An astrophysicist asks: Does mindfulness mean anything?

Do you mind a little more on mindfulness?

If so, you’ll need to take a few breaths because that’s what you’re getting. On Tuesday, NPR ran a commentary by Adam Frank. According to the author bio at the end of the piece, he is: “is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described “evangelist of science.””

Evangelist of science? If you’re like me (if so, sorry!), you’re thinking this may come out not so good for the mindfulness crowd. Well, let’s get to his last line: “In other words, practiced with open eyes, anything that gets us to slow down and awake more fully to our interior lives should be a good thing.”

That sure makes sense. Now, though, let’s see how he got to that point:

But, depending on your perspective, the advent of mindfulness and meditation in America is either a milestone in the evolution of the culture — or a mighty avalanche of hype.

Given our ongoing discussion of science and religion here at 13.7, there are two particularly relevant questions the mindfulness explosion asks us to tackle. First, what exactly does mindfulness mean in relation to the spiritual practices it emerged from (mostly Buddhism). Secondly, how much do health claims made for mindfulness bear up under scientific scrutiny?

Before we begin, however, I need to make a full disclosure. For most of my life I’ve been staring at a wall in “contemplative practice” for at least a half hour per day. In other words, I’m a card-carrying meditator. Most of my practice has occurred within a Zen context but I have explored other traditions, as well. I could spend a lot of words telling you why I am committed to contemplative practice but, for now, let me just say I’ve learned things that I consider very, very valuable.

Maybe you didn’t see that coming. Frank dives into the question of whether the drive for a scientifically validated mediation is good — or bad. He raises a number of good points. I particularly struck by this:

Losing these religious, spiritual, ethical aspects of meditation as a practice when it’s transformed into mindfulness is what worries many Buddhist teachers. Traditionally, Buddhist practice was meant to be radically transformative and a means, among other things, of awaking to the reality that, on the deepest levels, the “self” is an illusion. But by stripping away this context into just “mindfulness,” many teachers fear the powerful transformative effects of the tradition will be watered down so completely that it becomes just a tepid form of “self-help.”

Thus, as the popularity of mindfulness meditation grows, questions about its effectiveness from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective will continue to be debated.

As someone congenitally averse to anything that seems to “self-helpy.” Frank for me at least drives home a number of key points: Would I be more likely to stick with a meaningful meditation practice if there was something more “hard science” to support it? If seemingly key elements — call it religious or spiritual — are stripped away, what’s left and what’s being measured? (If science found such meditation to be lacking, would that be a surprise?) What if the goal is just to get a little calmer, a little less likely to want to kill everyone on the road with you, rather than to dissolve the self? Is that worthwhile?

Perhaps the answer to some of these questions lies in his last line.

Posted by Steve

Getting your Headspace right

Another in the growing line of stories covering meditation’s migration into mindfulness pops up this month in the New Yorker. I’m trying to decide if meditation’s becoming mindfulness is akin to asana’s becoming (all of) yoga. I don’t think that quite works, but surely there are parallels between how both are being embraced anew in the 2000s. From the New Yorker piece, which seems worth your time, unless you’ve had enough with Headspace, which is what much of the story is yoked to:

This changed in the late nineteenth century, when the British invaded Burma, and Christian missionaries set about converting the populace. Fearing that their religion was being destroyed, Buddhist monks began to teach laypeople the practices of the monasteries, in order to preserve them. One monk, the Ledi Sayadaw, travelled the country, encouraging people to study complicated philosophical texts, and to try meditation for themselves. Traditionally, meditation followed a rigorous curriculum, but the Sayadaw created a pared-down version for the masses. He argued that laypeople might not be ready for enlightenment, but they could still cultivate “insight,” by practicing moment-to-moment awareness.

Along with his successors—including S. N. Goenka, the creator of Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—the Sayadaw and other Burmese teachers transformed Buddhism. “They rebranded it, in essence,” David McMahan, the author of “The Making of Buddhist Modernism,” told me. (This transformation is sometimes referred to as Buddhist Protestantism.) Lay-Buddhist meditation began to spread across Asia in the nineteen-twenties. By the sixties, it had made its way to the West, where it became embedded in the era’s counterculture.


Headspace recently set up its headquarters in Venice Beach, Los Angeles—around the corner from Google’s offices and the wellness mecca Moon Juice. When I visited, on a seventy-degree day this winter, I wondered briefly if I’d arrived in Nirvana. Puddicombe walks to work, at an indoor-outdoor space that’s filled with relaxed Millennials, typing on laptops. He is married to a British woman named Lucinda, who is an exercise physiologist, and they recently had a baby. His days are spent writing a book about mindful pregnancy—users requested it—and teaching meditation, alone in a recording booth.


