At all times and in all societies, meditation, whatever form it takes, has been at the heart of spirituality. In India, engravings found among the remains of the civilization ofIndus, in the XNUMXrd-XNUMXnd millennium BC, represent for example yogis in the posture of meditation. And, the texts of Taoism, Judaism (the Kabbalah), of Christianity (the Fathers of the desert), of Islam (Sufism), also relate the importance of practicing it within the framework of an interior work. The peculiarity of Buddhism is to have, on the initiative of the Buddha, codified meditation to make it a method allowing practitioners, religious and lay people, to free themselves from the causes of suffering (1).
Today, meditation is all the rage in the West, the best-known form being so-called meditation. mindfulness (mindfulness). The first people to use this term were the Vietnamese master Thich Nhât Hanh, of Plum Village, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, who developed, in the 1970s, a method of stress reduction based on mindfulness or MBSR. This program is intended for patients with stress-related illnesses, cardiovascular, digestive and skin conditions, chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, etc. (consisting of a daily practice for eight weeks), allows patients to develop a new state of consciousness that promotes the reduction of stress and anxiety. For more than forty years, thousands of people have been treated with MBSR with scientifically validated results. Following this success, methods inspired by MBSR have emerged. Applied to depressive relapses, drug addictions, eating disorders, they are grouped under the term MBI, mindfulness-based intervention, and are now taught in many medical university centers and practiced in hospitals around the world. whole, including France.
In the sights of neuroscience
But, to understand this phenomenon, let's examine what the neurosciences say about it and why these medical applications unite so much. Neuroscientists distinguish three types of meditation. “Focused attention” on a point, close to Samatha, where the attention is brought to an object, the breath, a sound or a Buddha image. The "open surveillance" close to vipassana, the practice of “deep seeing”, where the attention notices everything that passes through the mind, without fixing on it, and the “meditation on compassion” practiced especially in Tibetan Buddhism. Scientific studies are gradually discovering the incredible potential of meditation. The project is huge, but the passion of scientists for this subject, with more than five hundred scientific publications per year, is well established. What are the established facts so far?
Meditation decreases the activity of the cerebral amygdala, the starting point of negative emotions, and slows the aging of the brain.
The practice of mindfulness meditation improves the meditator's attention, while acting on his affective functions. For example, it increases one's sensitivity to the emotions of others, hence the development of altruistic love and compassion; his ability to feel positive emotions, well-being, joy, serenity; and decreases the formation of negative emotions, fear, anger, sadness. This is reflected in the long term by a significant decrease in the activity of the cerebral amygdala, the starting point for negative emotions. Other changes in cerebral structures have been highlighted by MRI, nuclear magnetic resonance: an increase in the thickness of the cerebral cortex in certain cerebral areas, and an increase in the number of connections between them, which could mean that meditation slows brain aging.
La mindfulness also acts on the biological data of meditators by reducing, for example, the level of cortisone in the blood in the event of chronic stress, by improving their immune defenses, and by slowing down the aging of cells.
Neuroscientists note that these functional and structural changes can appear within weeks, but are more pronounced and long-lasting in experienced meditators. Studies also show that regular, short thirty-minute meditation sessions are better than long, infrequent sessions.
Mindfulness and Buddhism
Neuroscientific experiments corroborate thousand-year-old Buddhist intuitions about meditation. There mindfulness is indeed a specific mental state of the present moment which results from an action – developing and putting a right attention on the breath, an object or the mind –, without judging what is happening in the moment. There is nothing else to do, as the Buddha said to an old woman who had come to learn to meditate, but who could not sit down because of her rheumatism: "Go home, grandmother, but every time you do something, keep your attention on what you are doing. As you draw water from the well, look at your hands, feel them pulling on the rope. When you cook, clean or do the laundry, pay attention to your every move”.
La mindfulness repeated daily puts an end to mental wandering.
La mindfulness repeated daily puts an end to mental wandering. Negative emotions (stress, anxiety, anger or sadness) gradually become less frequent and are replaced by positive emotions, calm, joy, benevolent love, serenity. Unlike neuroscientists who are concerned with these results mainly in a therapeutic context, for the Buddhist, meditation is a mental discipline that is not just a technique. For the practitioner, it is inseparable from ethics (Silas), concentration (samadhi) and deep wisdom (prajna). “There is no wisdom without concentration, no concentration without wisdom. Who has both concentration and wisdom, is already close to Nirvana (2) said the Buddha in the Dhammapada (3). Buddhism cannot therefore be reduced to the practice of meditation.
Anyway, the mindfulness, which is increasingly practiced in the West, could promote the establishment of a “secular spirituality” on a large scale, as the Dalai Lama calls it. A spirituality free from dogma and any form of ideology, which would lead those who practice mindfulness to acquire a more acute awareness of their responsibilities as humans towards others and the planet. This method, a daily training of the mind in attention and full awareness of the moment, would allow everyone to act on their mind, their well-being, their happiness and that of others.