Mindfulness: beyond the science

Ed Halliwell on whether scientific studies on mindfulness can do justice to the transformations felt by those who practice it.

Each month, a digest of the latest research on mindfulness meditation lands in my inbox. The volume of studies has mushroomed in recent years—a recent round-up cites 35 new papers detailing effects on people with conditions such as heart disease and borderline personality disorder, the results of an innovative new mindfulness curriculum for schools,  and the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses on the structure of the brain (it seems to reduce density in the amygdala). 

If practising mindfulness can help people—and it appears to—then all this evidence can only be a good thing. Whereas for years meditation's public image was stuck in the 1960s, tainted with hippie self-indulgence or new-age flakiness, now it's being taken seriously by everyone from top academics to US congressman and government departments.

But while it's the gold standard for evidence in our culture, can scientific data tell the whole story? In our book The Mindful Manifesto, Jonty Heaversedge and I describe how mindfulness is now being presented as a secular healing tool, but we also felt it important to acknowledge how for thousands of years it has been linked with spiritual training. Scientific studies might show that mindfulness improves well-being in material terms, but can…