Mindfulness for Beginners

Posted: July 21, 2020 in MIndfulness, research
Tags: , , , ,

I noted in a recent post about current trends in ELT that mindfulness has been getting a fair amount of attention recently. Here are three recent examples:

  • Pearson recently produced the Pearson Experiences: A Pocket Guide to Mindfulness, written by Amy Malloy. Amy has written also written a series of blog posts for Pearson on the topic and she is a Pearson-sponsored speaker (Why use mindfulness in the classroom?) at the English Australia Ed-Tech SIG Online Symposium this week.
  • Russell Stannard has written two posts for Express Publishing (here and here)
  • Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen’s new book, ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ (OUP, 2020) includes a section in which they recommend mindfulness practices to teachers as a buffer against stress and as a way to promote wellbeing.

The claims

Definitions of mindfulness often vary slightly, but the following from Amy Malloy is typical: ‘mindfulness is about the awareness that comes from consciously focussing on the present moment’. Claims for the value of mindfulness practices also vary slightly. Besides the general improvements to wellbeing suggested by Sarah and Tammy, attention, concentration and resilience are also commonly mentioned.

Amy: [Mindfulness] develops [children’s] brains, which in turn helps them find it easier to calm down and stay calm. … It changes our brains for the better. …. [Mindfulness] helps children concentrate more easily on classroom activities.

Russell: Students going through mindfulness training have increased levels of determination and willpower, they are less likely to give up if they find something difficult … Mindfulness has been shown to improve concentration. Students are able to study for longer periods of time and are more focused … Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can lead to reduced levels of anxiety and stress.

In addition to the behavioural changes that mindfulness can supposedly bring about, both Amy and Russell refer to neurological changes:

Amy: Studies have shown that the people who regularly practise mindfulness develop the areas of the brain associated with patience, compassion, focus, concentration and emotional regulation.

Russell: At the route of our current understanding of mindfulness is brain plasticity. … in probably the most famous neuroimaging research project, scientists took a group of people and found that by doing a programme of 8 weeks of mindfulness training based around gratitude, they could actually increase the size of the areas of the brain generally associated with happiness.

Supporting evidence

In her pocket guide for Pearson, Amy provides no references to support her claims.

In Russell’s first post, he links to a piece of research which looked at the self-reported psychological impact of a happiness training programme developed by a German cabaret artist and talk show host. The programme wasn’t specifically mindfulness-oriented, so tells us nothing about mindfulness, but it is also highly suspect as a piece of research, not least because one of the co-authors is the cabaret artist himself. His second link is to an article about human attention, a long-studied area of psychology, but this has nothing to do with mindfulness, although Russell implies that there is a connection. His third link is to a very selective review of research into mindfulness, written by two mindfulness enthusiasts. It’s not so much a review of research as a selection of articles which support mindfulness advocacy.

In his second post, Russell links to a review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in education. Appearing in the ‘Mindfulness’ journal, it is obviously in broad support of MBIs, but its conclusions are hedged: ‘Research on the neurobiology of mindfulness in adults suggests that sustained mindfulness practice can ….’ ‘mindfulness training holds promise for being one such intervention for teachers.’ His second link is to a masterpiece of pseudo-science delivered by Joe Dispenza, author of many titles including ‘Becoming Supernatural: How Common People are Doing the Uncommon’ and ‘Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself’. Russell’s 3rd link is to an interview with Matthieu Ricard, one of the Dalai Lama’s translators. Interestingly, but not in this interview, Ricard is very dismissive of secular mindfulness (‘Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism’). His fourth link is to a video presentation about mindfulness from Diana Winston of UCLA. The presenter doesn’t give citations for the research she mentions (so I can’t follow them up): instead, she plugs her own book.

