Reducing prosocial guilt
April 17, 2022 10:12 AM   Subscribe

A series of experiments have suggested that mindfulness meditation may reduce prosocial behaviours by reducing the guilt which leads to them. Article, study (paywalled).
In their final experiment, the researchers compared mindfulness meditation to another form of meditative practice known as loving kindness meditation, which consists of imagery exercises in which one evokes other people and sends wishes that each is happy, well and free from suffering. Hafenbrack and his colleagues found that loving kindness meditation led to a greater willingness to engage in reparative behavior and reduced self-focus compared to mindfulness meditation.
posted by clawsoon (65 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
mindfulness meditation may reduce prosocial behaviours by reducing the guilt which leads to them

"I really appreciate that, and I hear you, but that hasn't been my lived experience with Cognitive Jade Egg Warrior Kabbala. I know it's expensive, and my access is a privilege. Spiritual issues can come from all sorts of things. Stay hydrated ✌️❤️"

Another bonus of loving kindness meditation is that it doesn't tend to have any kind of intimidating discipline attached to it. No anxiety over clear-mind, or being present enough etc.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:27 AM on April 17 [21 favorites]


Sometimes, however, this meant that I would meditate or focus on my breath in situations that there was actually a significant problem and it would have been better if I had faced it directly and immediately.”
Uh, this doesn't sound right to me at all.

My feeling about mindfulness meditation is that it's a technique which can work, but it's very challenging to transmit the technique from one mind to another without some reproduction errors. Like the above guy concluding that taking a breath before acting is to blame for him acting selfishly.

For example, in two experiments the participants were asked to recall and write about a time they had wronged someone and felt guilty, before being randomly assigned to meditate or not. After that, they were asked to allocate a hypothetical $100 between a birthday gift for the person they had wronged, a charity for African flood victims, and themselves. Participants who had meditated allocated approximately 17% less to the person they had wronged compared to those who had not meditated.

I have just spent so many years reading the words of people wrongfully blaming themselves for other peoples' actions here on AskMe. People often have no idea who is to blame for anything. Maybe giving their minds a break for a second gave them the space for things to rise to the surface. I don't know one way or another. But it's at least true that there's multiple ways to interpret the same thing and I just feel like this researcher admitted to coming in biased to see things from a particular point of view:
“I was interested in doing this research because, after I started studying meditation and meditating myself, I noticed that I was using it as almost a default way of reacting to stressors,” said study author

Another critique I have of the article is that we should be uh, mindful of the fact that these techniques originated in religious practices which are sacred to people & it feels disrespectful when I feel like they're being reduced to parlor tricks for hacking your brain meat which have been rated as unsatisfying by people who have discarded their original context as uninteresting. I have found these techniques useful and I am grateful that they were there for me to learn about. It just feels unfair to me to behave like a pissed off hotel guest when you're trying to benefit from someone else's work.

That being said I also think that loving kindness is a great thing for people to practice and it's not hard for me to believe that they found it helpful in these studies.

So, that's my 2 cents about something I have read and thought a lot about over the years.
posted by bleep at 11:13 AM on April 17 [42 favorites]


I'm sorry to those caught up in the collateral of this generalization, but this study justifies so many opinions I have about California.
posted by lownote at 11:20 AM on April 17 [25 favorites]


bleep: Another critique I have of the article is that we should be uh, mindful of the fact that these techniques originated in religious practices which are sacred to people & it feels disrespectful when I feel like they're being reduced to parlor tricks for hacking your brain meat which have been rated as unsatisfying by people who have discarded their original context as uninteresting.

I see that the article at least tips its hat in that direction, suggesting that the stripping of religion from meditation for Western consumption might be one reason that the study authors got the results they did. The study itself doesn't use the word "religion"; they only go as far as to say:
Mindfulness advocates and practitioners in the West should be aware that mindfulness and other meditations were initially practiced in a cultural context of ethical rules and philosophical considerations from which they have now been largely divorced.
posted by clawsoon at 11:28 AM on April 17 [14 favorites]


Another critique I have of the article is that we should be uh, mindful of the fact that these techniques originated in religious practices which are sacred to people & it feels disrespectful when I feel like they're being reduced to parlor tricks for hacking your brain meat which have been rated as unsatisfying by people who have discarded their original context as uninteresting.

Agreed.

I’m also curious to know if the researchers were aware enough to look at guilt versus shame. They are two distinct mental and emotional states. It seems a shame-response might be excessive, since part of the desire is self-redemption, and has little to do with compensating the other for the harm done to them. Maybe what the mindfulness meditation achieved was a reduction in shame and thus a more balanced view of the needs or suffering of both the person harmed and flood victims.
posted by Silvery Fish at 11:37 AM on April 17 [4 favorites]


I’m also curious to know if the researchers were aware enough to look at guilt versus shame.

I haven't read the study in depth, but they say they were measuring and analyzing on "guilt, shame, embarrassment, anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and neutrality" in at least some of their experiments.
posted by clawsoon at 11:41 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


Thanks, clawsoon. It’s an interesting study. I suppose I’m curious about the root cause, and not sure the researchers nail that.
posted by Silvery Fish at 11:45 AM on April 17


It's been a very long time, but the (American, convert-oriented) temple I used to attend was pretty explicit that doing the concentration and mindfulness stuff without the community and morality stuff could make you and the people around you have a real weird bad time.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:52 AM on April 17 [15 favorites]




It strikes me as a fairly typical psychology study - a plausible idea with a patina of data to make it academically respectable.
posted by clawsoon at 11:58 AM on April 17 [8 favorites]


"...participants were randomly assigned to either listen to an 8-minute guided meditation recording created by a professional mindfulness meditation instructor or an 8-minute recording by the same speaker in which they were instructed to think of whatever came to mind."

Eight minutes!? When I used to do meditation retreats, we would spend three days just calming our minds, before even starting the real practice.
posted by Joan Rivers of Babylon at 12:03 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]


I see that the article at least tips its hat in that direction, suggesting that the stripping of religion from meditation for Western consumption might be one reason that the study authors got the results they did.

You're right that they do think this is why they got their result, but they're not even right about that. The author admitted he already knew what the data was going to say before it existed. That's why they got the result that they got. And the reason why the author already knew what the data was going to say, was because he wrongly concluded that just pausing and breathing for a second before jumping into a situation was the cause of him doing things he regretted. He should have spent a bit more time working on the circumstances around which he was frequently doing things he regretted.
posted by bleep at 12:05 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


This is a somewhat long but fascinating talk from Daniel P Brown a harvard professor and meditation teacher(tibetan buddhist lineage).
https://vimeo.com/pointingoutway/review/252875714/f2734dde7d

He has been doing research on meditators for over 40 years.
He talks about the problems of mindfulness vs 2nd/3rd turning buddhism lineages which include compassion practices. He personally blames much of the guru game of the 70s on people who had real spiritual experiences from mindfulness only but never cultivated the compassion side of the practice. In short, there is a nihilistic side of some cave yogis/buddhas. But he is also clear to point out(and has data to back it up) that enlightenment is a very real thing, and you can see it in people's behavior if they really have it.

