Beware Of This Unforeseen Consequence Of Mindfulness Meditation

Not every problem can be solved through mindfulness meditation, explains psychologist Andrew Hafenbrack.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 27, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that mindfulness meditation can sometimes be used, unconsciously and counterintuitively, to assuage one's guilt and shirk the responsibility to make things right.

I recently spoke to psychologist Andrew Hafenbrack of the University of Washington to understand why mindfulness meditation can have an effect that seems opposite from its intention. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Your research studies an unusual consequence of mindfulness. What prompted you to choose the effects of mindfulness on guilt as your topic?

I was interested in doing this research because, after I started studying meditation and meditating myself, I noticed that I was using it as almost a default way of reacting to stressors.

This was great when I was overly ruminating or overreacting to some minor problem. And, it is a powerful sleep aid.

Sometimes, however, this meant that I would meditate or focus on my breath in situations where there was actually a significant problem and it would have been better if I had faced it directly and immediately.

I had some confidence that I was not alone in this when I read a Harvard Business Review article by medical doctor and executive coach David Brendel in 2015, where he described that he worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, preferred to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset. The issue here is that some problems require more thinking, not less.

I also know several people who are into mind-body practices, including but not limited to mindfulness meditation, but who are unusually flaky or otherwise don't treat other people particularly well. So I wondered what was going on.

It seemed to go against the essence of what I thought mindfulness and meditation were supposed to do, which is largely due to the associations I had based on the traditional or religious forms.

What was the methodology of your study? What were your key findings?

We have eight different studies and they have different methodologies.

At the beginning of the studies, we asked some or all of the participants to imagine they had harmed people they care about or recall a time that they really had harmed someone they cared about in the past.

One thing that was consistent across all of the studies is that we randomly assigned participants to either meditate (for 8 or 15 minutes) or not (in the control condition(s)).

Then, we asked them to answer questions about how guilty they felt and/or some measure of how motivated they were to pay back people they had harmed, either by asking questions directly about how much they wanted to pay people back, or we asked them to write an apology letter directed to the person they harmed, or we asked how much money they would give to the people they had harmed.

Our key findings were that this short period of meditation reduced how guilty people felt, and this reduction in guilt went on to mediate or explain why people who meditated felt less motivated to pay back people they had harmed compared to control condition participants.

Your paper mentions that when mindfulness first emerged, it was a combination of moral and mental practices. Would you say that it might be beneficial to revisit that model of mindfulness in today's time?

That is one possible conclusion that people could draw from our research, and some authors such as Ron Purser have made that argument well.

However, as Jaime Kucinskas has shown in her qualitative research on the popularization of mindfulness, the aspects of mindfulness that felt religious were removed intentionally in order to reduce resistance to the spread of the practice.

Whether the earlier model of mindfulness is revisited or people maintain their focus on others or ethical ideals in some other way, I think it is important for people to know that focused breathing meditation brings people's focus inward to their own body and mind, and in isolation that can lead to low levels of focus on other people, especially regarding other people who are not physically present in the moment in one's surroundings.

What is loving kindness meditation and how does it remedy the problem unearthed by your research?

Loving kindness meditation or 'metta' meditation consists of visualizing other people in one's mind and sending wishes that each is happy, well, and free from suffering.

This form of meditation is less common than focused breathing meditation but it still does appear in many secular mindfulness meditation programs such as Jon Kabat-Zinn's MBSR.

This meditation led to higher levels of motivation to pay back people one has harmed compared to focused breathing meditation, and we found that this was because loving kindness meditation led to a higher level of focus on other people and higher momentary feelings of love.

What are some practical takeaways from your research for the average person?

I hope this research is a bit of a cautionary tale that even though there are many real, known benefits of focused breathing meditation, people can, even unintentionally, use it to avoid some things that they would be better off facing directly, such as by artificially cleansing their conscience after wrongdoing.

I also think that loving kindness is possibly underrated given how it also puts people into a state of mindfulness and is effective at increasing positive emotions without withdrawing attention into oneself.

So the simple advice is to try loving kindness meditation if you have not already. There are many free guided meditation recordings on the internet.

How do you hope your research influences intervention efforts?

I hope that this research makes people use loving kindness, or use it more. I also hope it makes people aware that the intention they bring to meditation matters.

I also hope this article and my other research help people think of a psychological state of mindfulness for what it is and does rather than as a vague panacea.

A state of mindfulness cultivated focused breathing meditation is focused on the present (not past or future), calm (low energy), not-negative (neutral or positive), and withdraws attention into the self (reduces focus on others who are not present).

It is likely to help in situations and for tasks that require focus on present, calmness, positive emotions, and self-focus.

It is unlikely to help – and may even backfire – in situations and for tasks that require focus on past or future, high energy, negative emotions, and thoughts about other people who are not physically present.

For more information on my research stream, including a story about why Arianna Huffington, Phil Jackson, and Deepak Chopra dislike some of my research, please see this TED-like talk I gave last month:

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where do you see the future of research on this topic going?

One of the things I have struggled with is getting a true on-the-spot mindfulness study where employees are given an 8-minute meditation recording and suggested to use it over the next few weeks when they notice they are in highly stressful situations, maybe a couple of times per week.

This was the underlying idea that has guided my research for a decade (in contrast to the standard advice that people should meditate every day for 30-45 minutes to get benefits), but until recently I was only able to run these short one-shot meditation induction lab or online studies where we as the experimenters asked the participants to meditate in the context of a single lab session.

So we didn't really know whether the results we find in one-shot studies apply to situations where people notice their own high stress level while going through their daily life and decide on their own to meditate on-the-spot at that moment.

I recently was able to partner with a researcher who was able to run an on-the-spot mindfulness field experiment over an 8-week period with hundreds of employees. I hope to publish those results soon and share them!