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Is Mindfulness Losing Its “Shine” These Days?

Maybe, but that’s because it has often been misused. Rightly understood, it’s a blessing

In a recent news release from the University of Buffalo, we learn that mindfulness (meditation and similar practices) were not found to be helpful in managing stress at the time it is happening:

Where earlier work in this area suggests how mindfulness may help people manage active stressors, the current paper finds evidence for an opposite response. In the midst of stress, mindful participants demonstrated cardiovascular responses consistent with greater care and engagement. Put another way, they actually were “sweating the small stuff.”

Bert Gambini, “Be mindful: Study shows mindfulness might not work as you expect” at University of Buffalo

However, the study, which measured the cardiovascular stress response of 1001 volunteers also found,

Even more curiously, although the study’s participants demonstrated no physiological signs associated with positive stress responses, they did report having a positive experience afterward.

Bert Gambini, “Be mindful: Study shows mindfulness might not work as you expect” at University of Buffalo

The study authors concluded that “mindful may only benefit people’s perception of their stress experience after it has ended.” The authors admit that there is considerable evidence in other science literature of mindfulness health benefits. For example, from last year at the American Psychological Association, we read,

Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindfulness among healthy people and found mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness can also help treat people with specific problems including depression, pain, smoking and addiction. Some of the most promising research has looked at people with depression. Several studies have found, for example, that MBCT can significantly reduce relapse in people who have had previous episodes of major depression. What’s more, mindfulness-based interventions can improve physical health, too. For example, mindfulness may reduce pain, fatigue and stress in people with chronic pain. Other studies have found preliminary evidence that mindfulness might boost the immune system and help people recover more quickly from cold or flu.

“Mindfulness meditation”, “Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress” at American Psychological Association (October 30, 2019)

For that matter, it’s been demonstrated that lifetime mindfulness practitioners in Tibet can even change their metabolism. So mindfulness is real, even if we are unclear how it works.

How then should we understand what mindfulness can’t do for us? In 2007, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I published a book, The Spiritual Brain, which addressed mindfulness, among other topics. One of the things that was happening even then, as mindfulness was becoming a bigger fad, was growing misunderstandings about what it is supposed to do.

Mind full or mindful question

Mindfulness won’t make you rich or famous or successful or well-liked. It’s not about solving problems; it’s about a state of being where we become more in touch with the whole of reality, not just our own concerns or goals. That might be why the mindful volunteers in the University of Buffalo study felt more positive about the stress they had undergone. They “saw life steadily and saw it whole.

I created something of a stir in 2014 when I pointed out that Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik practiced mindfulness (or claimed to). My point was, if mindfulness is used as an instrument, it is no more ethically sound than some other instrument—whether the instrument is a mental one like a pep talk or a physical one like a gun. Mindfulness as a state of being does not result in mass murder because part of the practice is to just let go of ruling motives.

After mindfulness became a fad, it became an industry, with mixed results:

Last September Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng did not mince words at Salon Magazine: “Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less,” arguing that the trend to corporate mindfulness encourages the employee to adapt to stressful conditions instead of changing them.

Underlying the accusation is a problem implicit in the concept of mindfulness in pursuit of corporate goals: The traditional meditator might gladly forego income to find inner peace, but not to improve the corporate bottom line. Mixing the two goals certainly creates the potential for exploitation of workers. Traditional mindfulness coaches are speaking out about such abuses.

Denyse O’Leary, “Why pioneers are disillusioned with the ‘mindfulness’ scene” at MercatorNet (April 19, 2016)

Mindfulness morphed into a huge noise:

In September 2014, Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that a staggering 37 new books on mindfulness had been released during the previous week. And it wasn’t just pop science either: “In the 1980s, only one or two academic papers were published. In the 1990s this increased to around 10–15 per year. In 2013 alone there were 475 publications on mindfulness (Black, 2014).”

Denyse O’Leary, “A thoughtful response to the McMindfulness fad” at MercatorNet (April 18, 2018)

Of course it isn’t all bad. But, as I said at the time, “ If you believe that the mind is a spiritual, not a natural entity, the scene provides both encouragement and a warning. Mindfulness meditation, practised seriously, does change the brain. People who say that our thoughts are merely an illusion are mistaken. But change need not be for the better, and that is the source of the controversy… When sati became McMindfulness, something got lost in translation.”

Maybe a return to the roots—which go back thousands of years at least—can help us focus and avoid the stuff and the fluff. Here’s one possible way to think about mindfulness:

Compare it to the virtue of humility. How do you know that a person is humble? Because he denigrates himself and tells you how awful he is? No; if he draws attention to himself at all, he is not being humble at that moment. In fact, if a person is truly humble, there is a good chance you will not notice him at all. Motivational writer Rick Warren explains it like this: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

As 20th century Christian writer C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) put it, “Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” (Mere Christianity)

And that’s also the key to the practice of mindfulness according to its own best traditions. You just want to be in touch with yourself and your relationship with the world. You are not seeking worldly benefits of any kind. If you are in touch, you may feel more positive even about stressful experiences, as did the “mindfulness” volunteers in the University of Buffalo study. That’s what mindfulness can offer.

The complicated part—and this is why we must practice mindfulness in order to understand it—is that you can’t go into it with any goal at all in mind. You must just let it happen. And make letting it happen a part of your life. Meditations and exercises may help but only to the extent that they are not getting in your way and you are not getting in their way. It’s like a dance. When you find the rhythm, it’s easy. Before that, it’s impossible.

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Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Is Mindfulness Losing Its “Shine” These Days?