Few experiences can compare to holding a human brain. It was my first year of medical training.
I was nineteen years old, and as I stood in the cold, sterile dissection room with a brain in my hands, I wondered how a lifetime of memory, feelings and thoughts could arise from this one-kilogram tofu-like substance. This fascination with the brain, coupled with my desire to help people live happy and meaningful lives, led me to a career in psychiatry. As I moved deeper into my career I discovered that while psychiatry helped save people’s lives, it often left the flourishing part of the equation to other health professionals. I also realised that this was the part of the journey I was most passionate about. I wanted to support people in thriving, not just surviving.
I knew I wanted to be of service, to help others flourish and make a positive difference in the world, but I sensed I wasn’t moving in the right direction. I valued the rigour of science and the solid foundation of knowledge my training gave me, but I was feeling unfulfilled and confused. I knew I wasn’t on the right path, but I wasn’t sure how to course correct.
It was during my own search for clarity, happiness and resilience that I discovered mindfulness meditation.
It was the early 2000s, and mindfulness had not yet hit the mainstream medical world. I attended a conference and heard leading neuroscientists Dr Richard Davidson and Dr Michael Merzenich talk about the impact of mindfulness on the brain, and the new science of neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to adapt and change throughout our lifetime in response to our experiences.
I was intrigued. Only a few years earlier, the accepted view in science was that the brain rapidly developed until about our mid-twenties, at which point brain-cell growth stopped and our capacity to create new neural pathways significantly reduced. It was a depressing picture of our brain’s capacity, peaking early and then declining into old age. But by the time of the conference, Davidson and a few other leaders in the field of neuroscience were correcting this misconception. A new understanding of the brain was emerging, and it provided much more exciting possibilities.
Davidson shared research demonstrating that mental training such as meditation actually changed meditators’ brains – both functionally and structurally – in ways that supported greater happiness and wellbeing. The changes were even seen in relatively short periods of meditation practice: one of Davidson’s studies revealed that just seven hours of compassion meditation over a two-week period resulted in measurable changes in the brain, and also had a positive impact on behaviour, leading to increased altruism. Meanwhile, in a study of rats, Merzenich and his team demonstrated that regular brain training not only allowed their brains to continue growing and maintain function into old age, but could actually reverse age-related functional decline. His later studies found the same outcomes for humans who participated in intense brain training. The lifelong potential of neuroplasticity was emerging as a crucial element of our collective scientific understanding, empowering us to reach optimal levels of wellbeing.
These scientists were suggesting that just as practising an instrument improves one’s musical abilities, implementing regular mind and brain practices could improve our psychological and physical wellbeing. I realised this perspective on wellbeing could offer hope to my patients, many of whom believed that their potential for happiness was limited by their genetics. Many saw themselves destined to a fate of familial anxiety or depression, with no capacity to influence this trajectory. Although genetics undeniably has an influence on our mental health, the new science offered a more empowering perspective, where we could, to some extent, become sculptors of our own brains.
I realised that I was witnessing a paradigm shift in the world of wellbeing. Old models were being shattered as new models emerged, revealing the undiscovered potential of our brains. Scientific research was supporting what Buddhist monks had known for well over two thousand years: that meditation was a powerful tool for enhancing wellbeing, clarity and happiness.
As I continued to explore this robust science, I was inspired to do my own investigation into mindfulness and the brain, so I dived head-first into meditation by signing up for a seven-day silent meditation retreat.
My psychiatry boss at the time warned me against it. ‘I had a patient who lost their mind on one of those things. I couldn’t think of anything worse,’ he casually remarked.
To be honest, I was a little scared too. Spending a week in silence with only my mind as company terrified me. As a high-energy person who likes to be productive and creative, I didn’t consider myself the ideal candidate for meditation. However, despite my reservations, a few weeks later I found myself on a meditation cushion in a retreat centre in the Byron Bay Hinterland.
During the first few days I struggled. I was falling asleep from boredom and exhaustion in some moments, then experiencing the most profound levels of agitation at others. It felt like an army of ants was crawling under my skin.
Then, after three days of obsessively questioning what I was doing there and contemplating escape plans, an unfamiliar sense of calm emerged. It was as though I’d been living my whole life with a background of mental static, and suddenly it cleared. I felt strangely content being right where I was, even though what I was doing was objectively pretty boring.
On the afternoon of the fourth day I strolled around the retreat grounds, strangely captivated by the details of trees and plants. Colourful flowers seemed more vibrant, leaf patterns and shapes were as fascinating as works of art, the melodic bird song as thrilling as a live music concert. I was completely present, absorbed in the moment. The narrating, planning, judging, worrying voice in my head had disappeared. There was stillness, ease and a feeling of deep connection to everything.
I laughed at my clichéd transformation. I’d quickly gone from being a driven, ambitious, latte-sipping, list-making city dweller, to a bird-watching, contemplative, calm, nature-admiring meditator. After only a few days of silent practice I had indeed ‘lost my mind’, but in the most positive way.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this turning inwards was the beginning of a profound shift in the direction of my life. It was only a few years later that I made the decision to leave my career as a psychiatrist to follow a deeper calling to create a global meditation campaign, six years later, the largest online global fundraising meditation campaign for global poverty, called Mindful in May.
Many of us are drawn to meditation or mindfulness with the hope of finding better ways to manage their stress. However, although these practices can be a powerful antidote to the stress in our lives, they have a much deeper capacity to transform us.
There are so many books that boast magical, quick fixes to life’s challenges, and judging by the number that are hitting the bestseller lists, it seems that many of us are searching for that ‘secret’ to achieving lasting happiness. We are obsessed with trying to avoid the suffering that comes with being human.
In our relentless pursuit of happiness, we can easily get caught running on ‘the hedonic treadmill’, constantly seeking external sources of pleasure. Whether it’s earning more money, finding the ‘perfect’ relationship, or seeking approval, power, or success, we look for happiness in areas that are often transient and outside of our control. Our desires just keep bubbling up as we struggle to fill the gap between our current reality and some imagined better reality ‘over there’.
But there is another form of wellbeing and happiness, called eudaimonic happiness, first explored by Aristotle several thousand years ago. Eudaimonia comes from two Greek words: eu, meaning ‘good’, and Daimon, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘self’. This type of flourishing is not dependent on external circumstances, but rather emerges from an inner sense of wellbeing; it’s created by what we bring to life rather than what we get out of it, and it is completely within our control. Mindfulness training connects us to our inner reservoir of wellbeing, and helps us see the causes of our happiness and suffering. With this growing wisdom and clarity, we make better decisions and start to experience a happiness that transcends our never-ending ow of wanting.
When I started learning mindfulness meditation I had no idea how deeply it would transform my life. This ancient practice, offers a completely new way of understanding our thoughts and mind that, as far as I’ve found, is the real ‘secret’ to supporting our greatest happiness.
Find out more about Mindful in May, the world’s largest online mindfulness fundraising campaign and learn mindfulness for the world’s best teachers. Join the waitlist here to be updated when the campaign opens for registration.