In 1972, shortly after earning his Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute in France, Matthieu Ricard left his life in academia for the Himalayas, to study Tibetan Buddhism. His studies would eventually lead him to become the French interpreter and a confidant to the Dalai Lama, and to author books on meditation and compassion. Ricard also has the interesting distinction of having been declared "happiest person in the world" by popular media, due to the results of his participation in a study on the effects of long-term meditation.
The study that earned Ricard this title was conducted at the University of Wisconsin in 2004, involving eight long-term Buddhist practitioners that had between 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditative practice, using electroencephalogram (EEG) rigs to record their brains’ signals while meditating on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.”
Richard Davidson, co-author and head of the neuroscience department at the University of Wisconsin, explains that, "We have been looking for 12 years at the effect of short and long-term mind-training through meditation on attention, on compassion, on emotional balance. We’ve found remarkable results with long-term practitioners who did 50,000 rounds of meditation, but also with three weeks of 20 minutes a day, which of course is more applicable to our modern times."
Matthieu Ricard’s results were particularly pronounced: his gamma-wave production, neural patterns that oscillate between 25 and 100 Hz, were off the chart, "the highest reported in the literature", according to the study. Gamma patterns are associated with states that contribute to consciousness, attention, learning and memory. These patterns were strongest in Ricard’s left prefrontal cortex, indicating he had a high capacity for happiness, and a reduced tendency toward negative thoughts — hence his being dubbed as the happiest man in the world.
In his book, ‘The Art of Meditation’, Ricard offers five pieces of sage advice on how to improve one’s meditative skills:
1. A healthy mind should act like a mirror – faces can be reflected in a glass but none of them stick. Use the same technique with thoughts – let them pass through your mind but don’t dwell.
2. It’s impossible to stop thoughts from coming but focusing on a particular sound or the breath going in and out calms the mind, giving greater clarity. Controlling the mind is not about reducing your freedom, it’s about not being a slave to your thoughts. Think of it as directing your mind like a boat rather than drifting.
3. Be mindful – pay attention to the sensations of your breath going in and out. If you notice your mind wandering simply bring it back to focusing on your breath. This is known as mindfulness. You can apply it to other sensations to bring you into the ‘now’ rather than dwelling on the past or future. You could focus instead on heat, cold and sounds that you hear.
4. Once you’ve achieved some skill in this you can use that to cultivate qualities such as kindness, or dealing with disturbing emotions. Everyone has felt all-consuming love but usually it lasts for about 15 seconds, but you can hold on and nurture this vivid feeling by focusing on it in meditation. If you feel it becoming vague you can consciously revive it.
5. Like when playing the piano, practicing the feeling for 20 minutes has a far greater impact over time than a few seconds. Regular practice is also needed like watering a plant.
6. You can then use meditation to gain some space from negative emotions: ‘You can look at your experience like a fire that burns. If you are aware of anger you are not angry, you are aware. Being aware of anxiety is not being anxious it is being aware.’ By being aware of these emotions you are no longer adding fuel to their fire and they will burn down.
7. You will see benefits in stress levels and general well-being as well as brain changes with regular practice in a month. Those who say they don’t have enough time to meditate should look at the benefits: ‘If it gives you the resources to deal with everything else during the other 23 hours and 30minutes, it seems a worthy way of sending 20 minutes.’