Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Is Mindfulness a Fad or The Real Deal?

Everyone is gaga for mindfulness! Should they be?

If you are in the professional psychology field (and even if you are not) you may have noticed that mindfulness is all the rage of late and is very trendy. Looking at the increase in the number of continuing education courses and workshop offerings, convention programming, and articles published on mindfulness in recent years is really quite dramatic. Since about 2007, articles published in peer reviewed outlets that focus on mindfulness have just exploded. In a recent survey of highly regarded professional psychologists across the land published in the top tier APA journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, mindfulness was chosen as the number one hottest current and predicted future trend in clinical psychology treatment. Wow! What’s up with that?

As you likely know, mindfulness is "the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment", which can be trained by meditational practices derived from Buddhist anapanasati". For the most part, it is offered to the public by professionals and laypersons alike in a more secular version. Typically, you’d never know that it came from the Buddhists.

By the way, this more stripped down and secular version of a popular spiritual based technique is also true for yoga. Yoga, also extremely popular and trendy now, is often practiced more like an exercise class (sometimes offered in a strip mall between the coffee and bagel shops where attractive and commonly well-off folks dressed in Lululemmon outfits go). You’d never know that yoga comes in many diverse forms and is from the Hindu religious tradition.

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Thanks to the efforts of and the work by Jon Kabat-Zinn at UMass, Jack Cornfield at Spirit Rock, among others, mindfulness (as well as the associated mindfulness based stress reduction) is commonly suggested for whatever ails you: depression, anxiety, parenting stress, business troubles, cardiovascular disease, cancer recovery, eating disorders, you name it!  When in doubt, go with mindfulness! 

If you have attended some of the professional conferences, workshops, and lectures, people usually present mindfulness with a certain degree of religious fervor. They are often advocates for and practitioners of the approach. They rarely compare mindfulness to the many other similar practices from other spiritual and religious traditions (e.g., centering prayer). They also don’t generally come across as neutral, objective, and as scientists. This is a big mistake in my view. While I am all for quality, empirically-based, peer-reviewed research including the use of randomized trials (and have conducted some of these myself on mindfulness with highly skilled colleagues who practice mindfulness), getting into the role of advocacy can diminish the impact of quality and data-based research results over time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for both mindfulness and yoga and know that countless people benefit from these currently popular practices. I also encourage many of my clinical patients and college students to get involved with them too. Yet only time (and excellent research trials) will tell if mindfulness is indeed a fad or if it is the real deal. High quality clinical research trials and quality objective empirical research with a focus on scientific objectivity and an openness to go where the data takes you is really critical to answer these and other important questions. May I suggest that advocacy and trendiness is really an enemy of science. Science needs to thoughtfully and objectively determine "truth" that will hopefully result in real solutions to real problems making life better for many over time. Mindfulness may indeed help with many psychological, behavioral, and physical problems but only quality science and not advocacy or trendiness can best determine the appropriateness and usefulness of mindfulness. 

So, what do you think? Is mindfulness a fad or is it the real deal?

Check out my web page at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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