MIND GAMES: Mindfulness has its place, but not as a quick mental health fix – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Posted: September 5, 2017 at 10:42 am


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By Thomas JoinerThe Washington Post

We may live in a culture of distraction, but mindfulness has captured our attention.

Books on the practice include guides to "A Mindful Pregnancy," "Mindful Parenting," "Mindful Politics," "The Mindful Diet" and "Mindfulness for Teachers." Corporations, sports teams, even the military and police departments provide mindfulness training to their employees. A bevy of podcasts offer tips for living a mindful life, guided mindful meditation and interviews with mindfulness evangelists.

Another sure sign of cultural saturation: You can order "a more mindful burger," at Epic Burger in Chicago, or an "enjoy the ride" trucker hat from Mindful Supply Co.

I was dismayed when mindfulness began to encroach on my field: psychology, and specifically the treatment of suicidal behavior. A psychiatrist colleague's proposal for a book on bipolar disorder prompted the feedback pre-publication reviewer "less lithium, more mindfulness" even though less lithium can lead to more death by suicide in patients with bipolar disorder.

Of course, we're all intrigued by interventions that show promise over the standard treatment, especially for the most difficult cases. But I wanted to know whether mindfulness had merit. So I soon found myself immersed in the literature and practice sitting shoes-off in a circle, focused on the coolness of my breath as it hit the back of my throat.

Beware the impostor

What we might call authentic mindfulness, I found, is a noble and potentially useful idea. But true mindfulness is being usurped by an impostor, and the impostor is loud and strutting enough that it has replaced the original in many people's understanding of what mindfulness is.

This ersatz version provides an excuse for self-indulgence. It trumpets its own glories, promising health and spiritual purity with trendiness thrown in for the bargain. And yet it misunderstands human nature, while containing none of the nobility, humility or utility of the true original. Even the best-designed, most robust research on mindfulness has been overhyped.

Although there are various definitions of mindfulness, a workable one, drawn from some of the most respected practitioners, is the non-judgmental awareness of the richness, subtlety and variety of the present moment all of the present moment, not just the self.

Mindfulness is not the same as meditation, although meditative activities and exercises are often deployed in its cultivation. Neither is it the emptying of the mind; far from it, as the emphasis is on full awareness. And it is not about savoring the moment, which would demand dwelling on the positive. Mindfulness recognizes every instant of existence, even those of great misery, as teeming and sundry. It encourages adherents to be dispassionate and nonjudgmental about all thoughts, including those like "I am hopelessly defective." Mindfulness wants us to pause, reflect, and gain distance and perspective.

Accepting one's thoughts as merely thoughts is very different from treasuring one's thoughts; one may as well treasure one's sweat or saliva. This is about recognizing that each thought is inconsequential and thus not worth getting depressed or anxious about. Viewing the mind's moment-to-moment products as of a similar standing as floating motes of dust myriad, ephemeral, individually insignificant is admirable and requires genuine humility.

But mindfulness has become diluted and distorted. The problem has somewhat less to do with how it's practiced and more to do with how it's promoted. People aren't necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are counting on those breathing techniques to deliver almost magical benefits.

And, all the while, they are tediously, nonjudgmentally and in the most extreme cases monstrously focused entirely on themselves. That is troublesome for mental health practice and for our larger culture.

The inward gaze

At a mindfulness retreat I attended in 2013, the workshop leader exhorted us to remember the selflessness of genuine mindfulness and not to "fetishize" it as a cultist solution for self-enhancement. And yet we spent 90 percent of that retreat focused on our own sensations the minute muscular changes as we engaged in "mindful walking," the strain points in our muscles and joints during "mindful stretching."

The trendy version of mindfulness tends to be described in terms of what it can do for us as individuals. For example, a recent article on the website of Mindful magazine described "How mindfulness gives you an edge at work." Likewise, the book "10-Minute Mindfulness" promises: "When you are truly experiencing the moment, rather than analyzing it or getting lost in negative thoughts, you enjoy a wide array of physical, emotional and psychological benefits that are truly life changing."

It's true that numerous studies seem to support the benefits of mindfulness for a variety of life problems. Yet headlines tend to oversell what the studies show. Moreover, the effects of mindfulness seem to fade under the scrutiny of rigorous and tightly controlled experiments.

I have been particularly intrigued by the work of British psychologist Mark Williams and his colleagues, who have suggested that mindfulness interventions may be useful for preventing and treating depression. Unfortunately, their impressive 2014 study, which included a large and representative sample of adults, was not particularly supportive of a mindfulness-related approach. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with meditation and without failed to outperform treatment as usual (with previously prescribed antidepressant medication) in preventing recurrence of major depressive disorder.

More specifically, about half of those in the study experienced a recurrence of depression, regardless of whether they were randomly assigned to the antidepressant plus mindfulness with meditation group, the antidepressant plus mindfulness without meditation group or the antidepressants alone group. (Because taking someone with major depressive disorder off medication can cause their depression to come roaring back, as famously happened with the writer David Foster Wallace, studying mindfulness therapy without medication in this population is not an ethically responsible option.)

I don't mean to suggest that we should thoroughly dismiss the potential of mindfulness. Some reputable studies have shown that mindfulness training can reduce mind wandering and improve cognitive functioning, as measured through GRE scores. But when many of the supposed effects of mindfulness fade in the hands of highly credentialed teams publishing well-designed studies in the best journals, we should be skeptical of the benefits promulgated by people and in outlets that are not as scientifically rigorous.

The joys of mindlessness

It's worth noting, too, that some research suggests that mindfulness may backfire. For instance, one study compared a group of participants who briefly engaged in mindfulness meditation with a group who did not. All the participants were asked to memorize a 15-word list; all the words involved the concept of trash (e.g., "rubbish," "waste," "garbage," etc.). A key point is that the list did not contain the word "trash." Close to 40 percent of the mindfulness group members falsely recalled seeing the word "trash," compared with about 20 percent of the control participants (who had been advised to think about whatever they liked). Ironically, being mindful meant losing awareness of details.

Mindfulness, as popularly promoted and practiced, can itself be a distraction. It purports to draw on ancient traditions as an antidote to modern living. Yet it exacerbates the modern tendency toward navel-gazing, while asking us to resist useful aspects of our nature.

Snap judgments and "mindless" but superb performance are two such elements of our evolutionary endowment. Our nervous system perhaps nature's crowning achievement evolved to discern figure from ground, to discriminate, to judge, often on an almost reflexive basis. And when we are fully absorbed in an activity, in a state of flow, it can be adaptive to lose self-awareness. A sure way to throw elite golfers off their game is to ask them to think aloud as they putt.

Interestingly, in contrast to much of the hyperbolic praise heaped on mindfulness, there is convincing evidence that the repetition of some activities, such as aerobic walking, even if done quite mindlessly, promotes health. Mere walking three times a week for 40 or so minutes at a time has even been shown to increase the volume of people's brains enough to reverse usual age-related loss by almost two years.

So, rather than reading books on mindfulness or attending retreats or ordering a mindful burger, you may want to consider taking a walk.

Thomas Joiner is a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the author of "Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism," from which this essay is adapted.

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MIND GAMES: Mindfulness has its place, but not as a quick mental health fix - Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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September 5th, 2017 at 10:42 am