Science & Health

Authentic mindfulness in the era of ‘wellness’

Meditation and mindfulness practices in Western nations are booming. One report estimates that 55 million Americans engaged in meditation in 2017, a nearly 250 per cent increase from five years earlier.

Mindfulness and meditation can offer considerable benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved sleep, and better pain management. There are also claims that it can enhance performance, and productivity, and give you a competitive edge.

We’re also seeing mindfulness and meditation programs being rolled out in schools, hospitals, and workplaces across Australia. 

Unfortunately, the evidence is lost among the enthusiasm.

While mindfulness and meditation show considerable promise, there are few, if any, regulations on who provides training, or when and how it’s done. And there is a strong incentive for the wellness industry to avoid regulation. The Global Wellness Institute reported that, as of 2020, the mindfulness and meditation industry is worth around US$2.9 billion which is predicted to increase to about US$9 billion by 2027.

This lack of regulation of what is a huge industry means that evidence-based and tradition-backed practices are being offered alongside pseudo-scientific fads. The public is left to sift among the offerings to try to find something that actually works.

This is where the Contemplative Studies Centre comes in. One of the goals behind establishing the Centre at the University of Melbourne was to help individuals, government, businesses and researchers to access information about authentic and effective contemplative practices.

Without guidelines about which practices work, what the practices entail, and information about who might be best positioned to teach them, people may (at a minimum) waste a lot of time and money, or actually, be harmed by the practices.

But, before we get too far into the practices themselves, it is helpful to clarify what we’re talking about. Many people use the terms mindfulness and meditation interchangeably. They aren’t the same thing.

This lack of regulation of what is a huge industry means that evidence-based and tradition-backed practices are being offered alongside pseudo-scientific fads.

Meditation refers to a number of practices that are designed to focus the attention, often on a particular object, like breathing, but it can also be a mantra or an image. These meditation practices are used in many different ways with goals ranging from relaxation and mental wellbeing to enlightenment.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a term that reflects a particular idea originating from within Buddhism. And it typically reflects the way in which one focuses their attention on the present moment, with care and non-judgment.

Contemplative practices refer to an even broader array of approaches than meditation and generally refer to activities wherein there is careful examination or consideration of experience (often introspective but it can be externally focused as well).

Back to the practices themselves. One of the biggest challenges is that mindfulness isn’t clearly defined. Jon Kabat-Zinn (the man largely responsible for popularising mindfulness in the Western world) has described mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.

Even this definition, though, is the subject of some debate. While academics, scholars, and practitioners try to work out what is and what isn’t mindfulness, market forces have capitalised on the confusion and have labelled all sorts of activities, from colouring in, to blowing bubbles to listening to music, as ‘mindful’.

Adding to the confusion, wellness retreats, psychotherapy that incorporates mindfulness, and alternative medical approaches, are mixed in with “traditional meditation” and established mindfulness-based practices.

There is now a lot of science and popular literature attesting to the benefits of mindfulness. These benefits are often based on studies of structured multi-week programs that incorporate formal meditation training and are led by an experienced teacher/instructor. And, yet, when people do an internet search for how to learn mindfulness, the established, structured programs appear alongside online courses, for-profit apps, corporate seminars, and wellness retreats.

It’s no surprise that people are confused about whether mindfulness works given that the term is used in so many different ways.

And this brings us to the heart of the problem. We desperately need evidence-based guidelines to help people discern between the plethora of offerings (modern and historic) to ensure optimal outcomes for all.

Scientists, clinicians and teachers need to be clear about which practices work, in what amounts (i.e., how much you have to do), and for what goals or to address what problems. While we know that mindfulness-based programs generally benefit people, the programs themselves vary in how well they work for different people with different issues.

Scientists, clinicians and teachers need to be clear about which practices work…

Though many suggest mobile versions of mindfulness programs are great, the data suggests that they probably don’t work as well as traditional face-to-face programs. In fact, we know relatively little about mindfulness programs other than the more traditional mindfulness-based programs (often eight-week interventions modelled on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction).

That isn’t to say that these other offerings don’t have potential – they absolutely do. But we can’t say how well they work, for whom they work, or how much one needs to do in order to benefit. This is exactly the work that needs to be done now so that everyone from healthcare providers to teachers to end users have reliable information about what they can expect.

Without this information, many probably will be misled at best and harmed at worst.

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

Photo by William Farlow on Unsplash.


About Nicholas Van Dam

Nicholas Van Dam is Associate Professor at the School of Psychological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne; Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai.

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