Instant notifications, provocative tweets, urgent emails. There is no shortage of distractions in the workplace. Hence the theory of the attention economy, where various sources share our attention, a resource that has become scarce. Sources of stress too. Which damage our health. Which reduce our productivity. Which create conflicts.
Faced with this back and forth of thoughts, a new trend is gaining ground: mindfulness meditation. The technique was popularized in the late 1970s by the American Jon Kabat-Zinn. The initial purpose of the method was to reduce stress. But the practice of meditation has older roots. Forms of meditation have been found in religions such as Buddhism for thousands of years.
In its simplest version, the exercise consists in closing the eyes and focusing on the breath. In addition, there is a series of variations, where the mind focuses on different parts of the body, on the five senses, on a mental image. All the time, the mind tends to escape, to return to the flow of daily thoughts. Calmly, the practitioner brings it back to the present moment.
Mindfulness has not left the American business community unmoved. Entrepreneurs, CEOs, politicians, there is no shortage of followers. The American media never ceases to praise the practice.
Meditation allows you to reach a state of altered consciousness. Halfway between wakefulness and sleep. Close to the state of hypnosis, a technique with which it shares certain similarities.
Specialists in consciousness, such as Professor Steven Laureys at the University of Liege, have taken an interest in the phenomenon. Meditation is good for the brain,” was the title of one of the neurologist’s books. The benefits that he went so far as to verify, through magnetic resonance imaging, in the brains of regular practitioners.
And the benefits of meditation don’t stop at stress management. Leadership, listening skills, self-awareness. These moments of pause allow you to take a step back.
Fitness of the mind
The practice has become so popular that some people are worried about it. The French League of Human Rights even went so far as to publish an alarmist statement denouncing, in the name of the principle of secularism, the introduction of the technique into the curriculum of certain schools.
This was perhaps ignoring the fact that mindfulness has distanced itself from religion. For this practice is more akin to “fitness of the mind”, with its rules and training, than to a mystical experience.
Meditation is learned. Although a sense of calm may be felt immediately, it takes weeks, months or even years to fully master the technique. Applications such as Calm or Headspace offer pre-recorded programs. Meditation centres, such as Mind Collective in Brussels, have also emerged.
Proof, if any were needed, that it is no longer necessary to isolate yourself for months in a Tibetan temple to find an island of calm!
Chronic stress, a risk factor for certain diseases
Chronic stress can be defined as a long-lasting state linked to various known and/or sometimes unsuspected sources of stress. The second form of medically recognized stress is called “acute”. It is due to an event experienced as difficult and sudden and results in an intense and brutal emotion. In both cases, stress is a natural adaptation reaction of the body to external physical or psychological aggressions or to difficult situations. Acute stress can also become chronic, such as post-traumatic stress. The consequences of this state on health can be numerous because stress is a risk factor for several pathologies: depression, skin problems, autoimmune diseases and certain types of cancer.
What meditation does to your brain
For centuries, people have been looking for ways to boost their intelligence, concentration and creativity, using nootropics, also known as “memory enhancers” or “cognitive enhancers”.
In fact, if you’re drinking coffee right now, you’re consuming a form of nootropic: caffeine is a stimulant and is known for its wake-up effect.
But “smart drugs” – which are not necessarily pharmaceuticals – are gaining in popularity: there is now a huge market for over-the-counter supplements that claim (with very little scientific evidence) to improve concentration and memory.
Some people go even further and seek prescription stimulants, such as modafinil, in an attempt to improve their performance at work or school.
Research conducted in 2017, based on the Global Drug Survey, an anonymous questionnaire, found that 30% of Americans had taken some form of “smart drug” in the previous 12 months.
This is an increase of 20% since 2015. And the study found that they were not alone: large increases were also reported across Europe.
But are these products really effective, and what are their risks?