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The Sustainability of Mindfulness Therapy

In previous articles we’ve discussed the benefits of mindfulness therapy with regards to treating depressive disorders and addictive behaviors. For many years, this form of therapy has been the go-to for many patients to seek to overcome what is ultimately a psychological impasse by teaching them to take control of their own thoughts and feelings. However, surprisingly little focus has been placed on whether or not mindfulness therapy can actually assist us in the long-term by making us more resilient. Dr. Michael Ungar is an executive board member of the American Family Therapy Academy and he questions whether or not mindfulness therapy and its related practices are actually sustainable.

Is Mindfulness Therapy Sustainable?

Addressing the various studies which point to the success of mindfulness therapy and meditation on the human mind, Dr. Ungar states that “At the core of all these experiments are emotional regulation (e.g., the ability to not eat a marshmallow when it is delectably place in front of us) and focused attention on what really matters (rather than being distracted by our fears and obsessions).” He admits that  “Both strategies can improve our lives.” But he questions the undisputed nature of many of these large claims. While there is nothing inherently wrong in this pattern of thinking, which essentially follows the same thought path as “mind over matter”, he raises concerns that “None of those studies have told us much about whether mindfulness practices are sustainable and improve mental health outcomes for people who are actually struggling with severe mental illness or chronically toxic environments.”

The Mythology of Infallibility

A favorite subject of motivational speakers, mindfulness therapy has become surrounded by a sort of mythology of infallibility. In other words, often times when mindfulness practices are discussed, they are talked about in such a way as they provide a more or less permanent solution to an ongoing problem. For many people, depression is not a one-time occurrence, and for others struggling with addiction, the desire to use is not singular and non-recurring. For those who step up on platforms to discuss their seemingly permanent success with these treatments, Dr. Ungar notes that: “you’ll notice a curious thing is missing. Context. They never mention that all their wonderfully illustrative examples come from motivated people who got the very best support available and that the changes they made were seldom sustained.”

Dr. Ungar is not necessarily attempting to discredit the practice of mindfulness therapy as a whole, but rather is trying to extract the truth about the treatment’s sustainability for those who may not have the same access to the same privileges that may have been enjoyed by someone who is able to travel and discuss their success story with others. However, the reality of resilience, Dr. Ungar explains, is that: “it is not something we build alone in the dark. It is a facilitated process of engagement with an environment that makes it possible for us to fully realize our capacity.” As such, he believes: “Mindfulness is a shallow description of a much larger process that makes us resilient when bad things happen.”

Environment Makes a Difference

In essence, Dr. Ungar encourages us to adopt a more realistic perspective on the effectiveness of mindfulness and related therapies, seeing them not necessarily as an answer to all one’s problems, but rather a helpful tool that assist how we perceive things, but not necessarily powerful enough to change the reality of our situations. According to him, “we are so enamoured thinking about how mindfulness changes our susceptibility and make us better able to exploit our environments, that we forget at our peril that environments are more important than the brains themselves.” Consider, for example, a person living in an abusive environment. While therapy can potentially train that person to better deal with the effects of the abuse psychologically, it is not until that person is removed from that environment that they can be truly freed from the abuse. Dr. Ungar points to a more extreme example of the Syrian refugees, arguing that “Positive thinking may help keep them moving forward, and being able to regulate one’s emotions may help an individual refugee tolerate the endless lines to cross borders, but all the hope in the world will not keep someone alive when a barrel bomb is dropped on them by their government.”

While that example may seem harsh, it carries with it an important truth, that a person’s surroundings can be just as influential to their safety and health as their perspective, if not more so. To ensure the resilience of treatments such as mindfulness therapy, we must consider the influence of extraneous variables within a person’s life which may inhibit their healing. Dr. Ungar asks us to question the role of privilege and accessibility in the mainstream purported success of mindfulness treatments and meditation, raising awareness that taking the time to engage in these practices, to some, may be more of a luxury than a reality. He explains: “The originators of mindfulness practices, Tibetan monks and Christian aesthetics, understood that their contemplative practices required near complete devotion and the benevolence of a community to clothe, feed and house them while they ascended the spiritual ladder. In other words, even in their bare bones world the founders of mindfulness knew that their path to brain plasticity was facilitated by the privileges of their status as their community’s spiritual guides.”

The True Potential for Mindfulness Therapy

So is mindfulness therapy useless as a practice? Not exactly. Dr. Ungar believes that mindfulness therapy and related practices can potentially be liberating and help in making us better people. After all, mindfulness therapy can help us appreciate life and control minor stresses in our day-to-day lives. Furthermore, it can help us maintain focus but in order to accomplish all of this mindfulness therapy requires that we sustain the practice daily.

To this, Dr. Ungar responds: “But it does all this much better when we have a job and a place to come home to. First things first, I say. To be resilient we must experience security, social justice, a powerful identity, personal power, and positive relationships. Psychological enlightenment is a luxury enjoyed by those whose basic needs have already been met.” In saying this, he hopes to raise awareness about the influence of privilege in certain therapeutic practices which thrive on an individual having the free time to regularly sustain them.

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