The downside of mindfulness

Mindfulness practice at Deer Park
Deer Park Monastery Escondido CA

Scientists all over the world are studying the benefits of mindfulness. So, when an article comes along that challenges mindfulness as a “cure-all,” I want to read it. 

People who know me know I am “into” mindfulness big time. I study it, practice it, and write about it. I give talks about it. I have integrated mindfulness into the psychotherapy work I do, my personal relationships, into hiking, writing, and every breath I take.

Not true about every breath. That was a pun I couldn’t resist. Sometimes I am so thoroughly oblivious to my surroundings, my body, my breath, I wonder if all the meditation I do has any effect (it does). Take that six-part sonic boom two of my hiking buddies heard when we were headed up to Eagle Rock. “Did you hear that?” one of them asked. “Hear what?” I said. Right? Oblivious. But I am also kind to myself about being oblivious.

Mindfulness–the mainstreaming of

Because people who know me know I am interested in mindfulness, they send me articles they think I might like to read. I appreciate that because my Google alert for mindfulness misses a lot of articles and doesn’t retrieve articles posted to the internet in the past.

This latest article someone sent my way, If Mindfulness Makes You Uncomfortable, It’s Working (Su, A.J., The Harvard Business Review, December 29, 2015) begins with the story about a woman named Claire. Claire learned about mindfulness from her company and was trying a mindfulness app. Rather than feeling more calm and relaxed, though, Claire was feeling more agitated.

“…mindfulness has hit the mainstream,” the article continues. Indeed it has. You will find mindfulness in schools, in government, in police departments, in prisons, in community centers, in graduate programs for organizational development. Which is probably why Claire learned about mindfulness from the company she works for, of all places.

Mindfulness is based on the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is caused by getting tangled up in thoughts and feelings about the past and the future–two time zones we have no control over. Suffering is caused by clinging and avoiding. In Buddhist terms, suffering is optional. But suffer we do.  We all have a tendency to cling, grasp, and chase pleasant experiences and avoid or push away unpleasant experiences. Eating too many sweets and avoiding honest but difficult conversations are examples.

Mindfulness is also based on the idea that if you are more aware of what’s going on NOW in your body, in your mind, and around you, you can feel more alive by  a) being aware of your present moment experiences and b) learning from them. You might even do something about them. Maybe.

Mindfulness–the mis-reputation

On the way to fame, recognition, and integration into our culture, though, mindfulness picked up the mis-reputation as a pathway to happiness, peace, calm, maybe even enlightenment and perfection. For good reason.

Scientists in every major university in the Western world conduct rigorous studies on the effects of mindfulness. I just did a Google search for “mindfulness” and got “About 29,600,000 results (0.49 seconds)”. On EBSCO Host, a database of journal articles, there were more than seven thousand.

Some of the more interesting research reports that a regular mindfulness/meditation practice can:

  • reduce anxiety, stress, reactivity, depression
  • change the wiring in your brain
  • prevent relapse in addiction recovery
  • improve memory, concentration, sleep
  • strengthen the immune system
  • improve quality of life

and more of course. We don’t yet know all the benefits, or how much (or little) mindfulness it takes to feel the benefits.

Mindfulness–the awareness, the attention, the equanimity

Where were we with the article? (awareness) Let’s get back to what the author was saying (attention). We do this without criticism of mind and writing wandering (equanimity, compassion, acceptance, kindness).  Su continues:

Therefore, we have to redefine mindfulness as more than feeling good, and instead see it as having an increased capacity to sit with the full spectrum of being human, experiencing it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and learning to be less reactive so that we can make better choices each day.

But, but, but…what about all of that research?

Mindfulness–the Shinzen view

Mindfulness looks and sounds simple. But it’s far from that. In What is Mindfulness? Shinzen Young breaks down mindfulness into eight areas for us to consider (p. 4):

  1. Mindfulness – The Word
  2. Mindfulness – The Awareness
  3. Mindfulness – The Practices
  4. Mindfulness – The Path
  5. Mindfulness – The Translation
  6. Mindfulness – The Fad
  7. Mindfulness – The Shadow
  8. Mindfulness – The Possible Revolution

I encourage you to read his paper.

“Mindfulness–The Practices” includes Noting, Body Scanning, Lovingkindness, and Open Presence. To keep this as simple as possible, I only want to mention Noting in this article. You’ll see why later. Noting is the practice of labeling whatever you experience in an objective way. “Thinking.” “Planning.” “Worrying.” “Happy.”

“Mindfulness – The Path” includes the application of mindfulness as a way to increase the human experience of happiness. In other words, what is the effect of mindfulness on physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual distress or dis-ease? That’s what all the research is about. So far, mindfulness has an A+ and is proving to be quite effective. Hence, the not-so mis-reputation. The idea that mindfulness leads to happiness is not entirely based on our desire to be happier. It is based on the body of research that drives our thinking and transforms our culture.

No one says that sitting in NOW is pleasant all the time. NOW is not pleasant when we get hijacked by thoughts, feelings, and stories. NOW is not pleasant when we review conversations, the latest to-do list, and worries about what could happen in the future for the 99th time. NOW is not pleasant when we feel sad or anxious or angry.

NOW is not pleasant when you don’t get the promotion you expected, when the person you love leaves you, or when illness visits you or someone you care about.

The idea is to learn to sit through whatever comes up.

Remember Claire? When people begin practicing mindfulness, that is the formal practice of sitting quietly or meditating, all kinds of stuff comes up that’s always been there, stuff you’ve avoided or ignored. With mindfulness practice, you are alone with you, your thoughts, your feelings, your body sensations. These parts of you may seem like strangers at first. Unfamiliar, even scary. As with strangers, the more time you spend with them, the more approachable they become.

Mindfulness–the corporate application

NOW in the corporate world is based on experiences like Claire’s and the other two people in A. J. Su’s article. Because she writes for a business audience–remember the article was published in the Harvard Business Review–Su’s advice focuses on organizational behavior from a mindfulness perspective and more-or-less how to be more productive. She suggests (my comments in italics):

1. “Witness” and track the pattern

of behavior, thoughts, feelings. This is AWARENESS

 2. Notice, name, and pause.

This is NOTING. Mindfulness–The Practices…That’s why I mentioned it earlier.

3. See more clearly, choose more clearly.

This is EQUANIMITY, maybe. Equanimity is inner peace or a calmER nervous system. Calm nervous system = less fight/flight/freeze and more cerebral cortex engagement.

Mindfulness–The Future

As I mentioned earlier, we do and we don’t know a lot about mindfulness, the effects of mindfulness, the benefits, or the limitations if there are any. Not knowing is exciting.

A few decades ago, the 2,000-year-old practice of meditation met with Western technology and psychology. POW! Like the Big Bang, something big happened. We don’t yet know where that will lead. We don’t know the effect mindfulness will have on human evolution, on the future of the planet, or even on your next breath.

What we do know is that the practice of being still even for five minutes a day is more complicated and more interesting than it sounds.

Oh. The downside of mindfulness? So far there are none.