Mindfulness: Spiritual Awakening or Mindless Hype?

Is mindfulness the real opiate for the masses? Damir Rafi investigates.

I remember well my first walking meditation. It was a bright spring morning, the air chilled but fresh, the city waking up for another day of pre-lockdown bustle. The walk began outside the Emergency Department of a large city hospital. Both my body and mind were alert and sharp, eager to engage in some mindfulness. “We all let our minds wander while we’re walking,” our instructor proclaimed. “Rather than worrying, or planning, or analysing, why not instead engage with the present moment? Tune in to what’s around you, without judging or scrutinising. Just acknowledge what you see and hear, and focus on your rhythm.”

We started walking. Fifteen of us, in a single-file line, in silence. I could see my own breath and my own shadow following me as we walked around the quiet roads surrounding the hospital. I noticed a man in a work-suit hurrying to his home as though he had forgotten something, twisting the handle of his front door and disappearing inside. I noticed an old church, its windows looking out across some small but well-maintained gardens, and beyond them to the main roads that crossed the city. There was a quiet smell around these parts, neither filled entirely with pollution nor the scent of springtime blossoms and roses.

We then changed course, and headed back towards the hospital, eventually entering through the back entrance. As we walked past a medical ward I had previously spent two unhappy months working on, I became aware of my body tensing up slightly, and a little pain at the pit of my stomach. The corridors were old and winding, and as we finally made our way back outside, we were greeted by several activists, offering us leaflets with information about various injustices that health workers were being subjected to. We nodded in recognition but kept walking in silence, remembering the need to remain in our meditative states.

Finally, we arrived at our destination, a gymnasium inside the medical education centre. We each took a chair and sat in a circle, reflecting upon the exercise we had just undertaken. When I was invited to share my thoughts, I paused before asking a question. “There was a moment,” I remarked, “during which I suddenly felt tense, because we walked past a place where I had had some previous stressful experiences. Should we be training our minds to not feel that way – and if so, how to go about this?” My instructor smiled, and answered without hesitation.

“Yes, exactly! Welcome to mindfulness!”

It was in fact Jon Kabat-Zinn who first ushered mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) into the world. A PhD in molecular biology, Kabat-Zinn first began running courses in ‘stress reduction and relaxation’ in 1979, in a basement at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. His goal was to bring ‘Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism’ into the mainstream of medicine. Kabat-Zinn himself had first-hand experience of such techniques. He learnt from Theravada Buddhist monks, who described mindfulness as ‘the heart of Buddhism,’ and downplayed the importance of Buddhist doctrines. Building on his own experiences, Kabat-Zinn used the framework of science and medicine to ‘recontextualise’ Buddhist ideas. He described mindfulness as ‘an innate, universal human capacity,’ depicting it as offering the best portions of the Buddha’s teachings, without being a religious practice in and of itself.

Over the following two decades, Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues published extensively in scientific journals, attempting to demonstrate the benefits of mindfulness practice – for example in treating stress disorders, improving physical health and enhancing memory. As his practices grew more popular, Kabat-Zinn renamed his programme, and it became known as ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.’ This standardised eight-week course has become a global phenomenon. Moreover, from this, numerous spin offs have developed – most notably Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which is a treatment option approved by the UK’s National Health Service, and apps such as Headspace, with over 31 million users.

The idea that Kabat-Zinn espouses is that stress is ubiquitous and pervasive, because we have lost touch with our capabilities to be mindful. Rather than letting our emotions get the better of us, we must pay attention to the present moment in a ‘non-judgmental’ manner. By focusing on the breath, both mind and body can be ‘in sync’ moment to moment. Through such a process, we can ‘treat’ the discontentment we feel, since ultimately the negative experiences we undergo reside within our own selves.

Today, mindfulness is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and has permeated all strands of society. Programmes have been introduced in schools, major corporations, law firms, parliaments, and even places of worship. Public enthusiasm has never been higher. Indeed, my own enthusiasm was palpable as I began to engage with it. But it wasn’t long before my gusto turned to unease, and unease to dismay, as I started to realise the false promise of this secular craze.

Sitting in the gymnasium of our education centre, our eyes closed for a ‘breathing space’ meditation, my unease first became apparent:

“…Checking in now with the presence of the body in space, narrowing our awareness down further, becoming aware of the movements of the breath. Breathing in, aaaand then breathing out.

Connecting the mind with where the body is, in the present moment. Making the body available to be noticed by the mind, bringing the mind and the body together…”

Expecting the meditation to soon be coming to an end, I was surprised when our instructor told us to keep our eyes closed for a bit longer, while he read us a poem. “See if you can connect with this poem during this meditation,” he told us, as he began to read the following poem. It was a poem I already knew well.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.

He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

As I later discovered, this poem, attributed to Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a 13th century poet and Islamic saint, is a common feature of mindfulness meditation courses. For some of my mindfulness coursemates, hearing this poem may have elicited feelings of calm and tranquility. However, for me, knowing the origins of both the poet and the poem, I felt as though everyone was missing the point entirely.

