I found “mindfulness meditation” somewhere between frustrating and useless, so I’m relieved to know that a new book, The Buddha Pill, has challenged the soundness of its evidence base.
As “mindfulness meditation” has become increasingly popular in psychiatric treatment, I’ve been careful what I say about the tool for several reasons.
1. I believe in and practice meditation. I learned from the Quakers to quiet my mind and sit in silence to listen for God — a meditative practice that various groups of Christians have used for millennia.
2. The practice of “mindfulness” isn’t entirely different from focusing on God, the created world, and our own condition within it.
- When people urge weight control via “mindful” eating, they are urging attention to the good gifts of food God has given — though not usually with reference to the Giver.
- When people urge self-control via “mindfulness” of one’s emotional state, they are encouraging others to “be alert!” — although without awareness that there is also an Enemy prowling like a roaring lion through our unfortunately often deceived hearts.
Similar Act, Different Goal
Where “mindfulness meditation” diverges, of course, is its goal. In its Buddhist form, it is intended to remove any sense of self. In the Hindu approach, boundaries between the self and the rest of the universe become lost.
Either of these outcomes sounds a bit undesirable. In their new book, The Buddha Pill, British researchers Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm find to their surprise that large, reputable studies showing undesirable outcomes from mindfulness meditation simply haven’t hit the press.
“Twitching, trembling, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, terror, depression, mania and psychotic breakdown — these are some of the reported effects of meditation,” they write in New Scientist magazine. “Surprised? We were too.”
Going back to the origins, however, the difficulties that appear in the studies are just expected outcomes. The researchers quote popular teacher Swami Ambikananda Saraswati explaining that when you meditate “the scum rises to the surface.”
Meditating the Moral Self Away
They also note that during several recent centuries of Asian history, meditation has been used to prepare warriors. By helping soldiers shed their existing sense of self, meditation enables them to kill without moral compunction and without seeing a “self” in the person they are killing.
‘Mindfully’ Undermining Useful Rituals
As “mindfulness meditation” was taught to me, I was supposed to spend the time I drove to work being conscious of the feel of the steering wheel in my hands and the seat underneath me … as well as the traffic around me and the sky and the trees whizzing by, of course. Personally, I prefer to use any bit of mind I can divert from traffic to either the radio or my current writing project. I can’t honestly see a benefit to reminding myself that my hands are wrapped around faux suede.
Likewise my meals. I eat alone much of the time. I take the time to prepare an attractive plate of healthful food, then sit down with a book or the newspaper to enjoy it. Being “mindful” of how the flavor and texture of each bite is modified by every chew would pretty much ruin the meal for me.
Then there were the breathing exercises. This is where “mindfulness” became “confusedness” for me. It was “okay” to focus exclusively on my breathing; “not okay” to use my breathing as a channel for a chant (“St Patrick’s Breastplate”) or traditional prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”). It was, however, “okay” to recite the decades of the rosary.
Mindfully Creating Higher Levels of Stress
All of this helps me understand why one of the many unreported studies found that those who practiced mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes a day showed higher levels of stress — as measured by the stress hormone cortisol — than those who did not. It’s stressful just to figure out the rules of the game!
So I’m going to stick with being as mindful as I can of God, God’s world, and what God wants me to do in it. I’m going to assume that God, having made the human body so that all the parts work together, has not set things up so breathing and chewing require me to assign brainpower to them. Should I reach the point where they take mindful, conscious decisions … well, God and I will be mindful together of what to do at that time.