A Meditative State of Mind

To mark Mental Health Awareness Month, revisit French psychiatrist Christophe André's discussion about how to train the mind.

Christophe André, a well-known psychiatrist, was one of the first French doctors to suggest secular meditation to his patients, back in 2004. The author or coauthor of some 30 books on mental health – favoring such topics as fear, addiction, emotionality and meditation – he has spent most of his career at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in Paris, where he works in the behavioral and cognitive psychotherapy unit and specializes in the treatment and prevention of emotional, anxiety and depressive disorders.

In his latest book, S’estimer et s’oublier (Respect Yourself and Forget Yourself), published by Éditions Odile Jacob, he says that self-esteem lets “the spirit breathe” and enables us to turn toward others and toward life. In the following interview, this proponent of positive thinking discusses his views on well-being and meditation.

The SanboJi Monastery - Temple of the Three Jewels, a Zen buddhism center in Pagazzano, Italy.

You had already dealt with self-esteem in two previous books: Imparfaits, libres et heureux – pratiques de l’estime de soi (Imperfect, Free and Happy: Practicing Self-esteem, 2006) and L’estime de soi (Self-esteem, 1999). Why did you feel the need to write another book on the topic?

CA The situation has changed a great deal since the first book was published in 1999. In it, my colleague François Lelord and I laid the foundations for the discussion of self-esteem. At the time, it was a relatively new concept in France, where we tended to speak of “self-confidence,” which isn’t quite the same thing. As a doctor who has spent my life treating patients with emotional disorders like anxiety, stress and depression, I quickly realized that self-esteem issues are key. In 2006, I wrote a sequel to that first book, Imparfaits, libres et heureux, in which I clarified things further. The word “imperfect” makes it the best title I’ve ever come up with [laughs] because we don’t need to be perfect to value ourselves! The quest for perfection is a terrible trap, very stressful for one’s self-esteem.

Today, over 20 years after those first works, I’ve seen things accelerate in the field of self-esteem, with what we call in scientific jargon a “narcissism epidemic.” Western societies are suffering from the inflation of egos, selfishness, a lack of attention to and respect for one another, and the relative dissolution of social ties. All that seemed to me to call for a new focus on self-esteem. The new book’s key message is found in its title: self-esteem is fundamental; we can’t do without it. It’s in our interest to have a benevolent relationship with ourselves, but it’s not an end in itself. At some point, you have to move on to something other than yourself.

Could you give us your definition of self-esteem and explain how it differs from self-confidence?

CA Simply put, self-esteem is the way we see, judge and treat ourselves. So, first of all, it’s the result of the way we look at ourselves. Is it a biased view, in a positive or negative sense? Or is it a view that tries to encompass a broader sense of who we are? It’s also the result of how we judge ourselves. Our viewpoint is not neutral. We judge our qualities to decide if they are socially valuable and our faults to see if they are dramatic or benign. Finally, it’s how I relate to myself, how I treat myself. The way I treat myself, whether benevolent or malicious, is central to my self-esteem. It’s perhaps the best marker, even more so than judgment.

What we generally define as self-confidence – even if the two concepts are very closely linked – is the feeling of being able to face up to a certain number of situations, to deal with them. Self-esteem can facilitate self-confidence, but that’s not always the case. There are people who are quite confident in their ability to accomplish a given task but who still don’t feel good about themselves.

What role does meditation play in self-esteem? What is its place, and how can it be used as a tool?

CA You must understand that most psychological change obeys the same rules as physical change. We can’t suddenly decide what our physical capacities are (e.g., running longer, having more muscles or flexibility), any more than we can decide what most of our mental capacities are (being happier, less stressed, more attentive). We can’t say, “Tomorrow I’ll be more flexible,” or, “Tomorrow I’ll be more Zen.” But we can decide to train for it. This daily training is, in part, provided by meditation.

The space opened up by meditation is a space for lucidity, which is why meditation is not the same as relaxation. We seek to see things as they are but also to see how our mind sometimes tends to present them to us wrongly by magnifying problems or minimizing successes, to see how it pushes us to judge when sometimes we need to make assessments without value judgments. All of this is training! Meditation is a blend of self-knowledge, self-compassion and action facilitation that encourages us to take the plunge more often than we would spontaneously. It’s about cultivating a different mindset: “Do your best, and see what happens.”

What is special about mindfulness meditation?

CA There are many different forms of meditation, including religious meditation based on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Practically all cultures and religions have their meditative traditions. There has been a tradition of Christian meditation in the West since the third century. Mindfulness meditation is secular, with no direct reference to any religious system. It was codified in the 1990s by an American neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who had the genius to realize that all these meditative practices, especially those inspired by Buddhism, needed to be secularized so that they could reach the general public.

