This one comes to us from our friend Bob Guterma.


A few weeks ago, The Guardian UK published an article called, “Is mindfulness making us ill?” From starving artists to high-powered businesspeople, from The New York Times to obscure spirituality weblogs (including Mbird’s own archives), you can find people extolling the virtues of mindfulness throughout Western society. But you rarely hear talk of the potential negative effects from practicing mindfulness.

Just to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, mindfulness is a modern cultural movement, and a cognitive and therapeutic school of thought, that espouses meditation as a means to mitigate any number of afflictions, from anxiety and depression to exhaustion and neurosis.

In practice, mindfulness means becoming aware of your own thoughts, or observing your own internal monologue. In order to be mindful of your own thoughts, you have to essentially separate yourself into two selves–one self experiences bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings, and the other self identifies those experiences. The (desired) effect is the realization that the experiencing self is not the whole self, which hop­efully means that whatever (negative) thoughts or feelings you might have are less overwhelming. Ideally, you have bought yourself the time to analyze your situation, to let life unfold a bit, and to move past adversity with a relatively peaceful mind.

And yet, if you look closely at the growing body of writing on the topic of mindfulness, you will notice an increase in coverage related to the potential negative effects, or side effects, of mindfulness. The Washington Post recently published an article called “Meditation and mindfulness aren’t as good for you as you think.” The Atlantic Monthly published a much longer article called “The Dark Knight of the Soul.” There was an op-ed in The New York Times called, “The Mindfulness Backlash.”

So if mindfulness is supposed to help us with our problems, why does it also cause problems of its own?

meme14Some of the articles out there place the blame on vague ideas such as being “underprepared” for meditation or just bad luck of the draw akin to occasional side effects from pharmaceutical drugs.

Some of the articles, however, make a more genuine attempt to understand and explain what might being going on as more and more people report negative experiences with meditation and mindfulness. Many of these articles trace the problem to the historical origins of mindfulness and how far away those origins are from current uses of the practice in the West.

Mindfulness is essentially the secular, purpose-driven implementation of the epistemological and meditative systems of Buddhism (and, more generally, various Hindu philosophies as well). In its current usage in Western society, mindfulness is used as a tool to ‘solve problems’ or ‘seek peace of mind and happiness’. Of course the reasons people practice mindfulness are as diverse as the reasons people go to a doctor or go to church, but generally speaking, mindfulness is sought as a way to feel better in one’s daily life. It is a means to a predefined end–to feel happier.

However, meditation in the Buddhist context is not so simple as seeking happiness, nor is it viewed as a mere means to an end. In Buddhism, meditation is intended to bring about not happiness as one might presently define it, but rather entirely new levels of awareness and understanding of existence and life itself. It is not intended as a means to a human end, but rather the end of human means.

5a7c7206The Washington Post article does a tidy job of summing up the disconnect between meditation’s origins and its current cultural context:

Buddhist meditation was designed not to make us happier, but to radically change our sense of self and perception of the world.

The New York Times struck a pretty similar note:

Mindfulness in its original Buddhist tradition “is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get ‘in the zone’ to climb the corporate ladder” — it’s about gaining insight into the human condition.

Among the main themes of Buddhism, with which meditation is intended to bring us into closer dialogue, are:

  • Impermanence (anicca): Anicca is the notion that all things and experiences are in constant flux and nothing is permanent. Happiness, unhappiness, love, anger, your job, your relationship with your spouse, your children, your home–none of it is permanent. As all things are impermanent, attachment of too much meaning to them is futile and leads to suffering.
  • Suffering (dukkha): Dukkha is a broad and all-encompassing word which cannot succinctly be translated into English. It is most commonly approximated as ‘suffering’ in English, but might be more accurately identified as ‘disquietude’. Other words that definitely fit the bill would include pain, sorrow, anxiety, depression, frustration, and so on.
  • Not-self (anatta): The idea of ‘not-self’ is that all aspects of selfhood or identity are merely constructs of the mind based on memory and habit. The notion of not-self can be illuminated by a series of negative assertions: “I am not my job. I am not my intelligence or charm. I am not my money or my lack of money. I am not what anyone, even my spouse or parents, know of me. I am not this body or these thoughts or feelings.” The not-self is not intended as a destructive assertion of how things are (i.e. ‘nothing is real’), so much as an approach to defining reality that relies on negation rather than affirmation. The Buddha rejected both notions that “I have a self” and “I do not have a self.” There is nothing you can point to and say, “I am that.” There are innumerable things to which you can point and say, “I am not that.”
  • Miscellaneous other topics: emptiness, ignorance, consciousness, thirst, attachment, clinging, existence, being, becoming, birth, and death


Meditation, either directly and immediately or indirectly and eventually, raises awareness of and inquiry into some or all of these topics. That is meditation’s entire purpose, or at least it was when it was first established as a practice. So we must ask, as a culture inconvenienced by meditation’s unexpectedly complex results, what did we think was going to happen?

I suppose it should come as no surprise that people who are sitting down to meditate with the limited goal of simply ‘feeling better’ or being more productive at work are caught quite off guard by thoughts of impermanence, suffering, and the fact that they aren’t even a self.

I am curious to hear other perspectives on mindfulness and meditation, both as a secular, cultural movement and also as a spiritual practice. Personally, I have practiced regular meditation as an extension of and complement to prayer for many years now. Indeed there are moments when meditating in which I find myself panicked or afraid, and almost always these are moments when I forget my belief in a loving God, that I am his creation, and that anything and everything I experience happens within his love and care. In those moments, when I forget my faith, meditation serves not to grant me peace of mind but rather to heighten sensations of aloneness, hopelessness, and meaninglessness. Thankfully, I need only remember that when those feelings strike, I don’t have to panic, because all is as it should be according to God’s ultimate plan and his love for us.