Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind?
The excitement about the application of mindfulness meditation in mental health settings has led to the proliferation of a literature pervaded by a lack of conceptual and methodological self-criticism. In this article we raise two major concerns. First, we consider the range of individual differences within the experience of meditation; although some people may benefit from its practice, others will not be affected in any substantive way, and a number of individuals may suffer moderate to serious adverse effects. Second, we address the insufficient or inconclusive evidence for its benefits, particularly when mindfulness-based interventions are compared with other activities or treatments.
‘I therefore recommend meditation, just as I recommend the use of Jacobsen’s relaxation method or other focusing and relaxing techniques, as a palliative, distraction method, and advise most of my clients to use it with discretion and not take it too seriously or view it as a general therapeutic method.’ Albert Ellis,1 p. 673.
Something has gone wrong with the science of mindfulness. The literature on its supposed mental and physical benefits is conceptually and methodologically precarious and has been divulged in a sensationalist way. Academic articles describe weak results as ‘encouraging’ and ‘exciting’; popular best-selling books about mindfulness, many of which are written by researchers, are bursting with magical promises of peace, happiness and well-being. The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements. There is a misrepresentation of the place and value of meditation in the Buddhist tradition, including its depiction as a purely rational method of self-exploration,2 which would feel alien to countless past generations of Buddhists.3
There are two major types of problems with the attempts to study mindfulness. First, its scientific literature is plagued by conceptual and methodological shortcomings and the turning of a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to this technique. Second, we also have concerns about how it is being utilised by individuals with little formal training in mental health, and its branding (often against the alarming background of a global increase in mental illness) as the technique of choice to develop ‘mental fitness’. Our aim is not to engage in a damning critique of mindfulness, but simply to urge caution about its widespread use as a therapeutic technique, including its limitations, the lack of clear evidence about its benefits, and its ‘assembly-line’ approach based on a reductive understanding of the human mind.