Something about the roots of meditation.
There are many different forms of meditation. Meditation itself is an ancient technique to calm the mind. It is practiced in Buddhism. The central figure in Buddhism is Siddharta Gautama. In Buddhist tradition it is believed that he was a young prince, destined to become the king of a small kingdom in the Himalaya. The young prince was so deeply touched by the suffering he saw, once he got out of his sheltered life. He saw children, older people, man and woman not only suffering as a consequence of catastrophes but also people suffering through fear, frustration and discontent. All conditions of the human kind, the condition humaine.
He was determined to examine suffering ‘till he would find salvation. After a long while of traveling, speaking and listening to gurus and after extended times of meditation, Gautama concluded that the human suffering isn’t a consequence of social injustice, bad luck or a Divine decision. Suffering is caused by thought patterns in the mind. Whatever the mind encounters, it reacts always with desire and with desire comes discontentment.
Gautama discovered a way to break that cycle. When the mind encounters painful things and doesn’t want to get rid of them or when the mind doesn’t desire more of pleasurable things, it accepts the things as they come without any suffering. When you’re feeling sad without the desire to get rid of the feeling, you’ll keep on feeling the sadness but without the (added) suffering. Gautama practiced meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality without further desires. It is important to focus on what the experience is in the moment and not to focus on what a better experience could or should be in the future. When the mind is free of all desires, Nirvana is reached and one is free of suffering. You will experience sadness, joy and unpleasant things, but you don’t suffer.
We suffer because we have desires is an universal law.
Is Mindfulness a cure-all?
Jon Kabat-Zinn made the term mindfulness (a form of meditation) very popular in the West. He introduced the different techniques of mindfulness in the clinical field and studied how to implement those into the treatment of stress reduction.
Mindfulness is incredibly popular. You can download apps for a five minutes practice, you can read hundreds of books about it, you can book a retreat for a few weeks to immerse yourself in it. What do people claim that it’s good for? It is ‘said’ to be helpful with everything under the sun: depression, relapse, addiction, insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety and obesity and a few more …. But does it work and what is the evidence for those claims? Is it a safe practice or are there signs to watch out for?
The essence of mindfulness would be paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmental. This is based on Buddhism but it is said that mindfulness is a more secular approach.
Mindfulness includes the practice of meditation but it’s not exclusively that. It can be a body scan or a seated meditation. You can practice mindfulness in your day-to-day like mindfully eating, mindfully showering and mindfully knitting.
Is Mindfulness a hype or can it really be beneficial?
Mindfulness techniques can be used to prevent relapse in depression. When your mood drops a little and then a little more and then your depressive thought pattern kicks in and a vicious circle arises. Mindfulness (being aware of your thoughts) can help you to pause that thought pattern and to choose something else.
Mindfulness is a skill to recognize your thought patterns, pause them and choose something else.
Research shows that mindfulness can help with anhedonia. Being mindful to the small things in life like smelling the coffee in the morning, feeling the sun on your face or noticing how your carpet feels on your bare feet, can help people to re-connect with the smallest pleasures in life. Those small positives can mean a real break for people who are depressed.
Mindfulness is delivered in group form which is cost-effective. There is increasing evidence that mindfulness can help coping with everyday stresses. It is beneficial to bring that kind of awareness into your life. It would be interesting to see if mindfulness can help to improve prevention of mental illnesses and promote well being in puberty. A large study about that seems to be ongoing.
Are there harmful effects of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is being described as the holy grail of a lot of ailments. Are there any downsides to it or is the worst thing that can happen that nothing happens at all? I find that this question isn’t as highlighted as it should be in current times. Hence the reason why I’ll end this post on a cautionary note.
In a typical mindfulness session you will be sitting on the ground in silence, focusing on your breathing and being aware of your thoughts and feelings. There is a range of effects that can happen, some of them adverse. One (!) study reported that 25% of the participants experienced unwanted effects. You can experience stress, anxiety and panic symptoms. Also symptoms of depression were being reported. Symptoms like delusions, hallucinations, feeling disconnected to yourself (depersonalization). It is also possible to experience flash-backs, disturbing or intrusive thoughts. The mindfulness techniques are focused on my mind and thoughts, so sometimes your (dysfunctional) thought processes will come to light. That could be connected to the way we give meaning to our experiences while doing the mindfulness techniques.
Not to say that you shouldn’t do mindful meditation but this post serves more as a critique of the media and the popular opinion for a quest for a cure-all for everybody. It is important you normalize the range of experiences that can happen and ‘keep on meditating’ isn’t the answer.
Have you ever tried to be ‘mindful’? Are you familiar with the methods? Have you experienced benefits from it or maybe some of the side-effects? Do you have an opinion about mindfulness being so popular these days? Let me know in the comments!
Further reads, notes and resources.
 Harari, Y.N. (2012). Sapiens, a short history of human kind. (p. 242-243)