I sense a theme to the blog posts that I have been publishing recently… But much like with anything that gains rapid popularity – first comes the praise, and then comes the backlash. Mindfulness seems to be no different. First came the wave of scientific research, the countless mindfulness courses being offered to the general public, and the appearance of mindfulness in almost every aspect of our daily lives, such as apps, diets, school, work, sports, and many others. Then came the criticism. And while mindfulness is definitely not just another fad, it is not immune to criticism either, not only from those who doubt its benefits, but, more importantly, from those who have actually tried it and experienced harmful effects. And this is what I am interested in exploring today.
I have previously discussed some common misconceptions and misappropriations of mindfulness, as well as touched upon the possibility of negative side-effects of mindfulness meditation. Today’s blog post is a continuation of these topics. Only by viewing both sides of the picture, and looking at both the “good” and the “bad”, can we truly understand mindfulness and meditation practice.
The images in this blog post are actual Google searches that I conducted this week. Interestingly, and of some concern, the word “dangerous” in relation to mindfulness appeared at the top of the search. Other words and phrases that often appeared in the search were “fad”, “nonsense”, “bad”, and “making us ill”. So I started to wonder why this may be the case, and researched some possible explanations for this phenomenon. Below are my findings. Please feel free to add your comments and thoughts on this fascinating topic below! 🙂
Is mindfulness dangerous?
Many of the articles that I came across during my research for this blog post told the story of an individual with no background in mindfulness or meditation joining an intensive 7 or 10-day meditation retreat, and experiencing mental health deterioration as a result of that, with symptoms ranging in severity from low mood to hospitalisation. And while most articles acknowledged that such slumps are common as part of the transformative experience of meditation practice, they also highlighted the lack of research in this particular area. And they are absolutely right! This is something that will take time and investigation to confirm scientifically. Many authors also highlighted the unpreparedness of people in dealing with these negative experiences of meditation. And here is where the acute problem lies.
In part, I believe that the unpreparedness stems from the expectations people place on their practice, as well as the lack of knowledge about what it truly entails. Meditating “too much, too soon”, or treating one’s practice as a “self-improvement project”, may lead to disappointment and potentially even abandonment of the practice. However, an even bigger aspect of this unpreparedness is likely to be due to the lack of proper instruction. And this is where the importance of qualified mindfulness instructors comes in. It is essential to have teachers that are not only trained in delivering mindfulness courses, but also teachers that are trained to handle adverse effects that may occur for some individuals. Interestingly, many of the standard mindfulness-based courses are not likely to accept individuals with a pre-existing mental health condition, or an individual who is seen as at-risk for mental ill-health. Perhaps an interesting future development would therefore be to tailor mindfulness and meditation courses for the variety of mental health concerns and risk factors that we all face on an individual basis. Overall, through proper practice and instruction, I believe that the possibility of side effects can be reduced, and no one should be discouraged from mindfulness meditation. In the meanwhile, please note that if you do experience long-lasting side effects of mindfulness meditation, you are not alone and help is available!
Is mindfulness a fad?
Mindfulness has seemingly been taught in a fad-like fashion, such as a quick fix for a wide range of health problems, or a panacea for anything from depression to productivity in the workplace. Another reason it is often likened to a fad is because of the perception of its quick rise in popularity. This in itself is a misconception, as the development of mindfulness and meditation practice has been anything but quick, spanning over 60 years in the West and many thousands of years in the East. Its mainstream presence may have been somewhat recent, spanning only the last decade or so, but it has been around for a long time, and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Additionally, a problem with treating mindfulness like a fad is that for true changes of the mind to occur, we need time. Only by going deeper in our practice, can we start experiencing the potential benefits associated with it. Equally much can be said for the research side of mindfulness. More research needs to be done both on the benefits and drawbacks of mindfulness meditation, before we can conclusively promote it for everyone.
Is mindfulness nonsense?
I have probably covered this topic in more than enough detail in my previous blog post! However, today I came across some interesting articles that, apart from claiming that mindfulness does more harm than good, claimed that mindfulness does nothing at all. Interestingly, in these articles, authors seemed to question the “snack-sized” approach of McMindfulness, rather than the deeper mindfulness and meditation practices of Buddhist traditions. Overall, there appears to be some consensus forming that a five-minute “breathing break” in the office, or a short meditation session before bedtime is unlikely to “do” much of anything. It is only by engaging in the full practice of mindfulness and meditation that we can truly appreciate its potential.
In its essence, mindfulness and meditation practice cannot be separated from its roots any more than we can pick apart just one aspect of a healthy lifestyle. We can go to the gym for an hour each day, but if we spend the rest of our day sitting at a desk, the potential for benefits is limited. If we practice yoga simply as an exercise class, we lose all the ethical and moral teachings associated with it. Likewise, we can meditate for five minutes each day, but if we spend the rest of the day rushing from place to place, working without being aware of what we are doing, and forgetting to check in with ourselves from time to time, the potential benefits of mindfulness are also lost. Mindfulness has to be incorporated fully within our lives. The practice exists as much on the meditation cushion as off it. And this is what Buddhism teaches us: the importance of living fully, morally, and ethically, in every aspect of our daily lives.
On a final note
Similarly, mindfulness is “selfish” only when it is separated from kindness and compassion for other human beings. “Mindfulness is simply being aware” doesn’t seem to capture the full picture either. “Mindfulness is better than chocolate” did give me a giggle, but is probably not worth a heated debate! For the remainder of the search results, my answer is “yes and no”. Is mindfulness a superpower? Yes and no. Is mindfulness meditation? Yes and no. Is mindfulness for everyone? Yes and no. Every term and phrase that I came across during my Google search made me realise that perhaps mindfulness cannot simply be broken down into one word or phrase. And, most importantly, before we try it out for ourselves, we cannot draw any conclusions about it at all.