Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko

Shifting the perspective of sceptical minds

Convincing people from all walks of society to adopt mindfulness requires evidence

To some in the science community, practising mindfulness remains some trendy nonsense or useless hippy stuff. But the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway is taking it very seriously. Indeed, the University is organising the Mindful Way conference, between 9th and 10th October 2015, to explore how best to bring the practice of mindfulness to higher education. The expectation is that mindfulness can contribute to improving overall performance of those attending the university or working there. “There are two things: either you live in a state with a mind full or you are mindful,” says Lokesh, Joshi, Vice-President of Research at NUI Galway, who initiated this conference.

Mindfulness is defined as the practice of being aware of the present moment. It is credited with helping people develop mental clarity, greater focus, a greater sense of connection with others and to cultivate their well-being—be it on a personal and professional level. Stemming from Buddhist tradition, it has grown increasingly popular in Western countries by the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus in medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme.


Convincing evidence

So what did it take to convince NUI Galway’s senior management to bring mindfulness to academics and students alike?

Joshi, first, pointed to mounting evidence-base related to the benefits of mindfulness—which remains, however, work in progress. Areas of research—often limited by the sample size of study participants—include studies on the effect of mindfulness, on the impact of our thoughts on brain and neuronal plasticity as well as well-being, and on the impact at biomolecular level, of stress on human bodies.

More importantly, Joshi firmly believes mindfulness can play a role in setting people up for life. As such, it fits in well with what is sees as being the fundamental educational role of the university. His view resonated with those of university leaders, who are acutely aware that current pressure imposed on students and scientists alike is not sustainable.

They know that the stress associated with the bean counting culture is not conducive to good performance. And the threat of mental illness is looming as WHO data shows, among others, that depression is due to become the biggest health burden by 2030. In addition to standard performance metrics, Joshi believes, there is therefore a need for greater recognition of the use of softer metrics like wellness indices.

To achieve greater level of wellness, mindfulness can help bring a better balance to people’s lives. It can act as a catalyst for grounding people and enabling them to manage their reaction to stress. And it can help them function more effectively and in a more sustainable way. For example, by becoming less stressed, mindfulness practitioners are able to switch sooner into problem-solving mode when they encounter a difficulty.

Wider adoption

Adopting mindfulness as a practice is not limited to the university sphere, however. This is demonstrated by the broad array of speakers present at the Galway event. These range from the tech industry such as Google and the military forces, a representative of the UK parliament, entrepreneurs and members of the investment community. Despite the diversity of their background, all have one thing in common: they had to convince decision makers in their organisation of the well-founded nature of such an activity.

So how are people convinced about adopting mindfulness? “The best way to encourage decision makers to accept mindfulness, is to spend time explaining the theory and psychology behind it, and to inform them clearly about how it works,” explains Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist Monk based at the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, UK, taking part of the conference. He teaches Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness internationally to organisations such as the UK’s National Health Service, tech giant Google, as well as several law firms and some supermarket chain. He adds: “They are also persuaded when they hear about the evidence arising from the extensive scientific research, which has been done in recent years.”

Flagging potential benefits also helps to convince decision makers. “In my experience, it is not difficult to get decision and policy makers to engage in a meaningful conversation about mindfulness,” says social psychologist Jutta Tobias, an expert in organisational development, who is currently lecturer at Cranfield University School of Management, UK. This is the case, “especially if the discussion stretches beyond issues that focus on well-being alone, for example, by including cognition, executive functioning, and productivity factors,” adds Tobias, who is a speaker at the conference. She recently proposed the creation of a ministry for mindfulness in the UK.

Tackling misconception

Despite all the available evidence, human nature is such that, often, there is still remnant of resistance in people’s mind against the unknown. For example, one of the key areas of scepticism towards mindfulness include the fear that it might be something religious, according to Thubten.

Others worry that people get too relaxed and therefore less efficient; a myth easy to debunk. Indeed, Thubten explains, “the kind of relaxation developed through mindfulness is something dynamic and precise, not a kind of spaced out, switched off state.” Another common misconception is that mindfulness and meditation are about stopping thinking. “They think one has to clear the mind, or blank out the thoughts,” points out Thubten, “This is not true and actually leads to more tension.”

The case of mindfulness, shows that adopting a policy to adopt its practice in an organisation may require suitable evidence and tackling myths. In reality mindfulness practice can take many guises. In her work, for example, Tobias presents mindfulness trainings as primarily behaviour change initiatives in organisations.

By contrast, others have been practicing mindfulness all along without necessarily naming it as such. “Throughout my Military life I have always attempted to focus on the ‘now’,” points out conference participant Lieutenant Colonel Ray Lane, who is Commanding Officer at the Irish Defence Force Ordnance School, at Curragh Camp,Co Kildare, “I am very much influenced by understanding and analysing human behaviour patterns. This is a form of mindfulness that I have used and developed over many years.”

Regardless of which way mindfulness is presented, much convincing is required before people start adopting it. No matter what, the ultimate test is for sceptics to try it for themselves!

Featured image credit: Evgeny Atamanenko via Shutterstock


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Sabine Louët

Former editor at EuroScientist
Sabine has a passion for all things related to European research. A physicist by training, she has been covering stories in life science, the physical sciences, technology, policy and innovation for the past 20 years. She was previously the news editor at Nature Biotechnology. She was also involved in the creation of AlphaGalileo. She is the Founder of SciencePOD translating complex science and tech concepts into high-quality articles written in simple language.
Sabine Louët

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2 thoughts on “Shifting the perspective of sceptical minds”

  1. “No matter what, the ultimate test is for sceptics to try it for themselves!”

    Well, no. The ultimate test would be properly designed trials. This article above only references anecdotal evidence, so I’m afraid this sceptic remains a sceptic.

  2. If you are stressed I would highly recommend everybody learn how to meditate because ever since I have started I have never been happier. I have improved my life drastically. I have an overall sense of peace with myself and the world. My stress levels have gone to an all time low and It even helps me with my anxiety and panic attacks.

    If you want to learn how to meditate I suggest you read this story.

    http://anxiousreview.com/learnmeditation/