I first heard the word “mindfulness” about five years ago, and it feels like I haven’t stopped hearing it since.
At the time, it seemed like a harmless new trend, even an interesting thought exercise. I considered giving it an honest shot but ultimately decided it wasn’t for me. I’ve never been the meditation type anyway.
Somehow in those five years, however, “mindfulness” has taken on an almost cult-like status, becoming nearly inescapable in conversations about mental health and personal well-being, especially within the tech world.
As the Buddhist meditation practice has morphed into a billion-dollar industry, it’s become the go-to solution for everything from depression to weight gain. Now I find myself the subject of criticism (at least in certain circles) when I reveal that I don’t think mindfulness is the cure-all it’s been sold as.
While mindfulness is very effective for some, it does absolutely nothing for others, and pushing it on them won’t change that.
Mindfulness as a practice today is loosely based on the Buddhist concept of Sati, as described in the Buddhist text the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. But as journalist and author Robert Wright points out, there isn’t a single word in the text that translates to “now” or “present,” which is central to its modern application.
“You won’t find anything about living in the moment, which is one of the main phrases used to describe [modern] mindfulness,” says Wright, who published a book on the topic, titled Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. “On the other hand, I would say the way it’s taught today complies with the spirit of the early texts, more or less.”
What has remained consistent is the use of meditation in pursuit of greater self-awareness, coupled with a rejection of the egocentric mode of existence. Mindfulness, at its core, aims to teach practitioners how to be more aware of their surroundings and circumstances and in doing so gain more control over how they process them. As a result, Wright says he has no qualms with how it’s practiced, taught, and sold to consumers today.
“I understand how people who originally learned mindfulness as a spiritual practice in the context of Buddhism can see it as being corrupted when it becomes a mere therapy and all the more so if it seems to be a therapy that people are using to make money,” he says. “I guess such is my faith in the almost inherent value of mindfulness that I’m kind of happy to see the seeds planted in whatever way they get planted.”
Is Mindfulness Harmless?
The problem is that not everyone believes the practice is harmless. In fact, some researchers suggest that the lack of empirical studies on how mindfulness is practiced may lead consumers to be harmed, mislead, or disappointed in the lack of results.
“My problem with a lot of it is that the whole mindfulness culture is against ego; they say that all your problems are because of ego,” explains professor emerita of management at California State University, East Bay, and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, Loretta Breuning. “The idea that you should just reject your whole core and all your impulses, I see it as a formula for depression and anxiety.”
Breuning says that mindfulness often seeks to silence those nagging thoughts that humans developed to motivate their quest for survival. She explains that we’re wired to feel good when our needs are being met, and bad—even anxious or depressed—when they are not.
“Often when they do the mindfulness practice, they’re not focused on their needs, they’re focused on denying their needs,” she says. “Often in mindfulness, you’re told not to plan your next step; your mind is too busy, and you should stop it from doing that.”
Many who practice mindfulness suggest these survival instincts are ill-suited to navigate the modern world and that stress and anxiety are far bigger problems today than our quest for survival. According to Breuning, however, the idea that society is not conducive to our natural instincts, thoughts, and feelings is a potentially harmful message.
“That whole impulse that we live in a bad society, I think that’s such a big cause of depression and anxiety,” she says. “The problem is the culture of blame that teaches you to blame society, rather than taking steps towards meeting your needs.”
Viable Alternatives to Mindfulness
Rather than meditating away negative emotions, Breuning says there are a lot of other activities that offer the same temporary escape, without attempting to establish a more permanent detachment from the ego. Exercising, listening to music, playing sports, practicing art, or engaging in any activity that helps temporarily shut out the rest of the world can provide the same sense of relief from stress.
“Whatever it is that you love, find a way to make it convenient to use in those moments of anxiety,” she says. “You can’t do landscape painting at the office, but you can bring your sketchbook.”
Even meditating can provide a healthy escape, according to Breuning, so long as it is focussed on enabling your ability to solve problems, not your ability to ignore them.
“[Mindfulness is] good for learning the skill of putting on the brakes for a thought loop and noticing the thought loops you get into a lot; that’s very valuable, but that’s only the first step,” she says. “The next step is, ‘how do I have a different thought.’”
Breuning recommends first taking a moment to focus on defining your needs—understanding what is causing that anxiety or negative thought loop—followed by engaging in an activity that helps relieve anxiety, which could be anything from painting to listening to music to meditating, and concluding by taking a moment to plan and pursue a solution.
This approach will help provide the same sense of relief as mindfulness but without training the brain to ignore its natural needs and instincts.
I’m not saying mindfulness doesn’t have significant, powerful, perhaps even life-altering benefits for many who practice it. I’m just saying that it’s not for everyone, not necessarily a universal force for good and not the only way to achieve the same results; so could you please stop forcing it on me?