Recently, I was listening to a Sam Harris podcast episode where he interviewed Richard Dawkins. At one point in the podcast, he attempted to lead Dawkins through a mindful meditation session, to which Dawkins responded, “I couldn’t stand it … I was listening to your words and I was keeping my eyes shut and doing everything you said. I couldn’t see the point of it … Five minutes would be about my limit I think1.” I do enjoy Harris’s interviews, but his avocation for meditation borders on evangelism. Although I do meditate myself, I also have several friends who say they do not benefit from meditation, or it leads them to anxiety. Although mindfulness and meditation can be powerful tools, it’s important to remember that humans are complex, and what works for one person, may not work for everyone.
There are studies that show mindfulness can be positively associated with psychological health2. Studies also show that meditation can cause physical changes to the brain, increase the brain’s cortical thickness and enhance various cognitive processes, such as emotional regulation, executive control and attention3. However, in some cases, meditation can also lead to anxiety.
A close friend of mine was struggling with mental health issues, and her mental health provider suggested meditation. Years before, I had attempted to lead her in meditation, and like Dawkins, she didn’t feel she gained much from the experience. Even with the guidance of her mental health provider, she told me meditation would sometimes lead to increased anxiety. She assumed this was specific to her, but it reminded me of an account by Oliver Burkeman in his book The Antidote. Burkeman jumped straight into a week long meditation retreat, and it was going well until the fourth day:
“And then it all went wrong. Without my noticing the precise moment of transition, the silence of the meditation hall became a combination of courtroom and torture chamber. For hours, I was attacked by barrages of negative thoughts and their associated emotions – anxious ones, guilty ones, worried ones, hostile, bored, impatient and even terrified ones – as if they had all been gathering, just out of sight, for years, waiting for this moment to pounce. Above all, they were self-critical. I was suddenly aware – and somehow all at once – of countless occasions in my life on which I had behaved badly towards other people: my parents, my sister, friends, girlfriends, or colleagues. Many of these infractions were relatively small in the scheme of things – harsh words spoken, relationships insufficiently nurtured – but they filled me with sorrow. Months afterwards, I would encounter Buddhist writings suggesting that this was a well-recognised early step on the ‘progress of insight’, the stages through which a meditator is traditionally held to pass: it was called ‘knowledge of cause and effect’, and had to do with perceiving afresh how one’s actions always had consequences. The sorrow that accompanied these realisations, from a Buddhist point of view, is a good thing; it is the fertile soil in which compassion can take root.” -The Antidote, Burkeman4
There are many benefits to meditation. Yet for some, instead of reducing stress and clearing one’s mind, it can lead to increased anxiety. Sometimes this can be mitigated by reducing the length of time spent meditating or the frequency of meditation sessions. One can also attempt different meditation techniques. Still, if anxiety persists and you don’t feel any benefits from meditation, or if you find you have relaxation-based anxiety, there is nothing wrong with stopping. There may be other ways to center yourself, and mindfulness may simply not be right for you.
Commercialization of Mindfulness
There is a growing criticism that mindfulness is being commoditized. There are a number of commercial websites, books, and phone apps all geared to selling individuals the benefits of meditation packaged in beautifully illustrated artwork, or narrated by award-winning voice actors. Departing from its Buddhist roots, commercial mindfulness could be used to help us deal with the stress of day-to-day life without forcing us to wrestle with the causes of those stresses.
“In his book, McMindfulness, Ronald Purser says this commodified form of mindfulness is a problem because it’s too pragmatic. In an effort to make it more compatible with modern science, and more consumable for the masses, mindfulness has been stripped of all its Buddhist context, and therefore, striped of its ethics. Much like a McDonald’s Big Mac, mindfulness has been scaled and controlled, creating a global branded product that is easy to sell over and over again to anyone.” -Mindfulness: Is it Deep or Dumb5
Mindful meditation may have once moved humans to question our impulse to consume goods to satisfy our desires. Purser argues that today, mindfulness is peddled to us in order to make us “better adjusted cogs5”. Companies often offer workplace meditation and yoga programs, to promote mindfulness and calm their employees, to keep them from focusing on the fact that they are trapped in their cubicles.