Sarah and Tammy’s three references are not much better. The first is to a self-help book, called ‘Every Teacher Matters: Inspiring Well-Being through Mindfulness’ by K. Lovewell (2012), whose other work includes ‘The Little Book of Self-Compassion: Learn to be your own Best Friend’. The second (Cresswell, J. D. & Lindsay, E.K. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23 (6): pp. 401-407) is more solid, but a little dated now. The third (Garland, E., Gaylord, S.A. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Positive Reappraisal Mediates the Stress-Reductive Effects of Mindfulness: An Upward Spiral Process. Mindfulness 2 (1): pp. 59 – 67) is an interesting piece, but of limited value since there was no control group in the research and it tells us nothing about MBIs per se.

The supporting evidence provided by these writers for the claims they make is thin, to say the least. It is almost as if the truth of the claims is self-evident, and for these writers (all of whom use mindfulness practices themselves) there is clearly a personal authentication. But, not having had an epiphany myself and being somewhat reluctant to roll a raisin around my mouth, concentrating on its texture and flavours, fully focussing on the process of eating it (as recommended by Sarah and Tammy), I will, instead, consciously focus on the present moment of research.

Mindfulness and research

The first thing to know is that there has been a lot of research into mindfulness in recent years. The second thing to know is that much of it is poor quality. Here’s why:

  • There is no universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers (Van Dam, N. T. et al. (2018). Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13: pp. 36 – 61)
  • To date, there are at least nine different psychometric questionnaires, all of which define and measure mindfulness differently (Purser, R.E. (2019). McMindfulness. Repeater Books. p.128)
  • Mindfulness research tends to rely on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable.
  • The majority of studies did not utilize randomized control groups (Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E.S., et al. (201). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014. doi:10.1001/ jamainternmed.2013.13018).
  • Early meditation studies were mostly cross-sectional studies: that is, they compared data from a group of meditators with data from a control group at one point in time. A cross-sectional study design precludes causal attribution. (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225)
  • Sample sizes tend to be small and there is often no active control group. There are few randomized controlled trials (Dunning, D.L., Griffiths, K., Kuyken, W., Crane, C., Foulkes, L., Parker, J. and Dalgleish, T. (2019), Research Review: The effects of mindfulness‐based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents – a meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60: 244-258. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12980)
  • There is a relatively strong bias towards the publication of positive or significant results (Coronado-Montoya, S., Levis, A.W., Kwakkenbos, L., Steele, R.J., Turner, E.H. & Thombs, B.D. (2016). Reporting of Positive Results in Randomized Controlled Trials of Mindfulness-Based Mental Health Interventions. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153220. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153220)
  • More recent years have not seen significant improvements in the rigorousness of research (Goldberg SB, Tucker RP, Greene PA, Simpson TL, Kearney DJ, Davidson RJ (2017). Is mindfulness research methodology improving over time? A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0187298).


The overall quality of the research into mindfulness is so poor that a group of fifteen researchers came together to write a paper entitled ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’ (Van Dam, N. T. et al. (2018). Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13: pp. 36 – 61).

So, the research is problematic and replication is needed, but it does broadly support the claim that mindfulness meditation exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225). The italicized broadly is important here. As one of the leaders of the British Mindfulness in Schools Project (which has trained thousands of teachers in the UK) puts it, ‘research on mindfulness in schools is still in its infancy, particularly in relation to impacts on behaviour, academic performance and physical health. It can best be described as ‘promising’ and ‘worth trying’ (Weare, K. (2018). Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People. The Mindfulness in Schools Project). We don’t know what kind of MBIs are most effective, what kind of ‘dosage’ should be administered, what kinds of students it is (and is not) appropriate for, whether instructor training is significant or what cost-benefits it might bring. In short, there is more that we do not know than we know.

One systematic review, for example, found that MBIs had ‘small, positive effects on cognitive and socioemotional processes but these effects were not seen for behavioral or academic outcomes’. What happened to the promises of improved concentration, calmer behaviour and willpower? The review concludes that ‘the evidence from this review urges caution in the widespread adoption of MBIs and encourages rigorous evaluation of the practice should schools choose to implement it’ (Maynard, B. R., Solis, M., Miller, V. & Brendel, K. E. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions for improving cognition, academic achievement, behavior and socio-emotional functioning of primary and secondary students. A Campbell Systematic Review 2017:5).

