Saturday, 23 February 2013

Beware the Risks of Mindfulness

This is the sort of advertisement you see all the time – in magazines, newspapers and online:

Who doesn’t want to experience deep relaxation in their lives?  I came across this flyer in my local dry cleaner’s shop.  The back of the Mindworks flyer promises that the meditation and mindfulness training course will enable the student to let go of everyday stress: “You can learn how mindfulness enhances and deepens your capacity to relax.  You can also strengthen your clarity and effectiveness at work with better concentration and calm.”  The course also includes a presentation of scientific research which purportedly supports the benefits associated with mindfulness practice.  “By being more present you can discover spaciousness in your life to help cope with daily challenges.”

Nowhere is there a single mention that meditation or mindfulness practices have any spiritual content or association.  The course is presented as purely cognitive therapy.  I find this deeply misleading.  When I enquired of the course leader whether mindfulness had a spiritual side he explained that what he actually teaches is something called Core Process Psychotherapy which he explains is a mindfulness-based approach that integrates current Western psychotherapeutic approaches and Buddhist psychology; “it is based on the understanding that Awareness is intrinsically healing and that this can be experienced in relationship.  This approach can help you to find new confidence and a deeper sense of well-being in the present moment.”

I also asked whether there were any risks or side effects associated with Core Process Psychotherapy.  He replied that for people with serious psychiatric problems or conditions, mindfulness might not be appropriate as it could worsen their condition; that it would be “too much to deal with.”  All mindfulness programmes should disclose their risks.

Mindfulness is an inherently spiritual practice; those that teach these methods are being disingenuous when they say that the spiritual and the cognitive can be bifurcated.  Simply because someone does not believe that a spiritual realm exists does not mean that it doesn’t.  And crucially, if one does believe that there is a transcendental world, tread carefully because it is not uniform.  All religions are not the same, are not of the same origin, have differing purposes, and do not lead to the same place.