Are you sick of hearing about mindfulness, yet?
Over the past several years, business icons, celebrities, athletes, influencers, and bloggers of all varieties have been hailing mindfulness as the cure-all for just about any mental anomaly — from anxiety and depression to drug dependency and pain alleviation. Mindfulness is being used by Fortune 500 companies, government organizations, and even schools across the world in an attempt to increase focus, creativity, and productivity.
But what if too much mindfulness could actually make you more anxious, more depressed, and less creative?
Despite all the hype around “being mindful”, new analysis from Brown University professor Dr. Britton seems to indicate that too much mindfulness might actually lead to detrimental effects. In fact, Britton’s research found that several aspects of wellbeing that many mindfulness-focused apps claim to improve— anxiety, sleep disorders, and stress management— can actually become worse with too much mindfulness practice.
If you’re an avid meditator, this probably comes as a surprise — you can’t possibly be “too mindful”, or “too present”, can you?
Too Much of a Good Thing: The Yerkes-Dodson Law
Let’s start at the beginning.
In the early 1900s, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson were performing an experiment that involved shocking mice with electrical currents in order to “motive” them to complete a maze. After testing out various voltage levels for the shock, they noticed an interesting phenomenon: if they used too low of a voltage, the mice wouldn’t be compelled to attempt the maze, but if they increased the voltage too much, the mice would still not pursue the maze, even if the punishment for not doing so (high-voltage electric shocks) was immensely painful.
The experiment showed Yerkes and Dodson that an optimal level of arousal (electric shock) existed where they would get the best response and that both not enough arousal or too much would lead to sub-optimal results.
It’s from this relatively simple and archaic experiment, the Yerkes-Dodson Law was born, and our understanding of arousal, motivation, and reward was forever changed.
Since the original experiment was conducted over 100 years ago, this idea of an “optimal” middle-ground between two extremes has been empirically proved right time and time again for just about every human characteristic, trait, or activity.
Even for seemingly innocent and benevolent attributes, we can have too much of a good thing. For instance, research indicates that too much optimism or curiosity (two traits we usually think we can’t get enough of) can actually have adverse effects on individuals. New research even shows that being too attractive (trust me, I didn’t know this was a thing either) can lead to fewer jobs, scholarships, and promotions.
Unsurprisingly, we’re beginning to find that the same goes for mindfulness.
Ancient Wisdom: The Middle Way
What is surprising is that Buddhist tradition seems to have articulated this very same fundamental principle of balance more than two thousand years ago: in the Buddha’s first teaching after enlightenment, he warns against living a life of either self-indulgence or self-mortification and lectures his students on a concept that Buddhists call, The Middle Way (Majjhimāpaṭipadā), which advocates for the avoidance of opposites in favor of finding the balance in the midst of extremes.
Unlike Yerkes and Dodson, the Buddha’s claims weren’t backed up by scientific evidence: instead, like many other fundamental Buddhist teachings, the Buddha claimed that through self-awareness we could all see this phenomenon for ourselves.
In this regard, both contemporary psychological research and Buddhist tradition agree: you can always have too much of a “good” thing.
Take exercise, for example: if you don’t exercise enough, the body will become weak and fragile. If you exercise too much it will become inflamed and injured. The same goes for fasting: a certain amount of fasting and caloric restriction has been shown to be beneficial, but excessive amounts can lead to considerable consequences.
Dr. Britton’s research indicates that mindfulness and meditation follow the same pattern.
The Side-Effects Being “Too Mindful”
The benefits that typically come with introducing a mindfulness practice seem to become completely flipped when mindfulness becomes excessive:
- Excessively high levels of observing awareness (intentionally directing attention to one’s present-moment experience) are associated with increased depression, anxiety, dissociation, substance abuse, and decreased ability to tolerate pain
- Body scanning and breath awareness, two common meditations techniques to alleviate stress, actually produced larger cortisol stress responses than other forms of meditation
- Using mindfulness to attempt to control emotion is associated with “global emotional blunting and dissociation”, which can, “attenuate not just negative emotions, but position ones as well”
- Certain amounts of meditation may actually inhibit your ability to sleep
In each circumstance, both the length of the practice and the type of meditation used were the two primary variables in play.
Still, the takeaway here is pretty clear: more time spent meditating does not equate to more “benefits”.
How Much Is Too Much?
At this point you might be thinking, “great, well if you can meditate too much, you must be able to meditate too little — so what’s the right amount?”
Unfortunately, determining the “ideal” amount of meditation is a tricky business for a few reasons:
- We don’t have enough research — we simply haven’t done enough standardized studies on large groups of people yet
- The studies are inherently subjective: measuring “mindfulness” or “presence” is tricky, and measuring subjective wellbeing after-the-fact isn’t easy either
- Each and every person is unique and brings their own unique techniques and mindset to mindfulness
Still, here’s what the current research has to say regarding a few of the most common practices:
- Only 25% of studies found that meditation amount and wellbeing were correlated — in other words, only 1 in 4 studies show that the more you meditate, the better off you’ll be
- For improving sleep, less was generally more — as meditation approached 30 minutes in length, “sleep duration and depth began to decrease”
- For practices aimed at cultivating gratitude, once per week was more effective at promoting wellbeing than three times per week
The research isn’t conducive to any simple answer here, although one thing is clear: while a longer meditation session clearly doesn’t always mean better results, that doesn’t mean that shorter meditation sessions, or not meditating at all, is better either.