In this form, the poem seems to have a clear message: we should ‘welcome and entertain’ all of our thoughts and emotions. But a question immediately arises. What next? What do we do with them? How should we act? The poem does not give us clear answers, but hints at them as being a ‘guide from the beyond.’

Well, what does that mean?

The answer lies not in this poem, but in the original poetic verses of Rumi. I was already familiar with the original verses – and this translation is a butchering. In fact, this rendition, by prolific mistranslator Coleman Barks, transforms a rather long extract with a completely different message, into a string of sanitised, mindfulness-friendly verses. Much of Rumi’s work, it turns out, has been stripped of all references to Islam and the Quran. While Rumi has become a favourite of the West, it is an extraordinary disservice to him that his poems have been rewritten in this way.

The original ‘Guest House’ is too long to quote, though a more accurate translation is available here. It can be found in Rumi’s Masnavi, Volume 5 Verses 3647-3695. Reading the original passage, we can immediately see that Rumi is not talking about mindfulness principles at all. Rather, he is explaining how we can understand suffering in a theistic context, informed deeply by Islamic teachings. Indeed, while the final lines of the contemporary version read as follows:

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

…the original lines give us more detail. After multiple couplets describing how steadfast the Prophet Job was through his suffering, Rumi then gives us a prayer to encourage fortitude when undergoing a trial in life:

…“O my Creator, preserve me from its evil: do not deprive me, let me partake of its good!

Oh my Lord, prompt me to give thanks for that which I receive; Do not let me feel any subsequent regret, if it shall pass away.

Masnavi Vol 5, 3694-3695

In essence, the poem is stating that all challenges and difficulties in life ultimately are a trial from God, and that one should be grateful for them, since God knows better than we do as to the benefits these trials may ultimately provide us. If they have anything to do with mindfulness, it is only in so far as mindfulness teaches one to have a basic level of emotional awareness. But that alone was not the point of Rumi’s original passage, and that alone is certainly not sufficient to give one patience and fortitude through difficulties. In fact, heightening one’s awareness of distress could even be harmful, without a framework in which we can understand this distress.  

Unfortunately, this was not the only occasion in which my Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course twisted religious messages to serve its own ends. On the first week of the course, each of us were gifted a novella to read, by Leo Tolstoy, entitled The Death of Ivan Ilych. On the penultimate week, we discussed its main themes and how they related to mindfulness.

The book tells the story of a high-court judge in 19th century Russia, and the inner turmoil he experiences when suffering from a terminal illness. Reflecting upon his life, which seemingly was filled with material successes, he painfully lamented how spiritually diseased he felt within himself. Eventually, as he watched his servant tend to his every need, Ivan realised that he strangely envied him. Morality and true consideration for others, he realised, was the missing factor in his life – virtues his servant possessed in abundance. Noting this realisation, and seeking repentance, Ivan finally experienced inner peace, and passed away.

Leo Tolstoy wrote this book shortly after his own religious conversion in the late 1870s. In his book A Confession, he spoke of his search for meaning, and his realisation that Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was the moral teaching he needed to live his life by. Specifically, he believed that lasting happiness could be found by following the Great Commandment of loving one’s neighbour, and loving God. The character of Ivan Ilych, therefore, appears to mirror Tolstoy’s own doubts, and then his realisations of the true meaning and purpose to life.

Predictably, when we discussed this book in our mindfulness session, none of the above was mentioned. This was until I brought up the fact that perhaps both Rumi and Tolstoy, figures which heavily featured in our mindfulness course, endorsed specific metaphysical beliefs and religious teachings, rather than simply an inner focus on one’s breathing. My comments were met with a ‘that’s interesting,’ before the instructor hurriedly moved on.

Richard Branson knows how to do business. Having founded the Virgin Group in the 1970s, he now controls a virtual empire, and has an estimated net worth of over 4 billion dollars. Understandably, millions of people worldwide scramble to desperately attempt to understand the ‘secrets’ to the success that he, and his fellow billionaires, have attained.

In 2018, Branson provided a potential answer. A tweet from his personal account showed a picture of himself, kneeling down in a meditative post. He captioned the picture with the words ‘Integrating mindfulness into our everyday lives is just as important as eating well and exercising regularly – even at 30,000 feet!’  Branson had just partaken in the world’s first ‘dedicated meditation flight’ with Virgin Australia, in partnership with mindfulness platform Smiling Mind. Commenting on his experience, he wrote a blog post explaining that he is a ‘huge believer in the benefits of looking after your mind as well as your body.’  After his meditation, he described ‘feeling very Zen.’

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Richard Branson has attained significant success though his business

I was indeed thrilled that Richard Branson was feeling ‘zen,’ but I was less delighted by the fact that just four months earlier his healthcare firm pocketed £2 million pounds of public money by suing the UK National Health Service (NHS). After losing out on a contract to provide children’s medical services in Surrey, Virgin Care took High Court Action. The NHS, already chronically underfunded, was forced to divert further money away from frontline care, into the hands of Branson’s private company.

