Investigate Before Engaging in Mindfulness-Based Treatments

Mindfulness has seemingly made its way into every crevice and niche of society lately. You can’t toss a meditation cushion in a bookstore without knocking another mindfulness book off the shelf. It would appear that there isn’t anything that mindfulness can’t cure, improve, or embellish.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines tradition cognitive-based therapy with meditation to focus one’s thoughts and emotions on the present moment, has been used successfully with people who have relapsed from depression. But the treatment can be applied to other areas, including stress reduction.

So should practitioners buy, sell, or hold when it comes to mindfulness? As someone who is actively engaged in the training of teachers of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), I have frequent occasion to observe and reflect on the phenomenon and frenzy that is mindfulness today, and to contemplate its trajectory.

If you are a speculator, interested in short-term gains and feel-good solutions then by all means, buy, and buy now. Choose the sexiest and highest profile mindfulness-based programs, books, and apps that promise to do it all.

Our desire to find an efficient, pain-free, effortless way to feel better will be tapped into nicely by those willing to peddle mindfulness as a cure-all. But be ready to bail out quickly when disillusionment hits (it will), and people find that mindfulness is not a way to bypass feelings or to achieve nirvana.

If you take a long-range stance toward the relief of suffering, then my advice is to invest in proven performers. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and MBCT are both heavily supported by solid research and experience.

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention, mindful self-compassion, mindful eating, mindful communication, and mindfulness-based programs for cancer recovery are also worth considering.

When practiced regularly, mindfulness ultimately facilitates a different relationship between us, and the difficult and vexing challenges of being human. By supporting individual responses to stressors and suffering, mindfulness affords a kind of relief and freedom, even when specific challenges are not presently changeable.

This is not the same as making someone feel better, become more productive or contribute more mightily to the bottom line, even though these may arise as a result of mindfulness practice.

When evaluating mindfulness-based programs look closely to see if what is promised is realistic, given what is deliverable.  The mindfulness-based field is in its infancy and few (if any) of the major programs have trademarked or tried policing their “brands.”

If a program advertises itself as MBSR or any other mindfulness-based model, you would do well to inquire about the training of the teacher and whether the program follows the model closely. This becomes more critical as the frenzy grows, and more latecomers jump on the speeding train.

The substance of any MBI absolutely must include a “platform” of mindfulness practice for supporting other aims like stress reduction, relapse prevention, cultivation of compassion, etc. Also, all the major MBIs insist that teachers draw from an established and consistent personal practice of mindfulness themselves.

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask generally about the practice of a mindfulness teacher and what their training and experience is. You wouldn’t take swimming lessons from someone who was well read on swimming, but would sink like a stone if tossed into the pool. Why would you expect less of a mindfulness teacher?

Assessing evidence is the final piece of the puzzle. Look for programs with published research and/or widespread adoption by the professional community. There are many promising newcomers as well, that may still lack all the evidence of well-established ones, but are built on solid fundamentals.

When evaluating mindfulness programs, it is wise to take an open stance, foster curiosity and a willingness to put aside preconceptions, and listen to your gut and to your training.

If a program looks as if it asks a lot of participants, that may be cause for optimism, as solid MBIs do ask a lot of their participants. Daily practice of 30 to 45 minutes is the norm. The potential benefits are deep and lasting and these changes come from regular and consistent practice, even if it seems nearly impossible to find the time and energy to do so at first. 

Steven Hickman, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and executive director of the University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness, home of the UCSD Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute. He will be presenting on mindfulness-based stress reduction at the 2014 U.S. Psychiatric & Mental Health Congress on September 21 in Orlando, Florida.