Is mindfulness made up?


“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”.

When Siddhartha Gautama spoke these words around 1500 years ago, it’s fair to assume he wasn’t really thinking ahead. But the man who most of us know better as Buddha was talking about a technique which has since become wildly popular around the world.

Mindfulness – the clearing of the mind to focus only on the present moment – is one of the central tenants of Buddhism and Hinduism. Much more recently, it has been practised in the secular world too as yoga has grown in popularity around the world.

The 21st Century is seeing the reach of mindfulness extend even further as it leaves the temples and yoga studios and heads for the workplace.

It is now practiced at such places as Google, Facebook and Goldman Sachs and is even recommended by the UK’s National Health Service to help people cope with the stresses of modern life.

But despite its growth in popularity, many questions remain about mindfulness – not least does it work and if so, what are its benefits?

What does science say?

Despite a plethora of news articles and studies over recent decades that claim mindfulness is an unalloyed success, a US research paper published in October 2017, Mind the Hype, found that, “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.”

Researchers say one of the main problems is the confusion over what mindfulness actually is, “We believe that much public confusion and media hype have stemmed from an undifferentiated use of the terms mindfulness and meditation.”

“Eager journalists, academic press offices, and news media outlets — sometimes aided and abetted by researchers — have often overinterpreted initial tentative empirical results as if they were established facts.”

Risky business?

The authors say that the misunderstandings about the benefits and safety of meditation has led to the conclusion that meditation is free of adverse effects and can act as a replacement to medication for mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder.

The authors underline the risks to potentially suicidal patients and cite other research that warns widespread use of mindfulness as a medical intervention is premature.

Another problem is the lack of regulation over providers and who may be treating people with serious mental health conditions without proper training.

This concern extends beyond the United States. A report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper says evidence is emerging of underqualified teachers presenting themselves as experts, including in the NHS.

The Guardian added that psychiatrists were also concerned that mindfulness meditation can have worrying side-effects, including cases of "depersonalisation", where people feel like they are watching themselves in a film.

The authors of the Mind the Hype report concluded their study by saying that more meaningful research into mindfulness was needed before we knew whether it was truly beneficial.

A problem in search of a solution

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Rowing back from the current position on mindfulness may be tricky.

Government and health providers like it because it is relatively cheap to provide.

And in the US it has been suggested that companies that use it may be able to improve productivity and reduce preventable diseases, such as those linked to drinking and smoking for example, and potentially cut their health coverage bills as a result.

Taking a more cautious position may be difficult for both politicians and companies.

Death by overwork

There is certainly a need to do something about our anxiety levels with growing evidence from around the world that job-related stress is causing early deaths and illnesses that should be preventable.

Studies have shown that a fifth of Japan’s workers are at risk of early deaths. A government proposal to limit workers to a maximum of 100 hours of overtime a month, made in April, was widely criticised. Later proposals included limiting overtime to 45 hours a month, with some exemptions.

Meanwhile, Stanford University research showed that workplace stress – long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance — contributes to at least 120,000 US deaths each year and costs up to $190 billion in health care.

And relax

So there is no doubt there is a problem that needs addressing. But it requires a more comprehensive review of the working conditions many people are enduring, rather than simply adding mindfulness on top and expecting it to be a solution.

Buddha never claimed that mindfulness was the answer to everything and it would be wise for anyone else to do so.

There are undoubtedly important benefits that many people can gain from regular mindfulness practice but it needs to be taught properly and the possible impacts studied so that vulnerable people are not put at any risk.

Perhaps most importantly of all, government and industry need to address the underlying causes of many of the problems which mindfulness is being brought in to fix.

The question of what causes stress and mental illness in contemporary society is complex and difficult. Mindfulness is just one part of a complex and difficult answer.

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