As a study suggests the fashionable wellness trend is one big ego trip: Does meditation make you smug?
- Those who practice mindfulness feel ‘spiritually superior’ claims new research
- Melanie McDonagh wasn’t surprised by the findings from the Netherlands
- Kate Spicer argues mindfulness is there to help people keep their act together
Melanie McDonagh (pictured) isn’t impressed by New Age mysticism
By Melanie McDonagh
Well, here’s a thing. Research done in the Netherlands has revealed that mindfulness makes you conceited.
The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found that people who take part in meditation and other forms of training meant to place them in touch with the universe, and make them less judgmental, actually felt ‘spiritually superior’ to others.
Practitioners of mindfulness rated their spiritual worth about 50 per cent higher than ordinary mortals when asked if they agreed with phrases such as: ‘The world would be a better place if others too had the insights that I have now.’ They were also likely to agree that: ‘Because of my education and experience, I am observant and see things that others overlook.’
I can’t think of any study that surprised me less. I once wrote about mindfulness, and in the course of my research attended half a dozen mindfulness sessions.
Some of it was blameless to the point of stating the obvious, such as the emphasis on concentrating on whatever we are doing at the moment — or, as my mother used to say, minding what you’re at.
But the bigger agenda, to encourage the kind of meditation that turns us inwards, is pretty well a recipe for spiritual narcissism.
Mindfulness is often described as a secular form of Buddhist med-itation … ironically, one thing that Buddhist practice is keen to discourage is spiritual pride.
There was a further aspect to the sessions. You weren’t just told to focus on your interesting self. No, you were also encouraged to direct benevolent thoughts to complete strangers, perhaps someone travelling on the same bus, or sitting near you in a library.
It sounds like harmless philanthropy, and perhaps it is. But what it does is put you in the position of being the enlightened practitioner, directing uplifting thoughts towards the spiritually unwashed.
It’s essentially the reverse of the virtue that’s most valued in Christianity — that is, humility. And it doesn’t involve any actual engagement with the other person.
Of course, research findings aren’t always straightforward. It may be that meditation, mindfulness and getting to grips with your chakras aren’t themselves the problem. Rather, it may be that the kind of people who engage in these practices are puffed up with their own spiritual worth to begin with.
If you’re morally vain, you may find introspection and meditation — the epitome of individualism — far more attractive than involving yourself with other people, in all their messiness and unpredictability.
Personally, I think some kinds of meditation can be profoundly worthwhile, but I’m less impressed by the sort that’s dressed up as New Age mysticism. It’s a way for irritating people to make themselves look deep.
By Kate Spicer
Kate Spicer (pictured) claims mindfulness is there to help people keep their act together
Meditation in its plainest form — but let’s call it ‘sitting quietly’ to make it sound less pretentious for the naysayers — is not designed to take us to nirvana, or help us gain some incredible insight into the oneness of all things.
It is not even asking us to understand that God (be he a judgmental Father Christmas chap with a big beard or just the thing that makes the world go round) is Love.
No, mindfulness is there to help people keep their act together and enjoy life. For me, when used as an alternative to wine, it proves a wonderful asset. When I let the habit go, things rarely get better.
I’m not alone. A 2019 poll found meditation and its less intimidating modern iteration, ‘mindfulness’, was the UK’s favourite wellness therapy, and that in the past five years just over a quarter of the population had turned to it.
Now a Dutch study claims these merry converts have unwittingly been led down the path to raving narcissism.
I’ll let it slide that the study describes those immersed in the wackier practices of chakra realignment or past lives therapy as most prone to spiritual smugness. However, I can’t let the authors from Radboud University in the Netherlands conflate the simple act of meditation with these questionable therapies; to do so is like comparing nipping to the loo with an hour of colonic irrigation.
I am baffled that anybody could feel hostile towards the salve of a few minutes in focused silence.
Who wouldn’t want to escape what the Buddhists call ‘the monkey mind’, that chattering neurotic merry-go-round of fear, anxiety and fretting inside so many of our brains — and particularly this year? The study describes meditation as a ‘self-enhancement tool’ that encourages the practitioner to become self-absorbed.
Well, if you’re smug, needy and simply have to show off, you can use anything to do that. I know people who boast about being angry. Or about being fat.
Smug twits crop up everywhere: golf clubs, Parliament, school gates, and, yes, among the meditation set too.
But for the most part, people who find that trying meditation makes them feel good simply want others to learn the secret to getting a free dose of happiness. Is that narcissism or merely enthusiasm?
Countless studies have shown people who meditate are better adjusted, healthier, calmer, or more positive than they were before they took it up, and may live longer, too.
These people are not superior to others, but they are superior versions of themselves. Who wouldn’t want that?
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