Should we be mindful of how popular “mindfulness” now is? Carl Erik Fisher says we should. Fisher is a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and a practicing psychotherapist who integrates meditation in his practice, and meditates himself. But he worries some popular meditation practices, which stress salvation through a clear mind, undermine the genuine benefits of meditation. Recent studies in psychology show mindful meditation has been detrimental to practitioners.
“The overselling of mindfulness can lead to this idea that we should always be rigidly focused on what’s in front of us and our minds should be totally clear of any sort of input or thought,” Fisher told Nautilus. “That’s a total misrepresentation. Mindfulness doesn’t mean the eradication of thoughts, in any tradition. In any sort of basic, secular, clinical application, it just means paying attention to the present moment…Maybe we need to clarify what we mean by mindfulness before we slap it on a bunch of posters in every school and every workplace.”
Every year, at least 1 million new meditators arise in the United States alone. “Meditation Has Become a Billion-Dollar Business,” one Fortune headline announced. Willoughby Britton, director of the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Brown University, and colleagues, wrote in a 2017 paper, “With more than 20 mindfulness phone apps, mindfulness is a major contributor to the billion-dollar meditation industry that serves more than 18 million meditators.” In a piece in Wired, Robert Wright, author most recently of Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, argued “How Mindfulness Meditation Can Save America.”
One worry is the mindfulness movement’s heavy focus on positive, health-related perks, like stress or anxiety reduction. It turns meditation into a tool for mental hygiene. The reasoning goes like this, Fisher said: “Most of us spend at least four to five minutes a day brushing our teeth, so if we’re going to do that for our teeth, we might as well do it for our minds.” This, Britton and her colleagues write, “represents only a narrow selection of possible effects that have been acknowledged within Buddhist traditions both past and present.”
In a 2014 study, for example, Tim Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, and colleagues, found that a quarter of the 30 male meditators they interviewed had troubling episodes—some encountered hard-to-manage thoughts and feelings; some exacerbated their depression and anxiety; and some became psychotic. One guy, a beginner, tried out an advanced method of deconstructing the self. “I crashed, lying on the floor sobbing,” he said. “I had a really strong sense of impermanence without the context, without the positivity. The crushing experience of despair was very strong…You just feel like you don’t exist, you’re nothing. It’s nihilistic, pretty terrifying.” Some negative experiences were less intense. “Doing mindfulness, you don’t like yourself sometimes,” another man said. “You just become aware, ‘Actually, I’m a bit of a shit.’” Lomas and his colleagues concluded, “Our paper raises important issues around safeguarding those who practice meditation, both within therapeutic settings and in the community.”
Britton and her colleagues, in their 2017 paper, had the ambition of organizing meditative experiences in a single codebook, partly as a way to highlight—in a phrase recalling William James’ seminal book on religious experience—the “varieties of contemplative experience.” After interviewing 60 Buddhist meditation practitioners and teachers, including clinicians who implement meditation-based therapies, Britton and her colleagues came up with seven domains of experience, each containing at least five categories of changes meditationers felt, along with the percentage of those who felt it. Their sampling—43 percent female, 57 percent male, mean age 48—skewed toward the strange and strenuous. “In order to better understand the types of experiences that tend to be under-reported in scientific research, scholarship, and the media,” the researchers wrote, “the [Varieties of Contemplative Experience] study intentionally queried experiences that practitioners found unexpected, difficult, distressing, or functionally impairing.”
“You just feel like you don’t exist, you’re nothing. It’s nihilistic, pretty terrifying.”
In the cognitive domain, which has 10 categories, the two most-reported ones were “change in worldview” (48 percent) and “delusional, irrational, or paranormal beliefs” (47 percent). The most-reported category of experience in the perceptual domain (42 percent) was “Hallucinations, visions, or illusions.” The most-reported experience (82 percent) came from the affective domain: “Fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia.” The other domains are: “somatic,” involving bodily feelings; “conative,” involving motivation and goal-related behavior; “sense of self”; and “social.” Half of the meditators Britton and her colleagues interviewed experienced “changes in self-other or self-world boundaries” and “social impairment.”
These wouldn’t be surprising experiences for those familiar with what it takes to become an arhat, a “perfected person,” in Theravada Buddhism. (The Jain equivalent, an arihant, is a conqueror of the mind, writes Raj Pruthi, in Jainism and Indian Civilization, who “destroys his inner enemies like anger, greed, passion…”) Walk into the courtyard of Shanyuan Temple, in China, about an hour’s flight away from Pyongyang, North Korea, and you’ll be greeted by a formidable formation of 500 unique, life-sized, red-robed statues of arhats, all arrayed around another figure several times larger, in similar garments—Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha. Lore has it that, when the Buddha died, in about 400 BCE, these men convened the First Buddhist council to consolidate his teachings.
To become an arhat involves following the Noble Eightfold Path—“right view,” “right conduct,” “right effort,” and so on. Being a good person isn’t the point—it’s a prerequisite, writes Peter Harvey, author of An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. “With virtue as the indispensable basis for further progress, some meditation may be attempted. With appropriate application, this will lead to the mind becoming calmer, stronger, and clearer.” This sparks a virtuous feedback loop. Clarity and tranquility of mind aids virtue, the experience of acting well over time deepens wisdom, and meditative skill profits. “With each more refined development of the virtue–meditation–wisdom sequence,” Harvey goes on, “the Path spirals up to a higher level…to Arahatship.”
You might say Fisher is still spiraling. The part of the Eightfold Path that he’s always struggled with, “even on the meditation cushion,” he said, is “right effort.” “Whether it’s some sort of basic compassion intention like, May all beings be happy; or whether it’s just simply staying with the breath, and following my awareness: What’s the right amount of effort? Do I hold onto it tightly and really try to make sure I don’t miss a second? Or do I relax and let my mind go where it will?” Fisher said. He’s pretty non-judgemental about it now—“There’s a balance of right effort”—and seems to suggest that it’s a mistake to privilege one way over the other. “There’s a whole spectrum of responses, and you’ll go across the entire spectrum over the course of a meditation session,” he said.
For Fisher, meditation retreats in South Korea, right after college as a Luce Scholar, were an “invaluable” experience, he said, that “seeded that idea that mindfulness and more rigorous psychiatry and neuroscience could be blended together.” Still, he could find himself lapsing in his regular practice. “I would beat myself up and say I was a bad meditator and I’ll always be suffering and my life will be shit,” he said. “And I’ve let go of that a little bit.” Oddly, being around ambitious New Yorkers may have helped. “Their problem is generally not being too easy on themselves. Most people in the city are too hard on themselves!” Fisher said. “So, not that I am trying to apply my own experience to everybody, but I find a lot of commonality and a lot of common ground with my patients along those lines.”
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.
This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in March 2018.