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Mindfulness meditation has a bad reputation – with good reason. It’s often parcelled up with pseudoscientific fads and peddled by known hucksters: blathering proponents of hogwash like Gwyneth Paltrow and drivel-dispensing anti-vaxxers like Jenny McCarthy. How many times have we seen headlines claiming that mindfulness works wonders: improves your health, prevents cancer, maintains your telomeres, alters your epigenetics, and reduces your inflammation and stress? No wonder many of us – myself included – have begun to cringe when we hear someone mention it, in the expectation of a tale of some Californian, environmentally-conscious, vegan enlightenment experience. And, if all the claims are true, why aren’t we all meditating as much as humanly possible?
Some of the claims may be justified – to some extent. Even eating a cheese sandwich is going to change gene expression in some places in the body, so we should expect a technique that uses the brain to observe experience to have measurable effects. In fact, it would be shocking if meditation didn’t have detectable effects on the brain. And changes in the brain are likely to correlate with health parameters to varying degrees. But the primary value of meditation is not as a potential health-improving tool. Nor as a way of altering the contents of discursive cognition. Years of mindfulness can’t make you literate, nor can you upload knowledge – such as genetics, philosophy, or economics – into your mind. It’s not like Neo, tapping into a module in the Matrix to learn Jiu-jitsu. Meditation won’t correct your thinking if you are under the spell of an ideology or hold an incorrect belief. It won’t even necessarily improve your emotional state. If you have a mental health condition, mindfulness is unlikely to provide an effective substitute for therapy, medication, or a change in your circumstances. The value of mindfulness is to be found neither in health improvements nor in changes to the stuff of thought.
As Sam Harris says on his Waking Up app, ‘Don’t meditate because it is good for you.’
What, then, is mindfulness good for? Anyone who has deliberately tried to follow their breath for ten minutes knows that thoughts are mutinous: they occur despite the intention to direct attention fully to the experience of breathing. We can’t control intrusive thoughts any more than we can control sounds from the freeway or birds chirping in a car park. But, despite this, we have a granite sense of ourselves as thinkers with unique histories and agency. This sense is so natural and locked-in that even Plato took it for granted. In the Republic, Plato envisages a striving for inner justice, through which reason and our spirited natures can become resolute allies in the pursuit of the Good – a lively image of the felt sense of human agency and potential. This anthropological idea of an inner striving for justice has had a long reach: it’s become a point of pride for Western civilisation, a better angel of our nature, and a beloved identity – an unassailable description of who and what we are.
Mindfulness teaches us that this deeply integrated sense of ourselves is just an appearance in consciousness. Acknowledging this need not lead us to value the rational mind any less: this inner sense of justice is vital to a healthy polis. Reason’s virtues don’t lose their value, even if we cease to identify ourselves with our rational minds. Mindfulness does not change the contents, the stuff of thought; but it changes how we see; it changes our view of the mind. It provides freedom from identity. Just as freedom from religion doesn’t imply that religion doesn’t exist, freedom from identity doesn’t imply that identity no longer exists. Mindfulness loosens cognition’s hold on us, freeing us from the necessity of identifying with our thoughts. Thoughts continue to arise without our consent. We continue to feel as if we author many of them, but these moments of not identifying with our thoughts provide relief from our predisposition to be taken in by and driven by the products of our brain phenotypes. For this reason, paradoxically, mindfulness frees reason in an unfree world and in unfree minds. The case for mindfulness is made by and for reason: we achieve greater freedom when we train in mindfulness.
People who are addicted to smoking or alcohol often say that they could give up the booze or cigarettes if they wanted to. They see their behaviour as a choice. But how often does the alcoholic choose to go without a drink? Or the smoker without a cigarette? Similarly, we think we control our involvement with our thoughts. We enjoy our immersion in them so much that we feel as though we are choosing to be involved. We identify powerfully with them. Let’s return to the attempt to notice the breath. Most of us quickly discover that we end up thinking about just about anything other than the breath, and – despite our intention to just follow it – what we are going to have for dinner, the tryst we had last weekend or the essay we want to write become minor obsessions. But reason would argue that cognitive compulsions, however noble, do not best serve inner justice.
Here, I have used reason to explain the value of mindfulness. But for you to truly understand, you need to stop reading, or, at least, view the thoughts arising from reading this as no more important than the feeling of your heartbeat. Of course, you are probably now thinking that thinking is more important than paying attention to a heartbeat. But are you truly choosing that?
Dr Charleen Adams is a geneticist and molecular cancer epidemiologist. She uses approaches within statistical genetics and clinical epidemiology to gain insight into cancer aetiology.