Mindfulness Myth? Philosopher Challenges Its Core Principles

Philosophy Mindfulness

Recent years have seen a surge in mindfulness, with therapy forms and meditation apps gaining widespread popularity. However, a philosopher from the University of Copenhagen, cautions against unexamined philosophical assumptions and potential oversimplifications within mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness therapy has gained widespread popularity as a means to help individuals cope with stress, and many people have reported significant benefits from practicing it. However, the underlying philosophical assumptions of mindfulness should be critically examined and should not be accepted as a matter of course.

In recent times, mindfulness, inspired by Buddhist meditation traditions, has seen a significant surge in popularity. This is evident in its application in schools, healthcare, and workplaces, where various therapies rooted in mindfulness are available. Moreover, millions globally are downloading meditation apps like Headspace and Ten Percent Happier.

Clearly, there’s a demand for mindfulness, with many finding value in its techniques. However, Odysseus Stone, Ph.D., from the University of Copenhagen, believes that many of the philosophical assumptions about human beings and their relationship to the world on which mindfulness is based are quite dubious and should be examined carefully.

“One of the key claims of mindfulness is that we should learn to view thoughts and emotions that come and go in the mind as if they are clouds passing through the sky. This is an image that you often come across in mindfulness literature. The idea is that we must acknowledge our thoughts and emotions and notice them as events in the mind, but not invest them with importance or spend too much time worrying about them. And this, of course, may sometimes make sense. Consider, for example, if you are to make a presentation at work that you are nervous about. Then it might be sensible to practice mindfulness by acknowledging the nervousness, but trying to avoid letting it take up too much of your energy,” explains Odysseus Stone, who has just completed his dissertation on mindfulness, but he also adds:

“However, it doesn’t stop there. In mindfulness, this notion is supposed to apply to all our thoughts and emotions, or at least mindfulness offers no clear way of drawing the line. But this quickly becomes highly problematic. Consider our deeply held convictions and attitudes about ourselves, other people, and the social and political world around us. Take, for example, feelings of anger that we might have about the policy decisions of the Danish government. Is it beneficial to view such emotions as if they are passing clouds in the sky with little importance or relation to reality? We should remember that our thoughts and feelings form our perspective, and open us up to, the world. They cannot and should not all be treated with suspicion.”

Control your (own) attention

All the major tech companies are vying for our attention, which thus has become one of the most precious raw materials in the so-called attention economy. For Netflix, Facebook, Amazon or Apple, it’s all about getting us to spend our limited time on their platforms.

“Attention is also a key theme within mindfulness, where a number of exercises that train practitioners to control their attention are often highlighted as a form of solution to the information overload we are exposed to. It’s all about taking back control, and this is a central component of mindfulness-inspired treatment of stress. In many ways, this is also sensible. We all know the feeling of being highly distracted because of digital technologies” says Odysseus Stone and elaborates:

“But I would say that mindfulness’ focus on the individual’s attention makes major structural social problems, such as the attention economy, a matter for the individual rather than something that we need to solve together. This criticism has also been raised in the context of workplace stress, where employees with stress are offered a course in mindfulness rather than changing working conditions. In both cases, the wider structures that give rise to the problems are not being addressed through mindfulness.

But this is not the only problem with the way mindfulness conceives attention:

“In addition, we may also question the way in which mindfulness views attention itself. Often attention is seen as a bit like a little spotlight inside the head of the individual that can learn to be controlled. According to some philosophers and cognitive scientists, however, this picture is all wrong. Our attention is highly dependent on our embodiment, and is embedded in a material and social context.”

Can you live in the present?

An equally important part of mindfulness’ philosophical foundation is the idea that we humans spend far too much of our time pondering the past and the future. These thoughts prevent us from living in the present, which we should focus our attention on instead. In general, we should strive to be present in our lives here and now.

