(The Conversation) – Mindfulness is seemingly everywhere these days. A Google search I conducted in January 2022 for the term “mindfulness” resulted in nearly 3 billion hits. The practice is now regularly offered at workplaces, schools, offices of psychologists and hospitals across the country.
Most of the public’s enthusiasm for mindfulness comes from the reputation it has for reducing stress. But scholars and researchers working on mindfulness, and the Buddhist tradition itself, paint a more complex picture than the popular media.
Mindfulness originated in the Buddhist practice of “anapana-sati”, a Sanskrit phrase meaning “consciousness of breathing”. Buddhist historian Erik Braun traced the origins of the current popularity of meditation to colonial Burma – present-day Myanmar – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meditation, which until that time was practiced almost exclusively in monasteries, was introduced in a simplified format to the general public that was easier to learn.
The gradual spread of meditation from then until now is a surprisingly complex story.
In the US, meditation first began to be practiced among various communities of spiritual seekers as early as the 19th century. It was adopted by professional psychotherapists in the early 20th century. By the 21st century, it had become a mass-market phenomenon promoted by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The process of translating the Buddhist practice of meditation on cultural divides changed the practice in important ways. Modern meditation often has different goals and priorities than traditional Buddhist meditation. It tends to focus on stress reduction, mental health as concrete benefits in daily life instead of mental development, liberation or enlightenment.
A pivotal moment in this transformation was the creation of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) protocol by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in 1979. The stress reduction program introduced a standardized way of learning meditation to patients so that their health benefits can be more strictly measured by scientists.
Research into this new kind of “medicalized” mindfulness has begun to gather steam over the past two decades. As of today, there are more than 21,000 mindfulness research articles in the National Library of Medicine’s online database – two and a half times as many articles as have been published on yoga, tai chi and reiki combined.
Scientific evidence vs. mindfulness hype
Medical researchers themselves have a much more measured opinion on the benefits of meditation than the popular press.
For example, a 2019 meta-analysis, which is a review of many individual scientific studies, showed that the evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and other meditation-based interventions has “significant limitations” and that the research “methodological shortcomings ” has got.
Based on their review of the scientific literature, the authors warned against falling prey to “mindfulness hype.” On the positive side, they found various forms of meditation more or less comparable to the conventional therapies currently used to treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain and substance use. On the other hand, they concluded that more evidence is needed before strong claims can be made regarding treatment of conditions such as attention deficit disorders, PTSD, dysregulated eating or serious mental illness.
More worryingly, some researchers are even beginning to suggest that a certain percentage of patients may experience adverse side effects from the practice of meditation, including increased anxiety, depression or, in extreme cases, even psychosis. While the causes of these side effects are not yet fully understood, it is clear that for some patients, therapeutic meditation is far from the panacea that it is often created.
Put mindfulness back in context
As a historian of the relationship between Buddhism and medicine, I argue that mindfulness can be a beneficial practice for many people, but that we need to understand the broader context in which it is developed and practiced for centuries. Mindfulness is one small part of a diverse range of healing techniques and perspectives that the Buddhist tradition has developed and maintained over many centuries.
In a recent book, I traced the world history of the many ways in which religion has contributed to the development of medicine over the past 2,400 years or so. Buddhist tradition advocates innumerable contemplations, devotional practices, herbal remedies, dietary advice, and ways to synchronize the human body with the environment and the seasons, all of which are related to healing.
These ideas and practices are enormously influential around the world, as well as in Buddhist communities in the US. Such interventions have been particularly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic – for example, through the medical charity of large international Buddhist organizations, as well as through health advice given by high-profile monasteries such as the Dalai Lama.
Buddhism always has a lot to say about health. But perhaps the most important of its many contributions is its teaching that our physical and mental well-being are intricately intertwined – not only with each other, but also with the health and vitality of all living beings.
Medical meditation is now a self-help tool that generates more than US $ 1 billion a year, leading some critics to label it “McMindfulness”. But placing mindfulness back in a Buddhist ethical context shows that it is not enough to simply meditate to reduce our own stress or to navigate the challenges of the modern world more effectively.
As I argue in my most recent book, Buddhist ethics asks us to look up from our meditation pillows and to look beyond our individual selves. It requires us to appreciate how everything is connected and how our actions and choices affect our lives, our society and the environment. The emphasis, even in healing ourselves, is always on becoming agents of compassion, healing, and well-being for the whole.
(Pierce Salguero, Associate Professor of Asian History & Religious Studies, Penn State.