The Mindfulness Backlash
New York Times 30 June 2014
Mindfulness has reached such a level of hipness that it is now suggested as a cure for essentially every ailment. Anxious? Broke? Sneezing? Definitely try meditating.
This vogue is in part due to the real benefits of mindfulness, a form of attention and awareness often (but not always) achieved through meditation or yoga. It’s a trend for a reason. But its increasing application to every situation under the sun has some people concerned.
In The Atlantic, Tomas Rocha writes about the little-discussed possibility that, for some people, meditation could actually be dangerous. He talks to Dr. Willoughby Britton, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior who works with people who feel they’ve been harmed by meditation — one man described going through “psychological hell” as a result of his practice, while another worried he was “permanently ruined.” Dr. Britton has tracked “dark nights of the soul” — spiritual experiences that are frightening rather than calming — across a variety of religious texts, and she believes that meditation’s potential ill effects have been under-studied. Mr. Rocha writes:
“Many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
“For Britton, this widespread assumption — that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, ‘because that’s what Americans value’ — narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable — and fundable — research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.”
Mindfulness backlash: Could meditation be bad for your health?
The Telegraph 24 October 2015
Convinced by studies (such as that by Oxford University in 2014, which found the technique can reduce depression relapses by 44 per cent), the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) now recommends mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression.
The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 30 per cent of GPs refer patients with mental health issues for mindfulness-based treatment.
Persuaded by claims of stress reduction and increased mental clarity, mindfulness has been eagerly adopted by huge companies including Google, Apple, Sony, Ikea and the Department of Health. Mindfulness-based anger management is offered to inmates in prison, and there are calls for mindfulness training to become mandatory in schools.
“A good teacher will help you make sense of what emerges through meditation.”
Dr Tamara Russell, founder of The Mindfulness Centre of Excellence.
“Beneficial findings are overstated in some media reports, whereas studies without the expected results go under the radar. This leads to a skewed picture, wherein the enthusiasm may be ahead of the evidence. Currently, with mindfulness, the evidence is not necessarily consistent or conclusive.”
When Farias and Wikholm began researching The Buddha Pill, they were astonished at the paucity of solid studies on the benefits. Then their own research threw up surprising evidence that mindfulness has a range of outcomes – not all positive.
“To some, this will be blissful relaxation, but for others the outcome will be emotional distress, hallucinations or perhaps even ending up in a psychiatric ward,” says Farias. “David Shapiro of the University of California, Irvine, found that seven per cent of people on meditation retreats experienced profoundly adverse effects, including panic and depression.”
Psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, co-authors of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?
“Mindfulness and meditation are bad for people. People should be thinking… Life is about going out there and meeting people and hearing their thoughts.”
Oxford University professor Theodore Zeldin
The Dark Knight of the Soul
The Atlantic 24 June 2014
In late January this year, Time magazine featured a cover story on “the mindful revolution,” an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more,” mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution’s “dirty laundry.”
“We’re not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice,” says Britton.
FURTHER READING: Parental Rights in NZ Regarding “Mindfulness”