These days, it’s practically heresy to question whether mindfulness practices actually create sustained and positive outcomes in people’s lives. Just a few days ago, I listened to Todd Sampson at an event for foster care providers that I was keynoting in Australia. Sampson recently went around the world training his very ordinary brain to be extraordinary. With concerted effort, he showed that he could increase his memory, overcome his fears, and heighten his senses to the point that he was able to rock climb blindfolded and walk a tight rope 22 stories above the ground. He tells us that this was all accomplished through the power of neurological plasticity.
It’s an inspiring story and one that is echoed by University of Massachusettes Medical School professor Jon Kabat Zinn whose studies on meditation have reportedly shown that brains can be changed through sustained engagement in mindfulness practices. At the core of all these experiments are emotional regulation (e.g., the ability to not eat a marshmallow when it is delectably place in front of us) and focused attention on what really matters (rather than being distracted by our fears and obsessions). Both strategies can improve our lives. There is nothing wrong with this thinking, except that it has very little to do with resilience. None of those studies have told us much about whether mindfulness practices are sustainable and improve mental health outcomes for people who are actually struggling with severe mental illness or chronically toxic environments.
If you ever have the chance to sit in on any of the endless parade of motivational speakers preaching mindfulness practice you’ll notice a curious thing is missing. Context. They never mention that all their wonderfully illustrative examples come from motivated people who got the very best support available and that the changes they made were seldom sustained.
Now before my friends abandon me, many who meditate regularly, let me explain the truth about resilience. It is not something we build alone in the dark. It is a facilitated process of engagement with an environment that makes it possible for us to fully realize our capacity. Mindfulness is a shallow description of a much larger process that makes us resilient when bad things happen.
To illustrate, let me go back to Todd Sampson’s undeniably powerful feats of mind-body synergy. While he was certainly brave to rock climb blindfolded, he was already an accomplished mountaineer who had reached the summit of Everest unguided before he tried a climb without sight. He also had leading him up that 130 metre climb one of the best mountaineers in the world, and an entire support crew. Of course, he still showed far more guts than I ever will, but to claim he got up that mountain because he rewired his brain is like saying that the airplane I rode to Australia to see Sampson got there all on its own. Nope, it needed a worldwide network of satellites, government treaties, businesses, and a long list of professionals that spent decades training to pilot it and maintain the plane. Indeed, flying to Australia is far from the act of a single plane flying between two points of land. It is a complex nested set of systems working together to accomplish a goal. The onboard computer (the plane’s brain) is amazing technologically, but useless without these other systems.
And so it is with mindfulness. In fact, we are so enamoured thinking about how mindfulness changes our susceptibility and make us better able to exploit our environments, that we forget at our peril that environments are more important than the brains themselves. Need proof? Four million Syrian refugees are fleeing a war they did not start. Positive thinking may help keep them moving forward, and being able to regulate one’s emotions may help an individual refugee tolerate the endless lines to cross borders, but all the hope in the world will not keep someone alive when a barrel bomb is dropped on them by their government.
Maybe the example is too extreme. Consider instead that when researchers conducted a systematic review of the evidence in support of what are called ‘third wave cognitive behavioural therapies’ (like mindfulness) to treat depression (a common application) they found very weak evidence for the effectiveness of these treatments. Furthermore, few of the studies accounted for the level of stress exposure experienced by the research participants. In other words, did patients have the resources to engage fully in treatment, and what was the environmental load on them while they were learning to meditate? Even meta-analyses that do report positive outcomes tend to lack reference to research that includes follow-up data. These studies also seldom report on people’s functional outcomes (even if depression decreases, did they return to work? School?), and almost no studies report their selection bias (for participants to be in the researcg, did they have to be living in contexts that gave them the supports they needed to attend sessions regularly?).
Isn’t it interesting that the people promoting meditation are usually white, middle class, and living among privilege? In March, I listened to Kabat Zinn talk about mindfulness for 90 minutes. He had us sit quietly with our hands on our knees and experience the timelessness of breathing. It was restful, and the 3,000 employed, middle class people in attendance enjoyed the show immensely. But it was what he did for the last three minutes of his talk that most caught my attention. He encouraged us to make the world a better place so that more people could be mindful. And he speculated that mindful national leaders would seek peace over war. For a moment, he seemed to acknowledge the futulity of what we had all been doing in that fancy hotel ballroom. Except, nobody much heard that second brief part of his message. The crowd of fee-for-service therapists had little sense of how they could change the world. Nor did our speaker. Though he had provided extensive details on how to be more present and attuned, his guidebook to addressing the factors that prevented people from experiencing insecurity and prejudice was summed up in a few swift words. He encouraged us to teach our politicians to pay attention to their breathing before they made big decisions.
The originators of mindfulness practices, Tibetan monks and Christian ascetics, understood that their contemplative practices required near complete devotion and the benevolence of a community to clothe, feed and house them while they ascended the spiritual ladder. In other words, even in their bare bones world the founders of mindfulness knew that their path to brain plasticity was facilitated by the privileges of their status as their community’s spiritual guides. Nobody expected the average lay person to achieve the same level of higher consciousness. They were too busy raisingbabies and harvesting crops which, in turn, left the monks with the time to meditate.
A Different Understanding of Mindfulness
Let me offer a different understanding of mindfulness. I believe it is a liberating practice that can make us better people. It can increase our ability to appreciate life and control the amount of stress we bring home from work. It can help us focus. And it can do all of this as long as we sustain the practice, every day.
But it does all this much better when we have a job and a place to come home to. First things first, I say. To be resilient we must experience security, social justice, a powerful identity, personal power, and positive relationships. Psychological enlightenment is a luxury enjoyed by those whose basic needs have already been met.