The Problem of Misrepresenting Mindfulness

The mindfulness training community is keen to avoid harm and evolve its practices. Leaders in the field offer a response in the spirit of gratitude, clarification and continued learning

Jamie Bristow
Aug 7 · 7 min read

In late July, Sahanika Ratnayake, a Cambridge graduate student, published an article on Aeon titled ‘The Problem of Mindfulness’. It found traction within the public conversation, gaining 20,000 shares in a little over a week. Many have applauded the honesty and bravery in sharing such a personal story, and this articulate piece is undoubtedly motivated by a desire to spare others the distress that the author experienced herself. Indeed, the heart really goes out to Ratnayake as she describes her anxiety, and the troubled feelings and confusion that she attributes to undertaking mindfulness training.

Psychologists commonly refer to the experience of estrangement from a sense of self and one’s life described in this piece as ‘depersonalisation’. Such symptoms can arise from a number of different causes including, very occasionally, as side effects of mindfulness training. There is no way of verifying that mindfulness practice was the trigger for Ratnayake’s unpleasant experiences, but the mindfulness training community is keen to avoid harm and evolve its practices, and as such is very sensitive to pieces like this. There is a good deal of work being done to discuss and map the risks involved in mindfulness training from a psychological perspective, although so far the evidence suggests that such experiences are at least uncommon, if not rare. The following represents a (necessarily brief) synthesis of responses from several leaders in the field of mindfulness training.

No psychological intervention is without risks. Like exercise or pharmaceuticals, we must develop our understanding of how to deploy them skilfully so as to reduce the chance of harm, but we can never eliminate the possibility. Not because harm is intrinsic in the instance of mindfulness training, but because of the latent vulnerabilities that it may trigger or potential misunderstandings about how it is intended to be practiced (edit 20.08.19).

Considering risks, particularly when working in the context of trauma, now forms part of the routine training of UK Good Practice Guidelines-recognised mindfulness teachers, and it may be that teacher-training curricula need to evolve further. It’s unwise to draw conclusions from one personal report, but it’s possible that course participants may benefit from more instruction about maintaining an appropriate balance of intentions in meditation, or discussion of how mindfulness fits in with other approaches to life’s challenges. It could also be helpful to put more emphasis on communities of practice and on-going teacher support to make sure that those committed to mindfulness meditation over the long-term are less likely to veer off track.

Feedback and debate of these issues must be welcomed, however the Aeon piece is not framed as an inquiry into the potential causes of the difficultly. Instead it states with no uncertainty that the experience wasn’t a result of something going wrong with practice, but something going right. The article intimates that mindfulness training is founded on tacit doctrines encouraging estrangement and disconnection from the contents of experience and its context. No rigorous argument supports the claim that mindfulness training is “loaded with troubling assumptions” — rather evidence leans upon a simplified description of certain Buddhist doctrines, and the largely uninterrogated inference that in important ways, they underpin the goals of mindfulness practice. It has already been pointed out that the framing is unbalanced and polarising (and that this is a characteristic of online debate — perhaps what it takes to attract publication). But most importantly, it is not accurate. It must be stated very clearly that depersonalisation — or the disorienting experience of lacking selfhood — is certainly not the goal of secular mindfulness practice. Rather it is something to be avoided.

It is very common for participants of eight-week mindfulness courses to report the exact opposite of estrangement — a greater intimacy with their experience and sense of connectedness to the world and their relationships. From a personal perspective, I remember trying to describe the early effects of mindfulness practice to friends, struggling to find expression for the way that the ‘texture’ of experience had somehow become clearer, richer and more immediate. Taught well, mindfulness courses can do much more than just deconstruct our experience into mental events. These are often deeply personal journeys furnished in the classes by poetry, heartfelt exchanges and connection to a group of fellow practitioners at the level of shared humanity, which for many is a unique and very valuable experience.

