The Trouble with Mindfulness
Be mindful of three compelling problems with mindfulness.
Posted Apr 01, 2019
During the past decade or so, mindfulness meditation has become remarkably popular and has taken our society by storm. It seems to be everywhere! It is taught in preschools, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, health clinics, health spas, posh hotels, most companies, and just about any organization that you can name. And some large companies, such as Aetna, even have a Chief Mindfulness Officer.
While mindfulness is a meditative and contemplative practice that I support and even have conducted and published randomized clinical trial research on, there are several important problems with the mindfulness craze. Here are the top three problems that seem the most compelling to me.
1. Mindfulness is oversold
Mindfulness is a terrific meditative practice that has some research support suggesting that it can be very helpful with a variety of problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, attention troubles, coping with medical problems, and so forth. However, it is not a panacea for whatever ails you. For example, mindfulness doesn’t cure cancer or heart disease, it doesn’t cure bipolar illness or major depression, it doesn’t make an abusive and unhappy marriage a loving one, it doesn’t make an awful job a good one, and it won’t solve homelessness, racism, or economic inequality.
Companies that encourage mindfulness among their employees to help them manage their work stress and work-life balance may not necessarily do much about actually providing better living wages, family leave plans, retirement benefits, and other tangible and practical considerations to treat workers better. Perhaps they think that if their employees will be more mindful then they’ll complain less about their working conditions. Their message may be: “If you’re not happy, meditate, but don’t complain.”
Recently I attended a talk by a cleric who was a big fan of mindfulness. In his two-hour address, he started off with all of the problems associated with climate change and the threats to survival on the planet. His proposed solution to dealing with these concerns was mindfulness and sitting meditation. That’s it. That’s all he had to offer. Not a word about reducing carbon emissions, nurturing political will to change our problems in society, conservation efforts, and so forth. This wasn’t the first time I have heard that mindfulness will cure all ills and all problems of the self and of coping with the problems of the world.
While research on mindfulness has exploded since 2007 most studies are correlational and those that do incorporate true experimental randomized trials often use either a no treatment or a wait-list control group rather than other well-established stress reduction or treatment interventions for comparison. Thus, these studies basically find that mindfulness is better than nothing. Those that do use established interventions as comparison groups in randomized trials generally find that mindfulness works about as well as the other interventions such as exercise, prayer, pleasant activities (including watching television), and so forth. So, studies suggest that mindfulness may be as good, but not necessarily better, than other well-established approaches.
Mindfulness isn’t magic and it doesn’t solve all of the problems of the world or of individuals. It is a helpful tool, one among many, that might help people reduce stress, cope with challenges in life, and better regulate mood. There are also many other tools, including other meditative and contemplative ones, with much more research to support their use.
2. Too many mindfulness researchers, clinicians, and teachers are advocates and not really scientists
I have been attending professional conferences for decades and almost every lecture, paper, symposium, or panel I’ve attended on mindfulness lacks the scientific neutrality that is necessary to thoughtfully and critically assess the data. The presenters are typically advocates not scientists in that they sing the praises of mindfulness without the more objective neutrality of the scientist. Certainly, all researchers want their hypotheses confirmed and supported by their data but too often advocacy for the practice of mindfulness seems to trump empiricism. When this occurs, it is no longer science at all.
3. Too many people use mindfulness for narcissistic reasons
Many people promote mindfulness as a way to self-compassion. Self-compassion is terrific but rarely does this approach mention compassion and altruistic actions for others. Recently I was asked to review a large and important book manuscript from a very well-known mindfulness advocate and researcher who focused on meditation as a way to compassion. However, in the extensive manuscript, no mention was made about trying to help others, only helping the self.
Additionally, many people have made a career of mindfulness promotion in research, teaching, practice, and act as gurus. Too often they ask for enormous fees and perks, have glamorous photos of themselves to promote their work, and only offer training at posh and expensive hotels, retreat centers, and spas. Generally, you don’t see this promotional and almost celebrity approach regarding most other areas of behavioral health interventions.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater as the saying goes. Mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial for a variety of issues. And I have published several studies that state these benefits. But mindfulness isn’t special or magical. It is one of many tools that can be utilized to improve the lives of people. And if people promote mindfulness for only self-gain then the hypocrisy of it all can be rather breathtaking.
So, what do you think?
Copyright 2019, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
Plante, T. G. (Ed). (2010). Contemplative Practices in Action: Spirituality, Meditation, and Health. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
Plante, T. G. (Ed.). (2018). Healing with Spiritual Practices: Proven Techniques for Disorders from Addictions and Anxiety to Cancer and Chronic Pain. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
Plante, T. G. (2009). Spiritual Practices in Psychotherapy: Thirteen Tools for Enhancing Psychological Health. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.