“This is an idea that many other than mindfulness practitioners subscribe to. Often it is based on the philosophical idea that the present moment is especially real or fundamental, or at least more real than the past and the future. On this view, our sense of ourselves as beings with a past and future – our ‘narrative’ sense of ourselves – is based on a kind of mistake.

However, it is not clear that we should accept this idea either. On the one hand, our narratives give our lives meaning and structure. It is not clear that they are simply unreal or mistaken. On the other hand, if we ask, “What exactly is this pure now or absolute present moment that is supposed to be especially real?”, it is very difficult to answer. If our experiences and actions are to be coherent and to make sense and make sense to us, they will have to refer to our past and future in one way or the other.”

Reference: “Engaging mindfulness: a phenomenological investigation and critique” by Odysseus Stone, Ph.D. Thesis University of Copenhagen.

38 Comments on "Mindfulness Myth? Philosopher Challenges Its Core Principles"

  1. And this is some PHILOSOPHER’S opinion? Try asking some MEDITATORS’ opinions. Jeeez…

  2. Heraclitus Bronze | August 20, 2023 at 9:04 am | Reply

    I think we’re all furious at the Danish government. And Odysseus Stone is a fantastic name for a philosopher, almost an inevitable job title for him.

    Philosophers should generally reject mindfulness. The idea that our attention should focus on the physical concrete reality of simple tasks like breathing, is in direct opposition to the thoughtful examination of reality and how best to live in it, which philosophy considers. A mindful person may not stub their toe while stressfully lost in thought, but at the cost of an unexamined life which Socrates cautioned is not worth living.

    • There is no suggestion in mindfulness teaching, that one cannot also helpfully examine one’s life. Mindfulness practice however helps you to, first notice, then let go of unhelpful thoughts and emotions that can impair your ability to think and behave wisely. Philosophers (seekers of wisdom) might be wise to really engage with mindfulness practice themselves first, before they comment on it.

      • I agree 100% with you. Mindfulness practice is not about ignoring an issue rather focus on the here & now w/o an emotional reaction = Wisemind (facts but not robotic)

  3. Daniel LaLiberte | August 20, 2023 at 9:56 am | Reply

    I think the idea is not to eliminate thoughts and feelings, or entirely ignore reflecting on the past or supervising about the future, but to become more self aware about what is going on in your mind. Mindfulness meditation for a period of time is more about giving your mind a rest, as well as gaining the ability to become more self aware during the remainder of the day when you are going about all your other activities less mindlessly.

    • Beautiful succinct reply and sums up Mindfulness perfectly.

      • The brieffly written views in this article on the importance of thoughts, past and present, emotions and so, are not at all contrary to the type of meditation called Mindfulness (that, by the way, Buddhism embraced from Yoga). Meditation does not mean in any sense to scape from reality, avoid problems or to not to challenge status quo at work or anywhere else.

        In fact, I have never read a legit yoga text that, in any way, associates meditation with happiness: assumption that the occidental view on these oriental practices constantly makes.

        In summary, this article draws wrong statements based on wrong practices: and two wrongs do not make a right.

  4. This guy is a Danish Dunce. I will only comment on his first mistake about mindfullness (I prefer meditation.) We, us meditators, only try to pass off thoughts as we are trying to go deeper into a meditation – not every minute of the day. I would write more, but I am going to pass those little clouds away.

  5. Where is the science, the evidence?

  6. Obviously this guy doesn’t meditate at all, he has completely misunderstood everything. Meditation takes you to a much deeper understanding of reality, it calms the noise more and more until you can finally examine reality with a quite mind. It also gives you control over your ingrained automatic reactions and pulls you from sleepwalking through your life in your obsessive minds imagination allowing you to truly live your life connected to the present moment, the only one that is real and not in your imagination. Meditation isn’t the denial of past, future, thought or emotion it is the complete embracing and recognition of these in the present moment. It’s just that your mind is still and doesn’t have to chase all these thoughts around and around. You don’t push away emotion you recognise it and feel it truly rather than pushing it away the energy of the emotion is felt and so passes through and away releasing it. And as for it not solving problems in society, if everyone lives mindfully there would be far less hate and more compassion and acceptance of other people society would be transformed by such a huge change.