Making matters worse, in 2020 it was revealed that Branson’s Virgin Care group had not paid a penny in corporation tax despite been handed £2 billion worth of NHS contracts. Branson himself has spent over a decade living as a tax exile in a private Caribbean island, alleging this is ‘for health reasons.’ It’s a happy coincidence that this also means he has not had to pay a penny in personal earnings tax since this move.

Despite his extortionate wealth, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Branson’s Virgin Atlantic asked its staff to take eight weeks off without pay, before demanding a government bailout. The pandemic itself, while proving devastating to ordinary working people, has enabled the ultra-wealthy to get considerably richer. America’s billionaires, for example, have seen their fortunes soar by $434 billion between mid-March and mid-May of 2020. This was during the time of the US lockdown, when unemployment rates reached an all-time high. Indeed, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, has been a consistent theme over the past century. Currently 8 billionaires possess the same wealth as half of humanity.

Richard Branson enjoys mindfulness, and many CEOs and bosses like him do too. As well as Virgin, companies like Nike, Google and Apple have incorporated such courses into the working lives of their employees. It is not difficult to see why. The basic message of mindfulness is that employees are responsible for their own happiness and wellbeing. Any problems or stresses they face can be rectified by breathing exercises and viewing themselves in the present moment, non-judgmentally. All the while, employees can continue to be treated poorly, while their super-rich CEOs live in ‘a state of zen’ on their private islands.

The Noble Eightfold path – the Buddhist path to liberation – consists of eight practices. These are right mindfulness, right understanding, right speech, right intention, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right concentration. All these practices are interrelated, and inextricably linked to ethics and morals. Right speech, for example, entails not lying, speaking rudely or gossiping. Right view entails the affirmation of the belief that death is not the end, and that our actions have consequences in this life and the next. Right conduct involves no sexual misconduct, (including having a sexual relationship outside of marriage), alcohol or drugs.

Describing right mindfulness, American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

“And what is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself…

This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and distress…”

It is evident therefore, that the original purpose of ‘right mindfulness’ is as an adjunct to helping the meditator achieve his higher purpose – morality, spirituality and personal purification.

As opposed to this, we have ‘wrong mindfulness.’ Ronald Purser is a Professor at San Francisco State University. He is also the author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. He explains:

“…Buddhists differentiate between Right Mindfulness (samma sati) and Wrong Mindfulness (miccha sati)…. According to the Pali Canon (the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha), even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness. Clearly, the mindful attention and single-minded concentration of a terrorist, sniper assassin, or white-collar criminal is not the same quality of mindfulness that the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist adepts have developed. Right Mindfulness is guided by intentions and motivations based on self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviors — goals that include but supersede stress reduction and improvements in concentration.”

Beyond McMindfulness, Purser & Roy, Huffington Post

These important, necessary distinctions, have been purposefully stripped away by the modern mindfulness movement. In fact, the way it has been applied in current times can be seen as a reinforcer of our toxic consumerist culture. As Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American monk opines“Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilise the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” 

Purser explains how this is happening in practice:

“Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”

Beyond McMindfulness, Purser & Roy, Huffington Post

Mindfulness thus limits the potential to challenge powerful and unjust systems within society. It gives oppressors a free pass to mistreat others, while convincing the oppressed that the problems and injustices they face are their own faults. In reality, often the stressors that individuals face lie outside their own selves, and what they require is the training to be able to confront such challenges. Assertiveness, courage, confidence, critical thinking skills, social skills, morality.  These are qualities that can truly make a difference to people, yet are conveniently ignored by mindfulness.  Such qualities can enable them to speak up against injustices, to vote for the political candidate who can truly best improve society, to speak the truth even when challenging to do so, to help others and look after one another, to make friends. Doing so may dramatically increase stress in your life – something the mindfulness movement teaches us to see negatively.

Not only this, but modern mindfulness is an individual pursuit, closing one’s eyes and focusing on one’s breathing, or staring at one’s phone – the very thing that itself makes people feel trapped and anxious in the first place. It teaches us nothing about strengthening communities, while giving the message that stress is something we impose on ourselves. ‘ In other words, if we live in an unjust, unequal system in which many ordinary workers live pay cheque to pay cheque, working long hours and earning very little, the burden of the consequent stress is then placed back onto us, with mindfulness touted as the miracle solution.

In my own experience of walking meditation, this exact philosophy was demonstrated by my instructor. When I asked him about feeling tense having walked past a hospital ward where I had had some previously stressful experiences, he touted mindfulness as the solution – to clear my mind and view that experience ‘non-judgmentally.’ ‘Welcome to mindfulness!’ he had exclaimed. In reality, I had suffered on that ward not because I needlessly imposed stress upon myself, but as a product of the fact that the National Health Service in which I worked was chronically underfunded and understaffed, and my seniors were often unsupportive.

In this situation, having a stress reaction is a positive thing, not a pathological disease to be mindfully eradicated. Those negative experiences spurred me to write letters of feedback to my hospital such that future junior doctors would not too suffer and struggle as I did. They spurred me to join a medical activist group and help the fight for decent pay for healthcare workers and the service as a whole. They spurred me to act as a mentor for doctors more junior to me, to provide advice and guidance to them, and to be a more caring and empathetic figure.

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The Buddhist conception of mindfulness is very different from how it is being used today

Stress and suffering are often essential for progress and action to take place. By its emphasis on managing stress, mindfulness attempts to pathologize it, and turn ordinary workers into docile citizens. Its social role is simply as a tool to preserve the status quo, rather than genuinely improving society for the better. As a 2017 academic paper put it, mindfulness can be summed up as “cutting the Buddha’s body to fit the neoliberal suit.’

Over recent decades, it is not just mindfulness which has diluted, distorted, and repackaged religious material to suit our current society. As demonstrated by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King in their 2005 book, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, the very concept of true religious teaching has been taken over by contemporary capitalist ideology. This has been stealthily done through reclaiming the notion of ‘spirituality,’ a term which has come to no longer mean ‘the purification of the soul through moral actions’ or ‘a relationship with God,’ but rather a vague buzz-word with no real meaning.

Exercise can be spiritual. So can long walks, or having a moment of contemplation, or talking to a friend.  Business can be made spiritual. So can sex, multiculturalism and UFOs. If you want to rave at a spiritual music festival, this video will tell you the best places to go. The list is almost endless.

Carrette and King explain:

“What is being sold to us as radical, trendy and transformative spirituality in fact produces little in the way of a significant change in one’s lifestyle or fundamental behaviour patterns (with the possible exception of motivating the individual to be more efficient and productive at work). By ‘cornering the market’ on spirituality, such trends actually limit the socially transformative dimensions of the religious perspectives that they draw upon by locating ‘the spiritual’ firmly within a privatised and conformist space.”

Carrette & King; Selling Spirituality, the Silent Takeover of Religion; pg. 5-6

‘Capitalist spirituality’ of which mindfulness is a prime example, seeks to individualise responsibility, with no consideration of society. It promotes the notion of unrestrained fulfillment of personal desires as the key to happiness. It views profit as the foremost motivation for human action. It seeks to pacify feelings of discontentment and anxiety at the personal level, and accepts social injustices rather than seeking to challenge them.

While denigrating religion over recent decades, western societies have sought to construct new forms of ‘spirituality’ which only seek to reinforce existing power structures. Ironically, while many individuals today view religion as a form of brainwashing, perhaps it is these very ‘spiritual but not religious’ folk that are the true victims of thought-control. The movers and shakers in our society have persuaded the masses that religion is all just ‘mumbo-jumbo,’ while poorly recycling material from religious figures in ‘spiritual practices’ such as mindfulness.

The popularity of these practices tells us that there is a need for connection to something greater than our phone, for moral guidance, and spiritual fulfillment. But our society has been convinced that religion, especially Islam, is a force for evil; the moral teachings of compassion, self-purification and self-control that religious scriptures like the Quran teach, are ignored. Greed, wealth and lust for power now dominate the upper strands of our society. As eight billionaires sit contently with the same wealth as half the world’s population, the rest of us ponder mindfully amidst poverty and suffering, enjoy the poetry of old Muslim saints, and count ourselves lucky that we’re not religious.

Mindfulness may be a somewhat fraudulent concept, plagiarising religious teachings while failing to impart any sort of moral values. As a social movement, it may offer the false promise of spirituality while actually giving no true personal fulfillment. It may be also be an ideological tool, used to turn the population into ‘docile subjects,’ internalising stress rather than seeking to challenge the systemic corruptions within society. But despite all this, for an ordinary person who wishes to become a bit calmer, and a bit less flustered, does it work?

The first thing to note, is that mindfulness does help some people. I observed this in my MBCT course colleagues, who subjectively reported to me that they felt more ‘in tune,’ and generally less flustered after having incorporated mindfulness in their lives. In my own self as well, the mindfulness course certainly got me thinking about aspects of life such as social media use, and overuse.

Moreover, it introduced me to highly interesting concepts such as emotional granularity, the ability for an individual to specifically pinpoint their emotions. For example, if someone is feeling down, and they report that they feel ‘sad,’ this would demonstrate a low emotional granularity. However if that same individual was able to more precisely identify feelings – such as instead reporting feeling ‘dismayed,’ or ‘uneasy,’ or ‘irritated,’ or ‘ashamed,’ then that would constitute a high emotional granularity. Early studies into this topic have shown that those with high levels of granularity cope with stress better, as they can identity and deal with their emotions more precisely and accurately.

As an extension to this, some studies have shown that those with emotional dysregulation, such as people with Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD), and victims of childhood trauma, can benefit from mindfulness therapy by helping them to manage difficult emotions. As described by Dr Bessel van de Kolk in Chapter 13 of his book The Body Keeps the Score:

“The first step is to allow your mind to focus on your sensations and notice how, in contrast to the timeless, ever-present experience of trauma, physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking…. Practicing mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system, so that you are less likely to be thrown into fight-or-flight. Learning to observe and tolerate your physical reactions is a pre-requisite for safely re-visiting the past. If you cannot tolerate what you are feeling right now, opening up the past will only compound the misery and re-traumatise you further.”

The problem however, lies not in the claim that mindfulness can help mentally traumatised individuals regulate their emotions better. Neither is the claim problematic that mindfulness can theoretically be helpful for normal individuals. The issue is the widespread rolling out of mindfulness programmes across schools, businesses, law firms, and even the military. As discussed, this can play a pacifying role in society, and seeks to replace real spirituality with mental exercises. But there is another issue. The roll-out has been justified by the fact that mindfulness has been proven to work by science.

Unfortunately, mindfulness’ purported benefits have been grossly overstated.

A much-publicised article, published in the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain,’ gushed over the neuroscientific benefits of the practice. After discussing the findings that brain areas associated with stress and self-regulation become healthier following mindfulness training, the article concludes that:

“Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have”:  a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress.”

In reality however, while the fancy neuroscience terminology sounds impressive, the studies which are cited as evidence for these ‘miraculous’ benefits are not. One study, for example, investigated activation in various areas of the brain in 15 meditators and 15 non-meditators. It concluded based on MRI scan findings that ‘meditators are stronger engaged in emotional processing.’ This is all well and good, however the article also concedes that “differences between the groups cannot be clearly attributed to the meditation training alone, but may have already existed beforehand.”  Moreover, the style and type of meditation that each of the meditators performed varied significantly. To use this study in an article claiming that mindfulness can ‘literally change your brain,’ with all of its transformative implications, is a bit of a stretch.

The other study cited by this article – in an incredibly excited fashion – was a review of 21 neuroimaging studies. This concluded that eight regions of the brain were consistently altered in meditators as compared with non-meditators, the effect size described as “medium.” These areas included regions thought to be associated with body awareness, memory consolidation, and emotional awareness. The review authors however were extremely cautious in the representation of their findings. They explained that publication bias – in other words the publication of only results that reflected positively upon mindfulness was a “serious concern,” and that according to their estimates, “a fairly large degree of bias was present.”  They also explained that structural and anatomical differences in brain structure does not necessarily correlate with objective changes in behaviour. Thirdly, as in the previous study mentioned, the authors of this paper also highlighted the selection biases likely to be present:

“Even short-term meditation training can be very demanding, and consistent, long-term practice involving thousands of hours of commitment is obviously so. The possibility of a selection bias in favour of participants predisposed to such regimens, and/or already possessing higher trait levels of body awareness, sustained attention, metacognitive awareness, and so on, is clearly a major potential confound. Such initial differences in personality and cognitive ability would likely be reflected in brain structure and function.”

In other words, the brain structures of meditators may have been naturally and initially different to non-meditators – and it may have been the structural brain characteristics that enabled the meditators to be able to engage with such training. There is little evidence ascertaining to what degree meditation itself changes brain structure, and even if it does, how relevant this is to day to day functioning.

Finally, the review researchers strongly highlight how little research has taken place in this field, and the need for significantly more before any real conclusions can be made. Their paper is a far cry from the media clamour asserting with confidence and certainty that mindfulness ‘can literally change your brain,’ and that it is ‘a must have to keep our brains healthy.’

Popular mindfulness meditation app Headspace attempts to go further than pure neuroscience and focus more on behaviour. While it claims that ‘The Science’ shows that it works, the reality, based on the research it offers as evidence, is vastly different. The first headline on its scientific research page on its website claims (in bold) that Headspace decreases stress. However the study it cites is of remarkably limited utility in forming such a conclusion. This was a trial of 68 participants, some of which were allocated randomly to listening to an audiobook about mindfulness, and others allocated to an introductory Headspace mindfulness program. All the participants’ levels of irritability and stress were measured immediately before and immediately after their session. The results showed that the Headspace intervention had a positive impact upon irritability and ‘stress resulting from external pressure.’

Though this may have been the case, the limitations of this study were significant. By only measuring stress levels immediately after the mindfulness program, with no follow up weeks or months later, the efficacy of the intervention in the medium and longer term remains unknown. The study authors also concede that “…we cannot be sure whether the benefits associated with the intervention are due to increases in mindfulness or another mechanism.”  

Moreover, the authors also acknowledge that the majority of study participants had positive expectations about the benefits of meditation prior to starting. Therefore, from a logical perspective, it is quite possible that the participants, already enthusiastic about Headspace, felt reductions in stress immediately after the program ended, due to their own positivity, but demonstrated little lasting benefits. It is also worth noting that all four authors of this study were employed by Headspace at the time it was conducted.

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While mobile phone screens are often a cause of stress, mindfulness apps try to convince you that they are also the solution

Going through all the Headspace studies that are cited on their own website, all follow a similar pattern – small sample sizes, methodological limitations, and possible publication biases. A 2017 review entitled, Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation, highlights well the disparity between the state of scientific research on the topic and the media and public hype. The review highlights systemic issues with current mindfulness research including the diverse ways in which ‘mindfulness’ is defined in different studies, the problems with self-report questionnaires, for example when measuring stress or focus levels, and the fact that many studies do not utilise randomised control groups.

There is evidence that mindfulness meditation practices can be effective for certain groups of people in increasing wellbeing and reducing stress. These groups include those with certain psychiatric disorders.  However, the state of current scientific research is extremely limited in comparison to the hype surrounding the ‘mindfulness revolution.’

A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis, commissioned by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, found that mindfulness-based meditation programmes in fact had very low efficacy in reducing stress and improving people’s quality of life. Another interesting meta-analysis published in 2018 cast significant doubts on the claim that mindfulness-advocates make that mindfulness naturally leads to pro-social conduct, compassion and empathy. The paper states that:

“Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice. We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one. Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and methodological quality of the study. We conclude by highlighting a number of biases and theoretical problems that need addressing to improve quality of research in this area.”

Kreplin U, Farias M, Brazil A; The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis; Scientific Reports; 2018; Article Number 2403

Mindfulness feels science-y, but the more one delves into the scientific research, the more underwhelmed one becomes. This applies to both in-person mindfulness-based interventions, and popular mobile apps like Headspace. The fact that mindfulness has been rolled out into all strata of society, despite a lack of conclusive evidence in this field, should render us wary as to how effective it actually is.  

But if not mindfulness, then what else? How can we live contentedly despite the stresses we face, while at the same time striving for a better society?

He died in 1908, but his lyrical prose, his depth of theological insight, and his renowned high moral values has made Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) one of the most talked-about Muslim figures in the modern world. Ahmad’s writings express the idea of a living God, one with not only the capacity to listen to the prayers of His servants, but also with the ability to respond. The true purpose of life, he argued, was to journey towards God, entailing three stages – fana (passing away), meaning the total annihilation of one’s ego for the sake of God, baqa (subsistence) – the attaining of a new spiritual life through prayer and good deeds, and liqa (meeting) – the state of achieving union with God. Ahmad’s poetry conveyed his own love of his Creator, and his yearning for others to achieve a similar state:

“When all of His attributes are manifested,

How can it remain hidden that He speaks!

Yet what eyes and sight you have,

That you cannot even see the sun!

Disgrace for His sake is better than any honour;

Poverty for His sake is better than riches.”

While Ahmad’s writings were initially widely praised by Muslim leaders across the subcontinent, when he declared that God had revealed to him that he was the spiritual reformer, or Mujaddid, of the era, and then later that his status was that of the ‘Promised Messiah,’ and the spiritual second coming of Jesus, opposition against him began to take shape.

His bold claim did not sit well with Sunni or Shia clerics at the time, and as Ahmad’s movement grew, their dismay and opposition grew in equal measure as they found their own power and influence beginning to wane. Today, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community spans the globe, and whilst many adherents live in peace, some face a growing barrage of opposition and persecution, especially in Pakistan, where Ahmadis are routinely beaten, imprisoned, and even killed. May 2010 saw the most recent massacre, in which 94 Ahmadis were murdered during Friday prayers.

By all accounts, Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas possessed a level of mindfulness that modern guides and gurus would be unable even to comprehend. On one occasion, Ahmad wrote:

“I possess such control over myself and God Almighty has made my soul so true a Muslim that if someone were to sit before me and went on uttering – for an entire year – the most filthy and obscene profanities that one could imagine, ultimately, they would be embarrassed themselves and would have no choice but to concede that they were unable to weaken my patience.”

Malfuzat. Volume II; pg. 171

If mindfulness, as its proponents claim, aims to enable people to reduce their stress levels by training them to not be ‘overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around them,’ then the above mentality is a perfect example of this. Indeed, Ahmad faced persecution, abuse and numerous personal stresses and difficulties, but always maintained complete composure and control of himself. Indeed, his serenity was to such an extent that he became a spiritual and moral guide to hundreds of thousands of people in his lifetime, increasing to tens of millions after his passing.

These traits have been seen to greater or lesser degrees in essentially all celebrated spiritual guides, in every culture on Earth. In the Abrahamic tradition, a salient feature of many Prophets of God is their ability to endure the most brutal and testing of trials with utter contentment. While Jesus was about to be crucified, rather than wallowing in his own misfortunes, he instead comforted his disciples – “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  He did not mean that they should start to engage in breathing exercises. Rather, he had a firm conviction that this was ultimately part of God’s plan. Moses, Buddha, Abraham, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all, displayed similar personal characteristics. Perhaps a modern observer would describe these individuals as some of the most ‘mindful’ ever to have walked the earth. And yet, they never laid stress on non-judgmental awareness of their emotional states, but on the beliefs they espoused and the practices by which they lived.  

History shows us that the teachings of religious figures are remarkably consistent. All such figures taught that the key to true ‘mindfulness,’ or the attainment of inner contentment, lies in developing a living relationship with God, and in serving His creation with compassion and justice.

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A religious pilgrimage to the Holy city of Medina

Islam presents itself as a universal religion, and teaches that Prophets of God were not only sent to the Middle East, but that in fact every society had Prophets to guide them in helping them to understand the realities of God. Moreover, perhaps surprisingly to some, many figures who are depicted by the West as being non-religious ‘spiritual gurus,’ were in fact believers in God. In many cases we have evidence they claimed to be ‘Prophets’ in Abrahamic parlance – spiritual reformers commissioned by God. For instance, Confucius spoke about a personal God who listened to prayers. Socrates believed in God, preached against the Athenian demi-gods, and claimed he was guided by a revelatory ‘divine sign’ – something western scholars have struggled to ignore.

But perhaps most startlingly for mindfulness advocates is the evidence that the Buddha himself was a theist. Early Buddhist architecture, predating written accounts of his life, advise Buddha’s followers:

“Confess and believe in God (Is’ana) who is the worthy object of obedience. For equal to this (belief), I declare unto you, ye shall not find such a means of propitiating heaven. Oh strive ye to obtain this inestimable treasure.”

“Wherefore from this very hour, I have caused religious discourses to be preached, I have appointed religious observances that mankind, having listened thereto, shall be brought to follow in the right path, and give glory to God (Is’ana).”

Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad
Part 2, Section 2

The list goes on – numerous individuals throughout history who were known to be moral in character and whose movements persisted, were in fact deeply religious believers.

The techniques that these religious saints and Prophets used to achieve this inner state of peace, however, are in direct contrast to modern-day methods. While mindfulness meditation encourages being ‘present, and fully engaged in the moment,’ the Prophets emphasised a more future-oriented approach. They taught that true contentment lies only in the remembrance of God; that even if a situation is difficult or stressful, He has the power to erase all troubles. The Prophets encouraged their followers to pray to God, attain a certainty of His existence, and develop a two-way relationship with Him. Through such practices, they would be able to ultimately confront any difficulties they faced with ease and hope.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

Psalms 23:4

The benefits of this style of psychological thinking have been well-researched. A 2019 literature review entitled ‘The Relations between Hope and Subjective Wellbeing,’ demonstrated that greater hope goes hand in hand with higher subjective wellbeing levels. What mindfulness fails to adequately grasp is that how we perceive the future greatly impacts upon how we feel at the present moment. Simply telling us to ‘be present in the moment,’ may acutely relieve our momentary anxieties, but does nothing to address our chronic stresses, worries and fears. Indeed, even a positive present situation is difficult to bear if we are stressed for the future. On the flip-side, one can easily cope with a difficult present moment, if one’s psychological state is of optimism and hope for the future.

Not only does mindfulness fail to address these basic facets of human psychology, it also omits the very concept of morality. The concept of fana – as mentioned earlier – which Ahmad emphasised, refers to annihilating one’s ego for the sake of God. In essence, this entails living life with a sense of moral purpose and duty, thinking of one’s responsibilities towards others rather just one’s own breathing patterns. It also fundamentally entails the concept of accountability – that ultimately God is watching us. Such a knowledge enables us to act in a manner which pleases Him, and seek to establish a relationship with our Creator. One can do this by following the conduct of all Prophets – who emphasised and practised teachings of humility, compassion and pluralism. More important than one’s own contentment is how one treats others. And it is through putting morality above all priorities that one can truly gain that sense of inner peace.

In modern society, certain billionaires use mindfulness to attain their own state of ‘zen,’ while systemically displaying attitudes of greed and rampant lust for wealth. Going further back, in the 1930s, Heinrich Himmler, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust, used to venture into the countryside for yoga and meditation retreats, before returning to orchestrate horrific crimes. According to Manvell and Frankell in their study Heinrich Himmler: The SS, Gestapo, His Life and Career, these retreats consisted of ‘spiritual exercises aimed mainly at concentration’ (Chapter 3).

While telling subjects to focus on their breathing and develop a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, mindfulness fails to discuss morality at all. It can therefore be used as a tool to commit good deeds or evil ones. Its tame, inward-focused aims do nothing either to address inequalities and injustices on a systemic level, or even provide individuals a moral foundation from which they can begin to improve society.

Islam, on the other hand, places morality at the forefront of its philosophy. True success, the Quran claims, lies not in attaining some artificial sense of ‘zen,’ but rather becoming morally pure, even if this may be difficult and require much courage. It is in making the primary purpose of one’s live the discharge of one’s responsibility towards God, other individuals and society as a whole, that ultimately leads to a real revolution, and an end to injustices and global turmoil.

“Verily, he truly prospers who purifies himself, And remembers the name of his Lord and offers prayers.”

Holy Quran; 87:15-16

The Quran also makes the point that every soul inherently knows right from wrong. Our role in life should be to follow our God-given conscience, and not become twisted by societal pressures.

“And by the soul and its perfection — And He revealed to it what is wrong for it and what is right for it. He indeed prospers who purifies it, and he who corrupts it is ruined.”

Holy Quran; 91: 8-11

Mindfulness tries to make us feel good about ourselves, while flinging morality to the winds. It provides no moral guidance or real spiritual fulfillment, intentionally divorcing itself from any beliefs about truth. As such, it is nothing more than a focusing mechanism. As a mental exercise, it certainly may be effective in some people for reducing stress. However, if human beings have been created for a greater purpose, then it is only in fulfilling that purpose that we can achieve true inner peace.

