I bought a Headspace subscription for one year because it was on sale. This is not an advert (they do enough advertising without my help). I'm very sceptical about mindfulness and meditation, and to be honest, most people I've known who are into it haven't been people I like.
So I thought it would be interesting to write my thoughts now and compare them after I've completed the year. By a 'scam', I mean that I don't believe it has any real positive effect and is mostly something invented by marketing. Here's why I currently think that.
Traditional talk therapy is highly dependent on the relationship between therapist and patient. Even CBT, the NHS' go-to therapy because it can be boiled down into simple rules, has some allowance for different techniques fitting different people/disorders.
Meditiation and mindfulness claim that every single person in the world will be helped by focusing on their breathing, or on eating a raisin, or whatever physical sensation they come up with. This is obviously implausible. But it is very cheap and can easily be sold via apps, books and corporate workshops. No wonder companies love it.
I have tried to remedy this ignorance in the past. I've read all the popular books about meditation, like The Mind Illuminated. None of them made any sense. Maybe this is because I haven't meditated for decades and so of course I can't grasp the subtle truths of them. Maybe it's because they're meaningless.
Meditation and mindfulness are often conflated, as I'm doing here. Headspace also seems to do this; once you reach a certain stage, you are meant to bring 'awareness' into everyday life by essentially doing mindfulness (every time you stand up, 'be aware', whatever that means). Meditation of the type that Headspace sells is just being mindful about your breath. Are meditation and mindfulness different things or not?
About thirty days into the course, I still don't know what exactly Puddicombe is talking about when he says to take a moment to focus on the feeling of awareness. I don't feel aware after a meditation session. I feel no different than before, or I feel slightly sleepy and trance-like. There is a vague sense of guilt about not having gotten the 'right' feeling. Oh well - he says you just have to keep turning up.
I'm still in the dark about how focusing on breathing can help in any way with big negative thoughts like "I've wasted my life", or with emotionally difficult tasks like job-searching. Does it even claim to help with these? Is it just meant to be a tool for improving focus? (Which I have no particular problem with, so if that's all it can do, I'd like to know so I can stop bothering with it!) Good CBT books like Feeling Good have no such vagueness problem, and suggest many useful techniques for specific scenarios.
In Chekhov's story Ward No 6, a doctor and a madman strike up an unusual relationship. Ragin, the doctor, visits Gromov in an oppressive mental ward in which Gromov and the other patients are imprisoned. He does so to have intellectual debates with Gromov. Ragin argues on the side of stoicism and mindfulness: suffering is only mental, one can command it to vanish, it really makes no difference whether you are locked up in a mental ward or sitting in a plush office, since one can be just as happy in either. The people of the town decide that Ragin himself has gone mad and lock him in the same ward.
Ragin immediately realises the error of his thoughts. In fact he experiences such horror and mental anguish as a result of his situation that he dies of it. You can imagine the story going another way: Ragin takes a gentle, open-minded interest in his new surroundings; he finds it a very fascinating sensation to be punched by the ward guard; he takes a moment to truly experience the feeling of blood running down his face, etc. But in that case the reader would agree that Ragin has lost his mind.
Another patient in the ward, the fat peasant, really is completely indifferent to his surroundings. Even when beaten he takes no notice. This, Gromov argues, is the final state of stoicism: the loss of humanity, turning into an inert object.
It's hard to disagree. In Bullshit Jobs, there is a similar quote about how corporations preach mindfulness as if eating, breathing and shitting mindfully will balance out the absolute soul-sucking horror of work. Don't think. Thinking will make you unhappy. Just perform your animal biological functions, focus on your work, and you'll be alright.
If I spend all day being mindful, who knows, perhaps I will be blissfully happy. But I also won't have done anything or thought anything beyond "now I am experiencing this". Isn't it "better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied"?
Well, that's all so far. I guess we'll see how it goes.