    • Absolutely agree with you. Very frustrating to see Mindfulness so misunderstood and misrepresented. Ah well….BREATHE!…

      • I would like to just add that most of the comments here have pin pointed the problem with this article. The person has very little understanding of the very core and fundamental principles behind mindfulness, present moment living and meditation. His argument is a very shallow perspective and is not even relevant to the true nature of reality. And it is obvious he is not a regular practitioner if anything. I can almost guarantee if he was to practice it on regular basis it would change his perspective entirely.

  7. This guy should talk to Sam Haris.

  8. These comments were all very helpful to me since they answer some of my queries about Odysseus’s thoughts 🤔💭 as well.! Great article 👌!

  9. it’s like this guy dipped a toe in the shallow end of the mindfulness pool and now believes he’s explored the whole territory. how sad to be so short sighted, and yet also ironic how limited and closed off his philosophical perspective seems to be. i will say that his perspective mirrors the limited exploration/understanding that the mindfulness fad in the west has fostered, sadly. but those of us who truly practice it regularly and seek to exercise and challenge ourselves can’t help but evolve from it, especially as we nurture the spiritual side of it. you truly cannot unring the bell.

  10. mind-Full, mind-Pure, mind-Empty

  11. Mindfulness is the delicate dance between our brain’s “internal default mode” vs “external action mode.”

    Often witnessed on a broader scale as introversion or extraversion.

    The goal is to find a healthy balance.

    It’s subjective because none of us are the same, creating a spectrum.

    That “balance” isn’t always right in the middle; not only do we all have different perspectives of life and therefore different goals, but we all have differences in our brain structures, cells, metabolism, etc. as well..

    The goal isn’t to detach and let everything go, the idea is to detach enough to examine the thoughts and emotions and identify their origin and their role, then decide if keeping it constitutes a virtue or a vice.
    Is it helpful or is it harmful?
    A question that any good philosopher knows has both a subjective and objective answer.

    All in all mindfulness should dip a toe in the 4 quadrants of emotional intelligence: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
    Its an examination of the life you were born into and unconsciously built for yourself VS the one you’d like to lead.

    Mindfulness is quite literally the individual personally taking on the role of philosopher.

    And yet here we are, ironically, having the entire philosophy questioned by a so-called philosopher.
    “So-called” because I’m assuming this person has a degree that makes them think they are qualified to philosophize yet they seemingly lack the ability to actually do so.

  12. To simplify this even further for the wonderful philosopher..

    Mindfulness is the individual’s attempt at Aristotle’s challenge to find the Golden mean.

    Is that simple enough for you, or did you misunderstand that as well?

  13. Advice for this philosopher:

    Stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before you and see what you can see prior to trying to cut them off at the knees.

  14. This article was quite flawed. I agree that corporations and other entities try to foist mindfulness on others to shut them up..but that’s not the fault of mindfulness.

    It someone cares about political issues or has beliefs important to them they aren’t going to suddenly stop caring or abandon their core beliefs just because they find they don’t need to grasp onto every idea passing through awareness like so much gas. They may be more effective if they aren’t following every rabbit hole of thought.
    It seems like the author is focusing on only the most cheesy superficial takes on this subject as all the good ones acknowledge the nondual nature of reality. I can’t think of w single one that is pro-humonculous. There are some legit negative sides of mindfu lness but they aren’t explored. WRite about what you know.

  15. This article reeks of “Western Chauvanism!” The premise is that it must be validated by “Western Science!” You sound like an evangelical engaging in apologetics for your own confirmation bias!

