The Examined Life

Friday, April 11, 2014

7 Questions About Mindfulness That Still Need An Answer

Ed Halliwell on the next frontiers in mindfulness. 

It’s been a year since I updated this blog—a combination of teaching, book-writing, and a baby have squeezed the time I’ve had available for other things. Now with a little more space, I wondered how to begin again, especially with so much note-worthy happening in the world of mindfulness in the last 12 months.

To set some intention, I wrote down a list of seven mindfulness-related questions that seem live and unresolved. Many of them are concerned with the continuing rapid expansion of interest in mindfulness, and the possible opportunities and challenges this presents. I plan to touch on each of them more fully in the coming weeks and months.

The list isn’t meant as definitive or exhaustive, and there may not (yet) be clear answers to any of the questions. I would very much welcome your additions, disagreements, or any other comments. I will do my best to reflect on and address them in future posts.

1. Mindfulness is being adopted by the mainstream very quickly. Does this help or hinder the movement?

The huge interest in mindfulness carries great potential, but urgency of pursuit can easily leads to grasping for results, speediness, and surface-skimming. And these, of course, are the very stress-producing habits that mindfulness training is designed to address. I’ve noticed that some courses seem to be getting shorter, with less time, practice, and investment required. Is this doing participants, and mindfulness, a disservice, or can these skills really be mastered in a few weeks, days, hours or even minutes? I heard of one magazine editor recently declaring mindfulness to be ‘over’—they were already looking for the next big thing in well-being. If short attention spans and impulsivity are part of the problem, will over-simplification and impatience really be the answer?

2. How can deep, contemplative wisdom be preserved in non-religious mindfulness training?

Mindfulness is often talked of as the simple practice of ‘being in the moment.' Traditionally, meditative training is much more than this—it is embedded in ethics (how to live with wisdom and compassion), along with a pointing to the insubstantiality of our self-concepts, to which we painfully cling. These aspects are implicit (and sometimes explicit) in good mindfulness teaching, but the subtlety of their presentation means they can easily get left out, if not consciously curated. With so much science now happening in the fields of compassion, gratitude and appreciation, could these and other key evidence-based themes be integrated (or re-integrated) more explicitly into the mindfulness courses and cultures now being developed?

3. What happens when we move from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’ of mindfulness?

Until now, the modern mindfulness movement – both the science and the training - has focused on benefits to the individual. But what about the potential for changes to systems, institutions, and societies, which after all, have an impact on personal well-being (and vice versa)? If mindfulness is taught within a mindless culture, what gives? Can mindfulness start to infuse that culture with kindness, or will that culture bend mindfulness to its own ends, perhaps chipping away at its radicalism and presenting it as a palliative—a way of coping with systemic dysfunction rather than a means to change it? What might happen if the emphasis was more explicitly put on mindfulness as a social, or even political practice?

4. What are the key questions in mindfulness research?

It’s generally well-established that mindfulness courses are helpful for promoting well-being. The question to which researchers are increasingly turning towards is ‘how’? It’s been generally assumed that meditation practice is the key active ingredient in a course, but the science has been somewhat equivocal about this. Could it be that other factors are just as, if not more, important? A good mindfulness course generally provides a resonant, supportive group, and training in attitudes such as gentleness, compassion, steadfastness, appreciation, acceptance, and nurturing. How important are these to the health-producing changes that occur? What other aspects of traditional meditative training (such as ethics, exploration of self-nature, the making of commitments, the building of communities) might also be demonstrably beneficial? Are there more recent scientific discoveries (say, in the science of unconscious biases) where mindfulness training might have an impact? Early work is being carried out in these areas, and it will likely be fascinating to see the results.

5. What makes a good mindfulness teacher?

If you were looking to learn the piano, what would you look for in a teacher? Someone who loves music and can transmit their joy and passion? Someone who’s been playing themselves a long time and has a degree of proficiency? Someone who understands the pitfalls and difficulties and has the patience and skill to work with students? With no regulation of and huge demand for mindfulness courses, plus lots of enthusiasm among would-be teachers, how can we know if what’s being offered is helpful? Meditators in some traditions would be expected to train for decades before they began teaching others, and it’s often said that mindfulness is ‘caught’ as much as ‘taught,’ so will courses led by relatively inexperienced practitioners work as well? How can we help those looking for an authentic training to know what that might be, and to train those who want to deliver it?

6. What happens when a mindfulness course ends?

Many mindfulness courses are eight weeks long or less. Yet evidence and experience suggests that while remarkable changes can occur during such a short, intensive training, the possibility for deepening practice doesn’t end there—indeed, for most people, it’s only just beginning. And yet, while some teachers offer graduate courses and follow-up sessions, many people coming to the end of a mindfulness course report a sense of ‘falling off a cliff’—after a period of intensive support and learning, this ground suddenly falls away, as, frequently, does their practice, even though they are strongly motivated. In the rush to meet demand for ‘beginners’ courses, how can the yearning for connection be met, among those who’ve already started on this rewarding, challenging path?

7. Are there deeper reasons to practise than stress-reduction?

Reports in the media about the benefits of mindfulness can seem like a constant stream of good news – mental health, physical health, relationships, behavioural habits, competency, and creativity can all be improved, while stress relating to all sorts of circumstances can be reduced. This is excellent of course, but what about the aspects of being alive that are less easy to face up to? Does mindfulness have a role, for example, in working with the knowledge that we, and everyone we love, is going to die?

With all the focus on quick gains to health and happiness, there may be something deeper to these practices that our positive-results focused science and culture is missing. If so, could it be spoken of, perhaps not in the language of data, but with the language of the heart? ‘Turning towards difficulty’ is at the very core of a mindfulness course, but with our habits of avoidance, it’s also perhaps the aspect that gets talked of the least, at least in mainstream media reports. How can courage (and airspace) be found for the uncertainties, the anxieties, the suffering, the losses that can come into awareness when we pay attention, as well as the material benefits that we get so excited about? Indeed, could it be that the receiving of these benefits actually depend on our willingness to turn towards unpalatable truths? By neglecting them, might we receive a lesser version of the wellbeing we crave, and miss out on a deeper sense of meaning and value—one that can’t easily be summarized in a newspaper headline, or a scientific study abstract?

[Model Photo: Colourbox.com]

posted by Ed Halliwell, 4:29 pm