Mindfulness: beyond the science
by Ed Halliwell, Guardian.co.uk, 7 September 2010
Scientific studies show the effects of mindfulness, but can they do justice to the transformation felt by many who practise it?
London, UK -- Each month, a digest of the latest research on mindfulness meditation lands in my inbox.
The volume of studies has mushroomed in recent years – the most recent round-up (pdf) alone 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.
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.