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Mindfulness: When “sati” became McMindfulness, something got lost in translation

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Many of the benefits of mindfulness are little more than hype.

Mindfulness is better than medication for treating depression. Mindfulness helps students combat negativity, focus on their homework and pay more attention in class. Mindfulness helps long-haul airline travellers avoid air rage over delays and bad service. Mindfulness gives hedge fund managers a competitive advantage.

That’s what the headlines say about mindfulness. But is it really a wonder drug for the 21st century?

More and more people are realizing that much (not all) of hopes placed in mindfulness are little more than hype. First, if mindfulness meditation proves a legitimate treatment, it could be harmful if used wrongly. The same is true of drugs, surgery, nutritional supplements, psychotherapy, or any intervention at all. Rigorous criticism feels harsh but it is part of a program aimed at grounding true knowledge. For example: Who should and who shouldn’t try mindfulness meditation, and on what rationale? Far from being a threat, evidence-based criticism is a good sign for the continued clinical use of the practice.

It is a reasonable assumption that, in a pragmatic secular culture, the further the concept strays from its original indefiniteness the more likely it will warp into something like “McMindfulness.” That’s the main concern with the “mindfulness” programs sweeping corporate America and finding their way into military training and prisons as well. Sati may be hard to define but the goals of business, the military, and prisons are not (or should not be). So the potential for losing the plot is obvious. More.

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8 Replies to “Mindfulness: When “sati” became McMindfulness, something got lost in translation

  1. 1

    Not sure of your point.

    There is good evidence, from well-designed studies, that Mindfulness programmes are effective for a wide range of mental health issues.

    This is encouraging. What is supposed to be the problem?

  2. 2
    Jim Smith says:

    “Mindfulness is better than medication for treating depression.”

    Damning with faint praise?

  3. 3
    Jim Smith says:

    The article is right about meditation being dangerous in certain cases. I have been a regular meditator for most of my life. I do it because it is useful. But when people go on retreats and meditate all day, day after day, they can rewire their brain and develop serious mental problems:

    http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2.....t-project/

    There tends to be an, I would say, increased sampling rate of reality. So your ability to notice things has increased.

    And that might be pretty fun on retreat but when people get off retreat they still have so much information coming into their systems that it can feel very overwhelming, like stimulus overload. And along those same lines a lot of increase in sensory clarity and sensory threshold. So meaning that you can hear much softer sounds which also means that louder sounds sound louder and you might even feel them in a different sense.

    Like a truck might feel like it’s actually driving through your whole body rather than just hearing it and that goes with every sound. So that’s the sort of cognitive effect. They tend to be very just overwhelming and disorienting. I would say one of the most, besides sort of sensory overload, one of the most common central features–it’s not everyone but its pretty close, which is a change in the way people experience their sense of self.

    And this can be an attenuation in self or it can be a complete dropping away. And even though you can read about this and think that this might be the goal of the contemplative path. For a lot of people it’s very very scary when that happens. And so when I mean dropping the sense of self, it can be a lack of a feeling like there’s anybody controlling. So one word are coming out of the mouth like who would be speaking them. When you move your arms and legs and walk it’s not really sure who decided that. When somebody ask you a question there’s almost a panic feeling because you don’t know who’s going to answer the question. There’s a sort of temporal disintegration. So the sense of time can fall apart, along with that your sense of a narrative self over time. Part of the sense of self is about being able to have continuity over time. And if you just don’t have that kind of sense of past and future and you only have a sense of now, your sense of self just by not having a past and a future and being able to imagine that can be sort of truncated and attenuated.

    And then temporal disintegration can kind of go even further beyond that where people almost like they’re waking up in a new reality every several minutes. And they don’t really have any way of describing the reality that came before that and it can be very disorienting. You can wake up and really have to study your environment to figure out who you’re talking to and what the conversation is about. You can learn to get good at that, but it’s pretty disorienting for a while. And then I don’t know if this go in order but I think that the most common symptom, it’s hard to say but again these are all really common, but one of the most common symptoms is fear. And the lost of the sense of self I think is very tied in with this fear. And people can have really phenomenal levels of fear. I mean really just existential primal fear.

    And what’s interesting about this fear and what I think seems to differentiate it from a lot of other kinds of fears is that it doesn’t seem to have any reference point. It just comes out of nowhere. It can be very debilitating. And then along with fear spectrum you also anxiety and agitation and panic and paranoia. Those are pretty common. Then there’s a sort of affective dimension. Affective is emotional. And the affective dimension seems to go in both directions. There can be a massive lability.

    Your emotions can get really high in both direction both manic manifestations, euphoria, sometimes grandiosity and also the worst depression, meaninglessness, nihilism the other end of things can also happen. In addition to that, people can also just lose all affect all together. They don’t feel anything. Things become numb. So it’s a pretty wide range of changes. But I don’t think anyone has gone through, anyone that we’ve interviewed hasn’t had some kind change in their emotional life.