What about the claims for neurological change? As a general rule, references to neuroscience by educators should be taken with skepticism. Whilst it appears that ‘mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness’ (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225), this doesn’t really tell us very much. A complex mental state like mindfulness ‘is likely to be supported by the large-scale brain networks’ (ibid) and insights derived from fMRI scans of particular parts of the brain provide us with, at best, only a trivial understanding of what is going on. Without a clear definition of what mindfulness actually is, it is going to be some time before we unravel the neural mechanisms underpinning it. If, in fact, we ever do. By way of comparison, you might be interested in reading about neuroscientific studies into prayer , which also appears to correlate with enhanced wellbeing.

Rather than leaving things with the research, I’d like to leave you with a few more short mindfulness raisins to chew on.

Mindfulness and money

As Russell says in his blog post, ‘research in science doesn’t come out of a vacuum’. Indeed, it tends to follow the money. It is estimated that mindfulness is now ‘a $4 billion industry’ (Purser, R.E. (2019). McMindfulness. Repeater Books. p.13): ‘More than 100,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of ‘mindfulness’ in their title, touting the benefits of Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, a Mindful Nation, and Mindful Dog Owners, to name just a few. There is also The Mindfulness Coloring Book, a bestselling genre in itself. Besides books, there are workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, smartphone apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit’.

It is precisely because so much money is at stake that so much research has been funded. More proof is desperately needed, and it is sadly unforthcoming. Meanwhile, in the immortal words of Kayleigh McEnany, ‘science should not stand in the way.’

Minefulness and the individual

Mindfulness may be aptly described as a ‘technology of the self’. Ronald Purser, the author of ‘McMindfulness’, puts it like this: ‘Rather than discussing how attention is monetized and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, [mindfulness advocates] locate crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented mindful capitalists’.

It is this focus on the individual that makes it so appealing to right-wing foundations (e.g. the Templeton Foundation) that fund the research into mindfulness. For more on this topic, see my post about grit .

Mindfulness and religion

It is striking how often mindfulness advocates, like Amy, feel the need to insist that mindfulness is not a religious practice. Historically, of course, mindfulness comes direct from a Buddhist tradition, but in its present Western incarnation, it is a curious hybrid. Jon Kabat-Zinn  who, more than anyone else, has transformed mindfulness into a marketable commodity, is profoundly ambiguous on the topic. Buddhists, like Matthieu Ricard or David Forbes (author of ‘Mindfulness and its Discontents’, Fernwood Publishing, 2019), have little time for the cultural appropriation of the Pali term ‘Sati’, especially when mindfulness is employed by the American military for training for snipers. Others, like Goldie Hawn, whose MindUP programme sells well in the US, are quite clear about their religious affiliation and their desire to bring Buddhism into schools through the back door.

I personally find it hard to see the banging of Tibetan bowls as anything other than a religious act, but I am less bothered by this than those American school districts who saw MBIs as ‘covert religious indoctrination’ and banned them. Having said that, why not promote more prayer in schools if the ‘neuroscience’ supports it?

Clare is a busy teacher

Image from Andrew Percival , inspired by The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness and similar titles.

  1. Peter Pun says:

    The raisin thing sounds like an old NLP technique I learnt about on DipTESOL.
    Rachel Roberts (ELT materials writer and now life coach) has a mindfulness booklet that might be of interest:

    It’s used/taught/promoted at the int school I teach at as an aspect of wellbeing. Lots of host nationals at the school (Thailand) means there’s link for many to Buddhist practices.
    I get the healthy skepticism, also get that ‘evidence-informed’ can be a relative concept.

    • philipjkerr says:

      I think that Rachael is generally very circumspect in her claims.

