The Myths and the Science Behind Mindfulness

Psychologist Daniel Goleman talks about the evidence linking meditation to focus, resilience and compassion

In the 1960s, meditation was only embraced by hippies. Then the business world became enamoured with mindfulness’s promise of better concentration and stress coping mechanisms. Now the practise is so widely spread in the West, that even the UK’s National Health Service recommends it. But with the popularity and business created around mindfulness, the myths surrounding it abound as well. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of 14 books on emotional intelligence and mindfulness, including three consisting of dialogues with the Dalai Lama, is interested in the science behind meditation. This has been the subject of his latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, co-authored with Richard J. Davidson. Goleman discusses the attacks on mindfulness and retaliates with scientific nous in the interview below.

Paula Erizanu


You’ve written about mindfulness for several decades now. Have you changed your mind about it?

When I started out, there was no good scientific evidence on meditation in peer-reviewed journals. Experientially, I knew I was doing something important but there was no data to back it up. And now there’s a lot of data. So I’m more firm in my belief that it can be beneficial.

But there is a lot of data that you think hasn’t been properly researched.

It’s a big mix, there are more than 6,000 studies published in peer-reviewed journals. Some of those articles are excellent. Others are not – they tend to be sloppier, less convincing. In the book The Science of Meditation we focused on 60 out 6,000 studies – that’s one per cent ­­– that have the strongest methodology and were published in the most discerning journals.

What are the biggest myths on meditation in the West?

Two categories of myth – one is that meditation is a waste of time, that it doesn’t do anything more than napping. That’s just dead wrong. And the other one is that a little meditation is going to make you enlightened. That’s dead wrong too. Meditation is a skill in our mental fitness repertoire and, like any skill, it takes effort, practice, hours to get better and better, and the more you do it, the better it gets.

But there is also a way to do it right, and you say in your book that one needs guidance to get there.

It’s like getting better at any skill – golf or tennis – it takes time, motivation, hours and hours of practice, a good coach who can teach you, who knows more than you do, or can see where it would be beneficial for you to improve; it takes feedback on how you’re doing. That’s how you get better at any skill.

But mindfulness and meditation is such an intimate, internal skill. How does someone give you feedback on it?

For example, I studied with a Burmese teacher on a retreat and every other day you would meet with the teacher and tell him in detail about your best experience in the last two days, and what exactly your meditation practice consisted of. And he would tell you what to do next. That’s the kind of precision you want.

He was working on inside meditation. There’s a very detailed map of progression in that tradition. So what this teacher was doing is seeing where you are on that map and advising you on how to go to the next level. Not every meditation school has that detail but as you progress you need it more and more.

People who do an app – I guess they are now millions – don’t have the opportunity for that but they’re just starting out. The literature and expertise on it shows that people starting out will get good on an amateur level. Those who want to get beyond that level tend to try to get more specific feedback.


"Mindfulness is a mental training."


What exactly does progress entail? Is it a capacity to focus?

It depends on the particular meditation method you’re using. But when you use the concentrative method, the concentration on the breath, your mind wanders. And you notice when it wanders and you can bring it back to the breath. You can get better and better and my co-author, Richard Davis, has a measurement tool that can help people see exactly how many times their mind wanders and they get feedback on how to get better but also advice can help you get better too.

What is your favourite meditation method?

I started with transcendental meditation many many years ago, then I went to India when I was a graduate student at Harvard, to study meditation. Then I got involved in what’s called Vypassana or inside meditation – mindfulness is part of that tradition. I did that for many years and then I went to a Tibetan tradition – dzogchen.

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How can they help?

They improve your abilities to pay attention, to focus, to remember, to learn, to handle stress better, to be less reactive and to recover from being upset more quickly – which is the very definition of resilience. And then if you do a meditation on loving kindness you actually become more generous, it makes you happier, you’re more likely to help someone in need. Those are very well documented trends now.

You mentioned earlier that a myth surrounding meditation is that it’s no better than a nap. Sleep can help improve memory and moods. How is mindfulness and meditation better than sleep?

When you sleep, you don’t get the improvement in concentration, the resilience, the ability to respond to stress. Mindfulness is a mental training.

My co-author Richard Davidson teamed up with John Kabat-Zinn, who is responsible to a great extent for making mindfulness so popular, and they put together a study where for four months, in one control group they taught mindfulness, while in another one they taught a self-enhanced programme on nutrition and diet but no meditation. The teachers in each group were very enthusiastic about what their course and students had similarly positive expectations in both groups. And what they found in the study was that there was no difference after eight weeks of both programmes in how positive people felt. But there were physiological differences, such as alterations on brain and immune function.

