Mindfulness meditation as medication: An identity crisis?

Mindfulness meditation as medication: An identity crisis? 

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Several of the posts on our blog have referred to the marked increase of scientific research into mindfulness meditation that has occurred over the course of the last decade. Applications for mindfulness meditation are being identified in increasingly more walks of life including clinical, educational, forensic, and occupational settings. Based upon a recent comprehensive systematic literature search we conducted utilising the major electronic academic databases, over 600 scientific papers concerning mindfulness were published in 2013. This is more than the entire number of scientific papers concerning mindfulness published between 1970 and 2000. Results from our literature search suggest that mindfulness is one of the fastest growing areas of psychological empirical enquiry.Although mindfulness is fast becoming a buzzword in psychology, the ongoing roll-out of mindfulness into real-world settings is not without its problems. Recently, we were joined by our friend and research colleague Prof Mark Griffiths in writing a paper where we outlined and discussed some of these teething and integration issues. The paper is published in the journal ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ and is entitled ‘Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration’. Today’s post duplicates a short section of the article that discusses whether mindfulness, in terms of its use in Western psychological contexts, is currently experiencing an identity crisis. The article is an open access paper (with the copyright belonging to the authors) and the full-reference is as follows:

‘Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards effective clinical integration, Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-4, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194.’

The full text can be downloaded for free by following the below link and anybody wanting to know more about the paper is welcome to contact us at the following email address:

Email: meditation@ntu.ac.uk

Full-text: http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194/full

Note on abbreviations: MBI = Mindfulness-based interventions, MBSR = Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; MHF = Mental Health Foundation


Mindfulness meditation as medication: An identity crisis?

Recently, Williams and Kabat-Zinn (both leading proponents in the field of MBIs), have referred to mindfulness as “awareness itself”, a form of “innate capacity” that is “virtually transparent to us” (2011, p. 15). The same authors also refer to secular programs such as MBSR as “Dharma-based portals” (“Dharma” is an explicitly Buddhist term used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha, p. 12). However, such spiritually-laden language appears to be incongruent with the general presentation and conceptualization of MBIs in relation to their operationalization within clinical settings. Thus, the identity of MBIs as well as their primary underlying “intention” (i.e., a means of improving psychosomatic well-being or a tool for spiritual development) appears to be slightly confused, and this is potentially confusing for service-users.

“Intention” underlying mindfulness practice happens to be one of the principal factors that differentiates mindfulness as taught in MBIs from its Buddhist construal. Within Buddhism, rather than psychosomatic symptom relief, mindfulness is generally practiced for the primary purpose of long-term spiritual development. In addition to what is known as ‘right intention’ and according to the Buddhist view, mindfulness only becomes fully effective when subject to a process of cross-fertilization with numerous other practices and perspectives (Shonin et al., 2013a). Such perspectives include a profound understanding of concepts pertaining to (1) wisdom (i.e., impermanence, non-self, and suffering—known as the three Dharma “seals”), (2) meditation (including both concentrative and insight techniques), and (3) ethical awareness. These three core elements (i.e., wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness—known in Buddhism as the “three trainings”) provide a platform for the effective development of mindfulness and are relatively undersold in the delivery of MBIs (Van Gordon et al., 2013).

Williams and Kabat-Zinn assert that rather than a “decontextualization” of mindfulness, MBIs such as MBSR execute more of a secular “recontextualization” of the Buddhist teachings in all of their “essential fullness” (2011, p. 15). However, and for the reasons outlined above, the accuracy of such assertions is highly questionable because even by flexible criteria, MBIs do not (and need not) represent a complete, rounded, and authentic path of Buddhist practice (secularized or otherwise). Consequently, concerns are increasingly being raised that relate to the general identity and credibility of MBIs, and the need for a unified operational approach (e.g., Rosch, 2007; Singh et al., 2008; Howells et al., 2010; McWilliams, 2011; Shonin et al., 2013b; Van Gordon et al., 2013).

Arguably the most important of these concerns are those with ethical implications for service-users. If, unbeknownst to service-users, MBIs are in fact attempting to teach Buddhism in reconstituted form within healthcare settings, then it is imperative to make this absolutely clear. Alternatively, given that MBIs claim a certain ‘grounding’ in Buddhist philosophy, if their primary intention is geared toward improving service-user psychosomatic well-being, then there is still a need for clarity regarding what is actually implied by such a ‘grounding’. In other words, service-users should be made aware that mindfulness as currently operationalized in MBIs is by no means congruent with the traditional Buddhist perspective.