Probably I should make a whole post on him actually.... one other link in here at the bottom "https://www.metafilter.com/193942/Meditation-Teachers-and-Technology"
posted by danjo at 12:12 PM on April 17 [14 favorites]


My takeaway here is that I shouldn't be mindful and I can run with that.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:14 PM on April 17 [10 favorites]


I have just spent so many years reading the words of people wrongfully blaming themselves for other peoples' actions here on AskMe. People often have no idea who is to blame for anything.

I can answer that: no one is to blame for anything because free will doesn't exist. Blame requires choice requires something less deterministic than neuron action potential in response to excitatory signals from other neurons. Which is the universe we live in, rather than the hypothetical universe underpinning all Western thought and society in which some sort of soul-ghost reaches into the brain from outside the material universe and swishes stuff around to interfere with the outcome of a natural process in a way that somehow reflects the intrinsic character of said soul-ghost. Blaming everything on soul-ghosts allows us to collectively write off other people as intrinsically "evil" or "perverted" so that we don't have to contend with the complexity of living, breathing individuals and can get on with the business of discriminating against, imprisoning or torturing them.

We do whatever it is we were always going to do and then make up a story about why we did it later. The concept of blame, like choice or religion, has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with control and imposition of socially normative behavior.

Bringing this back to mindfulness: It's (relatively) easy to visualize the intricate neurochemical clockwork underpinning the actions of everyone around you and forgive them for harming you. It's vastly more difficult to even acknowledge - never mind maintain awareness of - the truth that this applies to the self as well.

Other people exist and have a validity of existence equal to our own. On the basis of that equal validity we should help and not harm them. I would say that I hope reading this helps other people decide to start making choices that are more mindful of their impact on others, but that is similarly conceptually flawed. Rather:

I hope the act of reading this alters your neurotopology in ways that you subjectively experience as a series of choices to consider the impact of your actions and help others, even though that subjective experience is a false narrative intended to pave over the impossibly complex yet fully deterministic underlying process of the self. I hope it reduces the subjective guilt you experience for past failures of mindfulness. For my own part I'm not sure how much those hopes matter because - for better or for worse - I was always going to write this.
posted by Ryvar at 1:27 PM on April 17 [14 favorites]


On the basis of that equal validity we should help and not harm them.

Should we though? Sounds like the imposition of socially normative behavior to me....

Kidding!

But you know, even if choice is nothing but a (sometimes) useful fiction (I think a healthy dose of fatalism can be sometimes useful too), I like to take a pragmatic view. Don't know about good and evil, but people learn how to act in any given situation, nobody is born knowing any of that shit. And learning can be quite a bit based on emotion, emotion is what makes memories stick. People who train themselves to feel less often also learn less, and this is why I prefer to engage with them in small quantities if possible.

Is there a point above which feelings of guilt can be excessive, paralyzing, counter-productive? Absolutely! (Generally, people who train themselves to feel less, do so because they used to be overwhelmed by their emotions before). But I'm going to risk a bit of a fallacy of the middle ground here, I think the better approach is to cut down the guilt to a manageable size and allow a bit of it anyway... If you don't feel the tiniest bit shitty about some stupid stunt you pulled, you're just less likely to remember not to do it again.

Of course it's usually more effective to work with positive emotions if possible. But simply not being an asshole usually doesn't create much emotion, people tend to take it for granted fairly quickly. As well they should, actually, I don't think we need to throw everyone a parade every time they choose not to act like an asshole. (Although I personally really think people should appreciate me more for my restraint. I could be so much worse!) So, alas, "not being that guy" sometimes has to be its own reward. Which only works if being that guy feels at least somewhat bad.
posted by sohalt at 2:26 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


When I used to do meditation retreats, we would spend three days just calming our minds, before even starting the real practice.

This sounds like heaven
posted by BlunderingArtist at 3:14 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Blame requires choice requires something less deterministic than neuron action potential in response to excitatory signals from other neurons. Which is the universe we live in
...
We do whatever it is we were always going to do and then make up a story about why we did it later.


It's simply not feasible to understand human behaviour on the basis of neuron action potentials and excitatory signals from other neurons except in an exceedingly vague and handwaving way. There are just too many neurons, whose state is too intricate and changes too quickly to measure precisely, for looking at brain activity on a neuronal level to be of any use in modelling and predicting the behaviour of any human that one is immediately confronted with.

In order to have any chance of succeeding at that, we need to build our models of what we and others are likely to do next out of much higher-level concepts, and blame and choice both belong to that repertoire along with will and desire and intent and planning and purpose. I think causality itself does as well, but that's probably a discussion for another place.

There's no point making up that story later unless it actually makes some kind of explanatory and/or predictive sense, and it can't do that if all it's about is neurons. A neuron-level account of what happens when some guy sticks up a bank is not going to be of any use whatsoever in understanding or preventing bank robberies.

The concept of blame, like choice or religion, has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with control and imposition of socially normative behavior.

That point is only coherent if one doesn't consider people and our socially normative behaviours to be parts of reality, which both pretty clearly are.
posted by flabdablet at 3:27 PM on April 17 [10 favorites]


This sounds like heaven

If you're going to do a retreat like that, train up beforehand in sitting still on a floor cushion for hours at a stretch.

If you can't already do that and your first serious attempt to train for it occurs in surroundings where you're feeling a certain amount of pressure not to distract your fellow occupants of the meditation hall, the conflict between the pull of not being in pain and the pull of not drawing attention by frequent wriggling about makes calming the mind harder than it would otherwise be.
posted by flabdablet at 3:42 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


so, not much wiggle room.
posted by clavdivs at 4:13 PM on April 17 [19 favorites]


There are just too many neurons, whose state is too intricate and changes too quickly to measure precisely, for looking at brain activity on a neuronal level to be of any use in modelling and predicting the behaviour of any human that one is immediately confronted with.

Fully agreed. I'm not sure why you seem to think this is a rebuttal to my point, rather than an additional supporting argument.

we need to build our models of what we and others are likely to do next out of much higher-level concepts

Okay, why?

and blame and choice both belong to that repertoire along with will and desire and intent and planning and purpose

Desire and intent fully exist both subjectively and objectively because neural networks self-modify - almost definitionally - to better map input to target output. Planning is only meaningful as an abstraction of behavior seen in very advanced networks - those with the capacity for generalized modeling with agents (tool users, basically). It exists, sure, but only as an emergent property of a lengthy process that has none of the subjective intent we experience.

But blame and choice don't mean anything when we have no control over our neuronal activity. No control over anything. We receive input, it goes through a lengthy series of exchanges, we emit output. At no point in any of that was the "I" in Identity anything but a passenger along for the ride. Nobody chooses anything. Free will is philosophically incoherent, and blame and choice in the Western tradition require it in order to have any meaning.

That point is only coherent if one doesn't consider people and our socially normative behaviours to be parts of reality, which both pretty clearly are.

You seem to be mistaking a key point in my prior comment: humans craft the story of how they arrived at a decision *after* making it. The narrative of our intentions is an afterthought, and is not the actual process behind making a decision. That actual process is something we don't get to see or affect (in keeping with your point that it's all too complex to forward-predict). I'm not sure how one could hold a person responsible for a process they have no insight into nor power over.
posted by Ryvar at 4:52 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Nobody chooses anything.

