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.

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