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Mindfulness

One Flaw of Mindfulness Meditation

New research exposes a subtle shortcoming of mindfulness meditation.

Key points

  • A new study found that mindfulness meditation could reduce guilt and decrease one’s motivation to make amends. 
  • Practicing "loving kindness" meditation or "metta" meditation could make up for this potential blind spot created by mindfulness meditation.
  • The core difference between mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation is their primary focus: the self or others.
 Ian Stauffer/Unsplash
Source: Ian Stauffer/Unsplash

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology uncovers an unusual side effect of mindfulness meditation: a marked reduction in guilt and a decreased motivation to make amends.

“I was interested in doing this research because, after I started studying meditation and meditating myself, I noticed that I was using it as almost a default way of reacting to stressors,” explains psychologist Andrew Hafenbrack of the University of Washington, Seattle. “Sometimes this meant that I would meditate or focus on my breath in situations where there was actually a significant problem and it would have been better had I faced it directly and immediately.”

Over the course of eight studies, Hafenbrack and his team asked participants to imagine they had harmed people they care about or to recall a time that they really had harmed someone they cared about in the past, followed by a 10-minute meditation session.

The studies revealed that this short period of meditation reduced how guilty people felt, and this reduction in guilt went on to explain why people who meditated felt less motivated to pay back people they had harmed, compared to control condition participants (i.e., those who did not engage in the 10-minute meditation session).

“I think it is important for people to know that focused breathing meditation brings people’s focus inward to their own body and mind, and in isolation that can lead to low levels of focus on other people, especially regarding other people who are not physically present,” highlights Hafenbrack.

To make up for this blind spot created by mindfulness meditation, Hafenbrack proposes that one should also practice "loving kindness" meditation or "metta" meditation, which focuses on visualizing other people in one’s mind and sending wishes that are happy, well, and free from suffering.

According to Hafenbrack, loving kindness is an underrated form of meditation that puts people into a state of mindfulness. It is effective at increasing positive emotions without withdrawing undue attention to oneself.

“This meditation led to higher levels of motivation to pay back people one has harmed compared to focused breathing meditation,” explains Hafenbrack. “We found that this was because loving kindness meditation led to a higher level of focus on other people and higher momentary feelings of love.”

The core difference between mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation is their primary focus: the self or others. Hafenbrack explains that mindfulness centers around:

  • The present (not the past or future).
  • Calmness (low energy).
  • Non-negative emotions (neutral or positive).
  • Attention on the self (reduces focus on others who are not present).

Therefore, it is unlikely to help—and may even backfire—in situations and for tasks that require focus on the past or future, high energy, negative emotions, and thoughts about other people who are not physically present.

Hafenbrack hopes that his research serves as a cautionary tale that even though there are many real, known benefits of focused breathing meditation, people can, even unintentionally, use it to avoid some things that they would be better off facing directly, such as by artificially cleansing their conscience after wrongdoing.

“I hope that this research makes people aware that the intention they bring to meditation matters,” he says. “I also hope this article and my other research helps people think of a psychological state of mindfulness for what it is and does rather than as a vague panacea.”

References

Hafenbrack, Andrew (Interview). Beware of this unforeseen consequence of mindfulness meditation. Therapytips.org, June 27, 2022.

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