Mindfulness: It Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

16458597193_5abd14b23fAfter going deep into the research on wellbeing, I have been impressed by the number of studies showing benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Today, this has bubbled up out of the research journals and into the mainstream media. From the cover of Time magazine to Anderson Cooper on 60 minutes to the boardrooms of large corporations (like Google,) mindfulness has hit the big time.

But not everyone is a fan. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, just wrote a scathing review of the adoption of mindfulness by American corporate culture. Businesses like it because it appears to be supported by science (“no ‘hippie bullshit,’” she says.) But the science on mindfulness, Ehrenreich points out, while ubiquitous, is less than conclusive.

Ehrenreich is a self-proclaimed “negateer,” so I have to take everything she says with a grain of salt. But I have to admit she has a point. Mindfulness has become the media darling as a cure-all. And it’s probably not as good as the media would have us believe.

178028718Authors Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm also look at mindfulness with a critical eye. Their book is called The Buddha Pill, because in our modern culture, everyone is looking for some “hack” or shortcut to wellbeing, and meditation seems to be the latest “pill” that everyone prescribes.

What makes their book interesting is that Farias and Wikholm, like me, are believers in the power of meditation. In fact, they teach yoga and meditation to prisoners in an attempt to help them find a more peaceful and benign way of life. But as they researched their book, they realized that meditation may not be the panacea that many think it is. For example:

  1. The science is not as strong as people think. Yes, there are a lot of research studies on mindfulness and meditation, and they show “a moderately positive effect on most variables.” But many of the studies are poorly designed and metanalyses show that the effects are not necessarily any stronger or more pronounced than other psychological interventions (such as therapy or relaxation techniques.)
  2. The results are subject to interpretation. As Ehrenreich reported, much is said about “neuroplasticity” and the changes to the brain observed in experienced meditators. But what do these changes mean? “Unlike physics,” said Farias and Wikholm, “the research fields of psychology and physiology very, very rarely yield clear, black-and-white results.”
  3. Meditation has a dark side. People assume that meditation leads only to enlightenment, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Farias and Wikholm tell the story of Aaron Alexis, who was learning to meditate at a Buddhist temple, and even considering becoming a monk, before he grabbed his shotgun and opened fire on a bunch of innocent victims at a U.S. military base. Aaron Alexis’ story flies in the face of those who subscribe to the Dalai Lama’s claim that teaching meditation to children could “eliminate violence in the world within one generation.” According to the Farias and Wikholm, “not all is plain sailing with meditation.” There are a certain percentage of practitioners that have adverse effects. Stories abound of meditators experiencing the so-called “dark night of the soul,” describing states of spiritual crisis and even mental illness as outcomes from their practice.
  4. Mindlessness is important too. In another book, The Upside of your Dark Side, psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener point out that in spite of all the buzz about mindfulness, it really is only one of many mental states that are important for optimal functioning and wellbeing. While it’s nice to imagine this everlasting Buddha-like attunement to the present moment, humans also benefit from savoring the past, anticipating and planning for the future, and occasionally, just zoning out and getting things done on autopilot. Sometimes it’s good to just tune out and give the mind a rest. “Really what this is,” says Kashdan, “is the incubation period for creativity.”
  5. People would rather do . . . well, just about anything. In one study cited in The Buddha Pill, researchers found that people would rather self-administer painful electric shocks than sit in a room and do nothing for 15 minutes. People simply do not like to be alone with their thoughts. (Although I would argue that this is exactly why we need to practice the skill.)

Farias and Wikholm don’t discard meditation. They acknowledge that it can be an important step on a pathway to positive change. But it is “only the first step.” The practitioner’s values, motivation, and context will all have an influence on the outcome. Like most aspects of human wellbeing, it is complex. There are no easy fixes. There is no “Buddha Pill” shortcut.

For the record, I don’t discard meditation or mindfulness either. I think mindfulness is here to stay and will only get bigger from here (more on that in a future article.) It just might not be as good as we all think it is.