      • Peter Pun says:

        Just know of Rachael’s booklet and it wasn’t mentioned. Not my area of expertise.
        From what I gather of Rachael’s work in general it sounds more like non-directive therapy

    • Matthew says:

      This might be of interest: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/mindfulnessdefined.html

      Written by an extremely well informed and critical-minded Buddhist monk (originally from Ohio I believe) who is, from his perspective, also wary of the ways the term “mindfulness” gets bandied about…and yet retains a supposed connection, perhaps as a way of lending it the authority it otherwise may lack, to Buddhist practices.

      In that piece he attempts to clarify that, essentially, from a Buddhist perspective being “mindful” basically means “remembering” something…and what should be remembered is a bunch of very specific prescriptions and disciplines set out for involved Buddhist ascetic training.

      While in the modern interpretation, what’s called “mindfulness” has no particular object. It’s often more a humble-sounding but ultimately somewhat self-congratulatory seeming quality of ‘contentment’, along with a directive to have others ‘do it’ too.

  2. Marc says:

    There was a good episode on the British Psychological Society’s Psycrunch podcast a couple of years ago about mindfulness that was very hedged and very careful to state, as above, it’s worth trying.

    For some people mindfulness can cause dwelling on intrusive and/or negative thoughts. Probably the last group of people I would want to be advising on mental wellbeing would be zealous young people fresh from a pre-service certificate or on-the-job training.

  3. Henno Kotzé says:

    Thanks for your insightful critique (as always) of mindfulness, Philip. “Mindfulness” has definitely been co-opted by “big health” in recent years, but Vipassana mindfulness can (and is) very much be taught and practiced in a secular way, which is why it is widely accepted by neuroscientists.
    There are a few more studies into the benefits of practising mindfulnesss ( in the sense of developing a clear, non-judgemental state of attention to the contents of consciousness, rather than banging a Tibetan bowl) which you may have overlooked. These related specifically to the reduction of anxiety and depression, improved cognitive function and changes in grey matter in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation, memory and learning, all of which I’m sure you would agree have direct and indirect benefits in education.

    • F. Zeidan et al. 2011. “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation.” Pain 31: 5540–48;
    • Kim et al. 2010. “Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Program as an Adjunct to Pharmacotherapy in Patients with Panic Disorder.” J Anxiety Disord 24(6): 590–95;
    • K. A. Godfrin and C. van Heeringen. 2010. “The Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Recurrence of Depressive Episodes, Mental Health and Quality of Life: A Randomized Controlled Study.” Behav Res Ther 48(8): 738–46;
    • F. Zeidan, S. K. Johnson, B. J. Diamond, Z. David, and P. Goolkasian. 2010. “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training.” Conscious Cogn 19(2): 597–605;
    • B. K. Hölzel et al. 2011. “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.” Psychiatry Res 191(1): 36–43.
    And then there are also quite a few other studies on the effects o=f brain plasticity brought about by meditation on mental health or ‘well-being’ (another co-opted term). You might want to take a look at these:
    • R. J. Davidson and B. S McEwen. 2012. “Social Influences on Neuroplasticity: Stress and Interventions to Promote WellBeing.” Nature Neuroscience 15(5): 689–95. 11. http://www.news.wisc.edu/22370.
    • C. A. Moyer et al. 2011. “Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated With Positive Emotion Is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training.” Psychological Science 22(10): 1277–79.
    • S.-L. Keng, M. J. Smoski, and C. J. Robins. 2011. “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies.” Clinical Psychology Review 31: 1041–56;
    • J. S. Mascaro et al. 2012. “Compassion Meditation Enhances Empathic Accuracy and Related Neural Activity.” In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8(1): 48–55.
    • O. M. Klimecki et al. 1991. “Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect after Compassion Training.” Cerebral Cortex 23(7): 1552–61.
    • M. E. Kemeny et al. 2012. “Contemplative/Emotion Training Reduces Negative Emotional Behavior and Promotes Prosocial Responses.” Emotion 12: 338–50.