Having said this, the concept of ‘decentering’ from our thoughts and emotions is an important characteristic of all cognitive therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that has long been scientifically endorsed and available on the UK National Health Service as the primary gold-standard psychological intervention for a range of psychological difficulties. Indeed, research has suggested that de-centring is a key mechanism by which CBT achieves its beneficial effects, and this has informed the development of ‘third wave’ cognitive therapies such as Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), as well Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MCBT).

Several academic papers by Ratnayake problematise these therapies also on a similar basis. While counter-critique is outside the thread of this article it’s worth responding that the development of ‘meta-cognition’ through decentering does not require us to relinquish a sense of self, or consider thoughts and feelings as disconnected, impersonal events. The process of decentering is the development of an internal view point — allowing the contents of experience to be considered and investigated on ‘the workbench of the mind’ as objects. Outside of major cognitive impairment, we all already have some degree of meta-cognition and psychologists think that its emergence in children represents important stages in development. Through mindfulness training, we shift from considering ‘thoughts as facts’ to viewing them as ‘mental events’ that may or may not represent the truth of a situation. Our felt experience of these objects can still be deeply personal, linked by an understanding of causality, personal history and responsibility. Now there’s just a healthy dose of scepticism about their inherent validity, perhaps something that might help us move through the gridlock of our more black-and-white debates.

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Stabilising the attention in the present and preventing its constant hijack by myriad competing distractions also supports deeper and more deliberative reflection. Many report that the increased sensitivity and embodiment that results from mindfulness practice improves their ability to ‘tune in’ to what is most important to them and discern wise or skilful actions to take in their lives. As Jon Kabat-Zinn states in the foreword of the 2015 Mindful Nation UK report, “Mindfulness is a way of being in wise and purposeful relationship to one’s experience, both inwardly and outwardly.”

The development of self-understanding and behaviour change is considered much more primary to the intentions of a well-taught mindfulness course than, say, calming or relaxation. In fact, probably the single most common misunderstanding about secular mindfulness training comes from the word ‘non-judgemental’: it is much better to think of mindfulness as allowing experience to be as it is right now, whilst still cultivating discernment about skilful responses to it that might be helpful in the future. That is, through fighting less with our present moment experience we are more able to discern exactly what is going on and how to act appropriately in response. Many people find mindfulness courses transformative and often make major life changes as a result. For instance, when I asked one particular friend why he had become suddenly politically and socially engaged after developing a mindfulness practice, he said “first you connect with yourself, and through that connect with the world”.

This said, there is currently considerable debate about the extent to which mindfulness courses could more explicitly enable participants to use mindfulness to inquire into the impact on their lives of their ethics, environment and social structures, and how they might skilfully respond to these, whilst recognising that such eight-week courses are by nature time-limited and introductory. A recent article by the founders of the Mindfulness and Social Change Network gives some examples of how this is happening.

As early as 1992, the researcher Shauna Shapiro discovered that the outcomes of meditation are correlated with the intention people have for practicing, and that intentions change over time — most commonly evolving from self-regulation, to self-exploration to “self-liberation and compassionate service”. As such, developing mindfulness (as a natural human capacity for attending to present experience with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care), doesn’t require any particular metaphysical beliefs, but how this capacity is applied in people’s lives and the outcomes of training will greatly depend on the wide variety of backgrounds, conceptual frameworks, philosophies and thus intentions that people bring with them.

Some people might use the greater receptivity that mindfulness offers to inquire into the nature of mind, whether by exploring Buddhist concepts of a ‘middle way’ between existence and non-existence of self or following the suggestion of eminent neuroscientists that the self seems to be a ‘distributive epiphenomenon arising from connected systems’. On the other hand, as Christian and Muslim leaders have observed, mindfulness practice can also help one feel closer to God. Our cultural histories will inevitably colour our experience, but as mindfulness is a way of being aware, we can bring it to bear within and upon whatever frameworks shape our world. Including, if we wish, the perspective of ourselves as distinct, responsible and engaged individuals embedded in a social context. To claim otherwise is likely to deny the daily experience of millions of people.

Jamie Bristow

Written by

Director of The Mindfulness Initiative, secretariat to UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness. Perhaps the world’s first mindfulness policy wonk.

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