    • Western science. What is that? Science is science. The East or the south or north for that matter are governed by the same principles inherent in objective reality

  16. Mindfulness is disassociation. Mediation, prayer, REM sleep dreaming, daydreaming, massage submitting, listening to music, dancing, reading, studying, singing,chanting, writing, entrancing, hypnotic submission, passion, drinking alcohol smoking weed, and all variations of them and many more are also disassociation. So, when are we NOT disassociating? We are not disassociating when we communicate, interacting with another human being. Playing with puppies and stroking your cat’s fur is, again, disassociation…

  17. Alfred sams former human relations trainer | August 21, 2023 at 8:59 pm | Reply

    Please do not share my email address and name as promised by you.kindly delete from this leave a comment column.

  18. Alfred sams former human relations trainer | August 21, 2023 at 9:03 pm | Reply

    Please do not save my name and email address in this browser for the next time I comment.kindly delete as soon as possible.

  19. Ordained as a monk and practiced vipassana meditation for 5 months enabled me to see Buddhism as a science. I became even more confident when I later studied ancient Buddhist literature together with modern physics. You may laugh if I say there are such things like beta decay, asymptotic freedom, or even particle acceleration. But I can show you the evidence.

  20. Boy, oh boy, where do I even begin?.. Perhaps by saying that Odysseus Stone’s thesis advisors should hang their heads in shame. One of the striking things about this guy’s “investigation and critique” is its utter unoriginality. It looks like he has collected his information on mindfulness and its critiques from a quick internet search, glued it all together with the spittle of his own moral outrage (including against the Danish government, of all things) and voila! — he got himself a doctoral dissertation. No one had told him, it seems, that to glean any sort of insight into what mindfulness practice is about (and for), one needs to actually PRACTICE for a good while, in a serious and committed way and under qualified instruction. Only then does one realize that all attempts to describe mindful awareness to someone who hasn’t experienced it are doomed to failure. Anything less than a serious, personal study will leave you with merely a bunch of vapid ideas and cheesy tropes, which is exactly the stuff of which Odysseus’ thesis is made. That said, there is also the unfortunate fact that there are way too many superficial and craven mindfulness offerings around these days by unqualified people with a half-assed (or zero-assed) understanding of what they are doing, and even among the legitimate teachings, there is no standardized mode of instruction or conceptualization, which, though confusing, is a necessary feature of dharma, as different people require different approaches in order to learn. So, given the nebulousness of the term, any research on mindfulness needs to first select a MANUALIZED instruction method and then restrict any analysis and criticism to its specific features, rather that speaking in meaningless generalities. Too bad someone didn’t tell Mr. Stone any of this before he embarked on his post-graduate fool’s journey.

  21. The article posits a false dichotomy between mindfulness as living entirely in the present without regard or meaning to feelings, history, future or intentions, versus our usual conscious blend of those elements of thought with all the attendant concerns for things that may or may not be real. To strive to live in the present does not obviate, however, our history,our intentions, our concerns for the future and the like. We do not forget our wedding date or our dislike of authoritarianism because we strive to exist in the present. If anything mindfulness can actualize us to accomplish much more in life by refusing to pay attention to things which do not further our intention. When a mindful person chooses to act they give only that level of attention the act requires. When they relax, ideally they allow their attention to recede and replenish. By avoiding giving attention to things we cannot change in the moment we live happier lives as cares for issues we cannot change don’t haunt our present intentions. But when we decide to act on those cares (which you don’t forget by setting them aside), we do so with our fullest intention. In that analysis,
    because attention is the most valuable thing we have to give, we should choose where we place it with great care

  22. Western science. What is that? Science is science. The East or the south or north for that matter are governed by the same principles inherent in objective reality

  23. Not interested further in this research

  24. Not interested further in thi earch please delete this comment.im not bothered about mindfulness but I’m sorry about algorithms and artificial intelligence.delete please

  25. Mindfulness like Yoga and other techniques brought from the East are taught as ‘ fast food’. They bring you happiness or weight loss or whatever.

