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The Religion of Mindfulness

Cruzeiro_do_Rio_ParaibaMore than once I’ve found that critiquing the mindfulness movement–even very gently–prompts some readers to voice objection. Few of my other topics spark disagreement so predictably.

The title of this post responds to a book about mindfulness written by vocal atheist Sam Harris: Spirituality without Religion. Harris and many others believe the practice will satisfy our desire for spiritual connection while avoiding religion’s dogmatism, hypocrisy, and intolerance. Neither of these conclusions strikes me as justified. The remainder of this post will only address the second issue: the mindfulness movement’s capacity for dogmatic and intolerant beliefs. The question of spiritual satisfaction will be considered some other time.

Let’s begin with two definitions from Merriam-Webster:

Religion (noun)
1. the belief in a god or in a group of gods
2 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Mindfulness requires no belief in god(s), so we can reject the first definition. But the passionate comments spurred by mindfulness critiques suggest we should be cautious about discarding the second.

It seems clear that some practitioners believe ardently in the power and potential of mindfulness. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating the technique, since it is indeed a potent tool for healing. Ardor seems appropriate, especially for those who have found salvation–peace of mind–through their practice.

But what about faith? Is there any hint of faith in the mindfulness movement? Let’s again sample the dictionary:

Faith (noun)
1. strong belief or trust in someone or something
2. belief in the existence of God
3. firm belief in something for which there is no proof

We can ignore the second definition, but not the first, since we’ve already established that while mindfulness demands no belief in God, many people (including me) strongly believe in it.

But what about the third definition? Promoters of mindfulness cite abundant research that demonstrates how the practice improves objective measures of wellbeing. Cardiovascular indices, patterns of brain activation, and responses to medical treatment have all been empirically demonstrated to benefit.

So where does faith come in? It’s due to the fact that most people aren’t seeking better blood pressure or brain scans. What they want is peace of mind. And while studies suggest many people do feel better with mindfulness practice, it’s important to remember that such investigations depend–by necessity–on subjective report, not objective measurement. We know people feel better after practicing mindfulness only because they tell us so (often by answering the questions of some psychological instrument, like the Hamilton Depression Scale). This is evidence, yes, but it isn’t the sort of proof that would satisfy a physicist, since how good someone feels is not directly measurable.

Obviously, there is a difference between believing something about the nature of reality (like that it was designed by a patriarchal deity) and believing something about the effect of a practice (like that mindfulness will lead to ease of mind). For one thing, notions of the latter type are easier to achieve consensus around than the former. Indeed, there is ample evidence for the subjective value of religious practice (as opposed to any objective veracity of religious beliefs).

The point is, we must rely on the reports of others to conclude anything about mindfulness (or religion) that we haven’t experienced for ourselves.

Our first few attempts at mindfulness practice will likely dredge up fears, desires, agitation, pains, fatigue, and many other states that feel unpleasant. Mindfulness requires us to give up our habitual practice of evading, denying, and rationalizing such discomforts. In other words, we must abandon our defenses and open ourselves to displeasures we formerly pushed away.

Why do we persist in the face of this inevitable distress? Because we have faith that mindfulness will help us gain ease of mind, despite initial experiences to the contrary. And where does this faith come from? Partly from scientific research, perhaps, but mainly from the testimony of those more practiced in the technique, those who’ve found mindfulness helpful.

So what brings people into mindfulness? The testimony of others. And what brings people into religion? The exact same thing.

People engage in mindfulness because of the ardor with which others speak of it, and this fact demonstrates at least one key quality common to both the mindfulness movement and religion. Let me be clear: that mindfulness shares some features with religion means it serves some of the same needs that keep religions in business. This is hardly controversial. In fact, the same point is made by Sam Harris, though through different means. Suggesting the mindfulness movement might bear comparison with religion will only alarm those who view religion as purely negative, but such a stance is mere dogmatism and intolerance.

Criticizing religion is easy: people of fundamentalist persuasion believe nonsensical things; some have committed murder to defend their beliefs against the contrary notions of others.

But one can criticize other social systems in the same way. Consider capitalism. It exalts the dubious idea that cupidity is a sound basis upon which to construct society. Capitalist states have waged war (committed murder) in order to shield this delusion from contrary viewpoints like socialism.

Do we reject the market economy because, taken to the extreme, it leads to war and ruin? No. A wise society would work to support the healthy aspects of commerce (e.g., the ways it spurs initiative) while simultaneously rooting out toxic aspects (e.g., the ways it promotes disparity).

Nor should we dismiss religion (or reject any comparison between it and mindfulness) because it displays some negative aspects. Rather, we should recognize its positive qualities while countering its negative ones.

Sam Harris sees religion and mindfulness as completely different from one another. In his formulation, one promotes silly mythology and the other healthfulness of mind. Harris believes that any positive benefit of religion is obtainable via a secular route using mindfulness, and that this route will avoid religion’s pitfalls. But this analysis overlooks both important positive aspects of religion that aren’t duplicated by mindfulness and the ways in which the mindfulness movement could become just another dogmatic force, another cure-all fad.

As stated at the outset, I’ll address what religion provides that mindfulness doesn’t another time. For now, let’s focus on how intolerance creeps into a movement that advances an otherwise healthy practice.

When mindfulness gets placed on a pedestal as a principle cloaked with scientific evidence and crowned with popularity, I feel queasy, as if hearing once again a familiar but doomed project: humans grasping for the ONE TRUE ANSWER. It would be a shame if the mindfulness movement were to succumb to the temptations of overzealous promotion and intolerant defense.

Imagine a futuristic novel about a society dominated by secular mindfulness experts. In this brave new world, those who believe in mythology or suggest that reality might have a purpose beyond human conception are discredited, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. The plot could be developed plausibly: history is littered with examples of initially good ideas morphing into toxic, authoritarian dogmas. And if you don’t believe mindfulness could ever be used to promote its opposite, consider the fate of Jesus’s message of unconditional love.

What’s needed to prevent hubris from corrupting a valuable method for healing? We must remain on guard against our human tendency to make good ideas–even ones that advocate flexibility–into rigid doctrines.

Why bring all this up in a blog devoted to recovery from childhood trauma? Because those of us raised under harsh conditions need all the help we can get. Some will heal with secular mindfulness. Others will find comfort within the community, mythology, and ritual of an established religion. Some will pursue both these options, plus others.

When a few promoters begin to act as if mindfulness holds all the answers and as if their approach is superior to every other, I can’t help but voice concern. I can’t resist pointing out that these attitudes make mindfulness sound a lot like a religion. My intent isn’t to undermine the practice (how could I?) but to encourage clarity and caution.

If the mindfulness movement can offer some of religion’s benefits, it can also succumb to some of religion’s faults. To believe otherwise is to assert its immunity from problems that have plagued just about every popular project throughout history. To fall prey to such a delusion would be a failure of mindfulness.

The Religion of Mindfulness

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2014). The Religion of Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Sep 2014
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Sep 2014
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