Saturday, 21 August 2010

A word on the scientific evaluation of mindfulness...

Barely a day goes past without some new study suggesting that mindfulness has beneficial effects - on mental health, the management of physical conditions, brain function, attention skills, and a wide range of other markers of reduced suffering and increased well-being. This research is wonderful - it offers a scientific basis for what has been known by practitioners of meditation for thousands of years - that it can help us live a happier existence. There is much more of this work to be done - to tease out which elements of mindfulness courses are the most useful, for example, to replicate existing results, and to test its application in more and more different conditions.

And yet, there is a danger - these studies can easily be interpreted to suggest that mindfulness is a successful 'technique', a tool that can be delivered in the same way as other health interventions - like a course of antibiotics say - and which if we just go through the motions of applying it, will 'improve' us. Not so. Mindfulness, as Jon Kabat Zinn recently said, is a way of being, a way of seeing, and a way of knowing. More than that, it is a way of being, seeing and knowing that, to produce results, requires us to let go of trying to get results. It requires a change of attitude, a shift in perception.. Through mindfulness meditation, we may end up feeling better, but that's only likely to happen when we stop trying to feel better - when we are able to give up the struggle for things to be other than they are and pay attention to our experience, as it is, right now, in the moment.We may also take action, of course, but we endeavour not to attach to the future result of that action. We do the best we can, but we don't expect success, for expectation creates suffering. When we expect, it is more difficult to be mindful - we are living in the future, not the present.

This can only really be understood through the experience of practice - you can't get it from looking at the results of a scientific trial. Indeed, on the face of it, the results of scientific trials appear to show that applied mindfulness will bring greater pleasure - all you have to do, it would appear, is apply mindfulness to reap the reward. But if we feel better through practice, it is usually through a deepening of meaning, rather than a heightening of pleasure. That's why the scientific method alone is not enough - we need not just a third person observational approach to testing mindfulness, but a subjective first person engagement with the practice, with all its depth, all its complexity, all its paradoxes, all its subtlety.

Scientific research tends to get headlines for its results. But by focusing on results rather than process, research studies can make mindfulness appear like a self-improvement technique, when actually it is a process of self-letting go. It  it is only in that process of self-letting go that we can come to feel more at peace. We don't reach peace by struggling for it, but by dropping the struggle. Mindfulness is not a quick fix - sorry, it's just not that easy.

It's wonderful that science is validating mindfulness - but in our enthusiasm, let's not get carried away into thinking that this data expresses the full richness of what mindfulness has to offer. The next time a scientific study reveals that mindfulness has led to some desirable health outcome, remember that in the mind of the practitioners studied, it was probably the letting go of the desire for that outcome that led to its fulfillment - and that you might not find that nuance in the paper's write-up, or in the newspaper headlines that report it.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Mindfulness news round-up - July 2010

All the latest mindfulness news stories from the last month...

31 New Study Investigates Mindfulness Meditation for Alcohol Relapse Prevention
31 Meditation boosts reaction time and reduces the need for sleep
20 Mindfulness training study to help military members combat the mental health effects of war.
19 The busy mind on meditation - Brief sessions can help with dealing with deadlines and pain relief
17 Mindful Motherhood Cassandra Vieten reports on her innovative training program offering stress relief to new moms - from the Greater Good Science Centre
16 The Greater Good Guide to Mindfulness - some great examples of settings where mindfulness is making a difference
16 Meditation helps increase attention span
15 Quiet Justice - Mindfulness in the practice of law
15 Mind/body techniques effective for chronic pain
14 Fine interview with Dan Siegel on mindfulness and the brain.
14 Meditation in the lab - good overview of scientific studies on mindfulness
11 Use your brain to relieve pain - more on mindfulness for pain
Meditation rescued me from misanthropy - by Tim Parks (New Statesman)
7  On mindfulness and plain speaking, by Deborah Schoeberlein (Huffington Post)
Mindful eaters less likely to be overweight
How meditation can develop skills in attention and compassion - first results from the shamatha project
'Mind-body' therapy shows promise for fibromyalgia

Sunday, 8 August 2010

On Mindfulness Teaching and Transmission...

