HEALTHY LIVING

Why Mindfulness Will Survive The Backlash

03/16/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015
David Cayless via Getty Images

First came the declarations that mindfulness was "having a moment." Then came the backlash.

A number of publications (this one included) called 2014 the “year of mindfulness,” and a Time cover story went so far as to proclaim a “mindful revolution” in American culture. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Anderson Cooper to Lena Dunham spoke out about the virtues of meditation, and mindfulness -- the cultivation of a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment -- swiftly made its way from spiritual retreat centers to public schools, military bases, hospitals, therapists’ offices and corporate boardrooms across the country.

So it was only a matter of time before resistance began mounting.

“If 2014 was the year of mindfulness, 2015 might be the year of the backlash,” Alice Robb wrote in the New Republic, labeling meditation the latest obsession of the white upper middle class.

The New Republic wasn't alone in taking a skeptical view of mindfulness. The Daily Beast recently asked, “What if meditation isn’t good for you?”, and in the Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist and executive coach David Brendel warned about the risks of mindfulness in the workplace. In another piece, The New Republic even referred to mindfulness as a "tool of corporate control."

So what gives? Well, critics of mindfulness tend to fall into one of three camps: Those who argue that mindfulness has become watered-down secularized; those who claim it's elitist; and those who say benefits of the practice have been “oversold and overhyped.”

“The public enthusiasm for complementary health practices -- and meditation in particular -- is outpacing the scientific research,” Willoughby Britton, a Brown University psychiatry professor who is researching possible negative side effects of meditation, recently told The New York Times. “Widespread implementation is premature.”

Despite the marketing of mindfulness as the latest hobby of the one percent, when it comes to the benefits of a meditation practice, the science is incontrovertible. A growing body of research unequivocally shows that a regular meditation practice is not only risk-free, but highly beneficial to the mind and body. Meditation has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, boost focus and improve sleep quality, among other benefits. And in just eight weeks, a meditation practice can create measurable brain changes in areas associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

Meditation is also a particularly effective antidote for many of the ailments so common in the modern workplace, including stress, tech addiction, workaholism, burnout and sleep deprivation. Seeing the positive impact of meditation on both an individual and a company-wide level, major companies such as Aetna and Google are offering free meditation classes for their employees.

"It's very early days still, but it seems to be making a difference," David Gelles, a New York Times reporter and author of Mindful Work, said of workplace meditation programs in a recent conversation with HuffPost Live.

Let's take a look at two of the main arguments in the recent mindfulness backlash -- and why they don't capture the full picture of the practice.

Criticism: It's elitist.

Meditation isn’t just for the rich, although it can be presented that way in the mainstream media. The movement is often represented by a serene-looking young blonde woman (thanks, Time) or a Silicon Valley tech titan -- but this picture that doesn't begin to tell the whole story of how mindfulness is changing lives.

In reality, the barrier to entry for meditation is fairly low -- much lower, for instance, than health interventions like eating all-organic or seeing a therapist. Anyone who is interested can find a wealth of information and guidance on meditation on the Internet. Mindfulness also doesn’t necessarily take a whole lot of time. Research has shown that even five or 10 minutes a day can make a difference.

Recent Northeastern University research showed that both taking a meditation course in-person with an experienced mindfulness instructor and practicing meditation for two weeks using the iPhone app Headspace had similarly positive outcomes for boosting compassion and altruistic behavior. The compelling research suggests that this finding might also extend to other important benefits of meditation, including reduced anxiety and depression, and improved cognitive function.

What's more, mindfulness is making waves far beyond the C-suite. Meditation training has been incorporated into public school curriculums, mental health care and end-of-life care. It's helping doctors and nurses fight burnout, new mothers overcome post-partum depression, and veterans cope with PTSD -- certainly a diverse group that goes far beyond the upper-middle class.

Another common argument is that mindfulness leads us to focus too much on the self. But really, at its core, mindfulness is about compassion and connection.

“The entire purpose for practicing mindfulness is to tune into the world and engage with reality and society more deeply,” Shambhala meditation teacher Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, wrote in a 2014 blog post, noting that this objective is often overshadowed.

But if the research is conclusive about one thing, it's this: Practicing mindfulness for any purpose boosts feelings of compassion, empathy and connection with others, and as the Northeastern studies showed, those who spent just two weeks practicing meditation were more likely to act selflessly to help others in need.

Secularized mindfulness doesn't focus as much on the idea of interconnection as spiritual mindfulness does -- but that doesn't mean it doesn't help to connect us to each other and move us to action. As Google's mindfulness guru Chade-Meng Tan insists, a mindfulness practice naturally cultivates emotional intelligence, and when we become more emotionally intelligent, "goodness and world peace [are] the unavoidable side-effects."

Congressman Tim Ryan, who has worked to bring mindfulness to veterans with PTSD, exemplifies mindfulness paired with social activism. At a recent New York City event, Ryan advised those who want to make a difference in the world to practice meditation -- and then to act. “Get off the mat and into the world," he said.

Where is the mindfulness movement heading?

A backlash is a natural phase of growth for any major movement -– in a way, the fact that there’s a backlash attests to the fact that mindfulness is catching on.

As mindfulness is getting more popular and going mainstream, the practice has and will continue to be misrepresented and exploited in different contexts. But that doesn’t mean the whole idea is misguided. The practice has lasted 2,500 years for one simple reason: Because it works.

Giving as many people as possible the opportunity to experience the benefits of meditation means that more people will open themselves up to learning about the practice in an authentic way -- even if, as the Buddhists say, they didn't go into it initially with "right intention." Those who begin a mindfulness practice as a way to become more effective at work may end up starting a spiritual practice, or exercising greater compassion in their daily lives, because of it. As the Buddhist proverb goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.”

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