On Sunday, September 6, 2015, the popular TV show 60 Minutes (CBS) re-aired a story on "mindfulness" which it first ran earlier in the year on January 7th. The story featured the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, an M.I.T. trained scientist, who began teaching mindfulness meditation skills to people with chronic pain in 1979.
CBS journalist Anderson Cooper reported this segment. Prior to his report, he participated in 3-day weekend retreat in Northern California, led by Kabat-Zinn and attended by about 15 high-powered professionals, neuroscientists, business leaders, Silicon Valley executives, and at least one politician, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio).
Hailed As "The Cure"
The theme of the broadcast was the growing movement in America to anoint mindfulness training as the best available cure to help people - including corporate executives and other employees - get around the stresses of daily life, especially those due to frequent distractions like email overload, social media addictions, constant texting and other signs of technology inundation.
Congressman Ryan has even gone so far as to implement weekly mindfulness meditation sessions in Washington, D.C., open to all staff members from both political parties. He also secured more than $1 million in Federal funding to begin teaching mindfulness skills to young school children in his district in Ohio. Congressman Ryan has become such an advocate for mindfulness training that he confidently proclaimed during the 60 Minutes broadcast that "this is the thing that can really help shift the country."
What Is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn explains mindfulness as simply being aware of your thoughts, sensations and surroundings-in other words, being "fully present"-which he admits is rare for most people today. To combat this unhealthy trend, he recommends learning to do everything with awareness-from getting out of bed in the morning, to brushing your teeth, taking a shower and even eating your meals.
And to back up his recommendation, Kabat-Zinn notes that multiple studies have shown that mindfulness training leads to decreased anxiety and depression, decreased stress, improved health, improved memory and attention, and even successful treatment of some addictions.
And just in case that wasn't enough to make you a true believer, the 60 Minutes producers trotted out Dr. Judson Brewer, M.D., PhD, Director of Research for The Center For Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, a neuroscientist who demonstrated right before our eyes (using Anderson Cooper as his test subject) how mindfulness can alter the function of the brain and shift it from a high stress state to a low stress state in just a matter of seconds.
The producers then put the "icing on the cake" by interviewing several key executives of Google, and by pointing out how Google, Facebook and Instagram have all jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon and are offering free training courses to their employees. They also noted the irony, given that these are three of the biggest companies responsible for causing our highly connected, distracted lifestyles in the first place.
Is Mindfulness Really The Answer?
I say NO. Sure, the regular practice of meditation, mindfulness exercises and other stress management techniques have their physical, psychological and spiritual benefits. But is it really the ultimate solution for most of our corporate struggles with modern-day stress?
What the 60 Minutes story failed to point out is that while the ultimate goal of mindfulness training is to get us to live more frequently in the "present moment," what are we supposed to do once we reach this fleeting place of nirvana?
Will we have better communication skills once we learn to be more present?
Will we become less angry or irritated during our workdays?
Will our finances be improved, will our jobs become more secure, or will our communities suddenly become safer and more hospitable?
Will the pace of change and marketplace competition suddenly slow down?
Will our bosses become more compassionate? Will our co-workers become more cooperative and understanding? Will we suddenly be able to add more time to our days, not to mention the to me we now have to spend meditating 2-3 times every 24 hours?
Being present is not the solution for all our stress-related problems. It may help to some degree, but additional coping skills are also required.
What we really need are programs that help us transform the way we understand and interact with the world around us. Programs that help us get back in touch with reality and nullify many of the myths and misconceptions about life that have become deeply ingrained within our individual psyches and our society as a whole.
We have to gain greater clarity about the true causes of our emotions. Not just the external causes which all of us can easily see, but the internal causes - the automatic patterns of thinking and behaving within us - that are not self-evident.
We need to better understand what it takes to have our relationships work, and more importantly, what internal factors (e.g., beliefs, habits) repeatedly cause them to fail. For example, we need to take stock of the interpersonal prices we pay for needing to be right, for expecting perfection from others, for wanting to be in control and for constantly judging others as being bad, wrong, stupid, weak or incompetent.
And in all of our wellness initiatives, we need to stop bribing people to care about their health, when they already should be committed to this goal. What we should be doing instead is asking people "if you are not acting appropriately to protect your health (and the health of others), what priorities have you elevated to be more important and why?"
Let's start having some of these frank discussions, as part of our health and wellness efforts and see where these explorations might lead us.
Stress Mastery vs. Stress Management
Too many people today - including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Anderson Cooper, Dr. Judson Brewer, as well as most media reporters and producers - fail to appreciate the distinction between managing just the symptoms of our stress and true stress mastery.
When you manage just the symptoms of any problem in your life, you rarely achieve full resolutions. Thus, your problems will keep recurring repeatedly. Hence the need for constant, ongoing, repetitive use of daily stress management and relaxation techniques.
On the other hand, when you can clearly spot the underlying causes of how you are contributing to much of the stress in your life-with great precision and accuracy-you can then take more decisive actions to overcome these causes and resolve many of your stress problems on a more permanent basis.
Mindfulness meditation is an interesting practice spanning both dimensions of this stress mastery vs. stress management dichotomy. On one hand, it can be used as purely a symptom-oriented relaxation and refocusing technique.
On the other hand, it simultaneously addresses some of the deeper causes of our stress-our habitual dependency on technology, our decision to multi-task constantly, and our tendencies to focus on the future or endlessly think about the past-anything but be in the present fully, peacefully and calmly.
Even when you correct for not being present during most of your day (which many people probably don't have the daily discipline to do), you still have only solved about 10 percent of your stress-related problems.
In order to make a meaningful dent in the other 90 percent, you are going to have to seek out new life-enhancing principles, better clarifying distinctions, and more effective stress-reducing strategies that are more cognitive than behavioral in nature.
Becoming Pro-Active Instead of Reactive
In his recent book destressifying, internationally acclaimed stress expert, meditation master and corporate wellness trainer davidji emphasizes this same key point. davidji is a strong proponent of mindfulness training, and he is also the author of Secrets Of Meditation, one of the premier works on meditation ever written.
Yet in his new book destressifying he asserts that mindfulness is just one part of a more comprehensive solution for modern-day stress. There is another path-the path of life mastery-left to explore.
davidji breaks down this life mastery path, beyond mindfulness, into four additional key components:
1) mastering your needs;
2) mastering your emotions;
3) mastering your communication; and
4) mastering your purpose in life.
These he calls more "proactive" strategies for reducing our stress, and the more we excel at gaining these skills, the less daily stress we should have and therefore the less need we should have for symptom-oriented approaches such as meditation and other relaxation or stress management techniques.
And while he acknowledges the benefits of both meditation and having some "fast tools" and techniques for quickly reducing any acute stress reactions, he notes that "a more profound, longer-lasting solution is to shift the way you perceive the outside world, how you interpret it, and how you are oriented to it."
This is why I maintain that mindfulness training is not the "holy grail" for reducing our modern-day stress. Does it have valuable benefits if practiced regularly? Sure it does. But is it all that we need? No, not by a long shot.
About the Author
Mort Orman, M.D. (DocOrman.com) is an international speaker, author and wellness consultant. He is Founder of The Stress Mastery Academy, originator of National Stress Awareness Month (every April since 1982) and former Health/Wellness Medical Director for a large Blue Cross Plan. He has authored more than 10 books on mastering stress.