The Conversation 5 June 2015
Mindfulness as a psychological aid is very much in fashion. Recent reports on the latest finding suggested that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as anti-depressants in preventing the relapse of recurrent depression.
While the authors of the paper interpreted their results in a slightly less positive light, stating that (contrary to their hypothesis) mindfulness was no more effective than medication, the meaning inferred by many in the media was that mindfulness was superior to medication.
Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism where one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement. The aim is to create a state of “bare awareness”. What was once a tool for spiritual exploration has been turned into a panacea for the modern age — a cure-all for common human problems, from stress, to anxiety, to depression. By taking this “natural pill” every day, we open ourselves up to the potential for myriad benefits and no ill-effects, unlike synthetic pills, such as anti-depressants, whose potential for negative side-effects we are all aware of.
Mindfulness is presented as a technique that will have lots of positive effects – and only positive effects. It is easy to see why this myth is so widespread. After all, sitting in silence, focusing on your breathing or being aware of the flow of thoughts and feelings would seem like a fairly innocuous activity with little potential for harm.
But considering that many of us rarely sit alone with our thoughts, it isn’t hard to see how this might lead to difficult thoughts and emotions rising to the surface for some people – which we may, or may not, be equipped to deal with. Yet the potential for emotional and psychological disturbance is rarely talked about by mindfulness researchers, the media, or mentioned in training courses.
And here we come to an important point. Buddhist meditation was designed not to make us happier, but to radically change our sense of self and perception of the world. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that some will experience negative effects such as dissociation, anxiety and depression. However, like the small print on medication, these “side-effects” in some individuals are not what the creators of this pill are concerned with promoting.
For some, penicillin is life saving; for others, it induces a harmful reaction. Just because your friend or family member responds to a pill a certain way, does not mean you will respond in the same way. The same is also true with mindfulness: for some, it may be very effective or it may not work at all, for others, there may be harmful effects.
Mindfulness has been separated from its roots, stripped of its ethical and spiritual connotations, and sold to us as a therapeutic tool. While this may not deny its power as a technique to change our state of consciousness and with implications for mental health, it arguably limits its “naturalness”, as well as its potential – at least as originally intended.
Many Buddhists are critical of the use of mindfulness for purposes which are very different from the radical shift in perception they aim for — the realisation of “emptiness” and liberation from all attachments. Instead, as Giles Coren recently claimed, this technique has been turned into a McMindfulness which only reinforces one’s egocentric drives.
The idea that each of us is unique is a cornerstone of individual-based therapy. But with mindfulness-based approaches there is little space for one’s individuality, in part because it’s a group practice, but also because there has been no serious attempt to address how individuals react differently to this technique.
So if you go into it – as with taking any other kind of pill – keep your eyes open. Don’t consume mindfulness blindly.
Panic, depression and stress: The case against meditation
NewScientist 14 May 2015
Twitching, trembling, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, terror, depression, mania and psychotic breakdown – these are some of the reported effects of meditation. Surprised? We were too.
Techniques such as transcendental meditation and mindfulness are promoted as ways of quieting the mind, alleviating pain and anxiety, and even transforming you into a happier and more compassionate person: natural cure-alls without adverse effects. But happiness and de-stressing were not what meditation techniques, with their Buddhist and Hindu roots, were originally developed for. The purpose of meditation was much more radical: to challenge and rupture the idea of who you are, shaking one’s sense of self to the core so you realise there is “nothing there” (Buddhism) or no real differentiation between you and the rest of the universe (Hinduism). So perhaps it is not so surprising that these practices have downsides. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630210.500-panic-depression-and-stress-the-case-against-meditation.html