GENEVA — In 1979, a stressed-out molecular biologist took a Buddhist meditation technique, removed its mysticism, and transplanted it to an American university hospital. This is how mindfulness was born, in the University of Massachusetts Boston, instigated by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
The discipline then made its way into the medical world, where — according to scientific studies — it proved to be particularly effective to prevent depression relapses and to handle anxiety disorders. Incubation, blooming, booming. Now, 35 years after its birth, mindfulness is on everyone's lips.
This is a crucial year for mindfulness, which represents the rare case of an originally Oriental practice infiltrating the West through science rather than spirituality. In February 2014, Time dedicated its front page to the topic with the headline "The Mindful Revolution," marking its central place in the spirit of the times.
Soon after, concerned voices chimed in on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean asking if we shouldn't also be afraid of it. Instead of the heavenly appeasement that one could gullibly expect of such a technique, a few practitioners revealed that mindfulness had plunged them into the torment of a mental void. Others, in larger numbers, often noted there was a difficult time to endure at one point or another. In the end, all this is probably a good thing. After the booming fad period, the perception of mindfulness is entering a phase where it is taken seriously.
"Patients have told me, 'I've been through unpleasant side effects, but I didn't dare say anything negative, because everyone is talking about mindfulness in such a positive way,'" says the British psychiatrist Florian Ruths, a practitioner and specialized researcher in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at the United Kingdom's National Health Service.
For him, this is a known problem. "Several studies show mindfulness can have unpleasant side effects," he says. "Most of these are perfectly harmless, but when you experience them, you don't necessarily know it." The strongest and rarest of these, he says, are episodes of depersonalization, a sensation where, instead of being in your own life, you feel as if you were in a film, or as if the surrounding world wasn't real. "Normally, it disappears in a few minutes," he says. "Very rarely, it can last up to a few days. Our research will concentrate on this."
Not a relaxation technique
Ruths makes the logical observation that everything that has an effect can also have side effects. "Mindfulness is a powerful intervention technique for patients suffering from depression, anxiety or stress," he says. "This means it necessarily has an effect on the brain and particularly on its capacity to connect to your experience in a different way."
Mindfulness is the idea that by improving the quality of your attention, you can manage to sense situations that cause stress. "Instead of reacting in an automatic way, which often increases discomfort, you then manage to put some space between you and the situation,” explains Guido Bondolfi, a psychiatry professor on the medical faculty at the University of Geneva.
As part of a joint project between the faculty and the Higher Health School of Geneva, Bondolfi just launched a Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS) centered on mindfulness. Historically, mindfulness was developed for those left behind by allopathic medicine: people suffering from chronic diseases, obstructive pains resistant to conventional approaches or terminal illnesses for which there is not much to do beyond palliative care. The medical success of the approach has been certified by many studies — including Guido Bondolfi and his team's, carried out with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation.
"If you suffer from depression, a large part of what you are experiencing is negative thoughts about yourself, the world and other people," Ruths says. "Instead of avoiding these thoughts, looking to distract yourself from them or weighing yourself down, we ask patients to sit down and feel what they are living, by letting thoughts flow without interfering. People often experience changes."
It is therefore easy to understand that mindfulness may include unpleasant phases. Essentially therapeutic, the process is radically different from the search for a hypothetical ticket to nirvana. "Mindfulness meditation does not aim to get you high, to smoke a joint, to have your head in the clouds, look for altered states of consciousness," Bondolfi insists. "It's quite the opposite: be even more conscious than usual."
There is of course a paradox because it's not a relaxation session. In mindfulness, there is no specific goal or a dream place to go to. It's about warmly welcoming our internal states. "The only intention you have is to open up and connect with your current state," Bondolfi says, "which sometimes means being in a bad mood, feeling pain or wanting to shut the whole world out."
The popularity of mindfulness, especially in the U.S., has had some setbacks, mostly with instructors whose backgrounds were not properly checked by unscrupulous private agencies. And Bondolfi says that "commonsense" is also necessary to prevent people suffering from severe mental disorders from practicing mindfulness. For the few who have been on the verge of the great void, they can be reassured by the fact that the ancient Buddhist texts predicted it. It is called "falling in the well of nothingness."