Measuring Mindfulness

I’m just back from a symposium on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Diversity in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Alone among psychologists, analysts, social workers and academics, I nevertheless found myself quite at home. Almost all were meditators, some with decades of practice under their belts. There’s a natural affinity between Buddhism and psychology; both are concerned with the human mind’s tendency to avoid the real world by creating its own reality, and to get to the root of angst.

In spite of reminders that mindfulness is rooted in many traditions, Buddhism kept popping up as a principal source; politically incorrect perhaps, but hard to avoid. The Buddha’s teachings explore, explain and map introspective practices with a breadth, depth and precision that’s the envy of other traditions, as well as a growing body of scientists.

Discussion centred upon mindfulness in therapy, but there was also the issue of proving it in clinical settings. The problem is measurability — coming up with the facts and figures needed to loosen purse strings in hospitals and other public institutions. Since 1995 Jon Kabat-Zinn has created credibility among researchers, academics and clinicians for his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, but that’s only one method; full acceptance has a long way to go.

Riffle through the scientific literature and you’d think the clinical study of mindfulness is proceeding at full steam. One of my students recently found 3,540 ‘meditation’ studies on PsychInfo, a database of psychology research. Some findings trickle down into mainstream publications like Time, where you might have seen pictures of fMRI scanners wired to the heads of Tibetan monks, measuring brain activity and spitting out hard evidence. Measurable evidence like this is easier to find in long-time than short-term meditators; so far it’s come down to asking, ‘So how’s it going?’

Even the question, ‘How much do you meditate’ is impossibly murky. Is quietly sitting still necessarily being mindful? In an hour, how much time is mindful, how much distracted? How about that hour-long conversation with your spouse when you were unusually open and soul-searching — does that count as mindfulness practice?

It’s not just that the questions are so subjective, they’re also tough to answer. In my last meditation session, for example, was I focussed more than ten percent of the time? More than forty? I’ll answer, but not with great certainty. Lots goes on in my head, even when I am focussed. How about the big picture? I think I’m happier and more stable than I was as a young man but, as keynote speaker Dr. Tony Toneatto pointed out, that could just be the process of maturity. He’s got a point, though maturity certainly isn’t guaranteed. It’s my observation (purely subjective) that people who take no time in life to work on themselves tend towards a cranky old age. There’s nothing inevitable about learning from our mistakes; facing or turning away from them is a conscious choice we make every day. I count my practice successful if I face more than I avoid, and particularly if that ratio increases year by year — no scratch that: decade by decade. We fall back too, sometimes for longer than we like to admit. And how about that horrible meditation session when you saw just how much your thought processes are guided by narcissism and self-righteousness? But wait a minute, isn’t that insight, with all the subliminal power to shift attitudes?

In the world of scientific measurement, subjective data is unreliable, to say the least — and yet the Buddha developed mindfulness as an empirical practice. The Dalai Lama has pointed out that Buddhist practice and science share three qualities: a commitment to the empirical method, belief in universal cause and effect and a distrust of absolutes. Both favour outcomes that can be duplicated — scientific research by replicating results in different laboratories and Buddhism by guiding people to the same state of awakening. However, although you and I can chat fruitfully about our meditational experiences, there’s no way to compare them brick for brick.

Without hard evidence, a forward-thinking activist working in a hospital, say, is hard-pressed to sell his or her vision to budget administrators. She’s asking them to commit scarce resources to an untested — indeed, so far untestable — new approach to stress.

But of course it’s not new at all. It’s been around for twenty-six hundred years, morphing in that time from the teachings of an itinerant iconoclast (Siddhattha the Buddha) to the monolithic traditions of austere Theravadins, anti-rational Zenners and magic-wielding Tibetans. Keynote speaker Ana Bodnar raised the question of why interest in mindfulness has grown so explosively in recent years. I see two reasons: these practices come into the hands of secular Westerners just as we’re being drowned in the attention-fracturing synthesis of fast-changing technology and knee-jerk consumerism. We’re also dealing with the indigestible materialism that’s left over from the rejection of our parents’ religion and the growing realisation that the baby’s gone with the bathwater.

How are we now to take such ancient practices? Many people, as I once did, embrace one or another of these foreign cultural forms, and adapt. Others, like those who come to my Quiet Mind Seminars, have no interest in delving into that cultural baggage and just want the goods — to understand their own minds and to be more awake. In short, we all see the practices as a form of therapy — which brings us back to the symposium.

Anyone who’s practiced meditation knows at first-hand the benefits of sitting quietly and letting the mind find its own balance. Delve deeper with an experienced teacher and you begin to uncover some of the illusions that underlie daily stress. Long-term meditators are motivated by their own experience and don’t need facts and figures. Then there are the committed practitioners, driven by the Buddha’s extraordinary promise of a permanent end to stress — hard to believe, but equally hard to refute, especially once you see stress as a subjective response, and not ‘out there.’

Who knows how plastic the mind can be?

Those who’ve benefited from mindfulness generally wish the same benefits on others, especially when they’re part of a religious tradition that urges kindness and compassion. Psychologists are healers, and want the best for their clients. How difficult and/or practical is the use of mindfulness across the board? Time will tell. Hopefully, they will tell.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

4 thoughts on “Measuring Mindfulness”

  1. I see mindfulness as a tool and practice. Society has bombarded us with too much consumerism, technology, materialism. When the mind can simply calm itself, many things become clearer. Measuring this is difficult. I imagine that part of the desire to continue using mindfulness is that the client feels it helpful, and there is an improved sense of well being.

  2. I’m a firm believer in the merits of mindfulness, but it’s only effective when it’s practiced willingly and continually; it’s not for everyone. There was talk of it being a psychologist’s ‘tool’ or ‘technique,’ and I saw it taken out of the context of a whole lifestyle by some of the less experienced participants. If it starts being used indiscriminately it won’t work, and will end up misunderstood. Then it could easily be discredited, which would be a great pity.

  3. Brenda’s reply basically sums up my own response. I certainly hope your comments about it becoming a technique — and eventually discredited — don’t come true. Perhaps the centuries of belief in meditation will override the misuse of mindfulness.

    Would you please tell me what you mean by “uncover some of the illusions that underlie daily stress?”

    1. Ronnie: the first and biggest illusion about stress is that it originates outside ourselves. The way we talk about it makes it seem that way — “my boss stresses me;” “this noise is stressful;” “my sickness is stressing me out.” It enables us to blame circumstances or other people, and avoid the fact that stress is a response, not an objective situation. This isn’t to suggest that life is easy, but that we do have a say in it. By seeing our part in our own stress and by accepting responsibility for it we take the first step towards peace of mind. The alternative is to go on seeing it as beyond our control and remaining, in our own minds, helpless victims.

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