In September 2014, Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that a staggering 37 new books on mindfulness had been released during the previous week. And it wasn’t just pop science either: “In the 1980s, only one or two academic papers were published. In the 1990s this increased to around 10–15 per year. In 2013 alone there were 475 publications on mindfulness (Black, 2014).”
This month (2016) a special edition of a Springer science journal is devoted to the subject. Since I profiled the growing trend toward mindfulness meditation at school and work last May, much more evidence has come in. The arguments for and against have become more refined and focused. So if mindfulness workshops start appearing on the schedule at your workplace, school, hospital, or community centre, I hope that the following overview will guide you in deciding how to respond.
First, if you believe that the mind is a spiritual, not a natural entity, the scene provides both encouragement and a warning. Mindfulness meditation, practised seriously, does change the brain. People who say that our thoughts are merely an illusion are mistaken.
But change need not be for the better, and that is the source of the controversy. As consultant psychiatrist Florian Ruths explains,: “MBCT [mindfulness based cognitive therapy] is a powerful intervention –it isn’t fluffy or alternative.” Miguel Farias and Catherine Wickholm, authors of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? (2015), put it this way:
[Mindfulness] challenges simplistic notions of our minds as a more or less resilient muscle, which the mindfulness industry would encourage us to simply ‘exercise’ in order to achieve ‘mental fitness’. The variety of experiences (pleasant or difficult) stimulated by meditation portrays mental life rather as a combination of subtle and complex processes with various layers. Instead of dedicating more research to promoting a stereotypical image of meditation as a universal boon, we need to be mindful of how it affects people in different ways and try to understand why that is.
They spoke candidly in the Spectator. about the “dark side” that many mindfulness gurus avoid discussing:
We never intended to be the Richard Dawkins of mindfulness … But it was a chapter on the dark side of meditation that caused a stir, where we described the unexpected or exacerbated mental health problems that have been experienced and the potential misuse of meditative techniques (such as by the military). Our conclusion was that meditation might benefit some individuals, but not all — and it might be unhelpful for others.
That’s probably not what the local boardroom or the Board of Education, buying a program, want to hear. But it’s the straight goods. My column on November 17, 2014, provocatively titled “If the mindfulness craze is really so cool, why did Anders Breivik use it?,” attracted a fair bit of comment. But the point stands. Mindfulness can be practised in the absence of any virtue.
When ‘sati’ became McMindfulness, something got lost in translation: To the extent that mindfulness meditation is a legitimate cause of events, it could be harmful if used wrongly. Evidence-based criticism and caution are a good thing. A bit of history might help: The concept of mindfulness goes back millennia but the history in secular institutions in the West is very recent.
The term itself dates only from the late 19th century, as an approximate translation for a Buddhist concept of sati. It was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist (and meditator) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s, who thought it might help patients address chronic pain. But he has since attempted to dissociate himself from the trend.
He spoke up in late 2015, pointing out that a proposed government McMindfulness program would be no panacea. That’s because sati was not envisioned as a means of personal advancement like the “McMindfulness” trending in corporations , military training, compulsory schooling, sports, and prisons, where the basic component of a willing participant is hardly guaranteed.
Next: Part 2: Mindfulness is not a product or service.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain.