Some critical thoughts on mindfulness?

The scientific study of meditation has produced 7,000 peer reviewed studies, but our understanding is still described as preliminary. Has the time come for a more critical approach to mindfulness?

Reliable measurement is a central tenet of experimental psychology, but deciding what to measure is a much more complex question.
Accurate measurement is crucial to science, but deciding what to measure is a challenging question in mindfulness research

So broad has the field of mindfulness become that we find conflicting, coexisting and complementary perspectives among practices. Traditional mindfulness methods include explicitly and implicitly nondual understandings that appear abstract (incommensurable) to positivist scientific enquiry. However, the exponential growth in the modern forms of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. Also, (d) that reductive investigations can offer understandings of complex human behaviours and cognitive states and (e) experiments produce events which can be reliably measured. In many respects, the positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate traditional and medicalised mindfulness and meditation is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Wilhelm_Wundt.jpg
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt – Founder of experimental psychology

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was the architect of experimental psychology. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that nuanced human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. After all, we humans are replete with agency, we can take for or against an idea with little rational justification. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individualised behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which is supported by unique environmental conditions? Consider that meditation is the mediation of consciousness, of which psychology only has a rudimentary understanding. One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) the reliable measurement of at least two fixed points to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ when dealing with universal human consciousness is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot identify their own fixed points to generate data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is highly variable.1

Reviews of the scientific literature have indicated that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. There are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is observed by and integrates with the scientific method. But the uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been continually proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. Today, contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of precisely what mindfulness might be or how interventions can meditate it. The pressing questions asked by critical mindfulness are, how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies an authoritative description at the theoretical and operational level? And how can psychology develop a more rigorous approach to testing the findings and claims produced by 7,000 published meditation studies over the last eight decades?

The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.

Rupert Gethin 4

References

1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.

3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.

4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.

Notes

Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

2 thoughts on “Some critical thoughts on mindfulness?”

  1. “The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness” does not exist, there is/are traditional Buddhist account(s) of sati (the Buddha did not peak English). Why would “mindfulness” (or “atencion plena”, or “Achtsamkeit”, …, for that matter) have to be perfect translations of a term used millennia ago? Compare: Appreciating the Hippocratic oath does not force us to unflexibly stick to Hippocratic methods. And no one seems to make a fuss of present day yoga having little to do with what it traditionally used to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a fair point Josef. But a key issue is that the architect of medicalised mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, claims a relationship (congruence) between traditional and medicalised mindfulness. There isn’t a normative issue here; the scientific problem is that, according to scientists working in this field, the theoretical frameworks of medicalised meditation are unstable or unclear. Understanding what mindfulness is (from a neuropsychological perspective) requires that we establish its main operational components, a task that requires both historical and scientific perspectives.

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