    And usually it’s sort of an eruption of emotional material. So that comes to the next level which is a de-repression of the psychological material. Very often it can be traumatic material but it can also just be whatever can be traumatic in our lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be memories of death or abuse or something that would sort of classify as classic trauma. It can just be whatever our particular psychological knots are. They seemed to come up with practice in a way that doesn’t necessarily seem to be contained to the cushion. It’s almost like you tear something open and then it’s just open. That’s the sort of affective dimension. And then the last dimension is physiological. So there seems to be a lot of physiological changes which are really surprising to a lot of people.

    So things like general musculoskeletal body pain, headaches, and very strange sensations. Because we told people not to use the word energy so we got a lot of metaphors. So things like being plugged into a wall, like having a thousand volts running through you. There are a lot of electricity type metaphors. And then finally we gave up because people just kept using the word energy. So it’s not really a scientific word but it seems to measure something so some kind of movement sensation in the body. Vibrations a lot of different kinds of vibration. Changes in temperature. People are having really hot flashes and burning sensations. And then the one that I am really fascinated by because everything that we’ve been talking about up until this point has been subjective, like you can’t really see it on somebody. But the last category is involuntary movements. They look like convulsions. People twitch. They report feeling like a lightning bolt going through them but you can actually see it. This is something that you could actually take a video of. Their arms flap. Grimacing; different kinds of facial ticks and contortions. That’s kind of the laundry list. Oh yeah, I forgot one whole category, which is perceptional changes. And perceptional changes along with this faster sampling rate there also seems to be I don’t know if I would call them hallucinations but experiences in every sensory modality especially visual lights.

    So that would be a perceptional change. So the lights again are particularly interesting to me because they tend to differentiate a spiritual experience from a potentially psychiatric situation. But seeing pinpoints of light, people call them Christmas lights, they might be different colors or lightning of the visual field in general. I should say that all of these symptoms or sorry, experiences, these are not just things that are happening on the cushion during meditation. These are things that are happening off the cushion which is where this starts to become difficult. They’re fine when they’re on the cushion. But you need to go to work and these are happening. People are having involuntary movements at their desk at work and you know eruption of emotions that’s where it becomes difficult is when it comes into your daily life. And the other thing that was very surprising to me was the duration of symptoms.

    So I asked people how long did this last and how did this affect your life to a point where it was really difficult for you to work or take care of children. So we call that clinical impairment. So far in our sample the average amount of time that somebody is impaired so this is not just how long this experiences last but how long they are to the point of interfering with daily functioning. The average amount of time was 3.4 years. It’s actually quite a long time and there’s a huge range in that duration. And so sort of the next wave of research is trying to figure out what determines that duration. So people seemed to go through these experiences fairly quickly like under a year and other people can last a decade. So we’re trying to figure out what are some of the factors that might predict that.

  4. 4
    Jim Smith says:

    “Many of the benefits of mindfulness are little more than hype.”

    Maybe but the promise of “awakening” or “enlightenment” is a scam for the average person so it is better to provide more attainable reasons to meditate. There are real benefits to meditating 30 to 60 minutes a day. You will feel calmer, less stressed, and that is really helpful in allowing you to live more in accordance with your spiritual values. Anything that tones down the fight or flight reaction will help you to be more loving, tolerant, forgiving, etc. You can think more clearly when your levels of stress hormones are lower. And the effect is relative, where ever you start from, you can benefit, you don’t have to achieve any absolute state.

  5. 5
    News says:

    Most of the people I have heard from sounding a warning about McMindfulness are supporters of the practice of mindfulness, who do not want to see it misused, diluted, or subjected to doubt and scandal – especially as it may help patients in clinical settings when appropriately used.

    Or as I would put it, keep the leisure wear, lose the bong pipe. – O’Leary for News

  6. 6

    Jim:

    “Mindfulness is better than medication for treating depression.”

    Damning with faint praise?

    Not really – for many people medication works very well, and there is some evidence for synergy between psychotherapies and medication.

    But certainly some people simply do not respond to medication. Often, however, they don’t respond to psychotherapy either.

    But any extra tool in the tool-kit is surely to be welcomed.

  7. 7

    Denyse wrote:

    Most of the people I have heard from sounding a warning about McMindfulness are supporters of the practice of mindfulness, who do not want to see it misused, diluted, or subjected to doubt and scandal – especially as it may help patients in clinical settings when appropriately used.

    Or as I would put it, keep the leisure wear, lose the bong pipe. – O’Leary for News

    Not sure what your last sentence means, but most clinical applications are very much pro leisure wear and anti-bong, and clinical trials tend to demand a highly “manualised” form of the technique, precisely to avoid the issues you raise.

    And the evidence for its efficacy comes from those clinical trials.

    I think it would be a great pity if a potentially important technique for helping people with a whole range of mental health problems (including depression, psychosis and ADHD) were to be dismissed because it isn’t the same as its Buddhist template.

    The formats I have encountered are very much “stripped down” – but stripped of bongs and baggage, not of content.

    This is a good one. Fast food doesn’t have to be a Big Mac. It can also be an omelette and salad.

  8. 8
    Robert Byers says:

    Naw. Mindfulness is nothing more then triggering the memory and that dependent on the ability of the person.
    Focusing is just a product of memory concentration.
    its just that smarter people would tend to get more from mindfulness programms because they would do it smarter. yet doing anything would help give them a edge.
    You can change memory but not intelligence aside from learning more.

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