Mary Kate Long
In the last post, Jonathan Morgan took on a recent NY Times Magazine article from popular science journalist, Dan Hurley. Hurley aimed to bring up a few studies that offer a different perspective on the benefits of mindfulness meditation practices – namely, that mindfulness might actually have some negative effects because too much focus reduces the time your brain needs to relax in order to be creative. Jonathan’s critique is right on – meditation isn’t only about focus, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. When Hurley takes mindfulness out of the religious context it emerged from, something important gets lost. Jonathan challenges us to pause over what happens when we remove “an idea or religious practice from its native ecosystem” and asks, “At what point does it become something entirely different?”
While Jonathan identifies the concept of compassion as lacking in Hurley’s article, that’s not the whole story either, nor is compassion necessarily a primary aspect of mindfulness meditation as a religious practice. So, how is mindfulness, as a religious practice in a religious context, different from what Hurley says it is? And why is what Hurley is doing problematic?
As a scholar of religion and science, it’s so disappointing, if not infuriating, to read an article like Dan Hurley’s piece in the New York Times, “Breathing In and Spacing Out.” Hurley’s argument is that despite all the studies lauding the benefits of mindfulness, meditation isn’t always a good thing. That’s an interesting case to make, but in the examples he treats meditation as if it’s an SAT prep course. Is maintaining attention all that meditation is about?
If you substitute tomatoes for mindfulness the piece would read like one of the endless debates on the health effects of food: “Tomatoes are good for you… no, no, no they’re actually bad for you.” But I’m not convinced that Hurley and the research he references are even talking about tomatoes – ahem, mindfulness – at all. That may seem like a minor problem, but in an increasingly plural society this feigning of cultural appreciation is not only irresponsible, it’s harmful.
My point is that when Hurley, and the research he cites, strips mindfulness of its traditional religious ecosystem, he’s no longer talking about mindfulness meditation, he’s talking about maintaining attention. This confusion of terms is particularly dangerous because it speaks with the authority of science. It’s easy to do this with something like meditation, because it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of Western people. But imagine if this was done with prayer or a religious practice that’s close to you. If I tried to strip, say, Christian prayer down to its essential elements and came away with something totally secular, would I still be talking about prayer? Would you believe me if I went on to tell you about how “prayer” is related to this or that benefit?
One of the challenges of the scientific study of religion is to avoid reducing religion into only one of its parts. Evolutionary models suggest that religion may have helped early societies address the problem of people benefiting from the group’s resources without also contributing; but is religion’s only function to prevent free-riders? Psychological studies suggest that specific types of religious belief relate to our health; but if you focus solely on those findings, what parts of religion do you lose sight of? Do we risk ignoring some essential features of the very thing we hope to study?
The psychologist David DeSteno, at Northeastern University, is attuned to these concerns and designed a clever study to augment our understanding of meditation. In a recent piece for the New York Times , he explains that his motivation stemmed from a concern that meditation studies focus on certain effects of meditation, but may lose sight of the heart of meditation. As he explains, the goal of meditation is not simply to enhance individual performance; it’s “supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”