Mindfulness: beyond the science

Ed Halliwell on whether scientific studies on mindfulness can do justice to the transformations felt by those who practice it.

Each month, a digest of the latest research on mindfulness meditation lands in my inbox. The volume of studies has mushroomed in recent years—a recent round-up cites 35 new papers detailing effects on people with conditions such as heart disease and borderline personality disorder, the results of an innovative new mindfulness curriculum for schools,  and the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses on the structure of the brain (it seems to reduce density in the amygdala). 

If practising mindfulness can help people—and it appears to—then all this evidence can only be a good thing. Whereas for years meditation's public image was stuck in the 1960s, tainted with hippie self-indulgence or new-age flakiness, now it's being taken seriously by everyone from top academics to US congressman and government departments.

But while it's the gold standard for evidence in our culture, can scientific data tell the whole story? In our book The Mindful Manifesto, Jonty Heaversedge and I describe how mindfulness is now being presented as a secular healing tool, but we also felt it important to acknowledge how for thousands of years it has been linked with spiritual training. Scientific studies might show that mindfulness improves well-being in material terms, but can they do justice to the inner transformation that occurs for many people who practise it? Isn't something lost by presenting its effects purely as a physical or mental health benefit? Indeed, by setting up mindfulness as something that produces guaranteed results, isn't there a danger of distorting one of its key messages—that striving for a concrete future is antithetical to the practice, which is about staying with the uncertain present?

My first experience of mindfulness came through the Buddhist tradition. I was deeply depressed and anxious, partly because my life did not reflect my inner values. Stuck in a rut of fast-paced hedonism, I had been insufficiently reflective to notice the dissonance, and when the bubble finally burst, I was thrust into a psychic whirlwind of suddenly expressed emotions. I found all this turmoil hard to contain, especially as I felt that my life needed to change quite profoundly. Several people suggested that it might be good to learn meditation, as a way of handling the panic.

However, I actually got to the cushion because I was yearning for a spiritual path. I had picked up a bunch of books on Buddhism, and the teachings resonated with me. The first two noble truths—that there was suffering, and that attachment was its primary cause— was demonstrable in my experience, and the promise of working towards a way out of this pain was attractive. I didn't connect with the idea of an anthropomorphic creator God, but I did have a strong sense that there was more to existence than was immediately apparent, and liked the idea of a practical mode of inquiry which would allow me to investigate my hunches, without requiring me to "believe" on faith alone.

My depression lifted, and I'm sure that learning the metacognitive skills that come with mindfulness has—as the research suggests—afforded me some resilience. But I also think I've become more content because meditation has enriched my life through opening me up to a sense of deepened meaning, and the cultivation of a way of being that is based on more than just soothing my amygdala.

Buddhism has given me no certainties—if anything, the more I practise, the more my fixed beliefs loosen. There has been a subtle shift in my perception—I view experience differently to the way I did 10 years ago, one year ago, even last week. I am ever more aware that what I perceive now cannot be the whole truth because my perception itself is constantly in flux.

Mindfulness can be a great boon—indeed, a premise of The Mindful Manifesto is that widespread meditation practice could make a real difference to the problems of our age. But while some people may be drawn to practise through the scientific promise of betterment, they may end up finding that once they've got started, the path is far more interesting than that.

Originally published on guardian.co.uk


Ed Halliwell is a writer and mindfulness teacher, based in Sussex, UK. He is co-author of The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less And Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive In A Stressed-Out World and teaches meditation to a wide range of individuals and groups. For more, visit his Facebook and Twitter pages.

Liza Matthews