituality. On the other hand, we find that mindfulness can lead to more spirituality in those who practice it regularly. At the hospital, the patients who come to see us do not a priori make mindfulness a religious tool; they are guided by health reasons: mindfulness should help them suffer less, stress less or depress less. However, when they continue to practice it afterwards – which we encourage them to do – some patients describe to us very discreetly modified moments of consciousness, and others of belonging to the world where they seem able to mix great questions specific to spirituality, such as death, the afterlife, infinity, etc. So indeed, the natural inclination of mindfulness meditation can be to go towards spirituality, but a secular spirituality.
This is why you recall in your latest book the need to distinguish between spirituality and religion...
It is an important debate. Spirituality is not necessarily associated with religion. It is a need of the human spirit, it is the life of our spirit when it is confronted with the great questions of the human condition which have no rational answer: what was there before the world exist ? Will the world have an end? Does God Exist? What happens to our spirit after death? Etc. Religion provides us with answers, but we can also explore these questions without resorting to it. The Dalai Lama once had this very beautiful phrase: “Basically, spirituality is a basic need of the human spirit, as is thirst – all human bodies need water and spirituality”. But there are ways of drinking water, which are codified and linked to cultural environments: for example, you can prepare water in the form of tea. Religion is a bit the same thing: it's a way of living one's spirituality according to a certain number of social codes and rituals. Religion is therefore to spirituality what tea is to water, another way of drinking. But it is not essential.
Personally, do you meditate regularly?
Of course, I need it, it does me a lot of good; it's an almost daily practice, I meditate on average 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, to which are added all these moments of mindfulness of a few minutes. In our teaching, we insist a lot on the fact that at each moment of waiting or transition, rather than looking at the cell phone or getting upset, we can ask ourselves and become aware... And there are also activities done in mindfulness: eating, walking, listening to someone… That's my daily life. When I have worries, health or concerns, I "double the dose": I increase my recourse to these moments of appeasement and discernment that meditative practice offers me, but I am still far from the past by great meditators like Matthieu Ricard or Buddhist monks, who were able to practice up to 20-30-40 hours in their lifetime! Scientific studies show the changes in their brain. But, a small message of hope: studies also show us that even with a few dozen hours of meditation, things begin to happen, both in what we feel and in the way we understand the functioning of our mind and our emotions.
What are the benefits you find there, in particular?
I believe that meditation will enrich all our activities; there ends up being no longer any separation between “normal” moments and those when we meditate. In fact, little by little, meditation permeates our ways of being, of doing. In writing, for example, it helps me with the stability of attention, with the acceptance of difficulties and perhaps also with a better knowledge of my mind and the traps that I set for myself. – the appearance of self-critical discourse, for example.
Any advice in particular, to conclude?
In meditation, the real problem is what is called "compliance" in medicine. That is to say regularity: does a patient take his medicine every day, or not? Meditation is a bit the same, it's not something that works once, forever, it's putting in place a real change in your lifestyle that must last, like a diet or physical exercise. It is ultimately a form of medicine - as the root of the word "meditation" reminds us, which comes from mederi, a noun meaning “to treat”, to give medication.
“Religion is to spirituality what tea is to water, another way to drink. »
Regularity is the main issue for all neo-practitioners of meditation. The first piece of advice I can give is first of all to know that everyone encounters this difficulty. Daily life is an obstacle course that tries to make us consume our time other than to devote it to meditation, so it is a universal problem. Second, do not feel guilty: it is normal that there are times in our life when we meditate less because there are emergencies and difficulties, because we have lost a little motivation. In these periods, you have to see how to keep the link with meditation, for example by establishing small informal practices, take advantage of all the little moments when you are waiting and where, without it taking you more time, we can try to apprehend the wait differently, in full awareness, by meditating a little on what we are experiencing, feeling, thinking. Finally, acting mindfully is a way to stay in touch with meditation: whatever we do, do it wholeheartedly, trying to be as present as possible to what we are doing.
All of this is in line with the great advice traditionally given in the teaching of meditation: the more one progresses, the less there are differences between the moments when one does the meditation exercise and the moments when one lives. Because lots of moments in our lives are accomplished in full awareness.