Mindfulness misconstrued

Sep 13 2019
I’m afraid I must administer a mild rebuke to my friend Scott Barry Kaufman, the Columbia University psychologist I’ve had had the pleasure of talking with on my podcast some months ago. On his Scientific America blog, he recently posted an interesting piece about the fact that people say they derive meaning from extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. 

Which makes sense:  

So far so good. But then Scott writes,

These findings also have implications for the mindfulness craze, and provide a much-needed counterpoint to the current trend of viewing calm and tranquil experiences as most conducive to a life well lived. To be sure, mindfulness, meditation, and cultivating inner calm can be beneficial for reducing anxiety, improving depression, and helping us cope with pain.

However, the intensity of peak experiences may be more likely to define who we are. At the end of our lives, will we look back and remember most poignantly all of the calm and tranquil meditation sessions we had, or will we remember the moments that plumbed the depths of our emotional life, that made us feel most alive?

Two points:

In my experience, some subjective experiences are much more intense when you’re mindful. I’m thinking particularly of aesthetic experiences—seeing the beauty around you so clearly that you feel true awe and wonder.

And mindfulness can render some negative experiences, if not more intense, then more vivid and perhaps meaningful. I’m thinking particularly of feelings of sadness and loss. Even if your goal is to “get over” those feelings, getting over them mindfully involves inspecting them more closely, immersing yourself in them more deeply, than is normal. 

When I talked about Buddhist meditation on Ezra Klein’s podcast a couple of years ago, I used the term “equanimity without numbness” to describe what mindfulness meditation can give you. I fear that Scott is seeing mindfulness as in some sense numbing.  

The ‘poignant’ quote, etc…