Is mindfulness a medical or spiritual practice, and does it matter?

Mindfulness comes in many forms, not all may be right for you or your health and wellbeing goals.

Is mindfulness spiritual?

This is a question asked my many scientists and therapists over the last fifty years, and you can find spiritual, medicalised and blended forms of mindfulness in use today.  There is also an obvious follow-up question: does it matter?  The answer will depend on each person, why they wish to meditate, and what kind of method they feel more comfortable with.

In the context of meditation, mindfulness was first translated into English from the Buddhist pali term sati at the end of the 19th century by the scholar of Asian languages Monier Williams. By the 1970s, scientific research into spiritual forms of meditation was already quite advanced, and meditation scientists started investigating how spiritual meditation could improve human health and wellbeing.  In the mid-1970s, psychotherapists were using Buddhist meditation in therapy sessions.  Jon Kabat-Zinn took the use of meditation in psychology a stage further in 1979 when he created his own Americanised version of Buddhist mindfulness and called it Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Over the last 40 years, MBSR has been used in many different ways.  The most successful application is the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCT). MBCT is now used as a low-cost group therapy to support patients at risk of relapsing into a third phase of clinical depression.

Although there are hundreds of forms of secular/medicalised mindfulness (MBIs), the scientific evidence supporting their clinical use is mixed. There are now concerns about some of the claims made by scientists for the benefit of medicalised mindfulness. If you’re thinking about using mindfulness to support your physical or mental health, you need to ask your doctor or therapist about the reliability of the method they recommend.

So how is this similar or different to spiritual or Buddhist mindfulness? Although the term mindfulness was translated from Buddhist texts, its original meanings are more complex than today’s psychological definitions. Firstly, in its original settings, mindfulness is one of eight interrelated elements, so its use in isolation fundamentally changes its psychological effect.  Also, different schools of Buddhism have different ways of understanding mind and matter.  For example, the meaning of mindfulness in Tibetan Buddhism may differ from Sri Lankan Buddhist insights.  We should also remember that Buddhist meditation is concerned with spiritual progress, which in traditional understandings, is linked to physical and mental health. The health benefits of spiritual practice inspired the relocation of meditation to psychology. But by removing its spiritual elements, meditation changed, perhaps altering its curative potential. Comparing spiritual and medicalised meditation is complex; maybe it’s easiest to consider them similar but definitely not the same.

We know from individual research studies that there is a wide range of potential health benefits in meditation. But we don’t always understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms, and when seen collectively, the results from individual studies are not always reliable. There are thousands of different meditation methods, and even with medicalised forms such as mindfulness, recommending a practice can be problematic. Typically medicalised mindfulness is run over a relatively short period, typically eight or ten weeks.  It usually is designed to tackle a specific health problem, such as depression, but rarely addresses the root causes.  Spiritual based forms of mindfulness are used as holistic practices to enable progress along a path. Spiritual progression appears to be linked to wide-ranging health and wellbeing improvements, but these are not the practice’s primary goals.  For people approaching mindfulness meditation for the first time, understanding your own needs and identifying the appropriate method is essential.  Make sure your meditation teacher/therapist is appropriately experienced or qualified, and ask them to explain how their form of meditation works and what evidence there is for its effectiveness before you begin

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

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