‘Mindfulness’ is due a backlash, surely. And it starts here. Sort of. The authors, both psychologists, and one an experienced meditator with a lifelong interest in spiritual matters, originally set out to write an account of the astonishing transformative power of meditation and yoga. But their research for the book complicated the story they had meant to tell: meditation turns out to be a stranger and more unreliable thing than we have been led to believe.
Mindfulness, for anyone who has escaped hearing about it, is the cultivation of in-the-moment awareness, mainly via meditation. The authors begin by critiquing the research evidence, which is helpful. We learn that the research is not especially rigorous, and in any case does not show all that it purports to. There is little evidence that eight-week mindfulness-based psychological treatments, as offered by the NHS, are as effective as more traditional forms of therapy. Claims that mindfulness meditation can slow ageing and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, meanwhile, are the result of researchers ‘sexing up’ data – a near-universal practice.
Then there is the relationship between mindfulness and the Buddhist traditions that it has been taken from. Westerners are relieved that they can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness without the trappings of religion. But in the eyes of Buddhists, we have taken a powerful tool, thrown away the instruction manual