The Blowback Against Mindfulness

Melanie McDonagh not only warns against divorcing meditation from its religious context, she’s skeptical of what it really teaches its modern practitioners:

Sitting concentrating on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbour in this practice of self-obsession? Given a toss up between going to church, where you rub shoulders with the old, the lonely, the poor, and anyone who cares to pitch up, and a mindfulness session where, for about 25 quid a pop, you can mingle silently with congenial souls in flight from stress, I know which seems more good and human to me. Mindfulness may be the new religion — but it’s no substitute for the old one.

Meanwhile, Jay Michaelson takes note of the tensions running through last weekend’s International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS):

“We risk being swept up in a marketing mania that is orthogonal to objectivity,” said former Wellesley President Diana Chapman Walsh at the event’s opening keynote, arguing for rigorous “norms, procedures, and evidence” as a corrective to potential enthusiasm.

… [S]cholars/practitioners’ enthusiasm may be tilting the data in exactly the way that Walsh worried about. For example, a “systematic review and meta-analysis” of 47 mindfulness studies that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year “found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (i.e., drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).”

Ouch. Mindfulness is now big business—a drop in the bucket compared to mainstream medicine, to be sure, but still hundreds of millions of annual dollars in government grants and significant investment by corporations and capitalists as well. And it’s no more effective than jogging?

Some scholars, notably Willoughby Britton of Brown University (in whose department I am a visiting scholar), even argued at ISCS that meditation can be bad for you, especially if you dive into the advanced methods without a reliable teacher.

But Michaelson admits that “not everyone agrees with this review of the data” and that there “have been more than 1,400 studies of mindfulness, showing significant effects on problems like memory, immune response, self-control, attention, recovery from addiction, and emotional resilience.”

Check out our Book Club exchanges about Sam Harris’ Waking Up, which grapples with some of these very issues, here.