(Bloomberg) -- Mindfulness, a mental practice that emerged from 2,500-year-old Buddhist teachings, has turned into a booming industry. The practice involves focusing attention on the present moment for a sustained period of time, through meditation or with movement. It’s meant to train practitioners to observe their thoughts and feelings without necessarily acting on them, so that they can chose the wisest path rather than being driven by emotions, cravings or habitual responses. Programs are being offered to individuals to deal with the stress of ordinary life, to schoolchildren to improve resiliency, to the sick to alleviate chronic pain, and to employees to boost efficiency.
One in seven American workers reported participating in mindfulness practices during a 12-month period in a 2012 government survey. Among the universities with programs on the techniques are the University of Oxford, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. Organizations such as Mindful Schools offer teacher-certification programs; the group estimates it’s helped bring the practice to more than 2 million children in 100 countries. Medical centers such as Penn Medicine and Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School are teaching students and medical professionals to use mindfulness to manage their own stress and patients’ symptoms. The approach is penetrating American workplaces, with companies including Google, Deutsche Bank, AstraZeneca, and Procter & Gamble making courses available to their leaders or rank and file employees. The U.S. Army has used it, too. Driving much of the interest is the steady flow of news from research extolling potential benefits. Functional-imaging tests show mindfulness can increase gray-matter density in the brain, boosting learning and memory. An analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine of 47 high-quality reports found evidence that mindfulness can reduce psychological stress in just eight weeks, leading to less anxiety, depression and chronic pain. Studies suggest it improves job performance by enabling workers to remain attentive longer, improve the quality of their communications and recover faster from interruptions and negative emotions.
The term mindfulness was coined in 1881 by British scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids based on his understanding of the Buddhist concept of sati. Meaning attention in Pali, one of the languages of ancient Buddhist texts, sati is one of the seven qualities of mind Buddha identified as necessary for enlightenment. The advent of the modern movement is generally credited to molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who established a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. Initially it involved weekly meetings for groups of up to 40 people and ran for two months, with daily homework. Today, UMass and other institutions offer variations, including adaptations for the workplace. The most common mindfulness practice is a form of meditation in which the practitioner gets in a comfortable position and focuses on breathing and the present moment. A variation, called body-scan meditation, involves directing the attention to points on and inside the body and observing the sensations there. Calming activities like yoga, tai chi and the related qigong, in which the participant concentrates on slow, deliberate movements, also fall under the mindfulness umbrella.
Skeptics say mindfulness is a fad and its benefits are overrated. To be sure, the proven results may have been exaggerated by studies with shortcomings, such as bias among participants who believe in the approach or lack of a comparison group that can mask a placebo effect. Some health-care professionals worry that mindfulness is being pushed as a way of dealing with chronic pain in lieu of medical workups to find the underlying cause. Doubters see the use of mindfulness in the workplace as an effort by employers to distract from problems such as long hours and wage stagnation. Among those who see value for it in job settings, there’s a debate about whether its purpose should be increased efficiency for the business or improved peace of mind for workers. In his book 2017 Why Buddism Is True, author Robert Wright argues that mindfulness is the best way to cope with the mismatch between our genetically programmed impulses and what’s truly best for us in the modern world. For example, evolution designed us to crave fat and sugar when they were rarities in the human diet. Now that they’re mostly not, we tend to overindulge in them. Mindfulness trains the practitioner to observe a craving for donuts, for example, and then let it go.
The Reference Shelf
- An article in the Harvard Gazette explores the intersection of science and mindfulness.
- Here you can watch Jon Kabat-Zinn lead a mindfulness meditation session.
- An analysis of studies on the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in JAMA Internal Medicine.
- Why Buddism Is True, an argument for mindfulness from the point of view of evolutionary psychology by author Robert Wright.
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