A further concern relates to the credibility and aptitude of MBI facilitators (Shonin et al., 2013c). Whilst referring to the stream of mindfulness teachings formulated by the likes of Kabat-Zinn (i.e., the teachings currently imparted by MBI instructors), Cullen (2011) states that MBIs are “their own new lineage” (p. 186). Lineage is another important concept within Buddhism and essentially refers to the “authenticity” of Buddhist teachers. In addition to receiving direct transmissions from an accomplished meditation teacher, authentic Buddhist masters generally undergo decades of focussed meditation training with the aim of relinquishing attachment to worldly concerns such as wealth, career, or renown (Shonin et al., 2013a). This is in contrast to MBI instructors who may have as little as 1 year’s mindfulness experience following completion of a single 8-week course (Mental Health Foundation, 2010). Therefore, claims that MBIs constitute an authentic lineage in the traditional Buddhist sense are unrealistic.


Interest and supporting evidence for the clinical application of MBIs has increased substantially in the last decade. MBIs appear to represent cost-effective, acceptable, and non-invasive means for treating a broad spectrum of psychological and somatic illnesses. However, future studies should address some of the methodological issues that significantly limit the validity of findings at present. More importantly, service-users are potentially exposed to oversights or misappropriations concerning the general presentation of MBIs. Whilst a certain degree of porosity between the boundary of clinical and spiritual practice does not present a problem in itself, there is a need and duty to make service-users (and the wider scientific community) fully aware of the underlying intentions of MBIs and/or of the extent to which it can realistically be said that MBIs are actually grounded in traditional Buddhist practice.


Cullen, M. (2011). Mindfulness-based interventions: an emerging phenomenon. Mindfulness 2, 186–193.

Howells, K., Tennant, A., Day, A., and Elmer, R. (2010). Mindfulness in forensic mental health: does it have a role? Mindfulness 1, 4–9.

McWilliams, S. A. (2011). Contemplating a contemporary constructivist Buddhist psychology. J. Constr. Psychol. 24, 268–276.

Mental Health Foundation. (2010). Mindfulness Report. London: Mental Health Foundation.

Rosch, E. (2007). More than mindfulness: when you have a tiger by the tail, let it eat you. Psychol. Inq. 18, 258–263.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013a). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: a qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health. doi: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013b). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioural Addictions 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Slade, K., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013c). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: a systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior 18, 365-372.

Singh, N., Lancioni, G., Wahler, R., Winton, A., and Singh, J. (2008). Mindfulness approaches in cognitive behaviour therapy. Behav. Cogn. Psychother. 36, 1–8.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: a controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. doi: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.

Williams, J. M. G., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma. Contemporary Buddhism 12, 1–18.

Author: Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Dr Edo Shonin Dr Edo Shonin is research director of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness Research, and a chartered psychologist at the Nottingham Trent University (UK). He sits on the editorial board for the academic journal Mindfulness and the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Edo is internationally recognised as a leading authority in mindfulness practice and research and has over 100 academic publications relating to the scientific study of meditation and Buddhist practice. He is the author of ‘The Mindful Warrior: The Path to Wellbeing, Wisdom and Awareness’ and primary editor of academic volumes on ‘The Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness’ and ‘Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction’. He has been a Buddhist monk for thirty years and is spiritual director of the international Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has also received the higher ordination in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Edo regularly receives invitations to give keynote speeches, lectures, retreats and workshops at a range of academic and non-academic venues all over the world. Ven William Van Gordon Ven William Van Gordon has been a Buddhist monk for almost ten years. He is co-founder of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation, Mindfulness, and Psychological Wellbeing and the Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has been ordained within Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions and has extensive training in all aspects of Buddhist practice, psychology, and philosophy. Prior to becoming a Buddhist monk, Ven William Van Gordon worked for various blue chip companies including Marconi Plc, PepsiCo International, and Aldi Stores Limited where he worked as an Area Manager responsible for a multi-site £28 million portfolio of supermarkets with over 50 employees. Ven William Van Gordon is also a research psychologist and forms part of the Psychological Wellbeing and Mental Health Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University. His area of research expertise is the study of ‘authentic spiritual transmission’ – within mainstream Buddhism itself as well as within contemporary Buddhist-derived clinical interventions. His current research projects are concerned with evaluating the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness for the treatment of various health conditions. Ven William Van Gordon has numerous publications relating to the clinical utility of meditative interventions including in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. As a separate undertaking, William is currently writing-up his doctoral thesis which relates to the effects of meditation on work-related wellbeing and performance. Ven William Van Gordon enjoys fell running, martial arts, DIY, reading and writing poetry, caring for cancer patients, and studying civil litigation. He is a keen mountaineer with some arctic expedition experience.

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