THE MINDFULNESS MOVEMENT
How safe is “mindfulness,” the new remedy for stress endorsed freely by physicians, psychologists, educators, and management consultants?
By Gillian Bethel, PhD
The next time you see your doctor, he or she may pause a moment before entering your exam room, take a deep breath, and seek awareness of the feeling of his or her feet on the floor in preparation to focus on you. This is “mindfulness” adapted for busy doctors with too much on their minds.
What is mindfulness? The most often quoted definition of mindfulness comes from the Mayo Clinic: “Mindfulness is the act of being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment—without interpretation or judgment.” Directly linked to the practice of eastern meditation, your doctor most likely did not learn this “two feet, one breath” technique from a New Age meditation center. Chances are they were taught it in medical school, or in another professional setting.
Doctors are some of the most stressed professionals around, and they are now being trained in mindfulness as the answer for their own mental health needs as well as that of their patients. So if you consult a doctor for anything from digestive problems to anxiety, you may also be recommended to learn mindfulness. And it is not only doctors who promote it. Businesses are teaching their staff mindfulness to increase productivity, and school children from kindergarten onwards are being taught it for better concentration, self-control, and behavior modification.
Mindfulness is being touted as the golden key to managing pain, stress, depression, ADHD, and many more conditions. Once just for explorers of Eastern spirituality, mindfulness has gone mainstream because of a growing social problem.
MINDFULNESS AS A REMEDY
The problem is that we live in a culture that undermines brain health. An epidemic of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and stress is sweeping through our society at all levels. Today’s lifestyle feeds this epidemic. It overwhelms us with busy schedules, often requiring multitasking, news which leaves us feeling horrified and helpless, a digital “always on” culture that barrages us with information and communication, financial worries, overwork or unemployment, broken families, violence, meaninglessness—the list goes on. The brain is a fine-tuned, sensitive organ that we are not managing to keep under control, and our environment is working against us.
What does it take to bring our minds under our control? Mindfulness is the latest answer.
Mindfulness takes several forms, but it is in fact the first round of the Buddhist ladder to nirvana, which is defined as a suspension of suffering, thought, and desire.
It is taught that attaining it enables a person to escape samsara (the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation), lose a sense of self, and merge with the universal consciousness. Buddhist meditation aims at the achievement of this “enlightenment” rather than stress management and peace of mind. But as a first step, people must learn to stop everything and pay attention in the present moment to body and mind. They must also let go of whatever thoughts occur while meditating without reacting to or judging them. It is usually this first step that is taught in courses on mindfulness. Enthusiastic promoters claim that mindfulness has been “scrubbed clean” from its Buddhist connection.
These first-step techniques have obvious benefits for stress management. It is helpful to stop our headlong rush through our day, drop thoughts and feelings that are causing our stress reaction, and take some deep breaths to unwind. All these help us temporarily regain control of a spinning brain and de-stress a little; but mindfulness comes with some serious drawbacks.
THE DOWNSIDES OF MINDFULNESS
The first negative is that it is too easily accessible and comes without any warnings. Mindfulness is packaged for convenient use: just turn on a video or audio and follow instructions. Some programs for schools provide teachers with pre-recorded meditations in which a slow, pleasant voice instructs children to get comfortable, assume certain positions, observe their breathing, etc. The Internet offers many similar meditation videos for adults, and many apps are available. These guided meditations put listeners into a state of light hypnosis; they sound exactly the same as hypnotherapy videos.
For example, a chime at the beginning of guided meditations signals the start of the exercise, with the consequence that after a few repetitions, the brain becomes conditioned to drop into a hypnotic state at the sound of the chime. This is not controlling our own minds; it is handing over control to others. That is particularly disturbing where impressionable children are involved.
Hypnosis theory also helps explain what happens in another meditation downside—the “dark night” experiences—because meditation and hypnotherapy follow a similar track in the brain. As a person enters a hypnotic state, the active, logical-thinking beta waves in the brain slow to alpha waves—our relaxed state in which conscious surveillance by the frontal lobe is minimized. From there, electrical brainwave activity slows again into theta waves which are characteristic of the twilight zone we enter when daydreaming or just before sleep. This gives access to the subconscious mind. It is here that many forgotten experiences, ideas, even fears, which shape who we are, can be rediscovered if we stay aware. A hypnotherapist will attempt to guide a person through these and suggest deep changes. This too is handing over control of our minds to another.