    Thanks again for your sharp mind and rigorous research in ELT. I always appreciate and look forward to your blog posts, but then again, maybe I should not ‘forward’ because, after all, it is always ‘now’ as they say in mindfulness circles. 😉

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thanks! You’ve given me rather a lot of reading to do!

      I should perhaps apologise for the bowl-banging references: a cheap shot at humour. But there is something a little more to my reference than that. There’s an interesting documentary film called ‘Room to Breathe’ (available at https://www.mindfulschools.org/resources/room-to-breathe/ ) which follows a mindfulness instructor attempting to introduce mindfulness to a class of difficult teenagers in a San Francisco school. She bangs the bowl quite a lot. The film is interesting in many ways. Eventually, this instructor gets through to many of the kids in the class, but only after excluding four of them. Interesting, too, because of the racialized discourse in the film (see Cameron J. (2016) Education as the Practice of Freedom: A Social Justice Proposal for Mindfulness Educators. In: Purser R., Forbes D., Burke A. (eds) Handbook of Mindfulness. Springer ).

      The interest in neuroscience on the part of mindfulness advocates is reminiscent of a similar interest, some years ago (and still now), of advocates of ‘whole-brain’ learning and of the uses of Transcendental Meditation in education. Both experienced a flurry of well-funded neuro-scientifically oriented research for many years before the funding and the research dried up (about 15 years ago) when the research didn’t lead anywhere. Research into mindfulness can be seen as the next stage in this timeline.

      I think the Tang et al (2015) article that I quote is important because it is a review of other studies, including the work of Zeidan, Hölzel, Klimecki, Robins & Keng and Davidson & McEwen, who feature in your reading list. The conclusion of the Tang et al review is that ‘more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation’. We may now know more about the regions of the brain that are structurally altered by meditation, but ‘our knowledge of what these changes actually mean will remain trivial until we gain a better understanding of how such structural changes are related to the reported improvements in affective, cognitive and social function’.

      Given the currently limited neuroscientific understanding, it is surely a mistake to use insights into, say, brain morphometry to justify recommendations for educational practice. This is why I make the parallel with ‘whole-brain’ learning and TM. Back in 2006, Usha Goswami of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, described the ‘current gulf between neuroscience and education’ (Goswami, U. 2006. Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7: 406–413), a gulf that is filled with ‘packages and programmes claiming to be based on brain science’, but are actually neuromyths. That gulf has narrowed to some extent in recent years, but not enough to warrant anything more than cautious experimentation.

      In my post, I set out to disprove the overblown claims of Amy, Russell, Sarah and Tammy, but I don’t want to suggest that mindfulness practices can never be of any value. Perhaps, they can, in some contexts, with some people, some of the time. But generalizations beyond that indicate the opposite of ‘a clear, non-judgemental state of attention’. My own recommendation is for more meta-mindfulness!


      • Henno Kotzé says:

        Yes, I understand a bit more clearly now. The post is more aimed at interrogating weak claims rather than the practice and benefits of mindfulness itself. The recent interest in this area is certainly reminiscent of the “whole brain” learning trend. Meta-mindfulness… well I think you’re on to something there – you might have to update your “current trends” post with a “future trends” section!

  4. […] Kerr’s posts are always thought-provoking. Mindfulness for beginners questions the strength of research behind the attention mindfulness is now receiving in […]

  5. philipjkerr says:

    A recent systematic review of mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings found that (1) compared with doing nothing, mindfulness reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases well–being, but we cannot be sure that this will happen in every community setting, and (2) in these RCTs, mindfulness is neither better nor worse than other feel–good practices such as physical exercise, and RCTs in this field tend to be of poor quality, so we cannot be sure that our combined results represent the true effects and (3) mindfulness courses in the community need to be implemented with care, because we cannot assume that they work for everyone, everywhere. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Galante, J. et al. (2021) Mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Plos Medicine https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003481

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