It's fantastic to see the current explosion of interest in practising mindfulness meditation. It's been happening in the US for a while, and now here in the UK there is the start of a real recognition that being mindful can make a tangible difference to health and happiness. Largely we can thank science for this - almost every day there is a new study linking meditation practice to health and well-being benefits - in the last month alone we've seen studies linking mindfulness to improved attention, decreased pain perception, PTSD, Parkinson's disease, alcohol relapse prevention, eating disorders and fibromyalgia. These studies have the credibility to convince those who wouldn't take the word of a meditation master - which in this age, is most people.
But there is a potential problem - while most research is carried out on courses taught by experienced guides, the surge in interest will inevitably create demand, and already there are many companies springing up to offer mindfulness training to those who want it, and some of those who are offering to teach have only minimal experience of practice themselves.
In the buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on transmission - the view that meditative insight is passed down from those who have great experience, and can embody the teachings they are presenting. In this way, the practices are not so much taught as modelled - a teacher with little insight will have little to offer their students.
The teachings offered in programmes like mindfulness-based stress reduction are fairly basic (and by that I do not mean to denigrate them). They offer a grounding in sitting meditation, mindful movement and body scan techniques, and have the potential to connect with a very wide audience in a way that an esoteric Tibetan buddhist ritual might not. But even so, the transmission of these techniques won't be effective if the teacher hasn't achieved some depth of understanding of them. And I fear that increasingly, people without sufficient experience will find themselves leading such courses, and that as a result, there will be a lot of bad mindfulness going on. We will see misconceptions like "mindfulness is relaxation", "mindfulness is a self-control technique", "mindfulness is concentration" and so on. Just because science is showing mindfulness works doesn't mean anyone can teach it once they have read about it.
To be clear, I am no meditation master. I have a fairly low level of what mindfulness academics would call 'dispositional mindfulness' - but that's also one reason why I practice and write about the subject. I know it is something I need, and which makes my life better when I am able to embody it. However, I also know that my own understanding (such as it is) has come from some years of consistent practice. And not just a bit of daily practice - it was only when I went on my first 28-day retreat that I began to really get some in-depth insight into what meditation could show me.  I understand that I don't find it easy, and I can empathise with others who feel the same way. At the same time, the more I have practised, and the more deeply, the more I've learnt.

There are some people who can embody mindfulness much more naturally than I can (though if they haven't practised as well, I doubt their ability to teach it to others, as they may not understand the frustrations we low-level practitioners go through!). But what concerns me are those who go on an eight-week course, have a daily practice for a month or two and then decide they are ready to teach, perhaps without undertaking any further study or in-depth retreat. Some may turn out to be great teachers - I fear many may not. There is the potential for a lot of bad mindfulness transmission - and as a result, some very disillusioned students, perhaps who might be put off engaging with the practice altogether. That would be a shame.

I agree with the good people at the Bangor University Centre For Mindfulness Research and Practice, who are resisting the idea of standard regulation for mindfulness teachers. After all - who would set the rules? If it was the usual kind of regulation, we could easily end up with a set of criteria that includes someone with an academic psychology degree and no experiential understanding and excludes, say, The Dalai Lama ("I'm sorry your Holiness, but we need to see a few more CPD credits"). Nevertheless, regulation is embedded in the buddhist system - a new teacher is validated by his teachers, within the context of a practice lineage.

Somehow, we will need to find a way - to recognise that to offer simple meditation instruction does not require the teacher to have undergone the trials of Milarepa, but also that graduation to instructor status requires some basic level of realisation that can be transmitted to the student. Also, that this graduation is approved by senior practitioners who have themselves attained some level of wisdom, and which is not solely dependent on having ticked a number of academic boxes. Basically, we need some sense of a mindfulness teaching lineage that can recongise experiential and not just theoretical attainment. But how to achieve that, when mindfulness seems to be taking root within a mainstream education system that tends to value only academic achievement and which validates students according to intellectual criteria Any suggestions?

Comment on mindfulness and The Mindful Manifesto...

We'd love to hear your comments on The Mindful Manifesto, and on how we can work together to create a more mindful world. What is your own experience of mindfulness? Has it helped you in your life? What are the challenges of practice? What difference could mindfulness make to our society and how can we best create the container for a mindful society? Leave your thoughts, questions and experiences on these topics or any other mindfulness-related issues in the comments thread below...