References and recommended reading:

Farias, M. & Wikholm, C. (2015). The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Actually Change You? Watkins Publishing.

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of your Dark Side. Hudson Street Press.

 

by Jeremy McCarthy

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20 Responses to Mindfulness: It Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

  1. Tony d June 21, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    Odd article.

    It’s difficult to argue against the goals of mindfulness particularly as one reads today’s NYT article on the prevalence of rude, disrespectful interactions within corporate culture.

    As a teacher, I can only note the extraordinary success of our school program that taught some of our most challenging student mindfulness techniques. Not only was there improved academic work, but more imrtsntly perhaps, students expressed greater comfort and contentment within themselves which in turn lead to improvements in focus and self- control.

    This article concludes that mindfulness may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps that is true – but that shod not detract from the potential value that it does seem to hold for many.

  2. Jeremy McCarthy June 22, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    I agree with you Tony. We should appreciate the potential value that mindfulness can bring (which I agree is substantial) just without succumbing to exaggerated claims about it.

  3. Susan Mary Malone June 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    While it’s true that many studies on meditation’s effects on the brain are bound to be flawed, anyone who’s committed to it can explain the litany of positive effects. And yes, while the dark night of the soul may arise, it does so in many creative endeavors. Just ask any serious novelist 🙂 I would suggest if such a darkness arose for one to commit heinous acts, said dark place was within and emerging from the person one way or another–meditation is not to blame.

  4. wayne jencke June 22, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Jeremy – you are making the mistake everyone does – conflating mindfulness with meditation. I have just finished interviewing 200 realistic meditators – and they don’t report mindfulness in the Langer sense. What they do report is less emotional volatility.

  5. Stacy June 23, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, what interesting perspectives.

    While I agree meditation is not a panacea, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly. I believe the tragic story of Aaron Alexis is an anomaly.

    For example, this article recaps seven studies from notable universities including UCLA, John Hopkins, Yale and Harvard that show how meditation literally changes the brain.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/

    What I have found helping companies facilitate a culture of mindfulness is that it lays a foundation for a happy, healthy workplace. And in order to receive the benefits on an individual and company-wide level, it takes practice.

    Aetna has found some incredible results from their meditation and yoga classes. More than one-quarter of the company’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/business/at-aetna-a-ceos-management-by-mantra.html?_r=0

    Also, related to “mindlessness,” I think there is a difference between savoring the past vs. becoming attached to the past, or planning for/visualizing the future vs. perseverating/worrying about the future. Mindfulness is being aware of and accepting our current thoughts in the moment vs. getting caught up and “spinning” in them, regardless of the content of the thought.

    While there may be no black and white answers, it is clear that practicing mindfulness vs. not practicing mindfulness have very different outcomes. It’s a trajectory and I believe if we as individuals take responsibility for our mental health and wellbeing, overall we make better choices, we are more focused, less reactive, less stressed and are able to be kinder to ourselves and to others.

    Thanks for this great conversation 🙂

  6. Ethan Bridges July 15, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    Yes, this is an odd article. 🙂 And I’d have to agree too that meditation shouldn’t be the one to blame. It may be true that some claims can be difficult to prove, but I believe meditation should do more good than bad (if any at all). But this topic is interesting. I would meditate if I feel there’s already too much noise around, or when I’m simply tired. But I just got curious on how “bad guys” meditate.

  7. Gregor August 11, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

    I don’t know why so many people think that this article is odd.

    From the purely scientific point of view the effect of meditation seems to vary and depends greatly on the beliefs of practitioner. Additionally, reported positive effects of meditation are not spectacular and could be achieved as well by taking a nap or stroll or… even drinking a beer.

    The other thing is mindfulness. From my experience, there is a time for mindfulness and there is a time for autopilot. The real art is to recognize when is the right moment for each option.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy August 14, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

    Well said Gregor, thank you.

