Evaluating the billion-dollar mindfulness experiment: promising but not proven

A new study may have discovered why, despite a huge scientific investment, mindfulness research has been problematic for decades.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

With the aim of bridging these two epistemologies of science and dharma, I felt impelled to point out in the early years of MBSR the obvious etymological linkage of the words medicine and meditation and articulate for medical audiences their root meanings.

Jon Kabat-Zinn1

The version of mindfulness founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 has always been problematic to validate scientifically. Over the last forty years, scientists, clinicians and other academics have been trying to understand what mindfulness is and how it works.2 My recently published study argues that attention to Kabat-Zinn’s claims about the origins of mindfulness hold an explanation for the current research crisis.3

There is (and always has been) a paradox in the scientific understanding of mindfulness. Thousands of preliminary clinical studies claim health benefits linked to its use. At the same time, strategic scientific reviews have illustrated that many of these studies cannot be regarded as scientifically reliable. And as the research interest has grown, the mindfulness paradox has become more problematic. We may have also reached the stage where mindfulness may be considered by health and social policy as too big to fail’. Mindfulness is now a global phenomenon; there are over 30,000 published papers in academic databases. And many scientists and institutions have continued to promote the use of mindfulness despite the presence of scientific uncertainty. In financial terms, the cost of meditation and mindfulness research is estimated at over $1.6 bn. The vast majority of this investment has been made since 2012.

In financial terms, the cost of meditation and mindfulness research is estimated at over $1.6 bn. The vast majority of this investment made since 2012.

Stephen Gene Morris

Based on a three-year study of the scientific literature, I contend mindfulness can only be fully understood by looking at its origins. The paradigm established by Jon Kabat-Zinn is rooted in the medicalised meditation movement founded in 1970. And in one sense follows the trajectory of the Religion of Science, a popular philosophy in the first decade of the twentieth century. Mindfulness has been built on a belief that an ontological congruence exists between religion and science. Unpacking this claim is key to resolving the costly mindfulness paradox and charting a more scientifically reliable future.

Notes:

1. Kabat-Zinn, Jon, ‘Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skillful Means, and the Trouble with Maps’, Contemporary Buddhism, 12.1 (2011), 281–306. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2011.564844

2. For an overview of the current issues, see: 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. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691617709589

3. Morris, Stephen,””The Rise of Medicalised Mindfulness During the 1970s and 1980s: The Attempted Convergence of Religion and Science.” Brief Encounters 6, no. 1 (2022). http://www.briefencounters-journal.co.uk/BE/article/view/296

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.

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