The next morning, at eight-thirty, Puddicombe picked me up, along with Rich Pierson, his business partner, a thirty-four-year-old British man, who wore sneakers and shorts. They’d wanted to take me surfing; according to Puddicombe, the sport is one reason that Headspace is based in California. After years of sitting, he was eager to move around again. The partners now discuss company issues during surf sessions every morning, off Santa Monica Beach. (After meditating, of course. Puddicombe meditates for about an hour, using a combination of “visualization and awareness techniques” that he learned at the monastery, and vowed to practice every day for the rest of his life.)

I had to include those last two paragraphs, to bring it home to us here, a few miles inland from Headspace’s HQ. (As bad as I’ve found the surf in Venice, I believe it is only worse in Santa Monica, for those who care. Neither is Encinitas.) And I pass it on because of the large subset — from my experience — of Ashtanga practitioners who also have a meditation, often Vipassana, practice. I’m still uncertain why that is; is it something lacking in Ashtanga or does Ashtanga crack open that door for lots of people. Is it a limit of the practice or evidence of its success?

I’d probably have better insight if I could maintain anything close to a meditation practice myself. (Another shout-out to Bobbie for setting up the little corner in our yard for that, which I woefully and apologetically underuse.) But I already am devoting 60 to 90 minutes most days to Ashtanga; that’s hard enough. Adding in another piece to my already busy day, that’s another level of pure dedication. (I now sound some version of whiny or excuse-making; in my defense, a separate subset of Ashtanga practitioners do seem surprised at how long my work days are, and, yes, mostly at a desk and computer.) Ashtanga certainly has shown me that I’d benefit — that cracked door. But I can’t imagine meditating with an app, of all things. Or, again, just finding the time to do so.

Posted by Steve

Another mindful CEO atop a Fortune 500 company

These story of mindful or, dare I say, enlightened CEOs are becoming less rare. But still, as you can see by the way PBS handles this story, it still feels strange to people:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a story about a high-profile and unusual CEO, whose own philosophy and unique life experience has influenced the way things operate day to day inside the company.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story, part of our ongoing reporting Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aetna insurance, number 57 on the Fortune 500, surprised corporate America recently when it hiked its minimum wage to $16/hour. It was a quirky move by a quirky CEO, Mark Bertolini, motorcycle enthusiast, former hippie, and two-time college dropout, who aced the GMAT exam on a lark, which led to a Cornell MBA, and a career in health insurance.

This CEO manages by walking around, slowly and mindfully, actually practicing walking meditation, and attentively listening to his employees.

Here’s the money quote, I think:

MARK BERTOLINI: They gave me last rites in the helicopter on the way to the — the hospital.

When I had that accident, I couldn’t engage in my physical activity the way I had before, and I engaged — started engaging in yoga as a physical practice, but very quickly found out there was something broader to it, and that it was actually helpful for my pain, and started to get into meditation, started to study the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and a lot of the scriptures associated with yoga, the Yoga Sutras, and very quickly came to this conclusion that this had a huge impact on my ability to lead, but, more importantly, the ability to control my sympathetic nervous system, which had a direct tie to the pain in my arm.

The piece closes with the correspondent saying Bertolini is taking Aetna in a “very nontraditional direction.”

Posted by Steve

Mindfulness training weaves its way into the classroom

We’ve covered how mindfulness — for good or bad — is establishing itself as a practice in the business world.

Next up? The dreaded health class!

That’ll be no surprise to you. You know that yoga is being taught in more and more schools (via the Sonima Foundation and others). Now, those same business world people might have an inkling — because this story comes from the Wall St. Journal:

More independent schools are pushing to redefine what it means to teach health, shattering the stereotype of awkward classes and squirming students.

Many New York schools are incorporating mindfulness training to help students handle stress and replacing lectures on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases with interactive sessions on life skills, such as communication and decision-making.

For a long time “the definition of success for our members was mainly focused on the academic part,” said Amada Torres, vice president for studies, insights and research at the National Association of Independent Schools. “But now the research is stressing the importance of developing these noncognitive skills.”

The National Association of Independent Schools conducted its first-ever survey this spring on health education among its members. While 85% of the schools surveyed called health and well-being an essential or high priority, only 41% described it as part of their school’s mission.


The changes haven’t come unchallenged. Some teachers worry longer recess will cut into their instruction time. Some students and teachers object to the increased meditations, which “they view as religion or spirituality,” said KC Cohen, middle and upper school counselor and co-director of the health program.

“I think what’s missing is people don’t really understand how much five minutes can center you,” she said.

The story focuses on New York schools, but it sounds like it could be in a lot of places. And it goes beyond a sense of yoga or meditation as a gym class — this is more part of what was the “academic” curriculum.

