Would you like to be healthier, more focused, happier in your relationship and generally fabulous?  Maybe Mindfulness is the answer!  IA critical thinker John Turnbull investigates.

Mindfulness, Synergy and Amplification

If you work in the corporate world, there is a good chance you’ve heard the word Mindfulness recently. Along with over-used terms like Content Marketing and Brand Amplification, Mindfulness seems to be the buzzword of 2016. But what does it really mean? 

The Oxford dictionary defines Mindfulness as: 

A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’

It is widely accepted that the increased prevalence of smartphones has reduced most people’s “down time”, as they access work emails from home, read world news on the train and check Facebook as soon as they wake up, all ultimately resulting in higher levels of stress. There is also widespread media supposition that the rise of technology has reduced the human attention span.

In a Forbes article earlier this week, Amy Morin made the point that:

 ‘According to a study by the Microsoft Corp, the average attention span in today’s world is about eight seconds. That means goldfish have longer attention spans than humans.’  

Fortunately, a little digging reveals that this “study” was released by Microsoft’s advertising department and is based on two unrelated papers — another fine example of the misuse of science by marketers skewered so effectively by John Oliver.

Even if the human attention span still exceeds that of a goldfish, it seems fair to admit that many people experience stress based on choices they have made in the past or worries about their future. Is it fair to assume, therefore, that spending more time in the moment might reduce stress?

Benefits of Mindfulness

While the detail differs slightly from site to site, most Mindfulness proponents claim five key benefits including;

  • Increased relationship satisfaction
  • Improved physical health
  • Decreased emotional reactivity
  • Heightened focus
  • Increased mental strength

Bastion of scientific literacy (not really) the Huffington Post lists an impressive 20 reasons why Mindfulness is good for you, almost all of which are variations on the above, but amusingly includes ‘It could help our troops’. Sure, why not?

Where did Mindfulness come from?

Concepts similar to Mindfulness have existed for thousands of years, incorporated in relaxation techniques like yoga and religions such as Zen Buddhism and Transcendentalism. While there were hints of Mindfulness in the hippy meanderings of the Sixties, the modern Mindfulness movement really kicked off in the late 1970s, when Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program at the University of Massachusetts.

Widely accepted as the father of modern Mindfulness (and quote source for many of the mindfulness memes you will find online), Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Originally inspired by Buddhism, Kabat-Zinn eventually focused on a combination of meditation and Hatha yoga, founding the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Clearly not a fan of brevity, he also wrote the book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, published in 1991.

What does the Science say?

While there haven’t been a massive number of robust research studies into Mindfulness, in 2015 researchers Jenny Gu, Clara Strauss, Rod Bond and Kate Cavanagh conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of meditation studies that specifically examined the effectiveness of Mindfulness and the mechanisms behind how it works. They concluded:

This review identified strong, consistent evidence for cognitive and emotional reactivity, moderate and consistent evidence for mindfulness, rumination, and worry, and preliminary but insufficient evidence for self-compassion and psychological flexibility as mechanisms underlying Mindfulness Based Interventions.’

(How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies, 2015)

The plain English translation is there is ample evidence that Mindfulness works, but we don’t really have any idea how it works.

Is there a downside to Mindfulness?

Titled ‘Increased False Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation’, a 2015 joint study by the Departments of Psychology from the University of California and the University of London suggests that mindfulness meditation may increase the subject’s susceptibility to false memories.

By embracing judgment-free awareness and acceptance, meditators can have greater difficulty differentiating internal and external sources of information... Their reality-monitoring accuracy may be impaired, increasing their susceptibility to false memories.’ (Wilson et al, 2015)

While this study has limitations typical of many psychological studies (mainly that it is a study of middle class University students rather than the total population) it does provide an interesting counterpoint to the overwhelmingly positive narrative that you’ll find in most places.

A recent Guardian article examined the phenomena of people experiencing panic attacks following Mindfulness meditation, and psychologists Farias and Wikholm raised concern about the lack of research into the adverse effects of meditation in their book The Buddha Pill.

Conclusion

It is a somewhat sad reflection on our modern world that the ability to consider a situation with a clear and calm mind might be considered a superpower, but if you can ignore the mountain of hyperbole, there do seem to be some benefits to Mindfulness.

Let me be clear. Mindfulness is not a substitute for medical care. It is unlikely Mindfulness will improve your physical strength, make you taller, protect you from disease or cure all your woes, but if you suffer from depression, dwell excessively in the past or worry too much about the future, then Mindfulness may be of some benefit to you.

A final point; if you’re looking for a Mindfulness provider, it’s worth doing a bit of homework first. As with any burgeoning healthcare trend, there are good and bad practitioners in the Mindfulness field, and it can be tricky to see past a smooth sales pitch and glowing testimonials. If in doubt, speak to your GP.

Think for yourself.

Like what you read? John Turnbull''s books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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