But what happens when a person moves into theta wave mode through prolonged meditation and encounters these sometimes alarming things alone? At this level of meditation, an unnerving sense of detachment and depersonalization can also be experienced, which remains with the person afterwards. Confronting one’s deepest fears without being able to evaluate them rationally can be terrifying. Vivid emotions ranging from love to terror can be unleashed, and a person may find themselves on the brink of psychosis and very much out of control.
Sometimes people think, If a little is good, more will be better. This sets them up for encountering the disturbing experiences of deeper meditation, which can turn their everyday life into a nightmare. That is exactly what happened to Mike.
A “DARK NIGHT” EXPERIENCE
Mike “started to meditate when he was 18, through book instructions and friends. Eventually, he went to formal sittings and retreats as well. At first, it provided him distance between his ‘self’ and his thoughts in a new way. …‘I had a lot of beliefs about what I was capable of, what I should be, what people had said about me,’ he says. ‘Realizing what those were, and noting them, was insightful and helpful.’”
“But slowly, a nihilistic depression started to set in. ‘I do remember it creeping up through time because I could feel the character of how I related to myself was changing,’ he says. ‘My motivations for behavior were starting to seem very hazy and very unimportant.’”
“It felt like being on the edge of insanity. ‘My nervous system was tied in knots, completely losing touch with self and reality and very caught in this nihilistic void where things were happening, and I couldn’t discern boundaries,’ he says. ‘I was terrified to tell anybody because I was terrified to find out what it might be. I was also terrified that I might get locked up if I was truly honest about my experience.’”
Mike eventually sought professional help and stopped meditating. “I realize these practices remain beneficial to some people,” Mike says. “But I do worry about spreading a technology of mind that is designed to deconstruct the self.” Notice the Buddhist connection here.
Similar disturbing stories are not uncommon as people unwittingly move from the first rung of the Buddhist ladder into experiences they are certainly not looking for. Dark night experiences are expected on the Buddhist journey to nirvana, but are often not warned about in the “scrubbed” versions. Are there safer and more effective ways to tackle stress and gain control of our minds? Yes, many!
One of the most effective means to tackle stress is practicing an attitude of gratitude. Studies have found that journaling about things one is grateful for brings an array of benefits including attention, optimism, and better physical health. Like mindfulness, thinking of things one is grateful for can be done any time in any place to stop the stress response. It is transformative over time if done daily or even weekly.
Another strategy is observing nature with all our senses—just “being there” in a natural place and concentrating solely on sights, sounds, smells, textures, etc. The Japanese call it “forest bathing,” but it can be done in any natural setting, even a park or yard. It relaxes both mind and body as long as people do not take their phones with them!
Physical exercise, especially in fresh air, is a wonderful, proven stress reducer. It eases mental tension, relaxes muscles contracted by the stress reaction, and stimulates endorphins—nature’s tranquilizers.
Volunteering in activities that help others has also been found to make people happier and less stressed. It is an excellent way to forget about one’s own problems and enjoy making someone else happier.
Best of all is prayer, because no matter how many techniques we use, we need aid coping with life from Someone who has the power to help. Prayer is conversing with God and sharing our thoughts and problems with Him. We don’t need set formulas; we can just pour out our hearts to an attentive, sympathetic, personal Being. Jesus is the Creator-God who became a man to understand and overcome our struggles as humans. We are encouraged, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Heb. 4:16. He is there to help us with living!
God also has power to give us renewed minds if we give our lives into His care. This renewal includes a completely different outlook on life in which we become more sensitive to others’ needs and have a greater desire to help them, yet are less sensitive to receiving unkind, insulting, or thoughtless treatment. Because our own need for nurture and kindness is deeply supplied by God, we can pass these gifts on to others. This is a life of fulfillment and peace because we are given strength to live above the circumstances that used to stress us. By keeping in constant contact with God through Bible reading and brief, frequent prayers, we can have control of our minds with His help.
