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Dangerous Mindfulness

A couple of participants have forwarded me mindfulness articles connected to Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm’s book ‘The Buddha Pill: Can meditation change you?” I haven’t read the book. But looked over the article in the Independent and the slide-show published to publicise the book.

In essence, Farias and Wikholm seem to be asking for a critical assessment of the research behind the ‘miracle cure’ tenor of much of the writing around mindfulness in the last few years. And in that, I am in full accord. There is no reason that mindfulness practice can’t be subjected to the same sort of rigour as any other NICE recommended treatment rolled out by the NHS.

The problem with the article (and I assume with the book) is that there is a large body of research that does subject mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. MBCT, which is the form of meditative therapy recommended by the NHS to combat relapse into depression to scientific rigour. Farias and Wikholm claim that the research doesn’t include randomised control tests (the gold standard of scientific research). But a quick Google search into the supporting evidence for the NICE (national institute of clinical excellence) decision to include MBCT in depression treatment shows 68 studies. 46 of which are randomised controls. There is similar data from America.

There is no discussion of what these ‘adverse effects’ are

In the article, this large body of evidence is ignored while the ‘negative side’ of mediation is backed up with some very questionable cherry-picking. One study from 1992 talks about a sample of 27 meditators that showed that 2 of these had ‘adverse effects’. From this very small sample, a global figure of 1 in 14 is extrapolated. There is no discussion of what these ‘adverse effects’ are. And, when I checked, there is no more than an abstract of this research available online. They also quote a 2014 study of people who attended a 3-day retreat. Who – when you look up the actual research – showed “reduced perceived stress. But increased salivary cortisol response to a social stressor.” From this mild and ambiguous result, the authors claim that meditation can increase our cortisol (our stress hormone).

Apart from the questionable use of research (the article is published in a popular science magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal), there is a worrying sloppiness of focus.

There are many different kinds of meditation

When writers talk about ‘meditation’ in this way, it’s a little like talking about “food”. It’s akin to saying “Food gives you cancer”. There are many different kinds of meditation. These authors seem to conflate studies of Transcendental Meditation from the 70s with mindfulness-based cognitive therapies from the Noughties. Similarly, there is no context for the sort of ‘meditation retreats’ that the authors cite as causing psychosis and depression in the people they feature. Unhelpfully, all the hyper-linked ‘meditation’ references go back to Andi Puddicombe’s Headspace page. And as far as I’m aware Headspace don’t run intensive meditation retreats.

I happen to agree that the rigid and often unsupported 10-day vipassana retreats rolled out across the world, are not always conducive to mental well-being. Particularly when people are pre-disposed to mental illness. The intense solitude, silence and rigour of a 10-day retreat can be too much to bear. Running Mindsprings retreats I have always foregrounded regular feedback, group discussion and mutual participant support. I feel it creates a safer and more supportive environment for the unfolding of practice.

I would argue that it is wrong-headed to think that mindfulness (sati) is aimed at eliminating ‘negative effect’

But this brings me to the central bone I have to pick with this article.

The whole premise of the piece is that ‘meditation’ (however vaguely that is understood) promises unalloyed happiness and wellbeing and that any ‘negative effect’ is evidence of ‘the dark side of Dharma’. Leaving aside the variety of difference mediation practices that do aim to create a continuous sense of well being (like samadhi, for example). And assuming that the authors are talking about mindfulness practice. I would argue that it is wrong-headed to think that mindfulness (sati) is aimed at eliminating ‘negative effect’.

One of the express goals of mindfulness practice is to increase our ability to tolerate ‘negative’ affect. To create a safe and secure space within ourselves from which the full spectrum of human experience can unfold. I have written elsewhere about the two poles of mindfulness. One immersive and one de-fusing – and the ability to immerse oneself in sadness or anxiety. A key skill in practice is to not repress, dissociate or be overwhelmed. Learning to sit in the ‘fire of experience’ is – paradoxically – the way we overcome our anxiety about being alive.

In order to experience life nakedly we first need to feel safe in our bodies

This is not to say that we plunge hell-for-leather into every extreme emotion that comes up. I agree whole-heartedly with the nun mentioned at the end of the article who points out how important the ‘framework’ of mindfulness is. In order to experience life nakedly, we first need to feel safe in our bodies. And safe in the framework of practice (be that a teacher or a tradition or an 8-week course). This is why I believe that samadhi practice is a necessary adjunct to mindfulness. Spending time anchoring in the breathing body and developing a sense of safe connection to the earth is something that I teach alongside and before mindfulness practice.

I happen to agree that the de-fusing pole can be contraindicated with certain psychological types. Just as over-immersion can be problematic with people who are easily overwhelmed. And if this article is a wake-up call for more care in the teaching of mindfulness then I am right on board.

Safely trained teaching staff would spot that someone is mentally ill and call in appropriate support

Mindfulness does need to be contextualised. There is definitely a problem with the mass roll-out of ‘mindfulness teachers’. Who teach with little lived experience of the practice and no training in counselling or therapy. The extraordinarily contentious mention of the killer Aaron Alexis at the beginning of the piece. (there is no evidence that meditation caused his killing spree) Does point up this fact. Safely trained teaching staff would spot that someone is mentally ill. They would call inappropriate support or at the very least work skilfully with the troubled individual. I have written about the necessary marriage of therapy and practice elsewhere. But while it raises important questions, the scare-mongering and sloppy writing of this piece makes me wonder what exactly the agenda of its writers might be.

I’d love to know your thoughts about mindfulness. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

To read more Mindsprings blogs, click here.  Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter. Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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