To the contrary, I just chose to write this response.
posted by Lyme Drop at 5:26 PM on April 17 [7 favorites]


I don’t blame you.
posted by Ryvar at 5:35 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]


That's your choice.
posted by Lyme Drop at 5:41 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]


I had intended to start my comment with "Sadly..." but that is not where I am at with the whole idea of being 'mindful' when this involves yet another level of disassociating yourself from life and the people who make up the society around you. Sitting around with your head up your ass reflecting on your navel being introspective is yet another form of self-indulgence which does little to nothing regarding where you are and how you are considered in a social construct. Nor is there any benefit for others.

While you were inside yourself smelling your own personal mental compost the effects of your (lack of) action can be counted as a net ZERO. Whoopee! You now feel 'better' and/or 'a nicer person'... or whatever. But this is a selfish act benefiting no-one else.

The separation of the action of introspection from 'religion' is core to the problem here. I am not a believer in any of the structured forms of religion and am so much of an atheist that I am not even agnostic. (Let's not get sidetracked by that comment please). My perception of religions is that they place you, the individual, as part of a whole where you are, or have a sense of belonging to, part of a larger social construct and follow the structures that this brings.

Causes of people 'failing' to be an individual connected to the rest of society are many. Some being; the advance of technology, the failings of education, the ready availability of lots of bright and shiny distractions, no or little religious uptake or belief, the failings of political representatives of all parties/all governments (regardless of political persuasion) to act in the best interests of society and the people in it, the disparity of economics and opportunity, greed, decline of family, celebrity... the list is long and is further enhanced by the presence of a pandemic and the renewed risk from there being nuclear weapons nosing out of their holes in the ground. People are selfish, scared, lonely, uncertain, insecure... and whatever other epithets you care to place on yourself and others. Pontificating and trying to find structure and reason is just so wrong.

'Prosocial guilt'. Seriously? That is the biggest crock of shit I have read in a long time. Let's all sit around and beat our chests in woeful sorrow at our failings! Really? What EXACTLY does that achieve? As a point of reference do a scroll back to 'Live Aid' both here and here (around the 1:55 mark). What has changed? The top five billionaires proportionally distributing their wealth around the world could/would/should be a good act and could/would/should solve many world problems. Or would it? Would it make you feel better? Would it solve anything?

Feeling bad at not doing something or feeling good that you did carry out an altruistic act is the wrong approach. Particularly when nothing changes because of how you feel.

The essence of what I am trying to say is that you can have grand ideas but they do not make for grand actions. Being part of what is around you by being present, being involved with what is around you, and 'living in the moment' is far more constructive. Simple acts like acknowledging someone. "Good morning" is a simple act, equally holding a door open and allowing another to pass through before you. Nothing altruistic or done through 'guilt' or 'shame' but because you can and do.

You have a life, get it, own it, give to it, take from it the knowledge that you are a part of it. Most of all belong to it and as a part of it rather than apart from it. Pay it forward and it will pay back. Be nice!
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 6:57 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


You should know that none of that had anything to do with mindfulness.
posted by bleep at 7:15 PM on April 17 [6 favorites]


While you were inside yourself smelling your own personal mental compost the effects of your (lack of) action can be counted as a net ZERO. Whoopee! You now feel 'better' and/or 'a nicer person'... or whatever. But this is a selfish act benefiting no-one else.
...
'Prosocial guilt'. Seriously? That is the biggest crock of shit I have read in a long time. Let's all sit around and beat our chests in woeful sorrow at our failings! Really? What EXACTLY does that achieve?


What do you call this school of thought?

Proctontology?
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:22 PM on April 17


I looked up the authors of this study, they look verified. But, are they Evangelical Christians? I have seen a large organized backlash to mindfulness and yoga, among Christians, some of it along the lines of claiming it is devil worship.

Guilt is one of the main control tools of religion, and if mindfulness brings guilt as a response, into focus, and reveals it to be the bullshit it is, then great! To a lot of people, feeling bad is enough, they don't do anything else. Then if they confess to a priest, they say some mantras, and they are forgiven, and not obliged to do anything else. In religion, guilt is subverted to control, and invasion of privacy. This study, is off.

Maybe once people become mindful, they do less harm, and experience less fear and anxiety, which is often the root cause of acting out harmfully.
posted by Oyéah at 8:37 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


posted by snuffleupagus

Proctontology?

Love it. I am sure there is a member of academia somewhere who is looking at dollar signs from the potentiality.
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 9:32 PM on April 17


...While you were inside yourself smelling your own personal mental compost

...Then if they confess to a priest, they say some mantras, and they are forgiven, and not obliged to do anything else. In religion, guilt is subverted to control, and invasion of privacy

Sigh. It's entirely possible to discuss this without such levels of ignorant scorn for the practices of mindful meditation which many clearly find valuable, or for the practices of several organized religions, which, ditto. They are a bit more sophisticated than that really... It's possible to be critical without shitting on them altogether...
posted by bitteschoen at 12:10 AM on April 18 [18 favorites]


blame and choice don't mean anything when we have no control over our neuronal activity. No control over anything. We receive input, it goes through a lengthy series of exchanges, we emit output. At no point in any of that was the "I" in Identity anything but a passenger along for the ride.

That's a position that can only be held, it seems to me, but somebody unwilling to subject the referent of the word "I" to close and unflinching scrutiny.

Nobody chooses anything. Free will is philosophically incoherent, and blame and choice in the Western tradition require it in order to have any meaning.

That's really no more than an argument by repeated assertion, and it doesn't address the point that the emergent unpredictability of any system that's too complex to model deterministically renders any such model moot, meaning that its deterministic nature becomes irrelevant.

Que será, será: there is only one future awaiting any of us amongst that endless forest of branching and brambled possibilities and in that sense, determinism is unavoidable. But while it remains the case that it is even in principle impossible to determine in advance, with zero possibility of error, exactly which of those possibilities will become real, determinism will remain a pretty but purely imaginary construct without practical consequences, an idea that cannot reasonably be employed as a refutation of will, or intent, or responsibility or justice or any of that.

Human behaviour is deterministic only in some "in-principle" sense, a sense inherited from the assumed, in-principle only applicability of a class of physical models that are themselves deterministic. I'm amused that it's not even feasible to give a neuron-level account of the referents for the words "human" or "behaviour" or "deterministic" that is in any way reliable or predictive or otherwise useful. It's also pretty funny that the model from physics that underpins all such allegedly in-principle-deterministic models is quantum field theory, which is itself explicitly not a deterministic theory and doesn't ever predict anything but probabilities.

Once we have a model with a reasonable track record for successful predictions about the behaviour of a modelled subsystem, it's that model's determinism or lack of it that justifies the degree to which the word "deterministic" applies to the subsystem itself. Modelling human behaviour using the ideas of will and desire and purpose and responsibility has that track record.

I agree that free will is an unhelpful idea, but only because the word "free" implies a lack of constraint on action that isn't seen anywhere in reality. Action is always and everywhere constrained by context. But "will" - a model of action whereby the system being modelled constructs its own internal model of a desirable outcome, then acts in ways compatible with reaching that outcome - is a useful concept, a member of a cluster of concepts that does successfully predict much of human behaviour.

humans craft the story of how they arrived at a decision *after* making it. The narrative of our intentions is an afterthought, and is not the actual process behind making a decision.

I take it you're basing that on the classic Libet, Gleason, Wright and Pearl paper from 1983, where the experience of intent to move a finger consistently got recorded many milliseconds after the motor cortex action potential that marked the start of the process of actually getting it moving.

Putting quibbles about the validity of that result aside, I can't see how it's reasonable to jump from there into a full scale denunciation of will as a moving part within a useful working model of human behaviour.

What that action potential result would support, if confirmed, is the idea that there exists no internal "self" that is in-principle separable from the whole person and yet remains causally (therefore also morally) responsible for all of the "outer" person's actions.

It would also support the proposition that there is a class of simple actions, such as finger movements, that frequently need to be performed faster than it's feasible to reason about or even remain consciously aware of them, and that the human body includes at least some structure dedicated to making that possible. This is a truth about being human that anybody who plays any kind of musical instrument or many kinds of sport will already be well aware of.

But showing that intent doesn't always micromanage action isn't enough to show that "intent" and "will" are words with no useful referents. It is enough to discredit any "internal homunculus" model for the relationship between a human's sense of self and their actual personal identity, and to suggest that motor action potentials and internal inquiries into one's own state probably happen in parallel, probably within different brain regions, and that the internal inquiries involve bigger, slower processing.

But will (in the sense of forming an intent and then acting to realize it) and responsibility and morality and justice and all of that cluster of concepts don't actually require there to be an internal homunculus in order to be applied to a human being. Just treating the whole person as the responsible agent works fine.

That actual process is something we don't get to see or affect (in keeping with your point that it's all too complex to forward-predict). I'm not sure how one could hold a person responsible for a process they have no insight into nor power over.

Again, this is to assert that an entirely in-principle and entirely assumed applicable physical model is more "actual" than a coarser-grained alternative with a much better track record of making successful predictions. Physics and philosophy types might be made uncomfortable by the fuzziness and slipperiness of that model's constituent parts but that is not, in my view, a good reason to abandon it. In fact I would be astonished to encounter such a person who genuinely has, regardless of how furiously they denounce its unsoundness.

It is indeed infeasible to forward-predict a person's behaviour in any but the most limited ways by measuring neuronal activity. But if you actually want to find out what somebody is about to do before they've done it, one way that often works really well is just to ask them.
posted by flabdablet at 2:24 AM on April 18 [19 favorites]


the whole idea of being 'mindful' when this involves yet another level of disassociating yourself from life and the people who make up the society around you

That's certainly not an idea of being mindful that I've ever found much use for. The mindfulness practices that I use are all about learning to recover smoothly and quickly from distractions away from what is happening right here right now, pretty much the polar opposite of dissociating from it.

I refuse to use the word "mindfulness" to apply to the raft of worthless Serenity Now! quick fixes available at low, low subscription prices from the usual commercial suspects. That's like using the word "hacking" to describe typing a whole URL into a browser address bar by hand. It might be what marketing and PR want the word to mean but that doesn't make it do so.
posted by flabdablet at 2:34 AM on April 18 [12 favorites]


That's like using the word "hacking" to describe typing a whole URL into a browser address bar by hand. It might be what marketing and PR want the word to mean but that doesn't make it do so.

This is a brilliant analogy, because hacking also doesn't mean what the PR guy thinks it does before he tried redefining it. Hacking is a thing that exists, and people get the word wrong in several different ways (or if you're more generous, it has several definitions with limited crossover). I see mindfulness meditation the same way. The term is misused so often, in so many ways, including by people who will angrily argue that that guy over there is misusing the term.
posted by Dysk at 2:56 AM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Planning is only meaningful as an abstraction of behavior seen in very advanced networks - those with the capacity for generalized modeling with agents (tool users, basically). It exists, sure, but only as an emergent property of a lengthy process that has none of the subjective intent we experience.

This assertion conflates several things. Mainly, it confuses the map for the territory. If what one is doing is modelling the behaviour of some structure that is is in principle explainable purely causally and deterministically, and what one encounters is emergent behaviour, then that very emergence requires its own explanation.

Without it, there can be no confidence in the idea that emergent behaviour of that same kind could not also arise within other systems that have quite different causal substructures.

Subjectivity can, I think, reasonably be characterized as emergent. But that doesn't make it in some way unreal, or make it unreasonable to employ behavioural system models that take subjectivity, and the intent and responsibility that come with it, as primary rather than the frothing of electrons. Which, again, is not even deterministic to begin with.
posted by flabdablet at 3:00 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


but somebody unwilling to subject the referent of the word "I" to close and unflinching scrutiny.

On the contrary it is precisely because I am subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny that I hold this position: “I” am a self-generating narrative and collection of states flagged as internal so that their (semantic modeling -> programming metaphor) containing struct is included in my recursive agent representation within any general purpose model I’m executing. Planning a tough conversation with my boss? I’m going to be including a copy of all my remotely relevant internal states in that model, and a hypothetical set for him based on the same template. Then ineptly forward-predict what I’ll say, how that will likely affect him, how he’ll reply, and how that will emotionally affect me, and what things I might say or do in response to achieve a favorable outcome.

But jumping back a bit: this self-generating narrative is a lie. The way our brains actually work is cumulative excitation until one neuron fires before the other has a chance. We decide first, then we laboriously invent a narrative cover story for how and why we reached the decision after the fact. This doesn’t directly apply to long, intensely preplanned multi-part decisions, but it does apply to all the constituent parts of those decisions, and the vast majority of our snap decisions.

So nothing is actually decided in the free will conceptual sense, because this is all rote neurochemistry (however insanely complicated and partially overlapping various unrelated semantic constructs) with a little quantum RNG sprinkled on top. To which: no, statistical noise is just noise, not the basis for a meaningful concept of self, unless your self-concept is a glorified pair of dice. No judgement from me if that’s your jam.

it is even in principle impossible to determine in advance, with zero possibility of error, exactly which of those possibilities will become real, determinism will remain a pretty but purely imaginary construct without practical consequences, an idea that cannot reasonably be employed as a refutation of will, or intent, or responsibility or justice or any of that

The “without practical consequence” is where your argument falls apart. The practical consequence of deterministic consciousness is the annihilation of meaningful choice, because it firmly removes identity from the driver’s seat and relegates our subjective experience of deciding to a useful - even essential - delusion.

We are entirely victims of our circumstances, right down to the atomic level. We live this story, but we are not our author. Whether you believe an author even exists at all is a matter of religion (or the absence thereof) because we cannot possibly know.

But "will" - a model of action whereby the system being modelled constructs its own internal model of a desirable outcome, then acts in ways compatible with reaching that outcome

Perhaps you, like some kind of Nietzchean ubermensch, have perfect will and thus always execute the outcome of your models, but I confess I do not. In fact I’d estimate half the time at best. Example: it’s 5AM on Sunday and I’m interrupting an all-nighter for work due tomorrow so I can debate freshman cognitive science on Metafilter. Procrastination springs eternal.

