Mindfulness Meditation - Hype?

Have you read the referenced article or the journal article (Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation) it is based on?

What do you think?

Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation

Mind the Hype is fairly well written & most of it should be understandable to a lay audience.

… the present article discusses the difficulties of defining mindfulness, delineates the proper scope of research into mindfulness practices, and explicates crucial methodological issues for interpreting results from investigations of mindfulness. — from the abstract, emphasis mine.

Their claim to “comprehensively summarizing what we do and do not know” might be better understood as heavy on the summarization. It is a good summary of the history of the field however and I’d recommend it to Buddhists with an interest in the topic.

A couple of quotes that caught my eye:

Despite how it is often portrayed by the media and some researchers , there is neither one universally accepted technical definition of “mindfulness” nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers. Frequently, “mindfulness” simply denotes a mental faculty for being consciously aware and taking account of currently prevailing situations (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Langer, 1989). At other times, “mindfulness” may refer to formal practice of sitting on a cushion in a specific posture and attending (more or less successfully) to the breath or some other focal object. Considerable disagreement about definitions is not uncommon in the study of complex constructs and mindfulness is no exception.

One recurring theme is that varying definitions use in, and impacts reported by, studies make comparing the results of different studies difficult. The same for being able to replicate and/or validate studies.

The definitions of “novice” and “expert” or “adept” (with respect to those with meditation experience) have varied considerably from study to study. Some investigators have considered novices to be individuals with some but not extensive prior formal meditation experience (e.g., up to a few hundred hours of practice). Others have applied a much stricter criterion, deeming novices only to be individuals with absolutely no prior meditation experience. Further increasing this confusion, some approaches to investigating “mindfulness” do not require any systematic training to become “skilled” in the practice …

The following matches my own observations and the academic literature on the intersection of science, the public, and social policy. The questionable behavior of university press offices and some scientists when talking about research has been reported for a variety of research fields.

Furthermore, there is a general failure among the public to recognize that scientific consensus is a complex process requiring considerable time, effort, debate, and (most important) data. Throughout the scientific process, the predominant view among scholars can vacillate between being in support of, being agnostic to, and being against a given idea or theory. Eager journalists, academic press offices, and news media outlets—sometimes aided and abetted by researchers—have often overinterpreted initial tentative empirical results as if they were established facts. Moreover, statistically “significant” differences have repeatedly been equated with clinical and/or practical significance . These critical considerations need to be incorporated constructively in the future development of best practices … for promoting accurate scientific communication with the general public.

Personal comment:
The EBT’s seem very relevant to me when reviewing the results of several hundered years of western enlightenment thinking, reason, and the triumph of the scientific method. For there is a significant gap between, on the one hand, the ideals and recommended practice of science and on the other hand how science and the scientific method is often practiced. IMO the arising of craving, greed, desire and the taints common to the less mature ego (sense of self) well explains the gap.

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I’ll just leave this here.

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I was interested in the section on “adverse effects”.

While some kinds of psychological outcomes are going to be regarded as adverse by almost anyone, from almost any moral, spiritual or therapeutic perspective, we have to remember that any systematic classification of mind-states into healthy states vs. unhealthy states involves normative assumptions that might lack universal validity, but instead reflect the socionormal presuppositions of the person making the appraisal.

No doubt if a contemporary psychotherapist heard of a Mr. Gotami who, following an intensified interest in meditation, decided to abandon his wife and family, shave his head, don rags, and go to live and beg in the woods, the said Mr. Gotami would be judged to have experienced a serious mental crackup. If it was also reported that Mr. Gotami no longer had any interest in sex, plays, music, games and adornment, and was repelled by ordinary households because they were “dusty”, his case would be judged even more severely.

I don’t know enough about the mindfulness movement to guess whether secular mindfulness techniques, such as they are, are more often helping people or hurting people overall. But I do somewhat regret the fact that the Buddha’s path has been linked with a faddish course of western psycho-therapy, because then the path gets discredited when the fad gets discredited - which usually happens.

I suspect there is likely an inherent contradiction between the goals of western psychotherapy and the goals of the Buddha’s path, a contradiction that can’t be resolved and will ultimately cause people new kinds of stress. The path, if pursued diligently, inclines toward toward seclusion, toward nibbana, toward dropping the world’s bait, toward saying farewell to Mara’s realm and his seductions, and toward crossing over to the other shore. But western psychotherapy mainly accepts the norms of ordinary social life and conventional social morality, and seeks to render people more functional, engaged and well-adjusted to that life. To the extent it is interested in the techniques of the Buddhist path, it sees them mainly as pain alleviation techniques to assist in more “productive” and “effective” running around in samsara.

Buddhists might be gratified to see contemporary psychologists seeming to ratify their spiritual tradition. But I suspect many might end up ruing the day the normative imperialism of worldly moral and psychological practitioners took an interest in Buddhism.


