by Anitra Pavlico
It is difficult nowadays not to be mindful of how ubiquitous the mindfulness movement has become. A Fortune article from 2016 described meditation as a “billion-dollar business”: “From Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff to Goldman Sachs traders and Google programmers, Big Business loves meditation.” This is perhaps reason enough to stay away from it, or at least to stay away from anything that charges you money to do something that you can easily do for free–namely, sit and do nothing. But a surprising number of observers have pointed to other shortcomings or even dangers in meditation and mindfulness practices.
There have been so many articles on the incredible benefits of meditation (which I’ll use interchangeably with mindfulness) that you come to feel you’re putting yourself in harm’s way by not doing it. As Masoumeh Sara Rahmini wrote recently in The Conversation, however, citing a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, “scientific data on mindfulness is limited . . . Studies on mindfulness are known for their numerous methodological and conceptual problems.” She notes that the journal PLOS ONE retracted a meta-analysis of mindfulness, citing concerns over methodology as well as undeclared financial conflicts of interest. Rahmini also takes issue with the Westernized version of Buddhism that is sold to modern mindfulness practitioners–one that is divorced from centuries of Buddhist tradition. She credits, or blames, Jon Kabat-Zinn, among others. Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the popular Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program offering mindfulness training to help with stress and pain, has argued that the MBSR technique contains the “essence” of Buddhism, which he says is universal and supported by science.
The trouble is that what used to be a spiritual practice, supported by a framework of teachings and in an organized setting, with spiritual guides, is now a definition-less practice, unmoored from tradition, lacking a scaffolding in case you should trip, devoid of a philosophy.
For example, there is a misconception–or is it well-founded?–that the purpose of mindfulness is the elimination of thoughts. Psychotherapist and professor of clinical psychiatry Carl Erik Fisher says this is a misrepresentation and that mindfulness “just means paying attention to the present moment…Maybe we need to clarify what we mean by mindfulness before we slap it on a bunch of posters in every school and every workplace.”
It does seem that modern mindfulness techniques often discount the importance of thoughts. It can’t be my imagination that I feel I have encountered teachings that stress clearing the mind, distrusting thoughts that arise, suppressing those thoughts, quelling emotions. I couldn’t tell you what those teachings were, because in the modern mindfulness movement, we learn from disparate apps, blog posts, podcasts, and magazine articles. I have never had a meditation teacher, and yet I have spent many hours meditating over the years. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel I’ve gotten anywhere.
In an article linked this past week on this site, Sahanika Ratnayake writes that “Practitioners are discouraged from engaging with their experiences in a critical or evaluative manner, and often they’re explicitly instructed to disregard the content of their own thoughts.” This line of thinking, she writes, stems from the concept of anattā in Buddhism, or “no-self.” In Buddhism there is no “self” to which such transient phenomena as thoughts or emotions belong. Ratnayake writes of her experiences with self-estrangement and disorientation as having been prompted by her mindfulness practice and its relationship with anattā. As she writes, it can be useful to distance ourselves from our emotions and thoughts,
But after a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse such feelings. It’s not much help in sifting through competing explanations for why you might be thinking or feeling a certain way. Nor can it clarify what these thoughts and feelings might reveal about your character … Without some ownership of one’s feelings and thoughts, it is difficult to take responsibility for them.
For whatever reason, perhaps mainly because mindfulness is presented as an unalloyed good leading inexorably to tranquility and people are ashamed to admit otherwise, we don’t hear much at all about practitioners’ negative experiences. Feelings of anxiety, panic, or paranoia, it turns out, are reported quite often, according to a 2017 study of Buddhist meditation practitioners and teachers. The same study found that “change in worldview” and “delusional, irrational, or paranormal beliefs” were experienced by almost half of respondents, and “changes in self-other or self-world boundaries” and “social impairment” were also reported in half of those interviewed.
