Like many people, when I heard the news of Stephen Hawking's passing, I was very sad.
I was also filled with great hope and respect.
The sadness? Well, it comes from the same feeling of loss that now resonates around the world. In a world where tweets, selfies, school bullying, and Farmer Wants a Wife often outrank commonsense - here was a man of vast wit, intelligence and substance whose theories of the Big Bang and the nature of the Universe I can't even begin to truly fathom. To lose him, is to lose a truly great contributor to our society, our history, and our future.
But, alongside the sadness, I feel a huge amount of optimism and respect. For a man with such a debilitating illness, Professor Hawking awed the world. He changed the world, and defied incredible odds in order to do this. If we can take even a smidgen of example from him for our own lives, we might wake up each day with more purpose and meaning, and this gives me hope for the way we live our lives.
Hawking was diagnosed with an early onset, slow-progressing form of ALS in 1963. ALS ( aka motor neurone disease) begins with muscle twitches and stiffness and usually ends with loss of mobility, difficulty speaking and swallowing, and eventually the inability to breathe as the neurons controlling the required muscles slowly die. There is no known cure. On average, someone with ALS will survive two to four years after diagnosis. Hawking was given two to three years to live.
Over time, Hawking's physical ability declined, however he continued to seek independence and find ways around things. When his ability to write deteriorated, he found another way to compose the equations in his mind. He refused a wheelchair until it was absolutely necessary and then campaigned his University, Cambridge, to make building and learning access easier for people with disabilities. When he lost the power of speech, he used other means, like spelling cards initially, and later, computer programs. By 2005, Hawking had lost the use of the majority of his voluntary muscles and was using his cheek muscles to control his communication system. Let me repeat. He used his cheek muscles.
Throughout the decades, yes decades, of living with ALS, Hawking did something incredible.
He did not give up.
He had a focus. A single focus. In his case, his passion was physics, and he persisted in immersing himself in it daily. He found ways around his illness and he did not let it get in the way of what he wanted to achieve in his life.
For me, the key phrase that comes to mind here is 'mind over matter', and it turns out I'm not the only one. A quick scan of the media and you see the phrase everywhere in reference to Hawking. No doubt, there must be genetic components to his longevity, and I believe they are researching his DNA for clues, but something in Hawking seemed to have helped him defy the odds, a kind obstinate optimism.
A 2012 article by The Independent sums it up well:
"Has his brain helped his survival? Probably not. There is no evidence that higher IQ extends the life of people with extreme disabilities. But his positive outlook almost certainly has made a difference. He has written about the shock his diagnosis caused him, as a bored and unpromising PhD student at Cambridge in 1963. But while he was having tests in hospital, he watched a boy die of leukaemia in the bed opposite.
"Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself I remember that boy," he said.
With his engagement to his first wife Jane Wilde he began to make progress. "That changed my life. It gave me something to live for," he wrote."
So what is 'mind over matter', and how can you cultivate it?
A dictionary definition describes 'mind over matter' as a situation in which 'someone is able to control a physical condition, etc., by using the mind'. Mind being self control or willpower, and matter being your physical body, symptoms and sensations.
Mind over matter is that ability to keep climbing the mountain when you want to stop and rest.
It's the extra push a marathon runner gives to run the last 10km.
Sometimes, it is the decision to get up and out of bed when your body, mind, and spirit are begging you to stay sleeping.
Sometimes, it is the decision to go outside for a walk at the end of the day, when half of you wants to sit and snack before dinner.
Or the motivation to wake up half an hour earlier so you can have that quiet time to breathe and meditate before everyone wakes up, even though it is dark and cold and your bed is so cosy and warm.
Or it can be the drive to keep studying for upcoming exams when you would love to go to sleep or call a friend.
When you stop and think about it, your body and your mind are not two separate entities. They are intertwined, connected, and moving alongside each other.
How can it be used? Here are some ways:
- Visualisation techniques in sports are a great example of using mind over matter. Top athletes frequently visualise the outcome of their performance before setting out. In fact, Manchester United striker, Wayne Rooney, apparently finds out the colours of the uniforms of the opposing team the day before a big game. He does this for good preparation, saying, "I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well."
- Placebo is another great example. The ability to 'trick' the body with sugar pills is one way to get results without needing medicine. In fact, research shows that when placebos are used the right way, they can be as effective as conventional treatments.
- Yet another example is using hypnosis for pain. Many women use hypnosis to prepare for childbirth with the aim to avoid the use of drugs while still managing the pain. A 2016 study into pain management during birth found that women who used hypnosis during labour were less likely to use pain medication than a control group, though the number of women who used epidurals was the same in the control group.
According to the incredibly successful life coach and mentor, Tony Robbins, "Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that dis-empowers them or one that can literally save their lives.”
So, my question to you is, what meaning do you give to your experiences?
Is there some aspect of your life that you are considering a failure, giving up before you start, or putting into the 'too hard' basket?
Is there some part of your life where you can apply some 'mind over matter' thinking?
Can you find a way around a challenge you are facing right now if you really think about it?
It takes practice. It isn't always easy.
But it is possible to apply the skill of mind over matter and reach new heights, or defy great odds.
Does it make miracles happen? Unlikely. But it may lead you to achieve something you previously didn't believe possible, and that's pretty miraculous, isn't it?
Stephen Hawking has changed the way we see and study the Universe with his brilliant contributions to cosmology. He will be remembered and honoured for that.
Yet beyond this, I hope he is also remembered for his incredible contribution to humanity as a person who challenged his adversity, who lived with his illness, and flourished with it, and in spite of it.