I have previously written about why studying mindfulness in an objective and scientific way can be problematic. Yes, you can measure brain waves and the change in brain structure during and after a meditation session. Yes, you can objectively study breathing patterns. Yes, you can even quantify the years someone has spent practicing mindfulness meditation and the frequency with which they have engaged with their practice. But is the combination of all these quantitative elements of mindfulness and meditation going to add up to the full experience of it? Is adding a qualitative element to mindfulness research – for instance, in the form of interviews about the subjective experience of one’s practice – going to shed any more light on this field? Or, is mindfulness and meditation practice simply greater than the sum of its parts? And if we can never understand the full potential of it through research, why is it even worth studying?
I want to pre-empt this blog post by clarifying a couple of things. Firstly, yes, I think mindfulness and meditation is worth studying. Obviously. And it’s a good thing that I think that, because otherwise my academic career would likely be at an impasse right now! And secondly, the reason I am writing this blog post is that I recently encountered someone who actually claimed that mindfulness is bullsh*it. It is not likely that this person (a very highly esteemed academic in a different field of research) will ever read this, but there are probably many other academics (and non-academics) out there that share his opinion. So this blog post serves two main functions. Mainly, I want to explore and discuss in a fair, and, although it is impossible for someone in my position, objective way this prevalent opinion, and why some people question the authenticity of mindfulness research. The second function is more personal. I am simply defending my research. (Probably good preparation for defending my thesis in the final stages of my PhD!)
Why I agree with his opinion
When confronted with a statement that basically dismisses my entire programme of research, I did the one logical thing I could think of: I asked why. (And by the way, without my mindfulness practice I would have probably gotten angry at such a statement – so score one for mindfulness!). When I heard the reasoning behind his statement, there were a few things that I actually agreed with. Mindfulness has been gaining popularity rapidly over the last decade, which has inevitably led to the concept of McMindfulness – the idea that mindfulness has been stripped of its roots and repackaged to fit a huge variety of societal and personal concerns, from entrepreneurship to weight loss. It has become a fad to the point where the study of mindfulness is under serious scrutiny and questioning. Of all the things that may have contributed to this, the subjective nature of mindfulness, the inconsistent definitions of what constitutes mindfulness, and the inability to isolate mindfulness as a single component of meditation or intervention studies stand out as most likely.
So yes, in a way, I agree. The repackaged and reconstituted concept of mindfulness is bullsh*t. I think “mindful eating” that targets weight loss is bullsh*t. I think “mindfulness” that targets increased productivity in the workplace is bullsh*t. I think “mindfulness” practiced without meditation is bullsh*t. In another way, I also believe that studying it may never really lead to an understanding of its full potential. After all, it has to be experienced. And communicating our experiences to others already dilutes and changes that experience. However…
Why I disagree with his opinion
Despite the lack of congruence and definition of mindfulness in current research, the subjectivity of the experience, and the novelty of the field, it is a subject of great interest. In fact, it is exactly because the term mindfulness has been so abused by academics and non-academics alike that research needs to continue. There are highly subjective topics of research in the fields of psychology (and other areas) that nonetheless proved worthy of investigation. There is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. There is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is Sigmund Freud’s research on psychoanalysis. The list goes on and on.
When people ask me if mindfulness works, I ask: What do you mean “works”? Mindfulness does nothing. It does not aim to do anything. But after starting to practice mindfulness and meditation, I have experienced certain benefits for myself. I have become less stressed. I have become less anxious. I have become more positive. Is this a placebo effect? Or is this just a natural process of growing? I don’t know and that’s not the point. After all, does it really matter? Without trying mindfulness for ourselves we don’t know, we can’t know, what it “does” and whether it “works”.
Above personal experience, I also looked to the academic in me to explore why I don’t believe that mindfulness is bullsh*t. There are weaknesses in many of the studies measuring and investigating mindfulness, but the benefits keep appearing. So far, mindfulness has been linked to improved mental health, reduced stress, reduced anxiety and depression, better sleep, more movement, healthier eating habits, and much, much more. The mindfulness field of research is growing. Often it takes a huge amount of trial and error to get to the truth. And I believe that this is what is happening right now. Let this field grow. Let it get more rigorous. Let us learn more about it. And then question it again. This is how knowledge is gained and advanced.
Why is mindfulness worth researching?
Ultimately, I think this is the main question that I need to answer not only to justify my own PhD, but also to encourage the continuation of mindfulness research. And in my opinion, it boils down to three simple factors:
- Does mindfulness have the potential to enhance health and wellbeing?
- Is there more to learn about mindfulness and meditation practice?
- Can mindfulness research add something new to what is already known?
And if the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then I believe it is worthy of future study. With the right balance of caution, rigour, and scientific curiosity of course!