Although the subject matter was the focus of substantial debate, the enthusiasm for the event itself was irrefutable. It was hosted by an ABC journalist and involved a neuroscientist, a Buddhist monk, a meditation teacher, and me (a health journalist who’s about to release a feature film investigating mindfulness) and it was so well subscribed that the organisers had to upgrade to a bigger venue and wrangle 200 people on the wait-list.
If the invention of mindful mayo hadn’t already convinced me, the event’s popularity left me in no doubt that meditation is in. And the data shows it. Like yoga before it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meditation is now the fastest-growing health trend in the US.
But inevitably, wherever there’s demand, capitalism follows and a backlash isn’t far behind. Mindfulness is now a 1.1 billion dollar industry, leading some to coin the term “McMindfulness” – a “commodified and instrumental self-help technique that unwittingly reinforces neoliberal imperatives.” Others fear the dumbing down of the Buddhist dharma (a set of laws that alongside mindful awareness, also encourages kindness, compassion and ethics). Still others have contested that mindfulness is “stealth Buddhism.” And all the while, (as I wrote recently) scientists are ringing alarm bells about the underreporting of adverse effects and the overhyping of the evidence.
As mindfulness becomes increasingly mainstream, all these perspectives have a critically important part to play, but as I sat on the panel in front of an already well-informed audience in Melbourne and we discussed whether or not mindfulness is just an over-hyped, over-sold, self-help fad, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were missing the bigger, more alarming point…
Why are so many of us turning to mindfulness in the first place?
At a time when 275 million around the world suffer from anxiety, when one in five of us live in the grip of chronic pain, and every 40 seconds, someone, somewhere, takes their own life, it’s pretty clear that the current mainstream strategies we have in place to support psychological wellbeing are not working.
I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. According to a team of 28 world-leading experts assembled by the Lancet medical journal, every country in the world is facing and failing to tackle a host of mental health crises, from epidemics of anxiety and depression, to conditions caused by violence and trauma.
This was made crystal clear to me when I recently travelled to the Middle East, where more people have been displaced by conflict than after World War II and only a fraction of the millions of refugees receive any kind of mental health support for their psychological scars, let alone interventions backed by evidence. Given what we know about the direct effects of trauma on physical health, as well as on future generations, the long-term implications of this ignored mental health emergency hit me like a truck.
But it’s not just the frontline of the humanitarian disasters where mental health is woefully neglected. The World Health Organisation has warned that depression will be the biggest burden of disease in developed countries by 2030. Mental health has not, in most countries, become the priority it needs to be.
And so enters mindfulness – an ancient practice which, with thanks to recent scientific meta-analysis, has been shown to be just as effective as medication and psychotherapy in treating everything from chronic stress and pain, to depression, anxiety and addiction.
I’m not for one second suggesting that mindfulness is a wholesale superior option than the best of psycho-pharmacology, psychiatry or psychology. But, as I wrote in my piece What Is Mindfulness Anyway?, after my year-long documentary self-experiment to see what would happen if I meditated every day, it's now clear to me why mindfulness has earned its multi-decade record in modern medicine and healthcare, and why it’s now finding its way into education, business, social justice, and politics.
In all its simplicity and complexity, mindfulness is not an either-or proposition, it’s an adjunct that complements the best of whatever else is available. At a time in which there is only one psychiatrist available per 100,000 people in over half the countries in the world, mindfulness looks pretty darn promising.