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The Problem with Mindfulness

Is mindfulness making us better? We created an unhealthy, distorted, and oversimplified version of mindfulness. By turning it into a quick fix, it’s making people self-centered rather than kinder.

By Gustavo Razzetti

August 12, 2019

Mindfulness is making us more self-absorbed, not kinder

Promoted as the cure for all modern ills, the practice of mindfulness has become mainstream. Thanks to the help of an app, we get reminders to “focus on our breath” and “let go.”

But there’s a problem with mindfulness. And psychologists and philosophers are worried that everyone is practicing it.

Our narcissistic culture has created an unhealthy, distorted, and oversimplified version of mindfulness.

We’ve turned it into a band-aid to silence and fix our symptoms rather than to address the root cause. Mindfulness is helping people adjust to the status quo rather than transforming it.

We continue to feed self-absorption, materialism, and disconnection. Unless we practice mindfulness to make the world a better place, we will keep reinforcing unhappiness.

The mindfulness business is making us ill

Our mental health has become a money-making opportunity. Companies are more and more aware of the financial costs of stress, depression, and anxiety.

Mindfulness has become a $1.2billion industry in the U.S.

Organizations have adopted mindfulness to help employees cope with stress. Twenty-two percent of companies offer meditation training to improve focus, productivity, and relaxation. Including the likes of Google, Nike, Aetna, Target, and Apple.

Working with organizations, I see many are well-meaning. But not everything that glitters is gold. The heavy focus on positive, quick fixes, has turned meditation into a tool for mental hygiene.

Advocates promote mindfulness as a way to delete our problems. We are confusing meditation with emptying our minds, as Psychotherapist Carl Erik Fisher suggests.

Far from it, the emphasis of mindfulness is on full awareness. It’s not about enjoying the moment either. True mindfulness recognizes every instant of existence — both positive and negative.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment. To focus on your breathing and notice your thoughts as they come and go. And face them without passion or judgment.

As Fisher said, “Maybe we need to clarify what we mean by mindfulness before we slap it on a bunch of posters in every school and every workplace.”

Mindfulness is not a cure for all mental illnesses. In the beginning, it can make things worse.

Mindfulness researcher Kate Williams says that we must prepare for two types of negative experiences.

The first is the natural emotional reaction to self-exploration. Especially when unpleasant experiences arise

The second is more severe and disconcerting. Meditation can trigger confusion, delusions, loss of identity, or extreme vulnerability.

Overcoming negative experiences is not easy — it requires training and experience.

In The Buddha Pill, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm address the not-so-talked-about dark side of mindfulness.

Since its publication, the authors have received numerous emails. People share their negative experiences thinking they did something wrong. But adverse effects of meditation are not uncommon.

Mindfulness can work as a coping mechanism, but its purpose is to make life more meaningful.

Nicholas Dan Van Dam, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, worries that the overuse of mindfulness therapies can turn people off. They could abandon even before psychologists figure out the real problem.

The mindfulness craze is harming mindfulness. The illusion of the easy-fix quickly turns into frustration. 

“I think the biggest concern among my co-authors and I is that people will give up on mindfulness and/or meditation because they try it and it doesn’t work as promised,” says Van Dam.

There’s nothing wrong with making money from mindfulness.

The problem is selling it a quick fix to reduce stress or increase productivity. Ripping the true benefit of mindfulness requires continuous practice—long-term meditators report dramatically superior levels of emotional non-reactivity.  

Mindfulness has a culture problem

“Cultures do not hold still for their portrait.” — James Clifford

Traditions are always in flux. Past and present practices influence them. But mindfulness has become a victim of Western culture.

This is the argument David Forbes makes in his book Mindfulness and Its Discontents.

Stripped of all ethical or religious values, mindfulness has morphed into a market-friendly practice. And has lost its real purpose and meaning.

The problem of mindfulness has less to do with how it’s practiced and more to how it’s promoted.

In a provocative article, Mindfulness would be good for you, if it weren’t so selfish, Thomas Joiner challenges the sheer self-indulgence that often passes for mindfulness.

“People aren’t necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are relying on breathing techniques to deliver magical benefits.” — Thomas Joiner

Mindfulness is a lifetime personal development practice rather than a quick fix. It requires building a new mindset rather than taking shortcuts.

To appeal to a broader market, mindfulness promoters created a secular version. By trying to remove all religious connotations, they also lost the moral framework.

