The Mindfulness Backlash: True or False?

Elisha Goldstein reviews how meditation has been discussed in the news recently. 

It seems like every day interest in mindfulness is reaching new heights. All the major news networks have covered it and recently Sharon Salzberg was on the Katie Couric show explaining how to achieve mindfulness. But the question on many people’s minds is; has mindfulness become another form of snake oil, claiming to cure everything under the sun from anxiety to sneezing? Last week a post broke out on the New York Times claiming there is a “Mindfulness Backlash” afoot where some people are questioning the science, seeing it packaged as a commodity and even warning against it.

A Backlash: True or False?

Before we answer that question, it seems the concern by a number of mindfulness experts is that the science is being sensationalized and mindfulness as it is conveyed today is a commodity that is being sold for all the wrong reasons. When you trace mindfulness back to its roots, you’ll find that it is a practice among many in life to create freedom around suffering. When this happens there is complete peace and ultimately this will be healing to all beings.

First, is it true that mindfulness, as a practice and way of life is being pitched as a cure all? Not by most skilled mindfulness teachers that I’m aware of. Is the pitch for it being tailored for a variety of interests. Absolutely. If you’re in business, the motivation is stress reduction, productivity and performance. If you’re in education, the motivation is that it will help with focus, learning and test scores. If you’re a healthcare professional, it will be about emotion regulation, stress reduction, and interpersonal effectiveness. If you’re in sports you’ll do it because it helps with perspective, performance and focus.

As the 15th century Indian poet Kabir said, “Wherever you are, that’s the entry point.”

The fact is people are at various places in life and will come into this practice in different places. Perhaps one person comes in for a pure interest in awakening to a liberated life and yet another person enters into it with a need for grounding and stress reduction. Is this wrong? Or maybe a corporate attorney finds herself so scattered throughout the day with a myriad of responsibilities and hears this will help her focus, so she joins a class. Or someone who has just suffered a heart attack comes into a mindfulness-based stress reduction course at the request of his doctor.

Most credible teachers will quickly help people understand that the names (stress reduction, performance, emotional intelligence) are just for marketing, to get people in the door, and while this practice can help, the intention is much greater. My experience is as people enter the door and begin developing this awareness, the practice expands from the original boundaries of stress reduction and opens them up to a new relationship to life. They begin to see the possibility of making wiser choices to get distance from thoughts and behaviors that don’t serve them and develop the capacity to incline themselves to healthier ways of living.

This is good in my opinion!

Are there dangers?

Dr. Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University works with people who feel they’ve been harmed by meditation (people who have been on long retreats). Yes, this is absolutely possible and can happen. Unfortunately, people who go on long retreats aren’t always properly assessed and should be. For example, If someone has not had much practice and is in an emotionally turbulent time of his/her life, a long retreat of going inward is probably not the best idea. This could create a flooding of emotions and there isn’t the proper training established to hold it. This could also be the case for someone coming into a mindfulness class with a background in sexual trauma and a simple body scan can reignite the trauma.

The practices we engage in do matter, but this shouldn’t create a backlash (nor do I think there actually is one, more likely a snappy title for the NY Times to sell some soap), but instead it comes down to an education on mindfulness (and a variety of factors that it represents) and finding an experienced teacher as a guide to meet the practitioner where they are at.

I’ll re-emphasize that, finding and training experienced and credible teachers needs to be the main focus here.

Often times, uncomfortable emotions are important to get curious about as we learn how to develop a new relationship to them. As Rumi said, “Don’t turn your gaze away. Look toward the bandaged place, that’s where the light enters.” An experienced teacher can help guide someone into how to do the safely and effectively. Generally speaking, the rise in mindfulness is a wonderful thing. Are there charlatans within the mindfulness profession? Of course. But what profession is absent of this? It’s important to seek out credible teachers in your area which might be found through an online search or looking up teachers on the Center for Mindfulness website. If there are no local teachers is a good place to start (Note: I designed the Mindfulness at Work® program for eMindful, so I have some inside knowledge as to their credibility).

Is there a backlash?

Doubtful, but it’s important to pay attention to the quality of the teachers and the teachings. It’s also important to take the science with a grain of salt sometimes, but if it helps create the motivation to come down from your mind and into your life, more power to you. Mindfulness is not something that only belongs in the Ashrams and can absolutely be brought to the classrooms, the therapy office, the sports fields and the boardrooms.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy.