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Is Modern Mindfulness Too Superficial?

Research shows benefits of new approach to mindfulness

It seems unusual at the moment for even a week to go by without a media report surfacing somewhere relating to the superficial or negative side of modern mindfulness techniques. Examples from just the last three days include articles in The Spectator on "The downside of mindfulness" and in the San Francisco Chronicle on "The (over) promise of the mindfulness revolution".

The academic journal Mindfulness recently revisited this debate by focusing its first issue for 2020 on a new approach to mindfulness, known as “second-generation mindfulness-based interventions”, which are intended to reflect a less superficial way of teaching and practicing mindfulness.

In recent years, concerns have arisen over the extent to which the first-generation of mindfulness-based interventions, such as “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” teach and embody the essence of mindfulness according to longstanding conceptualizations of the technique.

According to Dr. Ronald Purser in his new book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, some people receiving training in modern approaches to mindfulness are being taught a form of McMindfulness, which “is nothing more than basic concentration training” and which can have detrimental consequences.

Dr. Purser’s criticism that a commercial and fast-food approach to mindfulness has emerged appears to be consistent with a small but steadily increasing number of research papers reporting adverse effects associated with some modern approaches to mindfulness, such as worsening of mental health issues, susceptibility to false memories and becoming withdrawn or anti-social.

Traditionally, mindfulness was an integral component of contemplative practice, that when used in conjunction with other awareness techniques, reflected a rounded path of meditation. However, as part of its recent integration into various healthcare, education and workplace settings, it appears that some of the first-generation mindfulness interventions have largely isolated mindfulness from the other contemplative techniques that traditionally supported it.

As noted in an editorial I wrote for the recent issue of Mindfulness, second-generation mindfulness interventions differ from first-generation mindfulness interventions due to typically meeting most or all of the following criteria: 1. being overtly psycho-spiritual or spiritual in nature, 2. using a greater range of meditative techniques in addition to mindfulness (e.g., loving-kindness meditation, compassion meditation, and meditation on non-self), 3. featuring ethics as a key component of the taught program, and 4. using an instructor training program that normally requires a minimum of several years of supervised mindfulness practice.

The January 2020 issue of Mindfulness includes over a dozen new research papers (including some of my own) contributing further evidence that second-generation mindfulness approaches have applications for improving health and well-being as well as scientific understanding of this ancient contemplative technique. The journal also includes several head-to-head studies directly comparing first-generation with second-generation mindfulness approaches, with findings showing that in certain contexts, second-generation mindfulness can be more effective than first-generation techniques for improving subjective well-being, personal growth, and pro-social behavior.

While more head-to-head studies are needed, evidence steadily accumulating over the last six years indicates that second-generation mindfulness interventions can complement first-generation approaches by increasing the choice of mindfulness interventions available to people. However, although on the surface second-generation interventions appear to teach mindfulness in a manner more consistent with some traditional approaches to contemplation, instructors of second-generation mindfulness techniques need to have sufficient depth of experience in terms of their own practice of mindfulness. Otherwise, as noted in my recent editorial for Mindfulness, there is a risk that second-generation mindfulness techniques “could end up contributing to one of the key problems they seek to address – McMindfulness”.


Bayot, M., Vermeulen, N., Kever, A., & Mikolajczak, M. (2019). Mindfulness and empathy: differential effects of explicit and implicit Buddhist Teachings. Mindfulness, 11(1), 5-17.

Chen, S., & Jordan, C. H. (2019). Incorporating ethics into brief mindfulness practice: effects on well-being and prosocial behavior. Mindfulness, 11(1), 18-29.

Navarro-Gil, M., Lopez-del-Hoyo, Y., Modrego-Alarcón, M., Montero-Marin, J., Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2019). Effects of attachment-based compassion therapy (ABCT) on self-compassion and attachment style in healthy people. Mindfulness, 11(1), 51-62.

Purser, R., (2019). McMindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality. London: Repeater Books

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-4.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness, 5, 381-391.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-593.

Van Gordon, W., & Shonin, E. (2020). Second-Generation Mindfulness-Based Interventions: Toward More Authentic Mindfulness Practice and Teaching. Mindfulness, 11, 1-4.

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