When we hear about mindfulness, we think of Zen Buddhism, right? Yet Western religions encourage contemplative practices too. (If we are not prepared to be mindful in at last some sense, why are we praying or reading the Bible or attending a religious service anyway?)

More and more often, however, allegedly non-religious “mindfulness” features at our workplaces and schools. Perhaps we hear that a police chief is promoting yoga and meditation “to strengthen arm of the law”.  The US Marines, are also using these practices “to improve their attention and working memory.” The Dalai Lama, a natural for promoting mindfulness, seems unsure what to make of its use in the military.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Intel, Nike, LinkedIn, and General Mills are among the companies promoting it. It is finding a place  in law practice. A congressman has also been enlisting NFL players and veterans to bring meditation to Capitol Hill. And then there is “neuroloveology,” using mindfulness to reignite one’s sex life.

So yes, mindfulness is becoming quite the fad. From Google’s corporate experience with mindfulness training we learn:

One day in an SIY class at Google in Mountain View, Meng is asking everyone to say two words about how they are feeling after doing a mindfulness practice. Rich, from People Ops, says “nonjudgmental experience.” Ahmed, a scientist, says, “Very related.” Will, a recruiter for attorneys, says “Defragged hard-drive.” Did mindfulness teachers from decades past ever say defragged hard-drive? I don’t think so. Unique.

One of the UK’s largest and most influential political weeklies, The Spectator calls the trend mindfulness hype:

Its coverage of mindfulness is an indication of how far the practice has permeated British culture, including in politics. Around 100 MPs and peers in the Houses of Parliament have taken a mindfulness course, and the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group is in the middle of an inquiry on the benefits of mindfulness to public life.

Here are some of the issues the fad raises, from various perspectives:

– Religion writer Doug Todd points to the risk that mindfulness, in a corporate venue, can become a form of escapism. As Ron Purser and David Loy explain:

In many respects, corporate mindfulness training — with its promise that calmer, less stressed employees will be more productive — has a close family resemblance to now-discredited “human relations” and sensitivity-training movements that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

The basic problem is that if we want mindfulness in order to survive in the corporate food chain, that’s like wanting good taste in order to make money in the home decorating business. We don’t really want the thing for itself and are thus unlikely to find it (we might, of course, make more money or get promoted, but the end result may be more, not less, stress).

– Several other questions arise: Is feeling unhappy bad for us? Suppose we are really in the wrong job but use mindfulness meditation to de-stress and stay in it? Thus we lock ourselves into a pattern of passable performance when we could have excelled elsewhere. Everyone has gifts, and many people who perform poorly are simply in the wrong job, maybe even the wrong profession. So adjustment isn’t even always a benefit. Also, what’s with our employers being so concerned about our inner lives?

Indeed, a recent book, Your Dark Side: The Benefits Of Anti-Happiness argues, “research shows that suppressing negative emotions is not only harmful to ourselves and others, it also increases anxiety in an already worry-filled world.”

– People raised in an ethical monotheist tradition find the mindfulness practice of non-judgmentalism—not judging anyone or anything—suspect. There is a difference between suspecting that my neighbours are “living in sin” (could I not just mind my own business?) and suspecting that a child is neglected or abused (have I a legal as well as a moral responsibility to report?). Elevating a generalized lack of judgement to a goal  just does not seem right.

The lack of an anchor in an accepted moral tradition is not harmless. Norwegian murderer Anders Breivik used meditation to numb his emotions in order to kill. As Vishvapani Blomfield explains,

Breivik uses meditation as a form of mind control – a way to focus the mind and exclude responses that get in his way. You could argue that he is meditating wrongly, but I think his testimony shows that the effect of any practice, meditation included, depends on the ends to which it is recruited. Breivik’s aims were determined by his racist beliefs and meditation didn’t challenge them.

Indeed, meditation played a role in the many kamikaze suicides during World War II in Japan:

Absolute nothingness is God. And God is absolute nothingness.

As a result of these nagging questions, the current craze has been termed McMindfulness. As Todd puts it in the Vancouver Sun, , it is “marketed in our culture, just as medications need to be marketed”:

Before publishing excerpts from two recent pieces about “McMindfulness,” I’ll mention I was sensing a few years ago there was something a little too enthusiastic about the way many were tossing out the term, mindfulness, as some sort of quasi-magic panacea to what ails you.

And at the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson asks, “What If Meditation Isn’t Good for You?” Attending a landmark conference on the “mindfulness revolution,” he discovered that the participants “disagree about everything.” They’ve been successful, with a million Americans a year, for example, taking up mindfulness meditation—supposedly. But what does it amount to?:

Buddhist purists are dismayed by one-percenters using mindfulness to get even richer. Skeptics say that meditation’s benefits are being oversold and overhyped. And critics say that celebrity meditation-boosters like Arianna Huffington and David Lynch offer more flash than substance.

He asks, is mindfulness really ready for prime time? More trenchantly, he observes,

And the core goals of Buddhism—liberation from suffering, for example—have been thoroughly transformed by the contemporary secular mindfulness movement, which is largely about stress reduction. Maybe this watered-down Buddhism has been watered-down enough to play in Peoria, and assuage the concerns of conservative Christians.

But he is at least generous enough to admit:

Some, it’s clear, just want to teach more people meditation; they’ve enjoyed the benefits themselves, and they want to spread the gospel. Others are clinicians, sincerely interested in anything that can help their clients stop suffering. Some are hard neuroscientists, aware that this is a cool cutting edge of research.

Some observers are more critical, however: “Mindfulness is something worse than just a smug middle-class trend,” says Melanie McDonagh at UK Spectator. Noting that it is more acceptable than organized religion but not necessarily more helpful, she says:

This brings me to what really annoys me about being mindful, which is that as far as I can gather, it’s Mostly About Me. Sitting concentrating on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols?

In any event, mindfulness is best taken in small doses. As Melissa Dahl puts it in New York Magazine,

Like just about every other aspect of the human condition, our consciousness operates on a spectrum. On one end lies conscious awareness, or mindfulness. But all the way on the other end, there’s something you could call mindlessness. And mindlessness brings many benefits that are being overlooked, like creative thinking and personal problem-solving.

But we shouldn’t go away concluding that meditation is bad. Meditation can help us cope better with life by giving us practice in walking away from pointless stress. First, neuroplasticity is real. Our brains are not machines; they are living organs and they  rewire, given a chance, according to our circumstances. In medicine, of course, mindfulness is assessed using the tools of neuroscience and psychiatry. Mindfulness teaching does help some psychiatric patients, which is useful to know because of the increase in the number of patients taking antidepressants and antipsychotics:

Earlier this year, JAMA Internal Medicine published a paper that looked at how mindfulness meditation programs affect stress and well-being. The study, widely covered by the news media, reviewed 47 studies and found that the meditation programs helped improve levels of anxiety, depression, and pain, although it did not have an effect on sleep, weight, or substance abuse.

But patients who were helped were often also taking medications.  Even some serious mental disorders respond well to mindfulness training (obsessive compulsive disorder, for example).

But claims that meditation “can vanquish mental disorders” or is “the most powerful relationship tool on the planet” are hype. Mental disorders are a lifelong challenge. Relationships are a two-way street. And life is an experience to be lived, not a problem to be solved.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...