  9. Aprivé Wellness August 26, 2015 at 8:30 pm #

    Great article and insight presenting the multiple points of view. As a health professional and wellness consultant, I always use evidence-based knowledge in my products and to help my clients. I find it strange though, that the evidence supporting wellness is being questioned by critics. People will happily endorse a global diet trend that has been tested on a group of only 10 people, yet when something affects the general population’s lifestyle choices, people are far more critical. Evidence has to start somewhere, and while it isn’t of the highest quality yet, that’s because Western wellness is so new as you said.

    I love you website, and look forward to reading more articles you’ve written. I’de be thrilled if you check out my wellness consulting website and blog: http://www.aprivewellness.com

  10. Frasier Linde September 11, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

    You make some good points, but I agree with Wayne Jencke that you’re conflating mindfulness and meditation, particularly in point #4. “Tune out and give the mind a rest” aptly describes some forms of meditation, which readily serve as “incubation periods for creativity.” Other forms include gratitude meditation, which qualifies as “savoring the past,” and meditations focused on visualizing and even planning one’s future.

    As for #3, the “dark side” is easily explained. Meditation means giving your mind a break from the constant onslaught of new information that most peoples’ lives (in the developed world) have become. This creates “space” for previously buried thoughts to surface. If some of these thoughts are “dark” and you don’t know how to deal with them appropriately, disaster can result. This doesn’t put meditation at fault—suppressed emotions and ignorance at how to deal with them appropriately are the true culprits. Meditation started at a young age is likely to bring these problems to light before they become dangerous, and prevent scenarios like Aaron’s from ever happening.

    Gregor, I have to disagree. First there is the fact that taking a stroll or sitting and drinking a beer, if they’re all you’re doing, are forms of meditation. Besides that, when I started meditating regularly (and I gather this is true for most people), I noticed benefits I never got from naps or beers—Things like improved sleep at night, bowel regularity, focus, creativity, and as Wayne mentions, “less emotional volatility.”

    I teach the value of varied states of mind, including mindfulness and other types of meditation. You’re right that it’s not a cure-all or an “easy fix” all by itself. This (and #3) is why when I recommend meditation, it’s *not* as the first step in one’s journey. First we need to get clear on our values and intentions, and learn how to deal with what might come up—for which I highly recommend FasterEFT.

  11. Gregor September 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    Hi Frasier,

    Thank you for your opinion. However you should notice that I was talking about science, not mere opinions. You know, things like: big samples, double blinds controls, significance and stuff like that. I see that your experience with meditation is very important to you, but I’m afraid that from scientific point of view it’s insignificant.

    Regarding your first statement, there is too much extrapolation. Using such argumentation, it should be a fact that drinking a beer while taking a stroll (if it’s all one’s doing) is a form of meditation. And conversation while drinking and walking as well. The list could be extended endlessly. Therefore, everything is a sort of meditation in the light of your hypothesis. I’m afraid that such theory is very hard to defend.

    All the best
    Gregor

  12. Frasier Linde September 12, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    Gregor,

    You should notice that I did not refer only to my own experience. While not as compelling as large double-blind controlled trials, there is meaning to be found in countless thousands of anecdotes reporting the same specific benefits from one intervention and not from others. That said, if you’re so well versed on the science, I’d love to see the full list of scientifically reported benefits from meditation, and those same benefits demonstrated in large double-blind controlled trials of naps, strolls, and beer drinking—unless that’s merely an opinion.

    Regarding my first statement, it does not reject commonly accepted definitions of meditation, which prevent your endless extension. Let’s take, for example, the first definition Google gives for “meditate”:
    “think deeply or focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”
    This could be done on a stroll, with a beer, or both, but not with conversation, while watching TV or doing one’s taxes, etc. That wasn’t so hard.

