Some assumptions about mindfulness practice can hurt rather than help.

Predictably, the backlash against mindfulness is well underway. One typical article written earlier this year by two British researchers asks, "Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind?" The authors questioned whether the practice was really for everyone, and suggested it may not be as beneficial as is often claimed.

In her recent New York Times opinion piece, "Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment," Ruth Whippman writes, "Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them."

Seth JSeth J Gillihanis a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include research articles and book chapters on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and depression, how CBT works, and the use of brain imaging to study psychiatric disorders. Dr. Gillihan maintains a clinical practice in Haverford, PA.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

The invitation to come into the present with openness and acceptance can easily turn into an exhortation, even a criticism. I hear echoes of these judgments in my psychotherapypractice, where much of my approach is mindfulness-based, through patients' statements like:

  • I should meditate more often.
  • I know I'm not supposed to be thinking about the future. 
  • I'm terrible at being mindful.

It's easy to start thinking that to be present is "good," even moral, and that letting our thoughts be elsewhere is "bad." With this mindset, the practice becomes yet another obligation we can feel lousy about not fulfilling. Honestly, do we need one more reason to feel like we're not measuring up? 

I should note that I'm a strong proponent of mindfulness practice, which I've seen to be not just beneficial but transformative for some individuals. At the same time, any helpful practice can be misused in a way that makes it harmful.

Some of the most unhelpful assumptions about mindfulness include:

  1. You should be practicing mindfulness. Perhaps the most harmful assumption about the practice involves a sense of ought—implying we're doing something wrong if we're not being mindful. We can turn any helpful practice into a stick to beat ourselves with, and mindfulness is no exception. When we (inevitably) are imperfect in our approach, it's all too easy to be self-critical. At some point we'll probably resent this feeling of guilt, and may see mindfulness as the problem (as Whippman seems to). In reality there's no "should" with mindfulness. If it's something you decide to use, the practice is for you and not vice versa. 
  2. If people are unhappy, it's because they need to be more mindful. Any beneficial practice can be used to blame others for their suffering. Have a headache? You should drink more water. Feeling down? You need fish oil. Stressed out? You need to meditate more. We can dismiss others' pain if we can find a way to make it their fault. Thus mindfulness can be used paradoxically to avoid responding to others with compassion. Whippman writes about a "judgmental tone," "moralizing smugness," and what she calls "moment shaming" that can characterize mindfulness proponents. 
  3. All you need is mindfulness. The idea that mindfulness will solve all your problems has a corollary assumption—that other sources of help are inferior and unnecessary. This attitude, again, can lead to negative judgments about others, and is most apparent in the domain of mental health, in which mindfulness is at times seen as being at odds with approaches like medication and psychotherapy. This assumption can also be directed at conditions like chronic pain and hypertension, suggesting, for example, that people with these conditions should stop taking helpful medication and instead rely only on mindfulness. 
  4. Mindfulness practice has a specific look and feel. There are many trappings that accompany the core elements of mindfulness. We might assume being mindful must mean sitting cross-legged on the floor, identifying with Eastern religions, taking yoga classes, being a political liberal, knowing the most popular purveyors of mindfulness, and using certain catch-phrases. However, dogmatic assumptions run counter to the spirit of mindfulness. There is no church of mindfulness, no organization or individual that gets to dictate what mindfulness is and isn't.
  5. Your mindfulness should look like mine. It's easy to assume that someone else's experience should be just like ours. When I first started practicing mindfulness, I unwittingly assumed that my job as a therapist was to help a person have the same experience I had had, and I wondered what I was doing wrong if they didn't. I didn't realize at the time that the whole premise of trying to replicate a personal experience was misguided. Inherent in the concept of mindfulness is the recognition that everyone's experience of it will be different.

It's easy to see why we might be turned off by being told to "focus on the present" and "let go of our judgments." It's one thing to be told what to do—exercise, stop smoking, get more sleep—but it's probably even harder to be told what to do with our minds. It can feel like our most private events are being policed. Very few people enjoy the feeling of being controlled. Indeed, a host of studies show that autonomy is a fundamental human need, and that we thrive when we're the agents of our actions. 

I knew about mindfulness and its benefits years before I felt drawn to take part in the practice. I'd heard it could relieve stress and lead to more fulfillment, and yet it didn't feel like it was for me. I distinctly remember feeling put off by the idea that it was something I should be doing—that somehow I would be a better human being if I meditated. Perhaps it felt too similar to parts of my religious past that I had left behind.

I eventually entered into the practice through a series of events in my life that had nothing to do with anyone pushing me to get started. Instead, it felt like something I wanted, for myself.

So there's no need to feel bad about not practicing mindfulness. It's not up to anyone else to decide if and when you should engage in it. Focus on the present, or don't. It's OK. Nothing says that meditation is for everyone, or even that we need something called "mindfulness." There are many paths to engagement, a sense of ease, and connection to something greater than ourselves. 

We proponents of mindfulness might take care to let go of any attachment to wanting others to take up the practice. As Solan McClean notes in his excellent book on mindful driving, "You really can't give [mindfulness] to someone who doesn't want it…If it isn't their own, it will never be at all" (p. 122). 

We also shouldn't assume that a person needs to practice mindfulness. As Farias and Wikholm point out in their article, existing research suggests that some people may not benefit from mindfulness practices and may even have adverse reactions. In my therapy work I certainly don't assume that everyone will become a mindfulness devotee, or that they need to.

If you are drawn to the practice, keep in mind that a light touch tends to be helpful. For example, we can remind ourselves that an inherent part of mindfulness practice is accepting that we're often not in the moment. In fact, as Whippman suggests, there are many times we don't want to be focused on the present. We can accept even when we're not accepting of this moment, and choose to think about the past or the future. 

If you decide to start a mindfulness practice, ease into it. (See, for example, this earlier post about how to start meditating.) Aim to make it enjoyable and something you look forward to, rather than a chore—or even a sentence. And the next time you tell yourself you should be mindful, push back on that assumption.