Mindfulness, science and politics

 

Sir, – In her recent article on the introduction of mindfulness classes in Leinster House, Prof Orla Muldoon questioned its likely benefits (“Mindfulness classes for politicians might not be such a good idea”, Opinion & Analysis, February 18th).

She cited evidence that mindfulness training makes narcissistic individuals even more obsessed with themselves. Given, in her view, politicians’ “predilection” towards narcissism, she felt they “of all people” should be discouraged from partaking in mindfulness training. She concludes her argument by recommending they should be fighting for social change instead of “seeking joy in the moment”.

Certainly mindfulness needs to be challenged as a practice given its phenomenal growth globally and the mountain of research evidence supporting its effectiveness with all kinds of human vulnerabilities.

Success of that order can create an aura around something that distorts the reality of what it is and what it isn’t.

Robust challenge can serve to bring any person or activity back down to earth and demystify them.

But Prof Muldoon’s challenge wasn’t robust. It was based on a single study, and one of the flimsiest ever conducted on mindfulness. Random individuals – 91 per cent of whom had no prior training in mindfulness – engaged in a five-minute breathing exercise and then watched a computer game and imagined what one of the players was thinking. Those who showed evidence of narcissistic traits did not do well on this exercise, so the authors included mindfulness training reduces the capacity for empathy in people who are already very self-focused.

To equate mindfulness training with one five-minute exercise in a laboratory is ludicrous. The authors themselves (Anna Ridderinkhof, et al, 2017) acknowledged their study’s weakness when they stated: “the duration of this exercise stands in contrast to regular mindfulness-based trainings daily for several (eight) weeks”. They also acknowledge their results are in marked contrast to the library of rigorous research showing mindfulness increases empathy and compassion for others.

I am concerned that someone with Prof Muldoon’s academic credibility and power of influence could be very unsettling for anyone looking to mindfulness as a way to live more authentically. Her article fails to convey anything about what actually happens when people take time to pause their lives and check in with themselves.

Choosing to stop and check in with ourselves takes courage. The noise in our heads may be deafening, our bodies may be pulsing with sensations that keep us on edge. Practice means accept what’s happening without turning away. It shines a light on good things about our lives but it also reminds us of what we’ve been trying to forget. If avoidance is a defence of the anxious, stressed mind, acceptance is core to mindfulness.

Kindness is essential if we are to hold in awareness what we discover when we stop running. We are all, as the poet Louis MacNeice wrote, “a jumble of opposites”.

When we stop fighting with ourselves we can see our lives in a different light. The answers to the difficulties we are facing are rarely simple, but a calm and clear mind points us in the direction in which we need to grow to solve them.

Prof Muldoon is right in saying mindfulness is no magic bullet. For every study testifying to its effectiveness, a third of the sample exposed to training did not appear to benefit. Some of the participants in Leinster House may find it is not for them.

But some may find it of great benefit, enabling them be more present to the people they meet, listen and reflect on how best to respond to social injustices, and deal with their personal stresses more effectively.

Surely the courage of politicians to give mindfulness a chance is to be commended rather than undermined? – Yours, etc,

Dr TONY BATES,

Adjunct Professor

of Psychology,

University College

Dublin.