Even though the title of this article is called “Against Meditation” it is a bit misleading. I have to be clear that there are cases where meditation is called for and can be helpful to individuals. At a more personal level, I sometimes ask psychotherapy clients to take up a meditative practice. It is not a rare occurrence for me to do so. Thus, to say that I am against meditation or mindfulness is inaccurate. What I am against is the modern-day phenomena where meditative practices such as mindfulness are couched in terms of a panacea – a cure for our psychological ills which fits everyone.
Mindfulness is all the buzz and its popularity is showing no signs of slowing down. Corporations, schools, individuals have taken up mindfulness. Apps are being produced to help cater to the mindfulness crowd, retreats are common and courses to learn mindfulness are becoming plentiful. The media loves to portray mindfulness and its greater overarm of meditation in a positive light. It is hard to go against a cheerful monk proclaiming the benefits of mindfulness. Ancient texts refer to a long tradition of utilizing meditative techniques including mindfulness. These assume and in some instances, proclaim that mindfulness is beneficial for psychological wellbeing. But how true is this?
The scientific evidence for its usefulness is not strong. Much of the research into meditation is plagued by methodological issues. For instance, a commonly portrayed narrative is that meditation and or mindfulness changes the structure of the brain. The difficulty with this approach is that it does not consider other variables which may be at play. Does what we eat also influence the structure of the brain, or exercise, or breathing or simply focusing. People may well be meditating but there is only a tenuous correlation involved between brain structure changes and meditation. Even the researchers themselves often are quick to point out that correlation is not causation. They caution that the interpretations of the results should be tempered and that much remains unanswered.
Even supposing that the brain changes are attributable to meditation, it is not particularly clear what the changes mean. For instance, are these people less stressed, happier, healthier? Are the changes attributable to some disposition towards meditating rather than meditation itself? These outcomes have not been tested enough to draw any conclusions. Pardon the pun, but changes in the brain remain a gray area which needs a lot more research into it.
We do know that meditation is not for everyone. In some cases, it causes suffering to the practitioner with increases in stress levels, depression and the surfacing of childhood traumas. These outcomes have been recorded in several different pieces of research. Yet the negative effects of meditation and mindfulness are rarely if ever talked about. It is as if it was a taboo topic.
One of the real dangers is that so many people are teaching mindfulness without the psychological training to deal with negative experiences. People teaching mindfulness, often do not have the necessary skillsets to deal with a variety of issues which can arise from mindfulness. If some trauma or overwhelming negative experience surfaces the mindfulness teacher can be out of their league.
Part of the problem, is that mindfulness can be used to hide skill deficiencies in people teaching it. A wide range of people skills are called for when working with people’s minds. Mindfulness is no exception to this proposition.
It is not all bad news as there is some research which suggests mindfulness can be of benefit to depression sufferers. There is also some evidence to suggest it can help in reducing stress and pain. The difficulty is more about the way meditation and mindfulness are portrayed. For example, though there are some research indications for moderate improvement in reducing stress and pain, it has also been found that exercise, medications and psychotherapy are equally as effective. Instead the narrative that mindfulness is an exceptional cure-all doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.
What makes a lot of sense to me, is that things like mindfulness can work very well with individuals. In my private practice, I have seen some very good results for some individuals. There is a great deal of benefit to be had in being more present in life. Mindfulness can help in this regard. Yet when being present is couched as good for everyone it can becomes problematic. For one thing, trying to be “in the now” can be stressful for some individuals.
In my experience mindfulness works more effectively when it closely follows the Zen axiom “when walking, walk, when eating, eat…” The doing becomes the meditation or mindfulness practice without necessarily having a formal practice. When people are also supported to develop good self-care practices, to display kindness and compassion, are listened to and adopt a self-reflective attitude then the meditative benefits have a fertile ground to grow in. But each of these things and many others I have not mentioned in this article, work best on an individual basis as opposed to a herd mentality that is supposed to be good for everyone. Mindfulness and meditation are not a manual which fits everyone.
I feel like cooking, time to practice a little Zen.
Some further reading: