The problem with mindfulness

Summary: While those who promote mindfulness claim the practice offers massive amounts of health and psychological benefits, very little scientific evidence backs up the claim.

Source: The Conversation

Mindfulness, it seems everybody’s doing it. You might have even tried it yourself – or have a regular practice. Thanks to the help of an app on your phone that speaks to you in dulcet tones, you are reminded to “let go” and to “observe your breath”. From the public education to healthcare, the corporate world to the criminal justice system, parliament to the military, mindfulness is promoted as a cure-all for modern ills.

Yet the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness is not strong. In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a number of psychologists and cognitive scientists warn that despite the hype, scientific data on mindfulness is limited. They caution:

Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.

Studies on mindfulness are known for their numerous methodological and conceptual problems. This includes small sample sizes, lack of control groups, and insufficient use of valid measures.

To this list, the possibility of competing interests can also be added. In a recent example, the mega-journal PLOS ONE retracted a meta-analysis on mindfulness after concerns were raised over the methodology behind the results, including “double counting” and “incorrect effect estimates”. The PLOS retraction also cited undeclared financial conflicts of interest by the authors. The journal noted that none of the authors agreed with the retraction.

Despite these issues, mindfulness has never been more popular and its influence in mainstream culture is massive, as can be seen in the creation of a new professorship in mindfulness and psychological science at the University of Oxford.

The position was created by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which became affiliated with the university’s Department of Psychiatry in 2011, after initially establishing as a private company in 2007 and later registering as a charity. It has since become a key player in shaping both the academic studies of mindfulness and the public’s perception of the practice.

A brief history of mindfulness

Mindfulness is a type of meditation derived from the Buddhist tradition. It encourages the observation of present thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations in a non-judgemental way. But how did it gain such prominence in Western mainstream culture?

For a start, the modern concept of Buddhism that Westerners relate to today did not exist a century ago. This new style of Buddhism is known as “Buddhist Modernism”, or “Protestant Buddhism” – a reform movement of the late 19th century.

This form of Buddhism was developed as a result of the influence of Christian missionaries and to the colonialism and imperialism of South-East Asia by European nations. To respond to their colonial situation, the elite of the movement reshaped Buddhism by aligning it to Western science and philosophy. This was done by representing Buddhism as rational, universal and compatible with science – with an emphasis placed upon meditation and personal reflection.

The advocates of this reform projected modern Western values onto Buddhist teachings who claimed to teach the “pure” Buddhism as taught by the historical Buddha himself.

Contemporary meditation teachers, including Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ), the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction(MBSR) – an eight-week programme that offers mindfulness training to help people with stress and pain – inherited and popularised this version of Buddhism.

When pressed about the Buddhist elements of their courses, teachers such as JKZ argue the technique is not Buddhist, but the “essence” of the Buddha’s teachings. These are said to be “universal” and compatible with science. Or as JKZ has put it, “the Buddha himself was not a Buddhist”.

This shows a swirly meditating person
Mindfulness is being sold to us and we are buying it. The image is in the public domain.

These associations with Buddhism allows advocates of mindfulness to relish the legitimacy associated with the historical Buddha – yet at the same time avoid any undesired “religious” connotations. Likewise, when mindfulness is declared as “universal” then it seems to be less about Buddhism and more about a “basic human ability”.

Science and mindfulness

The idea that mindfulness is secular because it is scientifically tested is a common strategy used by advocates of mindfulness to disassociate the practice from its religious foundation and to promote it in clinical and educational settings.

It is well documented that JKZ intentionally downplayed the Buddhist roots of mindfulness to introduce it in clinical settings. In JKZ’s own words, he “bent over backward to structure it [MBSR] and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist”. In essence then he translated Buddhist ideas into scientific and secular language.

This approach takes advantage of the authority of science in modern Western cultures as well as the perceived opposition of “science” with “religion”. And by aligning mindfulness with science, its opposition to “religion” is implicitly conveyed.

Legitimatising mindfulness

Appealing to science and empirical studies are not the only methods that mindfulness leaders have used to lend explicit legitimacy to mindfulness. The flourish of MA and PhD programmes, specific journals, conferences, university affiliated research centres – and now the professorship – demonstrate the movement’s efforts to legitimise and secure the future of mindfulness as an academic enterprise.

But although mindfulness claims to offer a staggering collection of possible health benefits – and aligns itself with science and academia to be seen as credible – as yet there is remarkably little scientific evidence backing it up.

That’s not to say a lot of people don’t find it beneficial. Indeed, many people practice mindfulness every day and feel it helps them in their lives. The problem is though that there is still a lot of researchers do not know about mindfulness – and ultimately the field needs a much more systematic and rigorous approach to be able to support such claims.

Funding: Masoumeh Sara Rahmani received funding from University of Kent to study Unbelief in the context of the Mindfulness movement.

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Masoumeh Sara Rahmani – The Conversation
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The image is in the public domain.

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  1. Reply to F.M.Lakhani: Mindfulness is not merely relaxation. In fact, several randomized studies have used relaxation as the control group (when exploring the effectiveness of mindfulness). Further, many studies have consistently demonstrated that rumination, worry, etc., is substantially reduced when someone engages in mindfulness practices. This is a very important finding because other studies have found that these mental habits (like rumination) are a ‘transdiagnostic’ risk factor for the development of mental problems (i.e., they have the same underlying mechanism). See for example, the following review:

    Tomlinson, E. R., Yousaf, O., Vittersø, A. D., & Jones, L. (2017). Dispositional mindfulness and psychological health: a systematic review. Mindfulness, 1-21.

  2. I fully agree with Lewis’s highly thought-provoking comment here. I would add that we shouldn’t forget that the Buddha himself encouraged people not to accept any teaching just because it was handed to them by tradition, from any other means or even out of respect for the Buddha himself, but to examine everything very critically (the way a goldsmith carefully analyzes gold) – see the reference:

    Bodhi, B. (2012). The numerical discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

    In other words, the Buddha used a strict ‘scientific approach’ to understand the mind and consciousness and this is what he presented to the world. His understanding represents a very different epistemology (a way of knowing) than science – the following article could also be useful to understand this:

    Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2019). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom, Current Psychology, 38(3), 627–646.

  3. There have been several well-conducted studies on mindfulness recently. Below are a few examples of articles published in very good journals:

    David A. et al. (2019). Closed-loop digital meditation improves sustained attention in young adults. Nature Human Behaviour

    Kirk, U., et al. (2019). Short-term mindfulness practice attenuates reward prediction errors signals in the brain. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 6964.

    Lindsay, et al. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201813588.

    Greenberg, J., et al. (2019). Reduced interference in working memory following mindfulness training is associated with increases in hippocampal volume. Brain Imaging And Behavior, 13(2), 366-376.

    Cavicchioli, M., et al. (2018). The clinical efficacy of mindfulness-based treatments for alcohol and drugs use disorders: a meta-analytic review of randomized and nonrandomized controlled trials. European addiction research, 24, 137-162.

    Schöne, B., et al. (2018). Mindful breath awareness meditation facilitates efficiency gains in brain networks: A steady-state visually evoked potentials study. Scientific reports, 8(1), 13687.

    Kaplan, D. M., et al. (2018). Maladaptive repetitive thought as a transdiagnostic phenomenon and treatment target: An integrative review. Journal of Clinical Psychology.

    Sevinc, G., et al. (2018). Common and Dissociable Neural Activity After Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Relaxation Response Programs. Psychosomatic medicine, 80(5), 439.

    Goldberg, S. B., et al. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions for psychiatric disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 59, 52-60.

    Galante, J., et al. (2017). A mindfulness-based intervention to increase resilience to stress in university students (the Mindful Student Study): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Public Health.


    “There is a common misperception in public and government domains that compelling clinical evidence exists for the broad and strong efficacy of mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention,” wrote a group of 15 scholars in “Mind the Hype, ” an article that appeared in January in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Yet the reality is that mindfulness-based therapies have shown “a mixture of only moderate, low or no efficacy, depending on the disorder being treated,” the scholars added, citing a 2014 meta-analysis commissioned by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

    Much more research is needed before scientists can say what mental and physical disorders, and which individuals, can be effectively treated with mindfulness meditation, they conclude.

    Still, some studies do suggest that meditation that promotes mindfulness can help people relax, manage chronic stress and even reduce reliance on pain medication. Psychologist David Creswell, who directs the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, thinks that sitting still and focusing one’s attention on the mere act of breathing, the core of many mindfulness meditation practices, can help.

  5. I tried to keep an open mind on this article and am now realizing this was just click bait. First time I’ve ever heard anyone argue against mindfulness , sitting alone with your thoughts, they are just trying to be controversial

  6. I do not understand the scepticism that surrounds mindfulness. There is nothing harmful in nature about mindfulness and I really do not understand what there is to be disappointed about. Mindfulness is just paying attention to what you’re doing, presently; it is not restricted to focusing on the breath. But obviously positivists who cling to scientific validation to determine what’s reliable and trusted will of course disparage what they view as pseudoscience. I wouldn’t even say it is derived from the Buddhist tradition. Sure, it is associated with it, but who’s to say that no one else was practising, or had practised before Buddhism, the simple task of paying attention to the present. I really doubt that it is a meditative exercise exclusive to Buddhism in its origins.

    As for Kabat-Zinn saying it is the essence of Buddha’s teachings, he is right. Likewise, the essence of Buddhism has no religious connotations. Buddha never treated his teachings as a doctrine or something to follow and devote your life to (if these are what you think are characteristics of religion). We understand Buddhism as a religion, partly because of its name and the ‘ism’, but also partly because it is a worldwide practice. But it is not religious. Forms of it might appear like that, but in its essence, Buddhism is not religious. Without investigating, however, it’s easy to just presume that it’s another religion. You’re treating “advocates of mindfulness” as if they are some deceitful sect of people that lie about the truth of mindfulness. There is nothing malicious or manipulative involved – but to a sceptic, I can see how that can warrant an unwarranted deduction. They are not exploiting the teachings of the Buddha by popularising mindfulness. Buddhism is a very accessible and simple framework to apply to your life. They are not steering clear of anything undesired. Mindfulness isn’t limited to Buddhism, nor in fact are its teachings. There is no authority involved to say you have to be Buddhist to practice its teachings. What’s stated in Buddhism are things which are “a basic human ability”. Its teachings are not elusive to the world. That’s what it deals with, humanity. Why would meditation be associated with a tradition? Assuming mindfulness has to be related to Buddhism is like not eating certain foods because they are from overseas. You can practice something without having to label it.

    Again, mindfulness has no religious foundation. Buddhism IS secular. Really, there is no disassociation from its “foundation” just because it is not referring to Buddhism. If a Buddhist talks about mindfulness, they don’t have to remind or tell everyone that it is a Buddhist practice, because that is not the Buddhist philosophy. There is no attachment, so why would they cling to the idea of having Buddhist-only teachings? Its teachings ARE universal. And again, I still don’t understand why you perceive advocates of mindfulness as exploitative people, concealing the truth about mindfulness, which would lead people to be horrified! If anything, promoting it in clinical and educational settings is just Buddhism in practice, if you’re saying mindfulness can only be associated with Buddhism.

    There is no need to talk about its Buddhist roots to introduce it in clinical settings. Does it help to tell patients the history of medical practices? No, that doesn’t help them be treated. The same with mindfulness. Saying what its origins are, or supposedly, is not helping put it to use. Because, obviously, the origins of something and what it is are different, even more so is its application. Or, you could even use the analogy of how knowing all the details about an arrow and speculating about it doesn’t help removing it from someone’s body. So yes, on those terms I guess you could say he “downplayed” the “Buddhist roots of mindfulness”.