    Frasier

  13. Jeremy McCarthy September 13, 2015 at 2:44 am #

    I think you are both right to a certain extent. Frasier I think you are conflating mindfulness and meditation more than I am. My point 4 is about mindfulness, but you are talking about meditation. Yes, I agree that drinking a beer could be a meditation. But this is different than what I describe as “tune out and give the mind a rest.” By your definition, meditation means focusing one’s mind. In other words if you wish to drink a beer mindfully or make a meditation out of your beer drinking experience, you aren’t likely to be tuned out. My point is, we can’t be mindful every waking moment, nor would we want to be. The fact that we are able to mindlessly drink a beer while having a conversation with a friend is beneficial to our quality of life, not a detractor.

    I concur that there is a lot of research supporting the benefits of meditation (moreso than the benefits of naps and beer consumption, both well-being interventions that I happen to be extremely fond of.) But to Gregor’s point, the research is not as strong as all the recent headlines would have us believe. And any time you are trying to test an internal intervention such as meditation in a RCT experiment, it is difficult to define a clear control and if the power of the study is low, you could easily be left wondering if a nap or a beer might have yielded the same results.

    My understanding of the “dark side” of meditation (at least in the context of the “dark night of the soul”) is that it happens more with experienced meditators. I think like drinking water, getting exercise, and having exposure to daily sunlight, there is a certain amount of moderation that is healthy. In other words, more is not always better and it is possible to meditate too much.

    The ironic thing about this article, is that I am actually a proponent of meditation. I think it is good for you and I think meditation (and mindfulness) will increasingly prove to be beneficial and will grow to become increasingly mainstream. So I am not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I just think we should acknowledge that the benefits of mindfulness, while mostly good, might be trailing behind the hype in today’s media.

  14. Gregor September 13, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Hi again Frazier,

    I have found the very well documented anecdote about the lack of the benefits of meditation. It’s almost essential reading if you want to analyze any science or pseudoscience about meditation. You may read it at http://karol.gajda.com/mindfulness/
    Regarding your argumentation;

    I’m afraid the definition you used this time “think deeply or focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.” is again too broad to be scientifically useful. According to it, everything you focus on in silence is valid. Watching muted TV while eating a cake and taking notes from what you’re seeing. Great, just focus deeply on it in order to relax and you’ll meditate. In the book “Meditation practices for health state of the research”, there’s sentence about the lack of good definitions of meditation practices that I would like to dedicate to you: “Such definitions are a prerequisite for scientific research of a highest quality”.

    There’s another fresh review “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”. JAMA Internal Medicine 174 (3): 357–68 authors did not conclude that mindfulness meditation was more effective than other therapies “for any outcome” when compared to “therapies as exercise, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications.”

    Additionally, I have to say that for science, there is NO meaning to be found in countless thousands of anecdotes. Otherwise, the Yeti, aliens, elves, Tooth Ferry and Santa Claus are all scientifically verified hypotheses.

    As you see the Jeremy’s conclusion that “the research is not as strong as all the recent headlines would have us believe” is correct. Please read the relevant paragraph in Jeremy’s comment. BTW, while benefits of naps and strolls are supported by science as weakly as meditation the physiological effects of low alcohol consumption is much more well documented. To be fair, it’s easier to study as definition is there, obvious control is water and so on.

    All the best
    Gregor

    PS I have beliefs too, but I don’t claim that they’re scientifically verified. I even know that meditation is often beneficial.

  15. Frasier Linde September 13, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    Jeremy, you’re right that in point #4 you specifically refer to mindfulness—but the whole list is presented as examples “that meditation may not be the panacea that many think it is” from a book subtitled, “Can Meditation Change You?” Perhaps Farias and Wikholm are the source of conflation, but the two terms remain poorly differentiated in your article, where they seem to be used interchangeably.

    The definition I gave was only an example—Here’s one that covers other types, from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition: “To train, calm, or empty the mind, often by achieving an altered state, as by focusing on a single object, especially as a form of religious practice in Buddhism or Hinduism.”

