ONE of the latest fads that millions of people are enthusiastic about all over the world is mindfulness and meditation. The benefits are being pushed by doctors, teachers and organisers and their programmes are infiltrating schools and workplaces. The NHS, so strapped for cash, has made mindfulness and meditation a priority for treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and phobias. So, what is all the hype about? The purpose of this article is to understand and evaluate the increasing popularity and effects of meditation and mindfulness, from which many claim significant benefits.
Based on the Buddhist and Vedantic origins, meditation is supposed to serve as a means to find the true self, the real you because it all exists within the mind. The idea is to remove all the clutter and get to who you are, the true self. Mindfulness is a technique derived from meditation to notice present thoughts, feelings and emotions, and sensations without judgement to create a blank state; this is seen as a natural way to relieve stress, anxiety and depression.
Despite being adopted by the West, it is not just a practice to focus on the here and now but is heavily rooted in Buddhist ideology. For non-religious people this may not be concerning, but for religious people, meditation is not a proper substitute for an active prayer life. Meditation prioritises the self and does not include God anywhere in the mix. Yet many individuals and organisations want to jazz up their retreats with these Eastern Spirituality practices. Perhaps this is because these practices are so popular in mainstream society or perhaps because people are so unhappy, but perhaps religious people and organisers either do not appreciate or see the value of their own religions. Judeo-Christian traditions and rituals are considered boring and passé. Eastern spirituality is the hip new thing that Westerners have adopted to suit their needs, and it is typically presented as an a-religious therapeutic tool to replace prayer. A critic of meditation and mindfulness, Susan Brinkmann, says: ‘In Christian prayer, they may have to confront their problems, but they are doing so with Someone who can actually solve those problems. In Eastern meditation, the only option is momentary escape. Afterward, you’re still stuck with the same problems.’
What are the benefits people claim of meditation and mindfulness? They include: greater positivity, improved memory, better attention and concentration, reduced anxiety, improvement in depression, reduction of stress and aid against illness and pain. Some even report that meditation and mindfulness may be seen as mental exercise the same way that physical exercise trains the body. There are testimonies of people coping through the death of loved ones by using meditation to provide a constant through the sadness and grief. Even in moments of happiness, stopping to meditate again brings one back to that constant and away from the emotions, back to the calm. The idea is to be more virtuous, more level and able to express compassion, humility and care more easily. Meditation is seen as a recalibration to forget your drama and being all caught up in your own stuff and reset the mind, a mental ctrl-alt-delete. Some even describe the more intense experiences as feeling ‘like a star in the sky’.
Yet the benefits may be exaggerated and the negative aspects severely downplayed or under-reported. Susan Brinkmann notes: ‘Some studies have shown that practising mindfulness can actually backfire on people as they focus intently on the moment and leave their thoughts behind, including the positive ones. It can also lead people to disconnect rather than focus and engage in critical thinking on problems that require more thinking and not less.’
Dr Miguel Farias, a psychologist and researcher from Coventry University, says: ‘For about five per cent of people, these practices have a paradoxical effect. It makes them much more anxious, induces panic attacks and even psychosis . . . many people have childhood traumas or underlying mental health problems that may be undiagnosed. Being forced to sit alone with their thoughts brings out dark memories which they can’t cope with.’
In an article for Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist David Brendel says that mindfulness is ‘close to taking on cult status in the business world’, but he notes that there are dangers: ‘Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking tasks. I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset.’
There appears to be little scientific evidence about the potential risks to mindfulness and meditation. Studies are ripe with issues surrounding bias, only voluntary information provided about negative effects (versus sought after by researchers which takes place in a proper research study) and self-reporting.
David Brendel writes: ‘A meta-analysis of 18,000 mindfulness studies conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 2014 found only 47 that were considered methodologically sound – that’s only 0.0026 per cent. And of those 47 found to be acceptable, the research found only “moderate evidence” of decreased anxiety, depression and pain and “low evidence” of improved mental health-related quality of life.’
Aside from just bashing meditation and mindfulness, I believe I should point to an alternative. The time and patience millions of people are devoting to these practices clearly indicates there is the dedication required to exercise instead. For comparison, exercise is shown to be more beneficial than just medication alone or significantly more powerful than medication and meditation/mindfulness combined.
Why is the NHS not investing more into exercise programmes (which carry numerous other health benefits aside from mental health benefits) than mindfulness courses? Especially when all the information seems to point to mindfulness and meditation as band-aid feel good coping strategies to mask and not actually solve one’s problems.
Although I am critical of the self-help industry in general and the way it has hooked so many people who feel unhappy, undeserving and unappreciated in this day and age where we can have everything, I see no fault in walking in nature, stopping to smell the roses, drinking a glass of lemon water or talking out issues with a trusted friend. I think people should consider why they feel the need to incorporate eastern spirituality modalities into their everyday life, especially those of a Judeo-Christian religion who may want to endorse a heavier scepticism. Perhaps consider why you feel the need to pursue an eastern spiritual practice over your own religion’s practices or prayers? Is there something you feel is lacking in your religion? Or is there another reason you are picking up spiritual practices of other religions like food items at a buffet?
I am highly critical of any movement that emphasises the individual and ‘switching off’ the rest of the world. Meditation and mindfulness are pale substitutes for improving various lifestyle factors (e.g. sleep, diet, exercise, dealing with debt etc), all while furthering the belief that everyone is a unique snowflake with important feelings and opinions. Don’t consume mindfulness and meditation blindly.