The Problem of Mindfulness

December 31, 2019

‘Commodification has produced watered-down versions – available via apps, and taught in schools and office.’

Three years ago, when I was studying for a Masters in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, mindfulness was very much in the air. The Department of Psychiatry had launched a large-scale study on the effects of mindfulness in collaboration with the university’s counselling service.

Everyone I knew seemed to be involved in some way: either they were attending regular mindfulness classes and dutifully filling out surveys or, like me, they were part of a control group who didn’t attend classes, but found themselves caught up in the craze even so. We gathered in strangers’ houses to meditate at odd hours, and avidly discussed our meditative experiences. It was a strange time.

Raised as a Buddhist in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I have a long history with meditation – although, like many ‘cultural Catholics’, my involvement was often superficial. I was crushingly bored whenever my parents dragged me to the temple as a child. At university, however, I turned to psychotherapy to cope with the stress of the academic environment. Unsurprisingly, I found myself drawn to schools or approaches marked by the influence of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, one of which was mindfulness. Over the years, before and during the Cambridge trial, therapists have taught me an arsenal of mindfulness techniques.

I have been instructed to observe my breath, to scan my body and note the range of its sensations, and to observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind. This last exercise often involves visual imagery, where a person is asked to consider thoughts and feelings in terms of clouds in the sky or leaves drifting in a river. A popular activity (though I’ve never tried it myself) even involves eating a raisin mindfully, where you carefully observe the sensory experience from start to finish, including changes in texture and the different tastes and smells.

At the end of the Cambridge study, I found myself to be calmer, more relaxed and better able to step away from any overwhelming feelings. My experience was mirrored in the research findings, which concluded that regular mindfulness meditation reduces stress levels and builds resilience.

Yet I’d also become troubled by a cluster of feelings that I couldn’t quite identify. It was as if I could no longer make sense of my emotions and thoughts. Did I think the essay I’d just written was bad because the argument didn’t quite work, or was I simply anxious about the looming deadline? Why did I feel so inadequate? Was it imposter syndrome, depression or was I just not a good fit for this kind of research? I couldn’t tell whether I had particular thoughts and feelings simply because I was stressed and inclined to give in to melodramatic thoughts, or because there was a good reason to think and feel those things. Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.

In the intervening years, I’ve obsessed over this experience – to the point that I left a PhD in an entirely different area of philosophy and put myself through the gruelling process of reapplying for graduate programmes, just so I could understand what had happened. I began following a thread from ancient Buddhist texts to more recent books on meditation to see how ideas have migrated to the contemporary mindfulness movement. What I’ve uncovered has disturbing implications for how mindfulness encourages us to relate to our thoughts, emotions and very sense of self.

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