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Is Mindfulness Dangerous?
In his 1961 book, Psychotherapy East & West, the philosopher Alan Watts wrote,
If there is to be a battle, there must be a field of battle; when the contestants really notice this they will have a war dance instead of a war.
As is popular in South Asian poetry, such imagery aptly describes a social as much as a psychological state. For example, the slim volume of karma yoga lessons, the Bhagavad Gita, treats the metaphorical field of battle as both a reflection of Indian society and an introspective mirror held up to one’s brain.
Humanity’s battle against its brain has, at least since written language commenced, been epic. Countless metaphysical fables and invasive therapies have been created to describe our place in existence and treat the neuroses that often follow. One of the most popular modern formats is the resurgence of Buddhist mindfulness, the practice of observing one’s thoughts as if watching passerby. As with prescriptions before it, there appears to be a danger involved.
Noticing your thoughts is much different than simply thinking. The neuronal firings that we term ‘thinking’ is so pervasive we hardly ever realize we’re doing it—until we attempt to stop (or, more realistically, slow) that rushing river of information. Only then do we realize that sitting in meditation has nothing to do with ‘doing nothing.’ As Buddhists are fond of saying, we are observing the observed.
Based in the Buddhist tradition, over 1,000 mindfulness courses are now being offered across the UK, predominantly under the name mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). That sounds like a good thing; indeed, on paper, it should be. Learning to watch one’s thoughts has proven neural and emotional benefits, such as slowing the reaction time in one’s neocortex from lashing out after an angry or sad event. It offers immediate insight: ok, is this how I really want to act right now?
Part of the problem stems from inexperienced teachers leading clients through these techniques, according to Robert Booth. As he writes in his Guardian story linked to above, people are becoming certified to teach after taking a one-week training course, hardly enough time to understand much of anything useful about mindfulness. They haven’t even stepped onto the battlefield yet are acting like generals.
America is watching its own existential crisis unfold. In the Atlantic Tomas Rocha writes that this is the result of people treating mindfulness only for its socially quantitative benefits:
This widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, “because that’s what Americans value”—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
As Booth points out, some researchers have cited studies claiming that mindfulness can be as beneficial as pharmaceuticals in treating certain ailments such as depression and anxiety. Anecdotally I can vouch for this: Tibetan Buddhist mindfulness practice helped me get off Xanax seven years ago. I haven’t taken a pill since. When panic attacks arise—and they still do, though with much less force and frequency—I have a container to work within and address the issue.
Here’s the thing, however: I never measured the exact neurochemistry of my problem. I’ve heard some refer to panic attacks being ‘all in the mind,’ but a closer truth is that they’re all in the brain—and that means the brain’s chemicals and hormones, not a dualistic embodiment of stressful goblins invading my conscious experience.
Science communicator and writer Cara Santa Maria expressed it succinctly on a recent podcast when discussing her personal battle with depression. People refer to infections and diseases as problems requiring medical attention, yet when it comes to affective disorders, we expect ‘thinking positively’ to be enough. Crippling emotional problems are just as ‘real’ as other medical procedures; she discusses how much differently she treated life once she found the proper meds for her own unique biochemistry.
And this points directly to a failure of mindfulness training as cited above. Mindfulness is a trendy catch word, one numerous life coaches take advantage of. Genevieve Smith writes in Harpers that there are now roughly 50,000 life coaches in America. While some are trained therapists and psychologists who added the term to their business card to take advantage of a trend, many are not trained at all. When uncertified coaches encounter clients experiencing profound emotional distress or serious existential crises, they are not equipped to properly treat them.
The road of mindfulness has never been about feeling good all the time. Experiencing the depths of despair and anger might very well be encountered along the way. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As Rocha writes,
While meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development.
As neuroscientist and author Sam Harris writes in his new book, Waking Up, ultimately mindfulness aims at developing a non-grasping attitude toward any emotion:
Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.
There must be an awareness of what emotions are being breached in the practitioner, as well as knowing who can sit with trauma and emerge stronger on the other side and who might very well need a prescription or serious counseling. If the guide does not recognize these individual and specific nuances, trauma is a possible outcome in the student.
There has never been a singular path to self-realization. Recognizing this before teaching mindfulness is of utmost importance, just as walking the path yourself is crucial in unlocking the puzzling domain of our minds. Once that door is opened, you never know what might emerge.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work