A recent article by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Time Magazine is excoriating the gradual westernization of mindfulness meditation, demonizing this trend as somehow running counter to the essence of this ancient practice. I think at the heart of this article is a desire to protect people from self-help snake oil but there is a palpable vibe in the article of an anti-self-help bias that is unfortunate.
As I've discussed before, our attitudes about change influence our ability to change. So, while I agree with Ms. Heffernan that self-help advice should be evaluated critically, binning the entire self-help movement as bullshit isn't helping anyone either.
In this context, I can't help but reevaluate the purpose of mindfulness meditation (and mindfulness, in general). Is mindfulness mediation useful?
As someone who has practiced mindfulness meditation as an attempt to manage stress, I have concluded that meditation is simply a concerted effort to implement a reappraisal of bad thoughts. Specifically, it has been suggested that rumination, or the endless replay of negative thinking, may contribute to depression. Cognitive reappraisal is a well-known approach for dealing with a number of negative or disruptive thoughts and meditation is just a practiced form of this. In the mindfulness meditation style I have tried, namely Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one reappraises negative thoughts as "thoughts", taking a meta-level view of them and partitioning them as something distinct from our experiencing mind.
Personally, this makes sense to me. Just as I wouldn't accept the self-help advice of some rando, I am not going to trust that my automatic catastrophizing about the world is based on fact. During mindfulness meditation, I am taking a skeptical stance toward my own worries and recognizing them for what they are: worries, not reality. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to the value of mindfulness meditation. If it helps someone cope with the challenges of life, then great. We should all be active participants in our own mental health, experimenting with approaches until we get results.
In this way, stress management is like exercise. Is one form of exercise better than another? Is meditation better than a book club? The answer is: it depends. It depends on who is doing it, whether they enjoy it and whether they stick with it. If the answer to these questions is "yes", then the long term outcome is likely to be positive.