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

The benefits of mindfulness challenged by new claims

In his latest book, Richard Layard draws attention to a potential lack of altruism in contemporary mindfulness. The implications are profound.

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If mindfulness reduces altruism could it also lower happiness?

Concerns linked to a lack of reliable evidence supporting the rapid growth of mindfulness are nothing new. Scientists have long complained about theoretical problems and the overstating of preliminary findings. But the key criticism has been that many mindfulness experiments are never replicated. This being a standard practice to establish causality in human behaviour. But new challenges about the relationship between happiness, altruism and brain training are emerging.

man in floral shirt covering his face with his hands sitting between potted yellow flowers

A new book has highlighted a potential problem attracting the attention of the meditation community. In Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics, Baron Richard Layard proposes that altruism mediates happiness. At the same time he acknowledges that mindfulness is accused of reducing altruism when compared to traditional Buddhist meditation. If Layard’s theories are substantiated, the beneficial effects of contemporary forms of mindfulness must be reviewed. In fact, all psychological therapies that reduce altruism will have to be re-evaluated.

Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics is being criticized for a lack of scientific objectivity. Many of the claims made in the book appear to be subjective. But the failure of mindfulness to replicate the implicit nondual aspects of Buddhist meditation has been of concern for over a decade. Meditation is a complex human behaviour, the mechanisms it engages are not yet fully understood by neuroscience or cognitive psychology. Any suggestion that some secular meditation methods can reduce happiness is particularly worrying.

We know relatively little about the long term effects of the practice of mindfulness, either in children or adults. But most experienced Buddhist meditators are aware that a meditation method alone doesn’t guarantee positive results. The ethical context of the meditation and the motivation of the practitioner are crucial to its success. Layard is an economist, not a scientist, so his views on scientific matters need to be treated with caution. But in his defence, he is really only repeating claims made by members of the scientific and academic community over many years.

How to reduce stress and blood pressure

How to reduce stress and blood pressure. meditation and mindfulness linked to promising results

How to reduce stress and blood pressure
Looking for help dealing with stress and high blood pressure?

How to reduce stress and blood pressure

I estimate there have been up to 15,000 peer reviewed studies linked to meditation and mindfulness published over the last 40 years. They have offered all kinds of academic and scientific insight. Many claim to signpost potential health and wellbeing breakthroughs, but few are actually replicated (repeated) sufficiently to be regarded as clinically reliable. However I recently came across a study carried out at the Massachusetts General Hospital that offers some interesting evidence that meditation might be able reduce both stress and blood pressure.

How to reduce stress and blood pressure

In a randomised trial one half of the participants followed an eight week course of mindfulness meditation, the other half engaged with traditional stress management training, coupled with some lifestyle advice. At the end of the experiment some members of the mindfulness group were found to have lower levels of the adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) stress hormone than the control group (stress hormones can be correlated with high blood pressure). The meditation group also performed better in a mock interview and test scenario specifically designed to raise stress levels. Thereby indicating that mindfulness meditation led to ‘real world’ benefits. In a third finding the meditation group also had a reduced inflammatory reaction to stress, a possible factor linked to Type 2 diabetes.

This investigation offered the first immunological and hormonal data that mindfulness meditation may be able to boost resilience to stress. Some parts of the media hailed this study as a breakthrough. I’m a little more cautious but clearly if we see other experiments achieving the same findings it provides import insights into low cost and effective treatments for stress. However the popularity of mindfulness means that most participants are likely to know something about the reputed effects of meditation ahead of going into a trial, raising concern about the reliability of data derived from these kinds of studies.

Notes

Details of the study can be found here.

Header photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com, meditation photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Mindfulness for wellbeing: Canterbury event

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Mindfulness researchers and practitioners from across the south east are being invited to a one day free event by the Eastern ARC and the University of Kent. The day will be structured in two parts, the morning will be given over to presentations explaining the applications of contemporary mindfulness in different contexts. The afternoon sessions will be workshop driven, focusing on skills training.

The event is free, will be based in Keynes College in Canterbury and is open to students, staff, and external partners.

More Details: Visit the Eventbrite website.

Date and time: Fri 20 July 2018, 09:30 – 15:00

Location: Keynes College, Canterbury, CT2 7NP

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