That’s very important because many of the research findings on mindfulness boosters are only self-reported data and we feel that that’s not strong enough.


"The Western model of meditation as passivity is really uninformed."


And how does meditation compare to going for a walk or being in nature?

Being in nature has beneficial effects on mood. But so do other things – being with your puppy also does. Those are temporary effects. But we’re interested in the lasting effects – what we call altered traits, benefits accrued not while doing your practice or petting the puppy or being in nature but that show later in the day.

Would you say that the model of Christian prayer is very different from meditation?

Discursive prayer is different from meditation. It’s contemplation, where you reflect on something. In meditation typically you let go of all thought, or think of only one neutral thing, or one positive thing. There is something called the centring prayer in Christianity, which is actually a newly developed Christian meditation, which probably is as beneficial as mindfulness but I don’t think any studies have been done about it yet.

Then there are the second century desert fathers, written about in a collection of Greek texts called the Philokalia. The Philokalia tells the story of the desert fathers and their methods, which seem very similar to the yogi today who’s focusing on a mantra. Their mantra was ‘Kyrie eleison’, which means ‘God, have mercy on us’. I think that tradition survived today on Mount Athos in Greece and their instructions are very similar to instructions for yogis today – find an isolated place or a group of people who are doing the same thing, give up your worldly affairs, focus on this mantra and let go of other thoughts.

Are there any other practices that you would associate with mindfulness? Perhaps studying?

Anything that immerses you in thoughts about something is not mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to create a remove internally, in your experience, so you see thoughts come and go rather than getting immersed or stuck in them. The key thing is to let them go.

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Does that not make you more passive?

That’s a naïve assumption and it has to do with misconceptions about the nature of compassion. In Tibet there’s a phrase called 'wrathful compassion', where out of compassion you tell someone to stop what they’re doing because it’s dangerous for them, for example. So I think the Western model of meditation as passivity is really uninformed.

Is there any danger when importing Eastern concepts in Western culture?

You know, Carl Jung was very opposed to Westerners studying Eastern concepts. He said that just doesn’t suit you. But I think that is a little bit tribalistic, since a central nervous system is universal, and the predicament of a central nervous system that we get swept away by preoccupations that make us worried in the middle of the night, for example, is universal, and the methodology that’s offered through what we call meditation doesn’t solve a Western or an Eastern problem. That attitude seems a bit close to Orientalism.


"Meditation can deconstruct the self."


But I’m referring to the fact that the society in which we live rewards ambition, competition and cold judgment rather than compassion or mindfulness.

It does. I find it very sad. That being the case, there are two levels in which meditation is useful. One is, it helps doing better in a competitive arena – it sharpens your concentration, your ability to withstand stress. Lots of people in the business world are drawn to mindfulness for those reasons. On the other hand, in Christianity and in other religions too, the value system is turned upside down, and people become monks or nuns because they see the pointlessness of the treadmill. They understand that there are higher purposes in life than just doing well and dying with a lot of money that you can’t take with you. So in that regard meditation makes a lot of sense because it can deconstruct the self if you go and do it more deeply.

One way in which one can advance in meditation, you said, is by getting feedback and guidance. How would you recommend finding a good teacher?

I would say that it’s like finding a good lawyer or a good plumber. With some due diligence, ask around, look if you really respect and trust that person, if they have expertise. A plumber needs a certificate to show their expertise. For a meditation teacher, it might be who taught them, how long they have been doing it, whether they have done any retreats themselves.

Are retreats absolutely necessary in order to make progress in meditation?

Retreats are an indication that people made more progress on a hard measure. For example, if a long term meditator, who for instance has a day job and meditates everyday, does a full day of retreat, then their genetic information alters. It may not happen in your daily meditation and we suspect there are many other benefits that a full day of meditation gives you rather than a short daily practice.

How long does it take until one gets to these altered states?

Short term benefits show up at the beginning, in just a session or two. They are already measurable – one’s ability of coping with stress and attention improve immediately. It is a base response relationship as they call it in medicine. The more you do it the better it gets. There’s no particular threshold.

Can face-to-face online guidance be as effective?

From other research I’ve done on the social brain, online face-to-face is as good as in-person face-to-face. Telephone is not bad either. Text alone, or email, is horrible. That’s something I researched in my previous book Social Intelligence.

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