This startling question came up during the Meditation & Mindfulness Research Group meeting at my university yesterday. So what’s so startling about it? Well, if the answer is no, then my PhD is probably not either worth doing. Oops! But more importantly, it is startling that something that has only recently (i.e., at the beginning of my PhD journey) enjoyed such popularity and hype in the media spotlight, is now being questioned on this premise. Not whether it is harmful or beneficial or whether it actually works, but whether it is even worth the time and money spent on researching it in the first place.
Of course, most of us would argue that yes, mindfulness is definitely worth researching, and I think you will be happy to know that this was the conclusion of our research group meeting as well. The question therefore became not whether mindfulness was worth researching, but rather how to research it in a meaningful way, so that we can reach accurate conclusions, and, above all, enhance our understanding of what mindfulness really is and what it can (and cannot) do.
The three (arguably) most common problems in mindfulness research are: 1) how to define mindfulness (i.e., Buddhist versus secular definitions, the lack of consensus, and investigating a construct that seems to defy a singular definition), 2) how to measure mindfulness (i.e., do “mindfulness” questionnaires really assess mindfulness, the problems of measuring an indefinable construct, and the lack of an objective “mindfulness” measure), and 3) how to isolate the active ingredient of mindfulness-based studies and interventions (i.e., is it meditation, training in “mindfulness skills”, acceptance training, group discussions, therapist contact, relaxation, or other factors that contribute to the positive outcomes?).
What is important to remember, however, is that these problems are not unique to mindfulness research. In fact, many topics that (in my opinion) are very worthy of scientific study face these same problems. These topics include, but are not limited to, intelligence, wisdom, empathy, and even love. They are umbrella terms, encompassing complex, multi-faceted structures and components, and their only advantage over mindfulness is that they have enjoyed a longer period of scientific investigation.
So maybe all is not lost for mindfulness research. Maybe more research is simply needed. But future research should not just aim to replicate what has already been done, or worse, try to mould and shape mindfulness into something it is not, just so that it can be objectively and singularly defined, measured, and studied. Rather, our research needs to evolve to tackle the problems that mindfulness research faces today, to ensure that mindfulness joins the ranks of other complex, yet worthy topics of investigation.
First and foremost, as researchers, we need to be more transparent in our research. What did we actually investigate? Did we investigate mindfulness or just one of its components (e.g., attention, awareness, compassion, etc.)? What are our definitions of mindfulness and what is our background and experience in practicing and teaching it? What were we able to measure? What were we not able to measure? What do our conclusions indicate? And, most importantly, how can we make sure that our conclusions are not taken out of context, generalised, and misinterpreted by the media and its readers?
Meditation vs. mindfulness
Additionally, mindfulness is often equated with meditation and vice versa, leading to erroneous conclusions based on comparisons of studies that actually investigate very different things. In simplest terms, mindfulness has been defined as a process, a skill, or a state of mind, while meditation is a behaviour or a practice that involves mental training. Meditation (at least to the extent of Buddhist meditation practices) always involves mindfulness training to some extent, but mindfulness is more than the practice of meditation. So comparing say a study that investigated the effects of an intensive 3-month meditation retreat with a study that investigated the effects of a 5-minute practice from a mindfulness app is faulty by design. Similarly, comparing meditation-based interventions (e.g., Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) with mindfulness-based interventions without a meditation component (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can make it difficult to draw conclusions about what aspect of “mindfulness” is actually relevant to the study outcomes. Is it the formal practice of mindfulness (i.e., meditation), is it the informal practice of mindfulness (i.e., returning to our breath during the day or while doing daily tasks), or is it just our own dispositional quality of “being mindful” that we all possess to varying extents? Instead of grouping meditation and mindfulness together, we need to remember that they are two separate (albeit complementary) constructs and that even meditation practice varies hugely from one individual or tradition to another.
Accepting its complexity
Most importantly, we need to accept that mindfulness, much like intelligence or love, is complex. Researching it should therefore not be with the goal of simplifying it or reducing it to a single construct, but rather to produce a body of work that may describe and explain the effects of mindfulness from biological, cognitive, neurological, emotional, psychological, social, and physiological perspectives and processes.
Mindfulness is powerful. Like love, intelligence, wisdom, empathy, or any other “profound” topic of investigation, we should aim to reach a point where mindfulness is not refuted as fake or unworthy of further research. But with great power comes great responsibility. Power needs to be respected, because it does not always mean good. Powerful consequences can be both beneficial and harmful.
And this power lies, to a large extent, in us researchers. We can follow the hype of how great and perfect mindfulness is (I miss those times, if only a little) or ride the storm condemning mindfulness as something harmful or useless (oh, how the tides have turned!). Or, instead, we can do what we do best – take an objective stance and investigate mindfulness ethically and responsibly. We can be transparent and honest in our research, we can present both the positive and the negative outcomes, and we can emphasize what we do not know when we are stating what (we think) we know. We can feed both the hype and the criticisms through our findings, but let’s choose to do neither.
Let’s show a little respect.