What I know to be the right choice and what I actually do are frequently decoupled. What I feel and what I ought to feel are frequently decoupled.

the classic Libet, Gleason, Wright and Pearl paper from 1983,

That’s where it began, sure, but by the late 90s typical cog sci undergrad coursework had generalized the principle more than somewhat, to put it mildly. Presumably further studies ensued or it wouldn’t have been such a cornerstone. Personally I was pretty preoccupied with “so what’s next?” between rounds of sulking after getting chewed out by the top-down logicians still running the joint during the final years of the AI winter.

What that action potential result would support, if confirmed, is the idea that there exists no internal "self" that is in-principle separable from the whole person and yet remains causally (therefore also morally) responsible for all of the "outer" person's actions.

That is my overarching point, yes: choice, and decision-making are illusions. From that: responsibility is a derivative conceit and the whole of Western jurisprudence borne of Descartes’ mind-body dualism is a vast, multi-century karmic holocaust. Possibly those illusions are absolutely necessary ones for the recursive agent modeling that comes packaged with our consciousness, but we’d need a few functional examples of non-human consciousness (alien, synthetic, whatever) to know for sure.

It would also support the proposition that there is a class of simple actions, such as finger movements, that frequently need to be performed faster than it's feasible to reason about or even remain consciously aware of them, and that the human body includes at least some structure dedicated to making that possible.

Self-optimization where dead branches are pruned and frequently used activation paths become deeply embedded features in the local neurotopology are essential for persistent runtime adaptive systems, biological or otherwise. There’s nothing mysterious here and it’s also beside the point. Neural networks inevitably encode heuristics, and given the capacity for self-pruning over time (backpropagation in ANNs) will grow in ways that produce equivalent results more efficiently. In biological networks this is implemented via the slow unwinding of all dendritic connections subjected to the low-level background neurochemical noise of a central nervous system. We subjectively experience this as the loss of memories and skills over time. It’s not perfect, though: activation of neighbors within the neural substrate can cause erroneous reinforcement within the semantic substrate. There being no 1:1 correlation between the neural and the semantic topologies, sometimes a lot of fairly tangential or just very foundational (read: early) associations get carried along with whatever you’re obsessing over. I’ll never forget my third birthday because it was my first attempt to knowingly defy my parents - I remember nothing of the next six birthdays.

Again, this is to assert that an entirely in-principle and entirely assumed applicable physical model is more "actual" than a coarser-grained alternative with a much better track record of making successful predictions.

Again I do not understand your obsession with prediction. Whether we can forward-predict the model’s output is entirely orthogonal to my point. My point is that our subjective, narrative-driven self is just a passenger along for the ride, and thus our society’s obsession with categorizing individuals as inherently evil (as a prelude to every form of mistreatment ranging from casual bigotry to Abu Ghraib) is barbarism of the worst sort. All justice systems not exclusively pursuing reformation are profoundly sadistic. Wrapping this all the way back to the beginning of this subthread - the concept of blame is a farce at best, and a rationalization of systemic exploitation at worst.
posted by Ryvar at 4:49 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


I work in public schools in the US and teaching those m̶o̶n̶s̶t̶e̶r̶s̶ delightful cherubs mindfulness has been a blessing. I use a particular program called Mindful Schools and it's been really effective in having young kids learn about self-awareness and self-control.

Seeing a 5 year old stop themselves from getting punchy and do some basic breathing to reconnect and calm down is pretty cool. Kids learning to hear their own internal cues and adjust accordingly seems to serve them pretty well.

We want to raise kids who can make their own informed choices, not kids who have learned to adapt to top-down control-based adult cues.

Teaching kids mindfulness has been extraordinarily helpful with boys who have ADHD. These are the kids who are disproportionately punished more than any other demographic, and they get kicked out of classrooms at an alarming rate.

In my work with them, we sit, we close our eyes, we do a body scan, and then we can figure out why math sucks or whatever.

For kids, mindfulness gives them a tool that they control that allows them to figure their own sh*t out.
posted by Sweetie Darling Sweetie Darling at 5:35 AM on April 18 [21 favorites]


IndelibleUnderpants: 'Prosocial guilt'. Seriously? That is the biggest crock of shit I have read in a long time. Let's all sit around and beat our chests in woeful sorrow at our failings! Really? What EXACTLY does that achieve?

As I read it: You do something shitty to someone. You feel bad about it. You do something to make up for the shitty thing you did and repair the relationship.

That's prosocial guilt as a motivation for reparative action. It's a negative feeling that's letting you know about something positive you could do.
posted by clawsoon at 6:39 AM on April 18 [7 favorites]


My point is that our subjective, narrative-driven self is just a passenger along for the ride, and thus our society’s obsession with categorizing individuals as inherently evil (as a prelude to every form of mistreatment ranging from casual bigotry to Abu Ghraib) is barbarism of the worst sort.

I think "barbarism" is a fairly meaningless term outside of the context of a "subjective, narrative-driven self". I haven't met any barbaric electrons to the best of my knowledge. I also think the reasoning above depends on acknowledging that this self is far from being a passive passenger. This is the problem with rejecting that model wholesale, and relates to the overall point I think flabdablet is making: even if it is true that we can account for all mental content in a deterministic or probabilistic physical manner*, this account is useless in most practical contexts, fundamentally because it lacks predictive power. We can't currently give a useful account of someone's behaviour in these terms, and it is likely that we never will be able to. And we need a useful account in order to have any meaningful theory of mind. Actual interpersonal reasoning is dependent entirely on the subject and narrative driven models which are already adapted to the purpose. And, as a result, those models drive what actually happens in the physical world.

This doesn't prove the existence of some Cartesian free-willed subject, but it does mean that the relevance and definition of "will" are far more complex than a reductively physical account can allow for. It reminds me of what Chesterton has his hero say in The Club of Queer Trades: "'Bosh,' he said, 'On what else is the whole world run but immediate impressions? What is more practical? My friend, the philosophy of this world may be founded on facts, but its business is run on spiritual impressions and atmospheres.'".

As a point of inexact comparison: heliocentrism is a better theory than geocentrism in most cases where such a theory is needed, not because it's "truer" (which body moves is entirely dependent on frame of reference) but because it is a clear and applicable framework for thought and action. All accounts are abstractions of some kind, and we have to select the appropriate abstractions for the task in hand.

* Something I think most people would be willing to grant in some way, although not without caveats in many cases.
posted by howfar at 7:10 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


Um, Sweetie Darling Sweetie Darling, are you giving your kids a chance to opt out of the mindfulness program? Because for some people, (myself included) minfulness is a nightmare. If a person has experienced trauma, mindfulness practices can cause them to resurface; some people experience overwhelming anxiety when doing these exercises. And there's a ton of pressure in a classroom setting to not bring attention to yourself and upset an activity that other kids are enjoying.

Mindfulness does not work for everyone, and can be damaging to some people. Please keep that in mind when rolling it out to groups who don't have much of a choice in the matter.

Is mindfulness safe? [University of Oxford Mindfulness Center]
Descriptions are emerging of problems brought on by mindfulness practice, including panic, depression, and anxiety. In some more extreme cases, mania and psychotic symptoms have been reported. These problems seem to be rare, but nonetheless significant, and require further investigation and guidance.
Doing no harm in mindfulness-based programs: Conceptual issues and empirical findings

Defining and Measuring Meditation-Related Adverse Effects in Mindfulness-Based Programs

Please make sure your students have the ability to opt out of the mindfulness program, and can do so quietly and privately. Being pressured to continue doing mindfulness meditation when it's not working for you can be an awful, excruciating experience, and you may have students who are suffering.
posted by MrVisible at 7:16 AM on April 18 [5 favorites]


That is my overarching point, yes: choice, and decision-making are illusions.

Yes, you've been clear about that. I think I understand your point. I also think it's wrong.

The practical consequence of deterministic consciousness is the annihilation of meaningful choice, because it firmly removes identity from the driver’s seat

Not given a non-illusory, testable, workable notion of identity, as opposed to a Just So story about self-generating narratives and collections of states.

In my view it's not the choice and decision-making that are illusions. Those are things that demonstrably happen. I can and do decide to do things and then do them. For example, I have decided that as soon as I've finished dealing with somebody being Wrong On The Internet I'll spend the next few hours having a shower and then cooking a lasagne and I'm quite confident that both of these things will in fact soon happen.

What I think is illusory is that one's self-model is oneself; that the word "I" is best employed in a sense that's self-referential to the extent of excluding everything from its referent other than its own raw existence as an action of self-recognition. But to my way of thinking that's a self-definition that's been over-specified to the point of uselessness, one that time spent performing mindfulness practice can clearly reveal as such.

I take the position that "I" refers to a quasi-persistent physical structure with somewhat arbitrary boundaries, a structure capable of behaviour (including modelling itself and its own context) dominated by feedbacks intricate enough to render their explanation quite inaccessible if attempted via the same kinds of models we would use to engineer e.g. a transistor or a bar of steel.

My self-model could reasonably be described as a self-generating narrative and collection of states, but the thing that it models is what is me - that which is, to me, the referent of "I". It's that identity - my whole self, all the brain and muscle and sinew and gut and skin of it - to which I attribute intent and will and agency and all the rest. Not to the self-model per se, even though that undoubtedly plays some role in formulating options to choose between.

Claiming that action "actually" precedes choice requires being able to specify what those things are, and where we go to look for them. All that the action-potential experiment did was demonstrate that the activity we perform that we generally describe as the experience of choice can happen some time after a choice has actually been made. From which it follows that the system making the choice is not identical to the system that experiences it; the latter is, I think, best classified as an ongoing behaviour of the former.

Given that understanding, I can reasonably analyze much of what I do as the making of choices and the exercise of intent. I would not have any hope of figuring out what I was likely to do next if restricted to using only analytical and conceptual tools best applied to transistors or steel. Conceptual horses for conceptual courses.

My point is that our subjective, narrative-driven self is just a passenger along for the ride, and thus our society’s obsession with categorizing individuals as inherently evil (as a prelude to every form of mistreatment ranging from casual bigotry to Abu Ghraib) is barbarism of the worst sort.

The second part doesn't follow from the first. If an individual consistently performs actions that damage both themselves and others, then classifying that individual as evil and/or stupid is usefully predictive about how future interactions with them will go, the likely consequences of putting them in a position of power and so forth. And we don't even use another individual's subjective, narrative-driven self-model in order to do that classification because none of us has access to it, so whether or not that model is just "a passenger along for the ride" has nothing to do with whether or not it's reasonable to think of an evil person as such.

In fact it seems to me that the idea that the subjective, narrative-driven self is no more than "a passenger along for the ride" is a gross oversimplification of the way that such a self-model should be expected to function within the web of feedback loops that dominate the behaviour of any system as complex as a person. Dominate it, furthermore, to the extent that chaos and emergence make obtaining any coherent account of whole-system behaviour permanently inaccessible to methods that rely purely on the kinds of reductive analysis that lend apparent respectability to Just So assertions about choice being illusory.

People can and do think about what to do and choose between options. We do it all the time. And I have very little respect for the kind of strict determinism that throws up its hands and says "well actually, my choices are all being made for me by my electrons right now, sorry, nothing I can do about any of this, Computer Says No." From my non-determinist, choice-based, perception-based, systems modelling point of view of how people work, that just looks like wilful ethical ignorance.

If that feels a bit attacky, have your electrons call my electrons so we can sit down over beers and work it through.
posted by flabdablet at 7:26 AM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Just a quick drop in to thank you Clawsoon for the post!
I'm a fan of mindfulness and meditation and definitely appreciate the reminder of being careful how it's used. To me it's a powerful tool, but like Stewart Brand said, you don't really know how to use a tool until you know how it can be abused.

This reminds me of the sad case of Pema Chodron, one of the leading advocates of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, who also sadly enabled her mentor, Trungpa Rinpoche to prey on their followers.

Meditation and mindfulness is often described as "acceptance". Acceptance is not resignation, acceptance is not abidication, acceptance is above all not your moral compass, your compassion, your ethics. If any of the latter are askew, mindfulness is a dark road.
posted by storybored at 7:53 AM on April 18 [10 favorites]


Meditation and mindfulness is often described as "acceptance". Acceptance is not resignation, acceptance is not abidication, acceptance is above all not your moral compass, your compassion, your ethics. If any of the latter are askew, mindfulness is a dark road.

I came to say this. Meditation can help people be less driven by their negative emotions, but that's not a panacea. The mainstreaming/commercialization of meditation and mindfulness has encouraged a very oversimplified approach that leads some people to think of it as a quick fix for everything that might be wrong with the world, and to be disappointed when that turns out not to be the case. Evil people who meditate are still evil people.

That said, I am curious about the kinds of situations that led the original researcher in the article to think that mindfulness had made him respond to something in a way that was less "prosocial." I can think of very few situations outside need to react to an absolute emergency, that do not benefit from awareness of how your own thoughts or emotions might be getting in the way of dealing with what's really there. In my case, my meditation practice has helped my situational awareness and that has enhanced my ability to react properly in emergencies.

I can think of many cases, though, where mindfulness has stopped me from responding the way I've been socially conditioned to. For examples: when I haven't gotten hooked into doing emotional labour for somebody else, or felt guilty about not automatically putting their needs before my own, or bought the expensive something to avoid disappointing the salesperson and make myself look better to my peers, or jumped on something my boss told me to do out of fear, rather than thinking about it and realizing that the request was inappropriate. I also see it at work when I stop myself from thinking that my views or needs are less important than somebody else's because I have been told that the other person has a higher status. In some of these cases, those who would have benefited from my unquestioned reactions might have experienced a loss, but does that make it a bad thing?

Mindfulness can lead to awareness of our social programming, which can lead to social change, which means that those who benefit from the status quo can lose out. I can't help but view some of the increased criticisms these days through that lens.
posted by rpfields at 9:49 AM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Um, Sweetie Darling Sweetie Darling, are you giving your kids a chance to opt out of the mindfulness program?

Absolutely. There's a home-based educational component that we share to get permission first, but I will note that these are Vermont public schools and we do things differently here.

Having said that, I want to point out that your links all note that there are little studies regarding the potential harm of mindfulness practice; none of them have found studies to indicate they cause harm. There are studies that indicate teaching children mindfulness reduces stress and lengthens attention spans.