Posted by Steve

The ‘unlikely prosperity gospel’ of Hinduism and Buddhism

Here’s a little more sobering perspective on the rise of Mindfulness within corporate America and the West. From the New Yorker:

In a recent Harvard Business Review piece, the executive coach David Brendel wrote, “Mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world. But as with any rapidly growing movement—regardless of its potential benefits—there is good reason here for caution.” Brendel’s fear is that meditation might make executives too mellow and compassionate; he described one client who asked for assurance that she could embrace Buddhist meditation and still fire people. Brendel expressed hope that “mindfulness culture” will remain focussed on “optimizing work performance,” so that people can achieve “genuine happiness and fulfillment.”

Brendel needn’t worry. American capitalism has had a long and durable romance with Eastern spirituality, and the latter has hardly undermined the former. For well over a century, business-minded Americans have been transforming Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices into an unlikely prosperity gospel.


A technique once meant to help monks grasp the unreality of the self became the inspiration for a new sort of self-help tool, and from there it was just a short leap to mindfulness becoming a business tool. By all accounts, mindfulness does help people feel more focussed and less frazzled, but it resembles New Thought far more than it does any Eastern religion.

“With business meditation, we have a practice that is extrapolated from Buddhism and secularized so that all of the theological underpinnings are swept away,” Catherine Albanese, the author of “A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion,” says. “So we have Buddhism stood on its head. Mindfulness meditation has been brought into the service of a totally different perspective and world view.” By now, that’s part of a venerable American tradition.

I may catch a hint of sarcasm in that last sentence.

Posted by Steve

‘A different sort of CEO’

The creep, creep, creep of meditation, mindfulness et al continues. The latest sign? Aetna. Specifically its CEO. From the New York Times:

In case there was any doubt, Mr. Bertolini, who runs one of America’s 100 largest companies by revenue, wants to make it clear he is a different sort of C.E.O.

In recent years, following a near-death experience, Mr. Bertolini set about overhauling his own health regimen, as well reshaping the culture of Aetna with a series of eyebrow-raising moves. He has offered free yoga and meditation classes to Aetna employees; more than 13,000 workers have participated. He began selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance. And in January, after reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the treatise on inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Mr. Bertolini gave his lowest-paid employees a 33 percent raise.

Taken together, these moves have transformed a stodgy insurance company into one of the most progressive actors in corporate America. Most health insurance companies are thriving, largely because of increased enrollment. Aetna’s stock has increased threefold since Mr. Bertolini took over as chief executive in 2010, and recently hit a record high. It’s a decidedly groovy moment for the company, and Mr. Bertolini is reveling in his role as an idealistic, unconventional corporate chieftain.

“We program C.E.O.s to be certain kinds of people. We expect C.E.O.s to be on message all the time,” he said. “The grand experiment here has been how much of that do you really need to do?”

On a February day in Aetna’s Hartford headquarters, there were experiments all around. In a conference room downstairs, a meditation class had just concluded, and employees were returning to their desks. Nearby, preparations were underway for a new yoga class, starting in a week. And in his corner office — where a golden statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha was arranged next to an antique grandfather clock — Mr. Bertolini eagerly shared the most recent data from Aetna’s meditation and yoga programs.

There is the requisite “hang on a second”:

But not everyone believes that meditation and yoga are appropriate in the workplace. A recent article in The Harvard Business Review cautioned that “mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world,” and it enumerated ways that a meditative disposition could backfire in the office. Stress can be a useful prompt to engage in critical thinking, noted the author, David Brendel, and is not something to retreat from through meditation. And even as Aetna and others chart what they say are the health benefits of mindfulness and yoga, not all researchers are convinced.

The piece in the Times is adapted from an upcoming book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From the Inside Out, by David Gelles.

Posted by Steve

Sleep tight — with a little help from meditation

In what’s being called a “rigorous study,” researchers have determined that mindfulness meditation helped older adults sleep better and, as a result, have fewer problems related to sleeping problems — aka a better quality of life.

Link to the JAMA study is here. And here’s an online New York Times story:

In one group, the adults learned behaviors that could help them develop good sleep hygiene, like establishing a regular bedtime routine and avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed. The other group underwent a six-week program on mindfulness meditation — the nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through one’s mind — led by a certified teacher.

At the end of the yearlong study, the people who learned the mindfulness approach had greater improvements in sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression and fatigue than those who received standard care.

The lead author of the study, David S. Black, said mindfulness meditation probably helped settle the brain’s arousal systems. And unlike widely used sleep drugs, it does not have potentially severe side effects, said Dr. Black, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.

Our important disclaimer, of course: Ignore that stuff about “avoiding caffeine.”

I also think the final quote in the Times story is relevant to an Ashtanga practice: “As compared to attempting mindfulness practice for the first time on your own,” he said, “you are likely to gain the most benefit from a standardized course with an experienced teacher.”

Posted by Steve