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Even Mindfulness Meditation Has Turned Into a Minefield

A new article shows us how any topic, even mindfulness, gets contentious.

A recent essay that offered a critique of mindfulness is creating quite the stir. I'll show how this follows a pattern I've seen.

Over the last few years, I’ve been reading about a wide range of topics, largely to inform a book I wrote on practical ways to address rising polarization. One thing I’ve noticed is that every issue I’ve looked at, even ones that seem very straightforward, turn out to be bitterly controversial once I get further into the details. Every. Single. Issue.

Academic debates grow personal. The scientific community seems surprisingly petty at times. The format I’ve read again and again is of seeking to discredit the other side without acknowledging when they’ve raised valid points. That is: It’s one of near-total opposition that highlights places of disagreement. It lacks nuance and complexity and doesn’t establish common ground before critiquing. This is the formula for polarization.

Identity plays an important role. Once we’ve started to coalesce into different camps, we’ll be surrounded by a lot of information that seems to confirm our theories and speak our language. We may rarely come in contact with the diversity of other views and evidence out there.

Academics might, perhaps not consciously, seek to conform to their academic group’s theories and lingo, to maintain their status as good and loyal members. These identities may even pass on to future generations so that the retirement of the “old guard” doesn’t alleviate the divisions. There’s also a huge cost to admitting to being wrong: It can be shameful and result in a loss of funding for research that’s no longer sexy.

Perhaps the last topic you’d imagine to be explosively controversial is sitting still and peacefully watching our thoughts. You’d be wrong. A new essay published in Aeon is the latest contribution to the controversies.

Source: Pixabay

The essay is commendable for starting with author Sahanika Ratnayake openly discussing her personal motivations for critiquing mindfulness meditation. I wish more authors were so honest. She felt “crushingly bored” by her Buddhist upbringing and as an adult experienced a “troubling cluster of feelings” that she attributes to mindfulness: “Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.”

Ratnayake helpfully introduces various critiques of mindfulness. That it’s:

  • a misrepresentation or appropriation from Buddhism
  • actually inconsistent with Buddhist meditation practices
  • overly commercialized and watered-down
  • a quick fix not based on understanding
  • presented inappropriately as a panacea, and
  • dangerously apolitical (not “interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress”)

Now here’s what I think makes this well-written essay a good representation of debates on so many issues. Ratnayake writes of mindfulness, “Practitioners are discouraged from engaging with their experiences in a critical or evaluative manner” and she states that this makes it “harder to understand why we think and feel the way we do.” But, despite noting in her conclusion that she does see limited usefulness for mindfulness, her overall essay makes it sound as if life is an all or nothing game.

Certainly, some folks may take mindfulness to the extreme of trying to permanently suppress all forms of critical thought. I would agree that, if it was even possible, doing so would be a radical life choice for most of us and one we should take with care. But isn’t this a bit like saying jogging is bad because a handful of us will get addicted and never stop until we’ve severely injured ourselves?

She appears to be presenting an extreme possibility as though it’s the most likely possibility. I find this very often in discussions of all sorts of issues. Balance is rarely considered as necessary and achievable. Instead, we’re too often given extreme all-or-nothing framings of the issues.

Her core argument, though, is that Buddhist beliefs about the nature of the self are being transmitted to everyone who takes up mindfulness practices without those folks’ knowledge or consent and that this is dangerous. She states that mindfulness can’t be practiced without these Buddhist beliefs. This is a thought-provoking perspective and one worth raising. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in debates, Ratnayake doesn’t seem to present or even consider possible explanations different from her preferred one.

The belief Ratnayake is troubled by is that there is no permanent or distinct soul or self. (Interestingly, although not mentioned in the essay, this theory is considered probable by some prominent neuroscientists, operating from a totally different context than that of Buddhism or mindfulness-based therapy.)

Source: Pixabay

But why is it that mindfulness requires us to believe this? Couldn’t we believe that we do have a soul and still practice mindfulness? Perhaps her reasoning is laid out in her Ph.D. on this topic, but in the article, Ratnayake doesn’t seem to have taken the alternate perspective and tried to disprove what she wanted to believe. (It’s a great exercise for each of us to try to argue against ideas we want to believe in, and to look for the evidence that would disconfirm them.)

Here are a few of the questions Ratnayake might have tried to answer. The idea that we are not identical with, and don’t need to be so reactive to, our thoughts is taught beyond mindfulness circles, for instance by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Does that mean that CBT also requires us to believe that there is no real self? Why is it that from atheist intellectuals to powerful corporations, to the more spiritually and mystically inclined, so many people feel comfortable with mindfulness? Can it really be that all these folks are being duped into adopting a “troubling” new worldview without realizing it?

Although gentle, Ratnayake’s essay also takes a bit of the flavor of a personal attack as she writes about Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has done a great deal to popularize mindfulness. For instance, she states: “Kabat-Zinn and his followers claim that mindfulness practices can help with alleviating physical pain, treat mental illness, boost productivity and creativity, and help us understand our ‘true’ selves.” The choice of the word “claim” is noteworthy because her article omits mention of the hundreds of studies that have found mindfulness to indeed help many people to achieve these types of results. Interestingly, she also doesn’t touch on the growing awareness that a few practitioners have devastating experiences, from dizziness to panic attacks to nihilistic depression.

I picked this example not because Ratnayake’s essay is extreme in any sense, but because it is thoughtful and still displays some common pitfalls. But lest this blog post discourage you, I should say that in addition to finding lots of cases of topics being framed and debated in ways that polarize, I’ve also been able to find a good deal of evidence, laid out in my book, about how to have richer conversations and to build deeper understanding of folks we can’t agree with.

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