I can tell you for certain that there are many, many studies that indicate top-down adult-driven discipline models cause extreme damage to children, also now known as the school to prison pipeline.
posted by Sweetie Darling Sweetie Darling at 10:02 AM on April 18 [11 favorites]


Having said that, I want to point out that your links all note that there are little studies regarding the potential harm of mindfulness practice; none of them have found studies to indicate they cause harm.

From the Adverse events in meditation practices and meditation-based therapies: a systematic review link:
Results

Of the 83 studies analysed, 55 (65%) included reports of at least one type of MAE. The total prevalence of adverse events was 8.3% (95% CI 0.05–0.12), though this varied considerably across types of studies – 3.7% (95% CI 0.02–0.05) for experimental and 33.2% (95% CI 0.25–0.41) for observational studies. The most common AEs were anxiety (33%, 18), depression (27%, 15) and cognitive anomalies (25%, 14); gastrointestinal problems and suicidal behaviours (both 11%, 6) were the least frequent.

Conclusion

We found that the occurrence of AEs during or after meditation practices is not uncommon, and may occur in individuals with no previous history of mental health problems. These results are relevant both for practitioners and clinicians, and contribute to a balanced perspective of meditation as a practice that may lead to both positive and negative outcomes.
MAE stands for Meditation Adverse Events.

I agree that more study is needed, as all these papers point out. But there's enough evidence out there to conclude that some people don't react as well to mindfulness as others, and for some it can be harmful.
posted by MrVisible at 10:11 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


But, as has been noted, we have excellent evidence that much traditional pedagogy is profoundly harmful to a wide range of students, and yet it would be, at the very least, somewhat gauche to give every school teacher tips on the ethical discharge of their professional duties.
posted by howfar at 10:27 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]


Wait... so I'm being scolded for bringing up criticisms of mindfulness in a thread that's specifically about being critical of mindfulness?

I mean, this being Metafilter I was bound to be scolded for something today, but wow, that's just... I don't know what that is.
posted by MrVisible at 10:43 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


It's a thread about a biased study about something we don't have a perfect scientific understanding of what it is, what it does, or how to scale the teaching of it. It's a difficult thing to even talk about when everyone is working from their own personal understanding of those things. We're talking about something people used to dedicate their lives to mastering that's now being compressed into a minimal viable product. It's like critizing a movie you're watching that was recorded from tv on a reusable vhs 40 years ago for being hard to watch. Is that the movie's fault?
posted by bleep at 11:46 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]


The less and less we identify with our ego-mind function (through mindfulness and other awareness based meditation exercises), the more free and uninhibited we feel. Indeed, social guilt and self-shame inhibit a HUGE amount of shitty behaviors. This is exactly why the first teachings of the Buddha, Lamrim/ first turning of the wheel, is all about karma, compassion, right thought / right speech / right action.

PS. Dan P Brown mentioned above is phenomenal and his L1 meditation retreat changed my life. He’s truly the real deal in taking Tibetan buddhist teachings, maintaining their authenticity while adapting for us confused westerners. His instructions was a tesseract in my practice.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:57 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


I haven't met any barbaric electrons to the best of my knowledge

::quickly changes band name::
posted by Foosnark at 12:18 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


Another thing I feel the need to say is that if the studies are saying the way we're teaching mindfulness is causing measurable adverse events, then we should figure out if it can taught be taught en masse in a way that is safe. Just throwing it away though, I dunno, like, why.
posted by bleep at 12:29 PM on April 18


I mean, every time an article comes out about mindfulness people pile on because they tried it and it brought up repressed content / past trauma and so fuck mindfulness, amirite? As though the purpose of deep meditation is to Just Feel Good and Not One Thing Else. Meditation was never about feeling good, that’s a side effect sometimes but not the goal. Look, if you want to only feel good go do drugs. If you sit quietly and stop distracting yourself, shit is going to come up at some point, because that’s what’s in your mind, consciously or not. If too much stuff comes up either seek therapy or find a Real meditation coach who can pace you through this stuff. Blaming mindfulness is like blaming the shovel because you started digging in your back yard and you found a rock.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:14 PM on April 18 [14 favorites]


Every time mindfulness comes up, people who've had trouble with it in the past bring it up, because it's hard to get people to believe that it causes problems for some of us. So I bring the data, the links, the studies, and I warn that in cases like, say, a classroom with 30 people in it, one or two of them have good odds of having an adverse reaction. If you're not taking that into account when you're teaching mindfulness, then you're putting your students at risk.

And every time I bring up any objection to mindfulness, and I warn people that it doesn't work for some, I get piled on by people who think that I'm attacking their philosophy. I don't care if you meditate, you masticate, or you levitate in the privacy of your own home, but when you're suggesting something to other people as a psychological/spiritual solution, paying attention to the contraindications is vital.

Antibiotics are awesome, but they're really dangerous if you have allergies to them. I wouldn't suggest getting rid of antibiotics, but the rigorous labeling and doctor checks before prescribing them seem prudent. I'm not suggesting that we get rid of any sort of meditation either, but people who teach it need to be aware that for some people, it really, really sucks.

If meditation is supposed to make one more compassionate, I'd have thought there wouldn't be much of a problem with that, but hey. Here we are.
posted by MrVisible at 1:34 PM on April 18 [8 favorites]


The root of the problem is that it HAS been pitched as a "solution" which was always inappropriate and inaccurate. It's just a tool.
posted by bleep at 1:50 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]




I do not understand your obsession with prediction.

I wouldn't say I have an obsession with prediction, merely a view that being good at it is most likely what yields enough of a survival advantage to pay back the amount of biological resources that animals with brains need to devote to their construction and maintenance.

In more teleological terms, prediction as a basis for rapid environmental adaptability is the reason we even have brains; the making of world models successfully predictive enough to keep us functional in a wide variety of environments is the main thing that they're for.
posted by flabdablet at 2:40 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


every time I bring up any objection to mindfulness

No. You were being a bit rude by seeming to explain to someone how to do their job ethically. That's it. It's not about mindfulness, it's about consideration.
posted by howfar at 5:16 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


Well, consider me scolded.
posted by MrVisible at 5:23 PM on April 18


It's perfectly understandable that we sometimes express ourselves less than ideally when trying to talk about complex and emotive things in a rather clunky, low-bandwidth medium. I don't want to scold anyone. Buy if no one ever points out when things go wrong, it's harder to get it right in the long run.
posted by howfar at 5:31 PM on April 18


I warn that in cases like, say, a classroom with 30 people in it, one or two of them have good odds of having an adverse reaction.

It's possible to make your point without overstating your case. I would be interested in seeing any data you have about the adverse effects of teaching mindfulness to children. Truly, if you can share that, I would appreciate it.

Educators work incredibly hard to ensure we are using evidence-based practices and studies indicate that school-based mindfulness programs show promising impacts on students’ mindfulness and self-regulation skills, reductions in feelings of anxiety and depression, and improvements in physical health and relationships with others.

I also want to point out that you mention mindfulness and meditation as though they are the same things. They are not, and I do not teach meditation. Mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention and noticing and being present in whatever you’re doing. When you are being actively mindful, you are noticing the world around you, as well as your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, movements, and effects you have on others around you.

We teach kids to pay attention to the world around them and in that space, they can make personal choices that better affect their ability to navigate life.