The fact that mindfulness techniques could be very dangerous to our wellbeing needs to be more widely publicized. Far safer and proven stress control techniques are available through such simple things as gratitude, being in nature, exercising, helping others, and letting God into our lives. Experts don’t always know best, but there is Someone who does: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Tim. 1:7.v
From Last Generation magazine, Volume 29.4, “Mind Your Brain.” Find more articles in this issue on the truth about meditation and safe and unsafe spiritual practices at www.lastgen.net. Gillian Bethel, PhD, taught stress management at lifestyle centers for ten years and is the author of From Stress to Joy.
A Short Glossary of Terms
A spiritual director, usually in the context of a spiritual retreat, is a mentor who guides a person’s spiritual formation. The mentee is urged to hide nothing from the director and to obey their instruction in order to progress in the journey of the soul.
Buddhism originated in India around the 6th century B.C. A Buddhist’s ultimate goal is to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana, thereby overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth. Belief in a personal god is mainly absent. The path to enlightenment is reached through practicing morality, wisdom, and meditation. Meditators strive to create a single body/mind entity through breathing exercises, the use of mantras, or concentration on a single object. Buddhism spawned one of the earliest organized forms of monasticism—the practice of living separate from the world as an individual or as a community, and observing severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence.
Centering prayer (a.k.a. contemplative prayer, the silence, labyrinth prayer, the Jesus prayer) is an attempt to experience a mystical union with God in a state of silence and stillness through emptying the mind, using repetitive words or phrases and avoiding conscious thought. Also used to prepare the mind for lectio divina.
Desert Fathers were spiritual directors in the monastic movement that started in Egypt towards the end of the third century. They pioneered spiritual practices such as contemplative meditation and silence, which have been popularized in more recent years through books, seminars, retreats, and in seminary training.
Emergent church: a short-lived trend that has been absorbed into 21st century Christianity, primarily in the developed world. It popularized the following ideas which are now found across all denominations: pluralistic beliefs and practices such as spiritual formation, interfaith dialog with all religions and religious practitioners, the pursuit of social justice now vs. preparing for the imminent return of Jesus, missional activities vs. evangelism, skeptical of the inerrancy of Scripture and biblical authority, e.g. biblical morality.
Lectio divina, or divine reading, is a method of scriptural meditation developed by monastic followers of Origen and St. Augustine in which silent contemplation on a scriptural word or phrase is used to seek inner transformation. The purpose of lectio is not to seek information or motivation, but simply to experience union with God in a mystical way.
Mindfulness is a set of meditation practices promoted as providing relief from physical, mental, and psychological stressors through mental focus on the present vs. ruminating on past or future problems. It has gained popularity as a treatment modality to manage pain, anxiety, and depression. It borrows many elements from Eastern meditation, claiming to be a secular version without the mystical and philosophical underpinnings.
Mystics are individuals practicing religious ecstatic experiences involving alternate states of consciousness or who aim to, or claim to have attained, hidden truths. A more limited definition of mysticism is union with the Divine or the Absolute. In Christianity, mysticism is linked to the contemplative and liturgical components of early and medieval Christianity.
Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Written by one of the founders of the Jesuit order, the exercises are meant to increase one’s discernment of spirits and the motives of the heart through the abundant use of visualization and imagination. Intended primarily for people in religious orders, they are used also by laity. Always undertaken under the supervision of a spiritual director, the exercises are used to teach contemplative prayer, meditation, and the practice of silence. The exercises were/are used to produce total commitment to the Jesuit vow to obey the pope absolutely and to promote the faith and mission of the Catholic Church.
Spiritual formation is a diffuse term understood variously as renewal of the heart, character formation, walking in the spirit, or “following the leadings of the heart.” Depending on the way the term is used, it may recommend genuine biblical practices, but typically also includes disciplines such as centering prayer and meditation under the guidance of a spiritual director.
Transcendental meditation is a modern version of Eastern-style meditation rooted in traditions such as Hinduism. Touted as a method for self-development and relaxation, it was popularized by guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has been taken up by many celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, and Clint Eastwood.