    There is nothing opposing about mindfulness and religion and if you want to call Buddhism a religion, then it isn’t a religion that even opposes science. Just because mindfulness is aligned with science, that doesn’t mean it now opposes Buddhism. Mindfulness doesn’t claim anything, nor does it attempt to be credible: it’s not autonomous. You’re confusing the practice itself with those that practice and teach it.

    How is there a problem? Mindfulness is one of the simplest exercises to do. What more is there to know about it? It is paying attention to the present. That’s it. Saying there is “a lot” researchers still do not know about mindfulness is trying to intellectualise it. How can you intellectualise the present? The problem, it seems, is that researchers don’t know as much about it as they want to before they decide whether it’s credible. But that is not their authority. There is nothing deceitful about mindfulness. This just makes it seem like researchers want to control it on their own terms, which WOULD be manipulative and possibly deceitful. That’s not to say some teachers don’t represent it on their own terms, but they don’t pretend to be authorities on determining whether it’s credible; they just show its benefits.

    Trying to apply a scientific framework to something which is non-scientific in nature is always going to cause problems. If you’re ever approaching something outside of its original context, you’ll just misinterpret it because you’re applying your own preconceptions and prejudices about it, rather than approaching it at face value. Why does the field need to research it further before they can act as the voice of authority on a subject they don’t primarily deal with on its own terms? This approach is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. But people always criticise what they don’t understand. So, by saying “the field needs a much more systematic and rigorous approach” you’re implying that is currently ineffective. So, that’s not the problem with mindfulness but rather the researchers. The world shouldn’t have to wait before researchers confirm whether it’s credible. All this scepticism surrounding mindfulness is just complicating it. And the scepticism likely comes from attitudes towards teachers of mindfulness, rather than dealing with what it is. Deducing things about it from secondary sources and interpreters of mindfulness rather than dealing with it in its original context, like in Buddhist traditions. How can you ever understand something if you don’t approach it on its terms? .

  7. This article is as bad as the rest of the media by cherry picking the one article that appears to back up the initial statements made in the article. All that was said was that there is very little science to back up the claims of mindfulness. This is not the only time this website has done this. Neuroscience News is credibility.

  8. A recent critical review of the mindfulness intervention for pain literature finds that 9 of 11 studies of clinical pain found significantly lower pain intensity ratings after mindfulness-based interventions (Reiner, Tibi, & Lipsitz, 2013).

    Also see: Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Major Depression by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – John D. Teasdale Zindel V. Segal J. Mark G. Williams Valerie A. Ridgeway Judith M. Soulsby Mark A. Lau – Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology August 2000 Vol. 68, No. 4, 615-623
    Metacognitive Awareneness and prevention of relapse in depression: Empirical evidence, J. Teasdale etal. JCCP, 2002, 70, 275-287

  9. Rahmani is out of touch with neuroscientific research done since 2000: there is the HeartMath Institute which is “systematic and rigorous” and academic that has done numerous research projects and continues to do so to establish and verify the neuroscience of what they term the heart optimal performance technique, which is similar to mindfulness. The HeartMath Institute is highly regarded in academic circles.

  10. I’ve read a study that showed the imaging of brains of Buddhist monks showed clear evidence of the benefits of daily meditation. It’s similar to the alcoholic anonymous program. No scientific evidence it works yet millions attend meetings and follow its program remaining sober.

  11. Sure, mindfulness is not backed by science. In reality, people would be much better off taking lots of pills to deal with their stress and depression. After all, pills ARE backed by science, right?

  12. What a non sense article: The problem with mindfulness.

    I read all and there is no trace of news about problems.

  13. The very purpose of mindfulness or other meditation method is to relax mind . If mind is trained to concentrate on one subject at time then too it gets relaxation . Listening music or classical song gives almost same result .

  14. What about the neurological studies the Dali Lama and his fellow monks did with MIT? Or in particular Mattheui Ricard? There has been research with neuroplasticity using data from the Dali Lama and other Buddhist monks that proved that massive hours of meditation had changed the physical structure of their brains.

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