I think one of the biggest problems is that half the time people aren’t really practicing mindfulness, at least not in the way it’s understood in the EBTs. Quite often it’s totally mixed up with equanimity, which is really important but really only comes along as your practice deepens. To try and be mindful and equanimous simultaneously from day one and assuming you’re not actually being mindful unless you have both is a problem.

And I totally agree that many people would think the Buddha was a maniac today, especially when he starts referring to himself in the third person and saying he has no sense of self. Although, I have a feeling if a buddha really did arise in our day and age, his skill in means would have been so revolutionary that his teachings would have been accepted all the same. He would have taught completely different to modern followers, and I think that even a lot of buddhists would be surprised at how different his teachings really were. Not all of them, but out of all the buddhists alive today, a lot.

Meditation is not restricted to Buddhism.
Even Mohomed meditated in a cave when he revealed Koran.
There is more than one way to meditate.
Now days even school children are taught meditation.
It all depend on what you meditate on.

Which suggests the question: how much equanimity is needed in order for you to say that it “really comes along”?
The paper spoke several times of this challenge of finding and defining a common understanding of the key concepts.

But if we allow for various degrees of equanimity then we may have a testable proposition. Are there passages in the EBT which indicates that equanimity does not appear to new practitioners? Or that it only appears later?

On a personal note: I can sometimes quiet my mind and cut off distractions by being rigorous with myself in the manner illustrated above.
So is there to be found in the EBT at least the hint of the value of a similar discipline of thinking?

On a related topic:
@jimisommer, there was a pattern in the words you used that in my observation of English speakers (or writers) often signals that the speaker believes something to be true but that the speaker will say little more as to why they believe it to be so. See the words in bold words below.

A side effect of listening in this way is that it seems to encourage and give practical shape to “active listening”. (A type of practice of focus or concentration?)

This works best when the listener doesn’t get overly impressed with the cleverness of their observations. This distraction can be somewhat self correcting when the listener repeatedly notes that the self-admiration process prevents listening and attending to the next things that are said.

Development and Validation of the Relaxation Sensitivity Index
See the links under File for the complete paper.

Appendix B: Final Version of the Relaxation Sensitivity Index has lists of thoughts and sensations that might arise during meditation or relaxation.

The emphasis of the list are factors that might lead to anxiety.
Replace the word relax with meditate & the items makes a lot of sense.

Here is a selection of the 39 items / questions that make up the index.

  1. It scares me when I feel tension
    release in my muscles.

  2. When I try to relax my body, I feel like
    I’m losing control.

  3. When my mind begins to wander, I
    worry that I might be going crazy.

  4. I’m afraid that if I’m not productive or
    doing a lot of work, other people will
    think negatively of me.

  5. It scares me when my neck and
    shoulders become loose.

  6. I fear that if my body is relaxed, I won’t
    be socially appealing.

  7. I avoid slowing down and relaxing so
    that I don’t have to think about certain

  8. I don’t like to relax because it makes
    me feel out of contact with others.

  9. It scares me when I am relaxing and
    begin to feel like I am losing a sense
    of time.

  10. I worry that if I don’t keep busy, other
    people will think that I’m lazy.

  11. When my body feels as if it has been
    slowed down, I worry that there might
    be something terribly wrong with me.

  12. I don’t like to feel very calm because I
    am afraid that I will be unprepared in
    the event of danger.

  13. I’m afraid that if I take time to practice
    relaxation exercises, other people will
    think negatively of me.

  14. I am afraid of the thoughts that enter
    my mind as I try to relax.

  15. If my muscles jerk as I’m about to fall
    asleep, I worry that something is
    wrong with me.

  16. I don’t like relaxing because I feel like
    I am unable to control my thoughts.

  17. Focusing on the present moment
    rather than the future or the past
    makes me feel anxious.

  18. It scares me when my breathing
    becomes deeper.

  19. I think that if I spend time relaxing
    other people will think that I’m boring.

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Haha well I can reassure you there is no self-admiration over here. I only used those words because it’s very nuanced subject, so they may be, in a way, practicing mindfulness, but at the same time they’re not “really” practicing mindfulness. The same with the last part, equanimity can certainly be an aspect of mindfulness practice early on, but it’s “really only” robust until later. So it’s more about the subtle and often case-by-case nature of the topic of mindfulness practice itself, including the fact that many aspects of the practice may only be said to appear in later practice, when they were actually there all along, but instead it is only meant that they become truly robust later on.

As far as the definition of mindfulness, I found Analayo’s books to be the most informative regarding this, as he uses not only the context of all the mentions of mindfulness in the EBTs, but also the metaphors used to describe it. Another important resource for me was actually Culadasa’s book “The Mind Illuminated,” where he describes mindfulness as “fully conscious awareness” or “fully conscious metacognitive awareness.” Taking the two descriptions from both books has helped me understand what I believe to be the most accurate definition of what the Buddha was talking about when he used the word we translate to mindfulness, but only when taken together. Honestly, I wish we would drop the mindfulness translation all together and just use sati, or better yet, sati-sampajanna. I think using sati-sampajanna would help ensure that when people are talking about it, others know they mean the definition the Buddha used in the EBTs.