A small, visionary project originated more than 35 years ago by Massachusetts Institute of Technology molecular biologist and student of Buddhist meditation Jon Kabat-Zinn has brought Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction into the mainstream of medicine and psychotherapy.
The far-ranging expansion of programs and teachers of mindfulness has become something akin to a big box store – name your specialty and there you’ll find a department or an expert to help you incorporate some of these techniques.
“Mindfulness has become central to the mental health profession and is commonly used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse and autism,” said Mary Sykes Wylie in an article on the mindfulness explosion in the January/February 2015 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.
“It’s at the heart of psychotherapeutic approaches like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, mindfulness-based trauma therapy and mindfulness-based eating awareness,” said Wylie.
Mindfulness programs have also blossomed in sports, the military, business, schools and prisons. Mindfulness itself has become a big business, with books, CD, retreats, conferences and training programs.
Potential danger lurks in the mass marketing and the sometimes individualized or superficial use by people who accept it and try it as panacea, perhaps without proper guidance.
“Marketed as a kind of a warm bath for the psyche, meditation has a shadow side…that is, the not uncommon tendency of some people, when they begin practicing in earnest, to freak out,” said Willoughby Britton, a Brown University assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, in the Psychotherapy Networker article.
The realm of “freak out,” Britton includes “to lose boundaries, hallucinate, relive old wounds and traumas, experience intense fear and even have psychotic breaks, or exhibit strange physical symptoms such as spasms, involuntary movements, hot flashes, burning sensations and hypersensitivity.”
Britton began researching what she terms “an epidemic of casualties” first under the name “Dark Night Project,” then the more positive name “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience Project.”
The warnings and the lessons are the same as in any activity: Let the buyer, the patient or the individual beware. Read the research, talk to those who have experience in the practices and choose carefully teachers and others who provide guidance in meditation and other techniques of mindfulness.
Wylie, Mary Sykes, “The Mindfulness Explosion: The Perils of Mainstream Acceptance,” Psychotherapy Networker, January/February 2015.
Britton, Willoughby, “The Dark Side of Dharma,” Buddhist Geeks podcast , Part 1 and Part 2.