    “Tuning out” may be the opposite of mindfulness, but other types of meditation can be thought of as “tuning out” from the world at large to clear the mind or introspect. I’m not by any means arguing that we should aim to be mindful 100% of the time.

    Yes, I almost pointed out the silliness of a double-blind controlled trial on meditation—how can any subject be blinded to whether or not they’re meditating? The fact is, randomized controlled trials are not ideally suited to every type of question—so I think it’s foolish to universally disregard any claim not proven by RCT (not that that’s what you’re doing).

    All of the given examples of “dark nights of the soul” seem to be people who began an intensive meditation program after decades of repressed emotions and desires. Just like with psychedelic drugs, too much too soon has the potential to be psychologically traumatic if it uncovers inner “darkness” faster than one can effectively process it. The key is to ease into it—I think “caution” is a more fitting term in this case than “moderation.” As with exercise or sunlight, the “dose” one can work up to gradually is much higher than what’s safe to start out with, and varies considerably per person.

    I understand that you’re not trashing meditation or mindfulness, and I agree with your overall points. I’ve also read several other posts of yours, enjoyed them all and bookmarked your site 🙂

  16. Jeremy McCarthy September 13, 2015 at 11:43 pm #

    All good points Frasier. Happy to have you as a reader!

  17. Frasier Linde September 14, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    Gregor,

    There is a level of common sense I would urge you to apply to this question. Does watching TV, eating cake and taking notes all at the same time sound like a focused activity (especially given we can’t simultaneously focus on multiple conscious tasks)? Does it sound like something one would do for spiritual purposes or to relax? I think the answer to both of these is an obvious “no.” You’re right that dictionary definitions may not be precise enough for research purposes. That doesn’t prevent them from limiting the scope of the term beyond “everything you focus on in silence,” or as you previously stated, “everything.”

    “Meaning” and “scientifically verified” are not the same thing, and I never claimed the latter, nor that Jeremy’s conclusion is false. Thanks for the links.

    Frasier

  18. Frasier Linde September 14, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    And as anecdotes go, “I started intervention X and observed change Y (and perhaps later discontinued intervention X and observed reversal of change Y, and so on),” is a lot more scientific than, “I observed phenomenon X and it looked/sounded like (or must be) mythical creature Y.”

  19. Gregor September 16, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    Hi again Frazier,

    I think that we’re going off topic, so I just conclude here that similarly to Jeremy I don’t see spectacular research to support the huge positive effects of meditation. To my knowledge, such papers simply don’t exist (maybe yet). If you disagree, please link to the studies. I did my homework, now it’s your turn. Please first read about placebo at Wikipedia and do not send me anything that could be possibly explained by placebo effect (every single anecdote could due to its nature).Pure science please.

    Comments for your argumentation (and only for argumentation).

    Something that sounds more scientific don’t have to be more scientific. You have to study something using scientific methods widely acknowledged at this exact time (as such methods evolves). I don’t know if you publish any scientific primary research papers, but believe me. Without good methodology editor of any solid journal won’t even send the manuscript to reviewers (unless money or politics are involved).

    Regarding definitions, the second one’s requirements could be fulfill by “thinking deeply” (using “or” strongly suggests that without focus). The last definition is even worse as the only necessary characteristics is “to train the mind”. Other parts are irrelevant as they supplementary (“or”, “often”, “especially” and words like that have their precise logical meaning). Please carefully analyze your definitions word by word (as they are, without using common sense) and you’ll see their weakness.

  20. Aprivé Wellness September 16, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,

    I really appreciated you careful explanation of your article after the comments. Definitely not good to throw the baby out with the bathwater!

    I recently wrote about what I learned about wellness from a Dharma talk with a visiting Tibetan monk, and I thought you may be interested: http://www.aprivewellness.com/blog/2015/9/16/what-a-tibetan-monk-taught-me-about-wellness

    Thanks so much for your great blog posts and patient discussion,

    Caitlin Reid
    Aprivé Wellness

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