While we may someday be able to rely on science to find an average length of meditation time that fits a good chunk of the population, I think that in the meantime, just as the Buddha predicted the Yerkes-Dodson Law two millennia before its scientific discovery, we can turn to Buddhist tradition for wisdom regarding excessive mindfulness.
Interestingly enough, what we find is that for thousands of years, Zen Buddhist wisdom seems to have been warning us of the perils of excessive mindfulness.
The Middle Way: What Zen Tradition Has To Say About Excessive Mindfulness
I feel obligated to include this note: “Buddhism”, like Christianity, is a spiritual practice with many different sects and facets. Zen is one such facet. Like Christianity, not all Zen monks and teachers believe the same things. I am highlighting specific instances within Zen literature related to the question of excessive mindfulness — it does not necessarily represent the beliefs of Zen tradition as a whole.
One of the largest misconceptions about meditation, and Buddhism in general, is that in order to be mindful and present, we need to devote ourselves to lengthy meditation sessions. Like other skills, we think that the more we practice, read, and learn about mindfulness, the more mindful we’ll become.
In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite our misconceptions about monks sitting in silence for hours on end, there are numerous examples within Buddhist tradition that cautions us to avoid the trap of being “too mindful”.
In the self-improvement-focused, results-driven culture we live in, we tend to equate effort and practice with results. The more we do something, the more positive benefits we expect from it, and the same typically goes for mindfulness and meditation. The more we sit, the more mindful we expect to become.
Zen tradition, which is heavily influenced by a combination of the Buddha’s teaching and Taoist philosophy, affirms the research’s finding and leads us to believe that mindfulness simply doesn’t follow the “more is better rule” — in fact, a central tenant of Zen is the concept of tun wu, or immediate, instantaneous, and effortless awakening.
Tun wu holds that enlightenment is not something to be achieved by conventional means of effort and straining, but only through the cessation of these activities. This, in itself, is entirely contradictory to the notion that with more practice we can “go deeper” and achieve something by meditating more.
One of my favorite ancient Zen stories beautifully illustrates this point:
A fellow went to a Zen master and said, “If I work very hard, how soon can I become enlightened?”
The Zen master looked him up and down and said, “Ten Years.”
The fellow said, “No, listen, I mean if I really work at it, how long — “
The Zen master cut him off. “I’m sorry. I misjudged. Twenty years.”
“Wait!” said the young man, “You don’t understand! I’m — “
“Thirty years,” said the Zen master.
Source: Buddhism Plain and Simple
If our intention is to achieve mindfulness by meditating for longer durations or by practicing more frequently, then our very intention to achieve presence may be what is preventing us from getting there. As the research shows, more practice, more intention, more effort, does not mean better results.
Furthermore, Hui-neng, a central figure in the development of Zen in China, has a particularly interesting perspective on our attempts to “clear the mind” through prolonged meditation:
“Hui-neng’s position was that a man with an empty consciousness was no btter than “a block of wood or a lump of stone.” He insisted that the whole idea of purifying the mind was irrelevant and confusing, because “our own nature is fundamentally clear and pure.” — Alan Watts, The Way of Zen
This alludes to an even deeper problem with many mindfulness practices: that thoughts about mindfulness or meditation are still thoughts.
Hui-neng strongly rejected the idea that we need to find mindfulness outside of the everyday mundane existence of life. He believed that we could find refuge in the present moment doing just about anything — in fact, one could argue that he actually believed sitting meditation was counterproductive:
“To restrain the body by sitting up for a long time — of what benefit is this towards the Dharma… If you start concentrating the mind on stillness, you will merely produce an unreal stillness.”
While there are divisions of Buddhism, even Zen, a division that typically focuses on sitting meditation for long periods of time (za-zen), there are strong voices within the community that seems to be echoing the fundamental message of Dr. Britton’s research: more meditation doesn’t always mean better.
Before I started working on One Deep Breath and delved into the world of breathwork (see my full article on Breathwork vs. Meditation here), I would meditate every day, and I benefited from it greatly.
It’d be pretty dishonest of me to pretend that I don’t advocate for some sort of mindfulness or meditation practice. There’s a reason I’ve spent the last year and a half building an app to help people use both breathwork and mindfulness to improve their lives.
While I think breathwork is a generally superior, scientifically-grounded way to achieve the goals of a mindfulness practice, I don’t at all think that meditation is a bad thing.
In fact, in our age of busyness, hustling, and smartphones, I think that the vast majority of us aren’t in danger of being “too mindful”, but rather not being mindful enough.
Still, I think that what the research shows us is something that we shouldn’t ignore — it’s dangerous to believe that more is better when it comes to mindfulness and meditation (or really any practice of self-care, for that matter).
On a philosophical level, using mindfulness as some sort of tool or end to meet our needs or improve our lives defeats the purpose of mindfulness in the first place, and what’s interesting is that the scientific evidence appears to be echoing this.
When mindfulness gets in the way of life, when it prevents us from truly feeling, from truly living, then what’s the point? Is there any comfort in being mindful of an empty existence?
On the contrary, it’s clear that there are great benefits to be reaped from practicing mindfulness.
The key then, it appears, is to find the balance between the two — to allow yourself to become mindful, but not consumed by it.
Britton WB, Can Mindfulness Be Too Much of a
Good Thing? The Value of a Middle Way, Current Opinion in Psychology (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.12.011