Mindfulness is better than medication for treating depression. Mindfulness helps students combat negativity, focus on their homework and pay more attention in class. Mindfulness helps long-haul airline travellers avoid air rage over delays and bad service. Mindfulness gives hedge fund managers a competitive advantage.
That’s what the headlines say about mindfulness. But is it really a wonder drug for the 21st century?
More and more people are realizing that much (not all) of hopes placed in mindfulness are little more than hype. First, if mindfulness meditation proves a legitimate treatment, it could be harmful if used wrongly. The same is true of drugs, surgery, nutritional supplements, psychotherapy, or any intervention at all. Rigorous criticism feels harsh but it is part of a program aimed at grounding true knowledge. For example: Who should and who shouldn’t try mindfulness meditation, and on what rationale? Far from being a threat, evidence-based criticism is a good sign for the continued clinical use of the practice.
The term “mindfulness” is said to have originated in 1881, with a British magistrate in Ceylon, who began to learn about Buddhist culture while adjudicating disputes between clergy. He considered it an approximate translation for a Buddhist concept sati, which cannot be defined in words, only understood in experience.
It is a reasonable assumption that, in a pragmatic secular culture, the further the concept strays from its original indefiniteness the more likely it will warp into something like “McMindfulness.” That’s the main concern with the “mindfulness” programs sweeping corporate America and finding their way into military training and prisons as well. Sati may be hard to define but the goals of business, the military, and prisons are not (or should not be). So the potential for losing the plot is obvious.
It’s also unclear how sati will fare in the staggering triviality of pop culture. One hears of a new app called OMG. I Can Meditate! And one reads this in Huffington Post:
Having experienced the sequencing of yoga assanas, having little time to sit in practice, and finding that the benefits of meditation can quickly fade in the busy 24/7 world of today, a diverse group of people have created shorter meditation modalities by layering traditional techniques together. The result is a highly individualized practice that meets the needs of those practicing it.
And then we learn that at present, there are 483,672 meditation-related items for sale at Amazon. To say nothing of books like Mindful Work, The Mindful Way Through Depression, Mindful Birthing, Mindful Movements, The Mindful Child, The Mindful Teen, Mindful Eating, (two separate books), and The Mindful Way Through Stress.
Imagine, the Buddha and his followers made do with a rice bowl each. Sati has apparently left the building—probably the country too.
Indeed, the first rule of any kind of meditation or contemplation in any tradition is to stop wanting things. To stop even wanting to meditate. That is probably part of why sati would be hard to explain in words. What is not hard to explain is why mindfulness meditation might not be doing as much good in modern Western society as supposed.
Which brings me to my second point: From a science perspective, an article in Nature notes that most findings showing benefits have not yet been replicated:
Findings on the effects of meditation on the brain are often reported enthusiastically by the media and used by clinicians and educators to inform their work. However, most of the findings have not yet been replicated. Many researchers are enthusiastic meditators themselves. Although their insider perspective may be valuable for a deep understanding of meditation, these researchers must ensure that they take a critical view of study outcomes. In fact, for meditation studies there is a relatively strong bias towards the publication of positive or significant results, as was shown in a meta-analysis.
The methodological quality of many meditation research studies is still relatively low. Few are actively controlled longitudinal studies, and sample sizes are small. As is typical for a young research field, many experiments are not yet based on elaborated theories, and conclusions are often drawn from post-hoc interpretations. These conclusions therefore remain tentative, and studies must be carefully replicated. Meditation research also faces several specific methodological challenges.
The fact that the studies have not yet been replicated does not mean that they are false, wrong, or unreliable; it just means that we can’t have as much confidence in them as we would like.
And third, as noted above, in the wrong hands, mindfulness can do harm. As Mark Hay offers in Good Magazine,
In the case of meditation, as the practice proliferates in the West, we’ve become increasingly aware that for some people, especially those with mental or personality conditions, mindfulness can trigger anxiety, depressive episodes, or flashbacks to past traumas.
He cites work like Brown University clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton’s Dark Night Project, “a combination psychological study and recovery home for those damaged by meditation.” Essentially, meditation is for psychologically healthy people, not those for whom it may raise buried traumas that they lack the emotional strength to deal with.
Britton, who experienced psychological trauma herself after a friend’s unexpected suicide, in part through mindfulness meditation gone wrong, thinks it should carry public heath warnings. The essential thing to see is that, as noted above, the problem isn’t that meditation “doesn’t work,” but precisely that it does. So, like anything that works, it can work the wrong way:
“A lot of psychological material is going to come up and be processed. Old resentments, wounds, that kind of thing,” says Britton, “But also some traumatic material if people have a trauma history, it can come up and need additional support or even therapy.”
Psychoanalyst and long-time meditation teacher Jeffrey B.Rubin advises at Truth Out that meditation is not a cure-all for the human condition:
Meditation can transform our lives in powerful ways. But even after years of meditating, we may still be saddled with many of the same conflicts and inhibitions that plagued us before we began meditating. We may still be attracted to what is not good for us. We may still not have compassion for ourselves. We may still fear intimacy.
And as commentator Matthieu Ricard, notes,
It is a bit too optimistic to take for granted that the practice of mindfulness will automatically make you a more caring person. A calm and clear mind is not, in and of itself, a guarantee for ethical behavior. There can be mindful snipers and mindful psychopaths who maintain a calm and stable mind. But there can not be caring snipers and caring psychopaths.
Such criticisms of mindfulness meditation are not necessarily aimed at the practice itself—which has brought acknowledged benefits to many—but rather at hype and pop culture travesties. Especially those that are marketed in an authoritarian setting such as the military or prisons, or the lifetime jeopardy game of high corporate business. To say nothing of “self-enlightenment” projects that attempt to evade the demanding life and attitude changes that a more orthodox therapy might require.
Fortunately, many findings show that properly managed mindfulness therapies, separated from pop culture razz, do produce some benefits. As with many exciting new ideas, the benefits seem boundless but turn out to be limited to specific situations. In a later column, I hope to discuss some of the situations where mindfulness therapies have been shown to help.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose who forwarded many links.