More dramatically negative experiences are not unheard-of. One meditator interviewed in a 2014 study reported that he “crashed, lying on the floor sobbing” after he tried an advanced method of examining and deconstructing the self, noting that it felt “nihilistic” and “terrifying.” In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Dawn Foster reports that during a workplace mindfulness initiative, she experienced feelings of panic and had a tension headache for days afterward. One person she interviewed experienced something much worse, with memories of a traumatic childhood unexpectedly resurfacing, eventually causing a depressive breakdown. Even a quick search in the Reddit mindfulness forum yielded this sad story, shared a few weeks ago:
For the past two months I have been following a fairly regular daily meditation, which has also led me down the path of reading a lot about consciousness and the self-illusion. Recently I have started feeling what I think is an extreme depression and sadness, and I think it’s connected to everything I just mentioned. I feel that I have always been, particularly in the last few years, a very happy person….But learning about ideas like the self being an illusion, and how consciousness in itself is sort of an illusion as well, and how I have no control over my thoughts, has led me down a path that I simply can’t find joy in. How can I be happy after learning that the self I always thought I was or had…simply doesn’t exist? Maybe I’m viewing it pessimistically, but the way I see it now is that I am a mindless robot whose thoughts and actions are simply determined by prior causes, and I really am not conscious in the way I thought I was.
In our quick-fix culture, not only are we diving into mindfulness without adequate guidance or adequate scientific basis to determine what is helpful and what is not. Ratnayake facetiously notes that “we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems.” We are also attempting to fix non-spiritual, endemic, entrenched problems–such as heavy workload, long hours, insufficient pay, and inadequate social supports for parents, caretakers, and many others–with relatively cheap solutions such as meditation workshops in our places of employment. Foster writes, “After all, it’s harder to complain that you’re under too much stress at work if your employer points out that they’ve offered you relaxation classes: the blame then falls on the individual.”
As one can plainly see from the titles of my sources below, many have noted the problems with mindfulness, but we should not necessarily abandon the effort. It is wonderful to wake up to the world around you. At any rate, there is little chance of our collectively abandoning mindfulness now that it is a billion-dollar industry; we will continue to hear about it and be subjected to workplace initiatives for years to come. Depression and anxiety are widespread. Relaxation exercises are a good thing. Meditation can be a good thing, for many people. I think one of my problems with the practice, and possibly why I keep abandoning it, is that it unnaturally separates the mind from the body. “Body-scan” exercises are much less guilty of this, as they connect our thoughts with our physical form. Even these exercises, though, tend to discourage the natural flow of thoughts, instead insisting that we focus solely on the breath and on the feet…ankles…calves… Mindfulness practices that isolate the thoughts or emotions, even if to demonstrate to us that they are transient, or not necessarily to be trusted, or not reflective of reality, get into dangerous territory. C.G. Jung, who had his own perilous encounters with his unconscious that led to a midlife breakdown, says this about the importance of the mind-body connection:
But if we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.
Most of the recent surge in mindfulness practices arises from people’s need to alleviate depression and anxiety in a depressing, anxiety-inducing world. We shouldn’t forget that there are many other ways to feel better, such as going for a walk, sitting in a park, doing breathing exercises, or reading a book, that don’t require a teacher, app, or workshop. These methods also don’t suffer from the existential strangeness that accompanies an originally Buddhist method that has been stripped of religious overtones, and does not yet benefit from enough solid scientific research to support best practices.
Jen Wieczner, “Meditation Has Become A Billion-Dollar Business,” Fortune, Mar. 12, 2016.
Masoumeh Sara Rahmini, “The problem with mindfulness,” The Conversation, June 7, 2019.
Brian Gallagher, “The Problem with Mindfulness,” The Nautilus blog, Mar. 30, 2018.
Sahanika Ratnayake, “The problem of mindfulness,” Aeon, July 25, 2019.
Dawn Foster, “Is mindfulness making us ill?” The Guardian, Jan. 23, 2016.
“I’m incredibly depressed, and I think mindfulness may be the cause,” Reddit mindfulness forum, July 25, 2019.
C.G. Jung, “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man,” The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (Viking Penguin Inc., 1971).