“…corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments…“ -Purser, Beyond McMindfulness6
Different Forms of Mindfulness and Meditation
Washing dishes by hand can often become an absent minded or autonomous task. Similar to driving a car or riding a bicycle, once sufficiently trained, our brains handle such tasks at a subconscious level, sometimes referred to as being on autopilot. One’s conscious mind might think about other things such as projects that need to be completed or reflections on the day, while the subconscious completes the task. Being mindful means that, instead of listening to a podcast or the radio, one focuses on a task with explicit attention. In the case of washing dishes, every plate and glass is examined in the front of one’s mind, in the context of it being washed.
When it comes to mindful meditation, most techniques are based around focusing on one’s breath. By focusing on the breath, one can slow and focus one’s mind. Some schools of meditation involve clearing one’s mind and avoiding thoughts. This focus on the breath can help keep the mind clear; not racing around in a stream of consciousness with all types of words and ideas. Some people try to label thoughts as they come into the conscious mind. For example, a thought about a task at work may lead the meditator to simply think of the label “work,” as a technique to let the thought fade.
There are other schools of meditation that are not based around pushing out thoughts. Instead of actively clearing the mind, focusing on the breath allows one to step back from the conscious mind. Thoughts may come, but the meditator doesn’t engage with them. By focusing on the breath, thoughts become like clouds in the sky, where the meditator is simply observing them.
There are also guided forms of meditation, where someone may describe the above techniques to an individual or group, at the start of a meditation session, then eventually fading into silence. Other forms of guided meditation involve talking through the entire meditation session, sometimes with a focus on a particular theme or relaxation. There is also walking meditation, where focus is placed on being mindfully aware of each intentional footstep. Some meditators use mantras, phrases or chants that one repeats over and over again, either in the mind or out loud. Sometimes these phrases are in one’s own language and make sense, and other techniques may use a historic phrase in another language.
Mindful meditation can come in many forms. It can be an active, fully-aware, introspective examination of one’s thoughts, or it can be a means to separate one’s self from one’s thoughts in order to view them as a passive observer. These techniques cannot completely calm the mind or keep thoughts or ideas from popping into our heads. But the intention behind them is that we become aware of the fact that our minds are often racing. Our conscious and subconscious are continually churning over within ourselves. Even when one loses focus on the breath or mantra, and active thoughts come racing in, mindful meditation can help us become more aware of just how many thoughts we have and how fast our brains think. When we realize we have broken from our focus on the breath, we create moments of true mindfulness, as well as creating space between our thoughts.
Meditation is a tool that many people use to combat stress, help maintain focus, and to generally improve their approach to life. Still, there are those who don’t find benefit in it, and even some for whom it increases anxiety. It can be a powerful tool, but it has to be a tool you believe in, for it to really work for you. It’s also not the only tool in finding clarity. Running, dancing, prayer, massage, hiking and other actives can also help people to center themselves.
For people who haven’t tried it, I would still encourage attempting meditation. I’d suggest trying various types including guided meditation, mantras, unguided silence and group meditations. Meditation groups can vary greatly, so if a number of different Buddhist or meditation centers are available in your community, try a couple of them. Still, if you’ve tried meditation and find it unhelpful, there is nothing wrong with that either. We each are responsible for finding our own path, and our own meaning, in a potentially meaningless universe.
Making Sense with Sam Harris - #174 - Life & Mind A Conversation with Richard Dawkins. 4 November 2019. (01:30:15 Podcast) ↩
Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. 11 June 2013. Keng, Smoski, and Robinsa. Clinical Psychology Review. ↩
The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. 8 June 2012. Kang, Jo, Jung, Kim, Jung, Choi, Lee, An, Jang, Kwon. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. ↩
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. 2012. Burkeman. (p. 70) ↩
MINDFULNESS: Is It Deep or Dumb? – Wisecrack Edition. Wisecrack. (10:10 Video) ↩ ↩2