    After years of practicing Buddhism of one sort or another, I went to the Diamond Sangha’s beginners orientation. The thing that I heard that I remember most strongly was the WARNING that if you come to meditation to solve your mental problems, you will only make them WORSE by dredging them up.

    I went to a lecture by a young Tibetan Rinpoche years ago. During the Q&A afterwards, a man stated“ I’ve been meditating for 30-years without results.” Rinpoche replied, “What do you want me to do about it?” To anyone who has been on this path, it’s a reasonable answer.

    As to thoughts, I have an analogy. On your computer (not phone or tablet) you can look at a all the processes running in the background. When one of these processes grabs too much memory or CPU time, trouble is ahead. Likewise, we spend too much time following the mental subroutines in our heads.

  26. Themeadowsruler | August 27, 2023 at 9:05 pm | Reply

    The ego is just one perspective

  27. A philsopher looks at the logical argument upon which a thesis statement rests. This philosopher doesnt need to go through the actual meditatiin process. Rather his duzsertation examines the premise upon which the idea of mindfulness rests. Actually there are multiple premises. Thats what a philosopher does and they examine a premise upon which a physics experiment rests. Some phd in physics can do mathematical methods like stephen hawking but sometimes they need to take a careful look at the premise upon which a hypothesis might ir might not rest for the sake of experimental design. This is the utility of philisophy. The philisopher made no claim as to the process but rather some implied or implicit assumptions that are made in due course. The philisopher didnt try to strike down the fundamental idea of awareness but he addressed its shortcomings within hypothetical oarameters or scenarios. He did a thought experiment illustrating pros and cons in terms of the validity of the logical premises that he condidered regardinng mindfulness. Sometimed just being aware isnt enough. Thats sometimes true. But in the hustle and bustle of a fast paced world where people act on impulse mindfulness is a good way to examine the culprit behind an impulse we have taken for granted so it has become automatic or a knee jerk reaction. Thats the ultimate power snd benefit of mindfulness. Does the philosopher lose sight if that? To get a phd you must publish or perish. Its a never ending process in which one assumes the role of professional student. The phd posed a credible and legitimate dissertation topic. He looked at the fip side. Why people are dismayed is due to their misunderstanding of the context in which mindfulness is questioned. He walked a fine line in a gray area. Life is full of gray areas and mindfulness isnt a panacea. But it definitely has its place and the philisopher made no attempt to deny that. The comments reflect the mentality of advocates of mindfulness and how functionally fixated anyone can become on an idea.

  28. With all due respect Sir, you are taking something you obviously know nothing about, and coming across as a self acclaimed authority on. I for one really resent the fact that you take something so good, and try to make it look silly or ridiculous. Meditation literally saved my life, when Nothing else helped.
    You really need to get your facts straight before writing an article that could be so detrimental to people who may benefit from, but now they may listen to your false facts and miss a wonderful chance to improve or even save their lives. So not cool!

  29. I assume that it is difficult to arrive at a sustained state of mindfulness. Our human weakness prevents us from arriving at optimum awareness. Reducing the strength of thoughts and desires would be required. This doesn’t happen by using the usual mindfulness techniques or by willpower. Enhanced spiritual strength from God is necessary for this. For further information, check out what the Bible has to say about arriving at inner peace and strength.

  30. Well no Meditation isnt a Philosphy. It is a tool that was used in the eastern traditions to practice the teachings eg PHILOSOPHY. If this guy really studied philosophy one would of thought he would of had at least onr course eastern pholosophy. Meditation isnt a philosophy anymore than a hammer is carpentry its a tool.

  31. Even the title of the article – “ Mindfulness Myth? Philosopher Challenges Its Core Principles” gets it wrong, unfortunately.

    The earnest but inexperienced author has clearly not comprehended or been taught the “core principals” of present moment awareness.

    Challenging them was to be a non-starter.

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