They were then codified into protocols that could be scientifically tested. To date, this is the only meditation method to have been the subject of a large number of scientific validations. In practical terms, it involves centering on the present moment, learning to cultivate stability of attention and lucidity with regard to one’s emotional and mental state, and stepping back from one’s thoughts to gain the best possible knowledge of how one’s mind works.

Meditation is a blend of self-knowledge, self-compassion and action facilitation that encourages us to take the plunge more often than we would spontaneously. Christophe André

What is tonglen, which inspires your meditation?

CA Tonglen means “sending and taking” in Tibetan. It is a highly developed meditation technique in Tibetan Buddhism that involves combining an exercise on thoughts and emotions with the movement of the breath. Meditation is not just an intellectual and psychological discipline. The body is a very important part of it. We receive all our emotional messages through the body. In the Tibetan tradition, there are many exercises relating to benevolence and compassion. Tibetan monks explain that they visualize and, by breathing in, inhale the suffering of the people they want to help. By breathing out, they send them love and support.

Of course, I don’t know whether this relieves people’s suffering and sends them love – we don’t have any scientific data on that! But what we have found is that people who practice tonglen benefit greatly. Using your body as a tool to serve your psychological intentions increases the benefits of the exercise. And tonglen, practiced as altruistic meditation, not only feels good but also actually makes us more altruistic, raising our awareness and preparing us to be unselfish. It’s what English-speaking societies call “embodiment”: using your body to amplify the impact of psychological work.

What do you mean by “forgetting oneself” in the context of your work on self-esteem? And why does today’s society need to balance its attention between the self and others to compensate for the narcissism epidemic you mentioned?

CA I chose the title S’estimer et s’oublier for several reasons. The first is linked to an observation: most people with good self-esteem – neither “too much” nor “not enough” – have a very small number of self-centered thoughts. The second point is that the more our patients improve their self-esteem, the less they think about themselves. From the very first programs we ran, patients were surprised to discover that, in certain competitive situations, they would sometimes say to themselves: “Wow, it’s been over 10 minutes since I’ve thought about what people think of me.” So, we understood that the objective was to forget about ourselves, but not in the sense of contempt or self-neglect, just forgetfulness in the positive sense. This is what the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow” or the “optimal psychological state.” In other words, when I’m fully absorbed in what I’m experiencing, I’m enjoying myself. That’s what self-esteem is all about: being fully present to life and to one’s interactions.

Finally, I mentioned “forgetting” in the title to get this message across: “Respect yourself, and then move on.” Especially in the midst of this epidemic of narcissism! There is plenty of worrying research from American universities that, for the past 40 or 50 years, have been administering personality questionnaires to their graduating classes and which report that the figures associated with narcissism have risen by 20 percent to 30 percent.

Over the last 10 years of my practice, I’ve also seen the arrival of the huge problem of social media. We’ve seen a surge in physical complexes, and dissatisfaction with one’s body is increasing enormously. Fortunately, the “body-positive” movement is starting to counter that trend, but it was frightening. All this makes our mental calculator for social comparisons go crazy and encourages people to denigrate themselves. In this matter, adolescents are at great risk; they are very vulnerable because that’s the period when self-esteem is being built.

What does well-being mean to you? And in what ways has philosophy been teaching how to live a good life as far back as antiquity, as you point out in your book?

CA It’s interesting to remember that in ancient Europe, philosophy wasn’t invented as a speculative tool but as a means of improving human beings. What’s noteworthy about ancient philosophy is that the balance we’ve just been talking about between the individual and others was respected.

Ancient philosophers insisted that it was normal for human beings to aspire to happiness and, additionally, it was also normal for them to take their place in the group and play their part in the wider society.

Individual well-being is important because it is related to energy and confidence, whereas unhappiness leads to withdrawal. A carer can see this very clearly: when people are unwell, there is room in the mind only for suffering. We are interdependent beings, and our well-being depends on that. It’s like environmental health. We all know that we can’t enjoy good health in a polluted environment (water, air, food). But there’s also the social environment: it’s hard to feel good in a society marked by selfishness, violence, etc.

In my opinion, there are three duties related to happiness. The duty of discretion – don’t display your happiness too insolently in front of people who are suffering. The duty of humility – remember that you are happy partly through your own efforts but also because you were lucky enough to be born in the right place at the right time. Lastly, the duty to share and redistribute.

This vision of civic well-being is the only sustainable one in my view. Selfish well-being may work, but it won’t work as long or as well. Let’s take care of ourselves, but also of others.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 15 – buy it here.

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