Educators are always looking for ways to help students, and I am interested in data-driven practices, especially as we are now supporting the most traumatized generation in American history. Again, if you can share any studies that show mindfulness is bad for children, I'd be interested in seeing those.
posted by Sweetie Darling Sweetie Darling at 4:26 AM on April 19 [6 favorites]


All I'm asking you to do is make sure your students have a chance to quietly opt out of the mindfulness stuff quietly and privately. Because traumatized people have problems with meditation. No matter what age they are. Please read the thread linked by Halloween Jack above; you really need to get an idea of how horrible this can be for some people.

If you've got a traumatized kid in your class, there's a good chance the mindfulness stuff is causing them to suffer. There are tons of studies right now praising mindfulness, but no specific studies on whether mindfulness has adverse side effects, which I'd be very interested to see as well. But the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence; can you tell me why a percentage of adults is consistently shown by studies to be negatively affected by mindfulness practices, but children would always get good results?

Please think about the students in your classes who are already struggling with anxiety, depression, or trauma; some of them might be seriously miserable in your chosen curriculum. Give them a chance to tell you if they are.
posted by MrVisible at 6:40 AM on April 19


Capitalism gonna capitalize. Mindfulness meditation lets you optimize your mind by reducing negative emotions. Feeling bad feels bad. A negative emotion must be something that needs to be optimized, therefore let's find a way to get rid of it. Let's hire a mindfulness consultant to help our employees feel less negative feelings. That way they will get less distracted by ethical questions and just put their heads down and do the grunt work we need them to do.

Any tool can be used ethically or non-ethically, it mostly depends on the person using it. If the person using it is a tech bro working at Facebook and wanting to stop feeling guilty about the negative impacts of his company on the world at large, then yes, mindfulness meditation will probably help. Seems like the age-old conundrum that we all face between acting in self-interest versus acting for the common good. it would be awesome if all the tech bros could practice lovingkindness meditation and the anxious, insecure women and minorities practice mindfulness meditation to try and balance the ethical scales.

I would completely agree that feeling negative emotions can make you a better person if you act on them. Even things like anxiety are sometimes an indication of an action that needs to be taken, a boundary that has been crossed, or an inner instinct that should be listened to. Whoever is looking for a solution to an inner problem needs to evaluate whether the negative emotion is actually legitimate. But not all of them are, which is what is so confusing. You really need to know a person deeply in order to determine that. Which is something I have found therapists don't always try to figure out, but I think these types of studies might help introduce the ethical element into helping people - who deserves more empathy and who doesn't? It sounds brutish to put it that way, but it would be great if there was a scale that determines who sucks more energy out of the world with their selfishness, versus who adds more energy with their generosity, versus who is just in a situation of suffering and actually needs help. It would be a nice world where all the resources that go into helping others are directed specifically towards those who need the help first. We have seen that in reality when it came to COVID policies and I think we all became a bit of a better person because of it.
posted by winterportage at 10:01 AM on April 19


Mindfulness meditation lets you optimize your mind by reducing negative emotions.

I would tweak this to say, it reduces your reactivity to the negative emotions. Which is almost the same thing as reducing negative emotions but entirely different from it at the same time. You gain inner spaciousness and presence so that the bad feelings just bloom and crest off; there’s much less anger about being angry or shame about feeling resentful or whatever. This is what Buddhists mean when they speak of purification, it’s in a way removing the associations (“conditioned mind”) we have until the mind is at peace no matter the momentary content. It’s a deeper level of being aware of being angry, it is being the screen upon which anger plays out.

Like Shinzen Young’s famous quote, he has said he is sometimes at one with everything, and sometimes his mind is busy with a to-do list, but that after 20 years he has no preference.

(Shinzen is a fabulous teacher, check him out!)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:22 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Mindfulness meditation lets you optimize your mind by reducing negative emotions.

Hasn't done that in my experience. What it certainly has done, for me, is helped me deal with living through several life stages many months long, during which pretty much every emotion experienced was negative, in a manner that didn't also involve needing to manage a constant battle against detailed, intricately plotted and carefully non-disclosed suicidal ideation. Having earlier had to manage just such a battle for a much shorter period, I can confidently assert that mindfulness techniques are a large part of the reason I'm still here now writing this.

But people carrying the scars of childhood trauma, which is probably many more people than most people would credit, need to be careful with any kind of outlook modification process. Homegrown coping methods are absolutely the norm following trauma, mindfulness training can threaten protective habits that traumatized people frequently employ to reduce the extent to which flashbacks dominate their existence, and contemplative/meditative approaches toward mindfulness do seem more likely to threaten those habits than simple reminders or exhortations to pay attention to being here now.

So I absolutely agree that everybody, schoolchild or no, needs to have the right to remove themselves easily and without stigma from any training program that isn't working for them, and that school administrators would be well advised to make competent post-trauma support readily available to any student who needs it, mindfulness-triggered or no. And I can't see how anybody with any level of educational competence could possibly disagree with that.

I also think that anybody professionally employed in education should, as a matter of common courtesy, be publicly given the benefit of any doubt that they might not be across this stuff unless and until it becomes clearly apparent that in fact they are not across this stuff.

I see no evidence at all that any of the education-sector contributors to this thread are not across this stuff.
posted by flabdablet at 11:44 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


If the person using it is a tech bro working at Facebook and wanting to stop feeling guilty about the negative impacts of his company on the world at large, then yes, mindfulness meditation will probably help.

Having met many tech bros, many meditators, and a handful of tech bro meditators, it's been my experience that the tech bro meditators are the kind of tech bro least likely to remain supportive of fuckery like that routinely perpetrated by Facebook.

Mindfulness about one's work with Facebook, it seems to me, would be far more likely to result in an increase in unease with remaining a cog in a corporate machine whose ethical deficiencies are notorious and glaring than a decrease. It might well reduce guilt, but the way it would do that is by decreasing the likelihood of continuing to act in ways that legitimately provoke it. And it would do that by increasing the clarity with which the tech bro in question was able to see their own work, and increasing the confidence required to be able to act appropriately as a result.
posted by flabdablet at 11:57 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


I would say where mindfulness had a dark side for me, is when I started feeling majorly relieved from shame and internal reaction to emotions. So, not feeling ashamed about being angry, I felt free to be angry and this was incredibly liberating in an unconflicted, integrated kind of way. But that also came with a reduced barrier to expressing this anger, especially if I’m not in Presence but just regular old ego identification. There was definitely a transition period where I was Just Being Myself but Myself was often myself, a stubborn person tired of standing down all the time and liberated from shame of consequences / blowback / other peoples hurt or angry reactions (because my reaction to their pain had entirely transformed; felt no guilt but had not yet dialed up empathy and wisdom). This is a very common point along the path btw. Like a second adolescence. To the extreme is the “crazy wisdom” nonsense of abusive Yogis Gone Wild.

Then, with more mindfulness and mental purification (deconditioning your responses) as well as heart meditations (Brahma viharas as they are called) this reduced. And I could be Love and Anger and make such a better choice.* this does not mean people are always happy with my actions! But they are more aligned and from the heart, and importantly open to feedback as to how effective they are so they can continue to be tuned.

* still a work in progress I am human after all
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:26 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


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