Does Mindfulness Meditation Have Any Benefits?

A recent blog post summarizing the science behind mindfulness meditation (MM) based stress reduction technique has released a tsunami of contrarian schadenfreude. The critique—that MM-based stress reduction techniques don’t appear to yield long-lasting, overarching improvements in average behavior across a number of domains—is entirely supported by James C. Coyne’s breakdown of the available literature. There is no clear through-line between MM practice and its much touted material benefits, although some branches of Buddhist thought and related traditions have extolled attainment of siddhis, or preternatural powers, by way of MM, for centuries—if not millennia.

This superpower narrative has gradually morphed into less extreme, but still misinformed, science-denying woo-vending. Today, marketers will settle for selling increased attentiveness, weight loss, positive mood and a cornucopia of additional boons bundled with the main product of MM practice. The stench emanating from this strategy reeks of the same overselling surrounding the diet pill industry immortalized in Requiem for a Dream, and other miracle cure schemes that employ methods that fall just short of false advertisement. These industries drain people’s bank accounts by taking advantage of our shortcomings and vulnerabilities. They make empty promises and studies exposing that fact should be distributed widely.

However, commentators who conclude that MM itself is simply trendy bullshit demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what mindfulness is, and an ignorance of what meditation does. Apprehending the present moment is MM’s primary purpose, and likely the only discernible goal for conscientious practitioners—everything else is gravy.

The scientific approach to gauging the effectiveness of MM-based stress reduction techniques presented by Coyne is dependent on measuring effects on health and behavior—but there should be a distinction drawn between the aim of mindfulness meditation as it is traditionally understood, and those goal-oriented techniques developed from it in the interest of achieving anything additional to mindfulness. The term mindfulness-based stress reduction itself reveals a misappropriation of MM practice in the service of unrelated projects. Therefore, research into techniques piggybacking onto MM practice may not place adequate emphasis on what practitioners experience when successfully engaging in its standalone  form—namely, full and undivided attention to the present moment.

Philosophical arguments and paradoxes regarding the present moment abound. If time tracks change, then each present moment is be a future moment coming to pass—but in a non-linear model of time, all moments—past, present, and future—are temporally indistinguishable. This attitude scaffolds MM practice: pay attention only to the present moment, because there really is nothing else either before or after it. Our minds’ nostalgic attachments to the past, and anticipatory investments in the future, are transient layers of illusion distracting from authentic experience in real time, which we can peel away in order to better orient ourselves.

Buddhist thought-leader Thích Nhất Hạnh refers to the present moment as our “true home” because we are always there both literally and figuratively—it’s a simple matter of paying attention to realize that the present moment isn’t a destination and MM practice facilitates that particular attentiveness. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s is a modern interpretation of MM, a departure from more ancient, metaphysically indulgent understandings, which encourage delusions of attaining supernatural abilities. MM practice isn’t meant to bring one from Point A to Point B, but permits one to see that there are no points from which to start—or end— in the first place. In other words: MM practice is not a goal-oriented behavior. The takeaway of greatest import for scientific researchers is that what they are measuring might not be MM practice’s effectiveness at achieving its intended purpose, but secondary effects stealthily packaged as commodities by compunctionless opportunists.

Take the effect on attention span and focus. There is an intuitive link between an ostensible act of extreme concentration and how well one is able to pay attention— it’s easy to perceive MM practice as weight-training for feats of focus. The link is patently spurious, however, as the science shows—but why? The answer may lie in how we define attention, or what exactly one is paying attention to while engaged in MM practice versus other focus-demanding tasks. If MM practice trains attention solely on the present moment, then expectations that such attentiveness would carry over to completely different contexts might be unwarranted. In common parlance, when you’re not meditating, you’re not meditating. And when you’re meditating, you’re only meditating.

Thích Nhất Hạnh instructs practitioners that the seemingly simplest acts—such as walking, or washing dishes—are difficult to the point of near-impossibility while maintaining full mindfulness. MM practice entails attempting—and mostly failing—the apprehension and immediate release of thoughts emerging in the space of consciousness. It is goal-less in nature—the process is humiliating, and is supposed to be. Thus, if while washing dishes you’re thinking about washing dishes, you’re not washing them mindfully. This is why it’s unreasonable to believe that the type of attention defining MM practice is qualitatively similar to paying attention to anything other than the present moment—and why hopes of an increase in general attentiveness as a result of MM practice are misplaced.

General attentiveness appears to be the most closely related effect to MM practice measured in the scientific literature, and if a link cannot be established between the two, it would be a stretch to assume a connection between MM practice and improvements in other areas of behavior. Taking another practice regularly accused of trendy bullshittery—yoga—as a flagship example, we can piece the situation together as follows: the physical act of yoga may increase flexibility, static strength and cardiovascular ability, but internalizing optional Hindu religious content won’t likely amplify improvement in those areas, just as doing yoga won’t necessarily transform someone with middling arithmetic talent into a mathematical genius. Just as certain practitioners lay strident claim to additional benefits resulting from yoga, meditators are susceptible to the notion that MM leads to improvements unrelated to the practice. While successful mindfulness meditation often depends on at least a passing familiarity with the corresponding Buddhist philosophy, to better conceptualize one’s practice, the act itself is a behavior separate from that philosophy, and conflating them can distort our understanding of both.

When people invest emotional and material resources in a trendy practice, hype-consumers will be understandably reticent to admit its ineffectiveness, perhaps clinging on to placebo effects, in an effort to avoid buyer’s remorse in the face of sunk costs. Mindfulness meditation may currently be suffering because its philosophical underpinnings are over-marketed—but MM practice is decidedly not trendy bullshit, if we consider its multi-millennia history of fulfilling its intended purpose—just ask Buddha. There is a paucity of methods allowing for the full appreciation of the present moment—apart from MM practice, these are mostly flukes resulting from psychedelic drug consumption. There are, however, numerous approaches one can take toward improving various behaviors and abilities: weight-lifting will reliably make one physically stronger if done correctly, for example. Just as mindfulness meditation practice is best suited to cultivating that particular attentiveness, other practices are suited to their respective domains. Our task as consumers is to be mindful of when entrepreneurs engage in unethical spirit-laundering.

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4 comments

  1. Excellent article. I am both a mindfulness teacher and a scientist, so good arguments resonate with me. The link you provide is indeed spot on, you need to compare apples with apples.
    But, I wonder what the real effect of traditional treatment is. Having undergone both traditional psychotherapy and mindfulness, … lets just say I took the one that worked best for me. Although, clearly, for some people it is the reverse.
    Regarding your argument on the siddhis, I do not want to debate on that (I have no idea whether it is possible or not to have siddhis). But I just want to add the argument that if 100 years ago, you would have told people that some people are able to jump over 2.40m (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_jump#All-time_top_25_high_jumpers), the idea would have been (rightfully) dismissed as ludicrous. So we need to be careful to not compare people who meditate for 30 minutes a day to people who do this for 10 hours a day.

  2. I don’t know about all the philosophical arguments or neuroscience or hucksters (though I’m sure hucksters will capitalize on any trend), but it’s difficult for anyone who has ever tried meditation/relaxation techniques to deny that exercises designed to reduce one’s mental and emotional turbulence have the result of … well, reducing mental and emotional turbulence, which seems a beneficial end it itself in terms of one’s state of mind.

  3. it has enormous benefits for the bank accounts of the self-help hucksters selling it, to say nothing of the PBS pledge drives they use to advertise it.

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