Saturday, February 1, 2014

Mindful or Mindless

For the record, I am not a meditator. Apparently, there are very few of us non-meditators left.

Also, for the record, I have known many people who have practiced some form of meditation. Some of them believed that meditation has helped them enormously. I have no reason to doubt their word.

Among the variety of therapies out there, meditation does seem to have a benefit.

Happily enough, meditation does not tell you want to think or how to think, which might be sufficient to recommend it. But, if you don’t know what to do when facing a dilemma, meditation is not going to tell you.

Maria Konnikova makes the case for mindful meditation in The New Yorker:

 We now know, for instance, that even brief mindfulness practice—typically, a kind of meditation that focusses on a particular aspect of the present moment, like your breath, your body, or a particular sensation—has a substantial positive effect on mental well-being and memory. It also appears to physically improve the brain, strengthening certain neural structures that are tied to heightened attention and focus, andbolstering connectivity in the brain’s default mode network, which is linked to self-monitoring and control.

According to Konnikova, research has shown that it is better to meditate than not to meditate. It is good to stop time for a few minutes during the day and to learn how to concentrate on the task at hand.

Apparently, it all goes back to the Buddhist notion of mindfulness.

Again, what could possibly be wrong with that?

One can only wonder why its proponents do not call it-- prayer?

As always seems to happen in the therapy world, meditation and mindfulness have been oversold. You find something that has a limited benefit and then you declare it to be a panacea.

Executive coach Tony Schwartz puts mindfulness in perspective in the New York Times:

Meditation – and mindfulness meditation, in particular – will reduce your cortisol level, blood pressure, social anxiety and depression. It will increase your immune response, resilience and focus and improve your relationships — including with yourself. It will also bolster your performance at work and provide inner peace. It may even cure psoriasis.

Schwartz is a step ahead of me on this one. He has practiced meditation. He finds value in stepping back, taking a deep breath and examining a situation objectively,  but he cautions against seeing it as a cure-all:

Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits.

What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.

Yes, indeed. Let’s keep things in perspective. For those who are helped by meditation, it’s a good thing. Perhaps not quite as good as aerobic exercise, but nothing says you can't do both. But mindful meditation, like aerobic exercise, does not solve all of your problems. Like meditation, aerobic exercise provides manifold benefits. But, it does not teach you how to behave, how to conduct your life or how to solve your problems.

Schwartz takes it a step further when he quotes Jack Kornfield, one of the first practitioners of meditative mindfulness:

Consider what Jack Kornfield has to say about meditation. In the 1970s, after spending a number of years as a monk in Southeast Asia, Mr. Kornfield was one of the first Americans to bring the practice of mindfulness to the West. He remains one of the best-known mindfulness teachers, while also practicing as a psychologist.

“While I benefited enormously from the training in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced,” he wrote, “I noticed two striking things. First, there were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch.

“Second, among the several dozen Western monks (and lots of Asian meditators) I met during my time in Asia, with a few notable exceptions, most were not helped by meditation in big areas of their lives. Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.”

Even for a monk, meditation is not a substitute for a life. It does not to relieve your sense of isolation and loneliness. Moreover, it can numb you to problems you should be addressing.

Feelings of anguish might be telling you that there is something in your life that needs your undivided attention. If you meditate in order to diminish the anguish and think that you have addressed the problem, you will not be doing yourself any favors.

And, of course, mindfulness does not tell you want you should and should not do. It does not teach you social skills. It does not help you with crisis management or negotiation.

This does not mean that no one should do it. Schwartz offers some instructions for a limited practice of mindfulness. Yet, his caution is well worth noting. Spending a few minutes a day focusing on your breathing might be a good way to clear out your mind and to help you to concentrate. Just don’t think that you have therefore solved your problems or immunized yourself against future difficulties.


Kath said...

I have tried eastern style meditation and didn't like it. It felt numbing and lonely.

Long walks and gardening are better for me than meditation.

I used to work on a dairy farm. Milking cows early in the morning cleared my head and helped me make important decisions. It was the right combination of physical and mindful activity to relax my thinking. Of course, being surrounded by cows could also have contributed to my superior mental state!

Leo G said...

As my late master use to state, "Be Zorba the Bhuddha! Do not run away from life, that is not meditation. Embrace life, but with a deliberate watching."

His way was the way of observation, and sitting in a monestary on a mountain, aint gonna give you much to observe!

Life life to its fullest but do not loose yourself in the living is true meditation.

20 points if you can guess whom my master was!

Anonymous said...

Meditation is for achieving nirvana, not for "mental health". If you dont want nirvana and are not buddhist, it does not have sense.