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Mindfulness works – when it does – in spite of its ideology.

Mindfulness is everywhere. There seem to be at least two mindfulness books among the top 10 non-fiction bestseller list at any time. And, amazingly, it has made its way to the workplace, with more and more big (and trendy) employers attempting to make their workforces more efficient with the help of mindfulness meditations.

It’s easy to make fun of mindfulness, with its occasional dabbling into ancient Chinese poetry and Nepalese folk wisdom. It’s also easy to be scandalized by how it is getting more and more commercialized (there is even a somewhat predictable label for this: McMindfulness). But there are some more serious issues, especially the worrying new findings that mindfulness meditation often leads to panic attacks and depression. Mindfulness is clearly not the one-size-fits-all solution that blows away all of our problems.

But there is an even more important problem. When mindfulness succeeds – and it does sometimes, but definitely not always, succeed – it does so in spite of itself. Mindfulness can help when it does help because a byproduct of this approach is that it takes attentional focus away from our usual obsessions. But it can and does do harm because it gives us an even stronger focus. When mindfulness works, it does so because it helps us defocus our attention – and that is the exact opposite of what the ideology of mindfulness is about.

In mindfulness meditation practice, you are supposed to attend intently to one aspect of your experience — for example, your breathing or a specific part of your body — and ignore everything else. Mindfulness asks us to maintain razor-sharp attention throughout this process.

We know a lot about attention from perceptual psychology and we also know the huge difference it can make to your experience. One basic distinction cognitive scientists and psychologists make about attention is that it can be focused or distributed.

You can be completely obsessed and preoccupied with one and only one feature of what you see. And sometimes this is what is needed when performing some difficult action, like running through a crowded airport to catch your flight. The only thing that matters then is whether something or someone is in your way or not. My guess is that you will not attend to whether these people in your way are wearing perfectly matching hats and scarves. That’s focused attention.

But you can also attend in a diffuse or distributed manner. Compare two seemingly unrelated shapes in a painting. Trace the way the violin’s melody provides a counterpoint to the piano’s. Or attend to the contrasts or parallels between a meal’s ingredients. We can call this way of attending defocusing.

The point is that focusing our attention is exhausting. Defocusing is a form of relaxation for the mind. And our mind really likes a bit of relaxation now and then. When mindfulness works, it works not because you are focusing on the ‘right’ things (your breathing, etc), but because you fail to do so: your attention roams freely. In short, the real benefit of mindfulness meditation is an involuntary and unintended byproduct of it that amounts to the exact opposite of what the ideology of mindfulness is about. It works when it gets you to defocus.

Here is an analogy that may be helpful: working out. Exercise is good for you, of course, but exercising all day every day is just too much. You also need to relax. Just as your body needs some downtime when you’re not exercising any of your muscles, your mind also needs some downtime, when you’re not focusing your attention on anything. It would be just plain silly to start exercising a different muscle as soon as you’re out of the gym. And it is plain silly to spend those rare moments when we do not need to focus on avoiding traffic jams or on trying not to mess up our promotion with more focused attention.

One big difference is that while very few of us exercise for much of the day, we just have to attend in a focused manner most of the time. Otherwise there would be a lot of knocked-down plates, spilled milk, and traffic accidents. So we need to be extra careful what we do when we do not absolutely have to attend in a focused manner, because those moments when this is not a necessity are rare. Defocused attention is the mind’s downtime, and without it, life would be tough.

That’s why it is not really surprising that mindfulness often backfires. It amounts to depriving us from any genuine downtime whatsoever. And our mind is not equipped to deal with that, just like our body is not equipped to deal with 24/7 exercise routines.

More from Bence Nanay Ph.D.
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