Divorcing mindfulness from the original Buddhist philosophy loses efficacy. You don’t need to practice Buddhism as a religion, but you must understand its principles.

Buddhism has ethical values and practices, such as non-violence and interconnectedness. It promotes universal compassion and wants to end universal suffering.

Our capitalist culture, on the other hand, enforces the myth of the privatized, self-centered self. The do-it-yourself practice of mindfulness is filling the vacuum of a lonely society obsessed with self.

We are using mindfulness to promote more individualism.

As David Forbes told Quartz, “People will argue that you become kinder and more compassionate just by practicing mindfulness. But I believe people need a moral framework in addition to mindfulness, some social vision to guide them. Without that, meditation can become just another tool of self-absorption.”

That’s the problem with mindfulness apps. Their design is based on unmindful models. Instead of making us present, they add more distractions and pressure.

Some apps use gamification offering gold stars to reward your progress. Most interrupt you to remind you that it’s time for your daily meditation.

The biggest irony of apps is that they turn meditation into a competition. They force you to compare your practice with yours and others.

Mindfulness is about increasing self-awareness — you don’t need an app for that.

The self-help craze is making us self-absorbed

Our consumer culture has turned missing out into failure. We feel anxious thinking that something better might be waiting for us.

As Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann wrote:

“Our culture depends on us constantly wanting more, constantly buying more and doing more. To be satisfied nowadays is almost a vice, because it means you’re content with what you have and therefore you’re not already chasing after the next thing.”

The personal development movement has become part of the same vicious cycle. We are always looking for new hacks. And need to do things differently or better.

Brinkmann calls out our culture as narcissistic, empty, and ineffective.

Individualism causes more suffering. If we focus on fixing the individual, we won’t solve the hyper-competitive culture that alienates us.

The fear of missing out makes us less mindful. Everything is a stepping stone to discover something better. We can’t commit to one thing.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the “paradox of choice.” The abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness.

A study found that when participants were offered a smaller rather than larger array of jam, they were actually more satisfied with their tasting.

Pursuing endless growth and development opportunities makes us forget that other people exist. Brinkman believes that helping and caring about others is the best way to achieve self-actualization.

The decrease in religious practice has a side effect. We all think less about afterlife. And want to park as much into this life as possible.

The Danish philosopher invites us to experience the joy of missing out. Instead of trying to experience more things, focus on what’s valuable and meaningful. Like building relationships and helping others.

The antidote Brinkman prescribes is to “stand firm.” We must achieve stability. And abandon the idea of self-development as an end in itself.

Mindfulness meditation makes you kind

Mindfulness meditation is a way to create a more compassionate society. It focuses on making the world better, not yourself.

Research shows that mindfulness makes us more compassionate.

A study evaluated our tendency to help someone in need. A woman on crutches — and in obvious pain — was seeded on a waiting room with no empty chairs. Those who’d attended the meditation program got up five times more often than those who hadn’t.

Mindfulness improves our social awareness. When we stop worrying, we start observing what’s going on with others.

The classic Good Samaritan experiment included assigning seminary students at Princeton University to deliver a talk on the Good Samaritan. While on their way to their presentation, the students passed someone who had collapsed and groaning.

This study suggests that people are not inherently morally insensitive. When we’re stressed, scared, or hurried, we tend to lose touch with our deepest values.

Mindfulness exercises can make us kinder toward others.

Experts found that meditation training increases self-reported feelings of compassion and empathy. It encourages prosocial behaviors.

Studies have shown that meditation-based training reduces the activation of the brain networks associated with feelings of people in distress. It favors the networks related to feelings of social affiliation.

As Thupten Jinpa explains, “Meditation-based training enables practitioners to move quickly from feeling the distress of others to acting with compassion to alleviate it.”

Contemplative training teaches the mind to move from observing suffering to benevolent action. We don’t become paralyzed by others’ pain.

Putting it all together

Mindfulness can be right for you if you are not selfish.

Mindfulness is not a band-aid. Instead of looking for a quick fix, become familiar with your thoughts. Learn to observe them instead of seeing through them.

Embracing our own vulnerability reminds us that we are helpless, vulnerable, and mortal. This realization increases our sense of solidarity and collaboration.

Self-development is not an end in itself. Your mindfulness practice should help make the world better, not just yourself.

As the Zen monk Suzuki Roshi teaches, “The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.”

What do you think?



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