We’ve been piling on the mindfulness bandwagon since the 1970s, when Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the world to mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—a secularized practice rooted in ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
It’s no wonder we’re drawn to the practice. Research credits mindfulness with decreasing anxiety and depression, calming our spiraling minds, improving our immune system, and any number of other mind and body benefits. Schools have introduced mindfulness programs to quell students’ anxiety and manage their behavior. Corporations are using it to enhance workplace productivity, inspired by C-suite success stories like Bill Gates and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who swear by mindfulness meditation.
But mindfulness may have a shadow side: New research from the University at Buffalo suggests that mindfulness can make you selfish.
Meditation for me, me, me?
While mindfulness practices have been given credit for all kinds of mental, physical, and practical benefits, they’re all benefits for the meditator. If you practice mindfulness, you may notice changes in your own well-being and your ability to navigate the world around you. But Michael Poulin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UB, led a team of researchers who looked at how mindfulness impacts how you respond to and interact with others.
“For people who tend to view themselves as more independent, mindfulness actually decreased prosocial behavior,” he says. In other words, if you’re a go-it-alone, independent type, your mindfulness practice may make you less likely to be concerned about the needs of others.
But depending on your worldview, the opposite could also be true. Mindfulness may also make you more likely to engage in activities that would help others.
“Mindfulness increased prosocial actions for people who tend to view themselves as more interdependent,” says Poulin.
It’s not just your personal worldview; culture also comes into play. Mindfulness evolved from Eastern spiritual practices in cultures that tend to center family and community over individuality (“us” over “me”). Poulin speculates that practicing mindfulness in Western countries—where people tend to be more individualistic—removes that cultural context. Here, a practice that involves paying attention to what’s happening within might keep you focused inwardly. In other cultures, the strong pull of community would keep you from staying “inside.”
Lean on your “limbs”
Before you toss your zafu, remember that mindfulness is a practice that, like any muscle, gets stronger depending on how you use it. If you want keep an open heart, yoga philosophy can be your guide. Turn to the yamas—the first of the eight limbs of yoga, which outlines the ethical practices that yogis are supposed to abide by.
Take ahimsa, interpreted as not harming another person or thing. That would seem easy enough even if you’re not focused on other people. But practicing ahimsa suggests you should actively try to be helpful to others and to stop harms you notice around you. “Being neutral is not the point,” says veteran yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater. “Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love.”
The same goes for asteya, non-stealing. Most of us wouldn’t dream of actively taking something from someone. But a deeper meditation may reveal how to avoid taking more than we need or taking credit for someone else’s efforts or ideas.
“One way to sidestep the trap of greed is to follow the advice of the sages: Be happy with what you have,” Lasater says. That’s the practice of santosha (contentment).
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras has a prescription for unselfish living as well. In Satchidananda’s translation of Book 1, Sutra 33, he says, “If you can lend a helping hand, do it. If you can share half of your loaf, share it. Be merciful always. By doing that, you will retain the peace and poise of your mind.”
Satchidananda’s take suggests that being kind to others will circle back to benefit us: “Whether our mercy is going to help that person or not, by our own feeling of mercy, at least we are helped.”
Either way, mindfulness wins.