PEORIA — Contemplative neuroscience — the study of how meditation affects the brain — was a personal passion for Dr. Bento Soares before tragedies in his private life made him see the value of promoting it to his co-workers and students.

Soares, senior associate dean for research and head of cancer biology and pharmacology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, lost his first and second wives to cancer. Contemplative practices helped him navigate both difficult journeys. The experiences also made Soares realize that contemplative practices could be beneficial for medical caregivers.

“In both instances I witnessed very senior, caring oncologists really struggling,” said Soares. “When the time came that they couldn’t really offer treatment any more, we were cared for very well by hospice, but the person with whom we had been interacting for that amount of time was no longer present. And it was very difficult even though the care we were receiving was beautiful, the person we had such a close interaction with (through treatment) had vanished.”

One doctor told Soares he felt like he’d failed.

“And that really hit me because I saw how caring he was, and how difficult it was for him. There he was struggling a month or two later because, I believe, he really didn’t have the skills to remain involved on a different level — not as a person who was going to prescribe something to change an outcome he had no control of, but as a human being who cared.”

Contemplative practices are now being taught as part of the extracurricular offerings for medical personnel and students at UICOMP thanks to Soares. At the heart of the three courses being offered is the idea that well-being, compassion, and resilience are skills that can be developed. People can control how they react to the difficulties which arise during the course of every life.

“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional because suffering is the attitude you have toward pain,” said Soares. “Adversities are inevitable, but the way you relate to them is totally within your control.”

Meditation and reflection allows for re-appraisal of difficult situations which might otherwise be addressed impulsively.

"People get overwhelmed by thoughts, so an important component of this training is to be able to be aware of the activity in the mind without getting tangled in those thoughts," said Soares. "It's like if you were in very stormy weather, you look at the ocean and see the surface is very wavy. But if you dive down just a little, it's still. So the idea is you can find that place, rest in that stillness and simply be aware of the storm above you. Recognizing that the conditions are wavy, but it will change. You are not the wave."

The genesis of the field of contemplative neuroscience goes back to the late 1980s when the Dali Lama began talking to scientists about how meditation affects the brain.

“At some point the Dali Lama asked if the methodologies used to investigate negative states of mind, like depression and anxiety, could be used to investigate positive states of mind cultivated through compassion training, loving kindness and contemplative practices,” said Soares.

As highly reputable neuroscientists and psychologist began to study and then embrace the positive effects of meditation, it changed the way the scientific community viewed the contemplative practices, said Soares. Since then studies have shown that contemplative practices actually change structures in the brain. Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, one of the programs Soares teaches, has been shown to reduce stress hormones.

“There have been studies showing how people who are trained in CBCT have their levels of stress hormone cortisol and the inflammatory marker IL-6 decrease more quickly after exposure to a social stress,” said Soares. “Think of how chronic inflammation sets the stage of so many diseases, from cancer to diabetes. All these diseases that are impacted by inflammatory processes.”

CBCT was developed by Lobsang Negi, professor in the department of religion and Director of the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University, after a  suicide.

“The motivation was to help students develop more resilience and well-being,” he said.

Students of CBCT learn a series of contemplative techniques which cultivate mindfulness, attention stability, introspective awareness, impulse control, resilience, loving-kindness and compassion for self and others.

CBCT is an evidence-based program with several studies showing its efficacy, said Soares.

“There has been CBCT research showing the benefit for veterans with PTSD ... showing the benefit for medical students in reducing depression and anxiety, and there are studies that have been done with cancer survivors,” he said.

Shortly after moving to Peoria in 2015, Soares began talking to his colleague Dr. Jean Clore, associate professor of clinical psychology at UICOMP, about starting a program in contemplative neuroscience. After researching the various programs, they decided on CBCT and asked UICOMP administrators for permission go to Emory University to become certified to teach the program. Once permission was granted, other faculty members were invited to attend and in the end five people went.

“The last step before certification was a teaching assistantship where we had to train others in CBCT,” he said. “We asked the leadership at UICOMP to be our students. Not only were they doing us a favor, but it was also an opportunity to learn the program. All misconceptions were put to rest when they had a chance to see what it was about. And the program was attended not just by our leadership here, but also leadership from the hospitals, Peoria Public Schools, the city manager, members from the American Cancer Society and the Komen Foundation. There were 60 people in four classes. It was a wonderful thing.”

Extracurricular classes in CBCT are now offered to all medical students at UICOMP and will soon also be offered at other campuses in the University of Illinois College of Medicine system.

CBCT classes in Peoria are open to members of the general public. Visit https://peoria.medicine.uic.edu/resilience/ for more information.

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.