All religions have taught that our ultimate purpose in life is to love God and love His creation. While many distort religion to commit heinous crimes, those who follow religions as they were originally conceived seek to incorporate these maxims into everyday life, at every level. Mindfulness helps people to regulate their harmful impulses and regulate them, however this alone does not lead to spiritual contentment or righteous action. Rather it is our beliefs about our purpose in life, and moral accountability, that strongly influence how we behave to others and whether we achieve mental contentment. It is our beliefs about the world that allow us to bear with suffering, and remain content in the knowledge that every trial can be a source of spiritual development; it is our moral convictions that tell us to redress injustice rather than suffer mindfully.

In reality, mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. For some groups of people, such as patients with personality-disorders, scientific evidence suggests it can be helpful. However, for the general public, as Brown university researcher Willoughby Britton states, “Public enthusiasm is outpacing scientific evidence.”  Such public enthusiasm is understandable. Religious extremists and the media have ensured that the image of religion has been significantly tarnished over recent decades, and widespread misinterpretation of scripture has created the image of religion as nothing more than irrational fairy-tales. Despite this, people yearn for spirituality, in an age of rampant materialism, and are told that mindfulness can fill this gap in their souls.

I enjoyed my own mindfulness course. The instructor was very pleasant, it gave me the opportunity to catch up with some friends, and it provided an hour away from the bustle and mania of junior doctor life. However, the content of the program itself was nothing more than some thoughtful discussions and breathing exercises – vastly disproportionate to the hype that has surrounded it.

In 2014, TIME magazine published an article entitled The Mindful Revolution. Its content is predictable – much invoking of ‘the science,’ and ‘rewiring the brain.’ The article however struck me particularly because the author had personally undertaken the very same mindfulness-based stress reduction course as I had. Her concluding paragraph described the ‘revolution’ that had resulted in her own life after this eight-week programme:

“In the months since, I haven’t meditated much, yet the course has had a small–but profound–impact on my life. I’ve started wearing a watch, which has cut in half the number of times a day I look at my iPhone and risk getting sucked into checking email or the web. On a tip from one of my MBSR classmates, when I’m at a restaurant and a dining companion gets up to take a call or use the bathroom, I now resist the urge to read the news or check Facebook on my phone. Instead, I usually just sit and watch the people around me. And when I walk outside, I find myself smelling the air and listening to the soundtrack of the city. The notes and rhythms were always there, of course. But these days they seem richer and more important.”

If this is the impact that mindfulness has, then one can be forgiven for struggling to believe that it can cause any kind of ‘revolution.’ I would even argue that reading the news is a more valuable use of time than sitting and watching people. What is most evident is that there is no mention of any personal moral improvement, or anything else that has any sort of potential to improve the state of the world. A wish-washy state of ‘feeling more spiritual,’ whatever that means, is all that this programme can provide.

Compare this with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), whose message is in complete harmony not just with previous Muslim figures, but with thousands of spiritual guides who have come before, all emphasising the same values of trust in God, worship, and striving to improve society through moral deeds.

We stand today at a flashpoint in human history. With worsening economic inequalities, heightened geo-political tensions, and a currently devastating global pandemic, we must collectively decide what kind of philosophies we want to adopt. While on the surface, mindfulness appears harmless, when it becomes touted as radical and revolutionary, then it becomes a problem. For in reality, it only provides the illusion of personal improvement, whilst maintaining the global corporate power structures which threaten us all. A true revolution entails each of us resolving to do what is in our power to reduce human evil and suffering as far as possible. Figures such as Rumi and Tolstoy, oft-quoted in mindfulness courses, knew this well.

Being genuinely ‘mindful’ entails having the courage to seek to understand what is wrong with ourselves, and with society as a whole. It involves developing moral qualities, and also investigating thoroughly new-age crazes, which promise so much and yet deliver so little. Devoting ourselves to mindfulness will not fill the gaps in our souls, but only wedge our souls into deeper and deeper holes.

It is only in looking beyond mindfulness, that we will truly be able to become mindful.

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Dr. Damir Rafi is an editor at Rational Religion, and the author of Emergence: The Journey of a Young British Muslim Living in an Age of Extremism.

  1. Truly a mindful assessment of mindfulness. I wonder how the brain undergoes change by positive thinking and does it also not have some effect on the heart. Is intuition related with the brain or heart ? this in one subject which I would like to explore. Totally agree with with your views. I have always overcome my struggles through prayers.

    1. I also have always been interested about intuition. Is it the heart or the brain? But as from the Holy Prophet (sa) saying that says to “search your heart” held an underline meaning.
      This was to become an undeniable proof when I saw a documentary which exposed the fact that our heart indeed has a brain which they call “heart-brain” connected in some way to our brain.
      Experiments show the difference between relying on your intuitions and brain logic which maps out facts. We all witness events when intuition wins against logic and more often than not, intuition is the winner. So,no our heart is not just a pump as we’d always been told to believe but it can make decisions for us when we ask it!

  2. Thank you so much for this deep insight. Really respect your research, analysis culminating with logical conclusions.
    I shall be using parts of your article to educate our younger girls who tend to get “sucked in” with modern spirituality compared to the real essence of a religion created by God, created for His creation.

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