(Please note, the following blog is an extended version of an article by my research colleagues Dr. Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon (that was first published here) and to which I have added some further text. If citing this article, we recommend: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation as self-medication: Can mindfulness be addictive? Located at: https://drmarkgriffiths.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/meditation-as-self-medication-can-mindfulness-be-addictive/).
Mindfulness is growing in popularity and is increasingly being used by healthcare professionals for treating mental health problems. There has also been a gradual uptake of mindfulness by a range of organisations including schools, universities, large corporations, and the armed forces. However, the rate at which mindfulness has been assimilated by Western society has – in our opinion – meant that there has been a lack of research exploring the circumstances where mindfulness may actually cause a person harm. An example of a potentially harmful consequence of mindfulness that we have identified in our own research is that of a person developing an addiction to mindfulness.
In a previous blog, the issue of whether meditation more generally can be addictive was examined. In a 2010 article by Michael Sigman in the Huffington Post entitled “Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street?”, Sigman recounted the story about how one of his friends spent over two hours every day engaging in meditation while sat in the lotus position. He then claimed:
“There are those few for whom meditation can become compulsive, even addictive. The irony here is that an increasing body of research shows that meditation – in particular Buddhist Vipassana meditation – is an effective tool in treating addiction. One category of meditation addiction is related to the so-called ‘spiritual bypass’. Those who experience bliss when they meditate may practice relentlessly to recreate that experience, at the expense of authentic self-awareness. A close friend who’s done Transcendental Meditation for decades feels so addicted to it, she has a hard time functioning when she hasn’t ‘transcended’”.
Obviously, this is purely anecdotal but at least raises the issue that maybe for a very small minority, meditation might be addictive. In addition, empirical studies have shown that meditation can increase pain tolerance, and that the body produces its own morphine-like substances (i.e., endorphins). Therefore, the addictive qualities of meditation may be due to increased endorphin production that creates a semi-dissociative blissful state.
Being addicted to meditation – and more specifically mindfulness – would constitute a form of behavioural addiction (i.e., as opposed to chemical addiction). Examples of better known forms of behavioural addiction are gambling disorder, internet gaming disorder, problematic internet use, sex addiction, and workaholism. According to the components model of addiction, a person would suffer from an addiction to mindfulness if they satisfied the following six criteria:
- Salience: Mindfulness has become the single most important activity in their life.
- Mood modification: Mindfulness is used in order to alleviate emotional stress (i.e., escape) or to experience euphoria (i.e., a ‘high’).
- Tolerance: Practising mindfulness for longer durations in order to derive the same mood-modifying effects.
- Withdrawal: Experiencing emotional and physical distress (e.g., painful bodily sensations) when not practising mindfulness.
- Conflict: The individual’s routine of mindfulness practice causes (i) interpersonal conflict with family members and friends, (ii) conflict with activities such as work, socialising, and exercising, and (iii) psychological and emotional conflict (also known as intra-psychic conflict).
- Relapse: Reverting to earlier patterns of excessive mindfulness practice following periods of control or abstinence.
In modern society, the word ‘addiction’ has negative connotations but it should be remembered that addictions have been described by some as both positive and negative (for instance, Dr. Bill Glasser has spent his whole career talking about ‘positive’ addictions). For example, in separate clinical case studies that we conducted with individuals suffering from pathological gambling, sex addiction, and workaholism, it was observed that the participants substituted their addiction to gambling, work, or sex with mindfulness (and maybe even developed an addiction to it, depending upon the definition of addiction). In the beginning phases of psychotherapy, this process of addiction substitution represented a move forward in terms of the individual’s therapeutic recovery. However, as the therapy progressed and the individual’s dependency on gambling, work, or sex began to weaken, their “addiction” to mindfulness was restricting their personal and spiritual growth, and was starting to cause conflict in other areas of their life. Therefore, it became necessary to help them change the way they practiced and related to mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a technique or behaviour that an individual can choose to practice. However, the idea is that the individual doesn’t separate mindfulness from the rest of their lives. If an individual sees mindfulness as a practice or something that they need to do in order to find calm and escape from their problems, there is a risk that they will become addicted to it. It is for this reason that we always exercise caution before recommending that people follow a strict daily routine of mindfulness practice. In fact, in the mindfulness intervention that we (Shonin and Van Gordon) developed called Meditation Awareness Training, we don’t encourage participants to practice at set times of day or to adhere to a rigid routine. Rather, we guide participants to follow a dynamic routine of mindfulness practice that is flexible and that can be adapted according to the demands of daily living. For example, if a baby decides to wake up earlier than usual one morning, the mother can’t tell it to wait and be quite because it’s interfering with her time for practising mindfulness meditation. Rather, she has to tend to the baby and find another time to sit in meditation. Or better still, she can tend to the baby with love and awareness, and turn the encounter with her child into a form of mindfulness practice. We live in a very uncertain world and so it is valuable if we can learn to be accommodating and work mindfully with situations as they unfold around us.
One of the components in the components model of addiction is ‘salience’ (put more simply, importance). In general, if an individual prioritises a behaviour (such as gambling) or a substance (such as cannabis) above all other aspects of their life, then it’s probably fair to say that their perspective on life is misguided and that they are in need of help and support. However, as far as mindfulness is concerned, we would argue that it’s good if it becomes the most important thing in a person’s life. Human beings don’t live very long and there can be no guarantee that a person will survive the next week, let alone the next year. Therefore, it’s our view that it is a wise move to dedicate oneself to some form of authentic spiritual practice. However, there is a big difference between understanding the importance of mindfulness and correctly assimilating it into one’s life, and becoming dependent upon it.
If a person becomes dependent upon mindfulness, it means that it has remained external to their being. It means that they don’t live and breathe mindfulness, and that they see it as a method of coping with (or even avoiding) the rest of their life. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a person can develop an addiction to mindfulness, and how they can become irritable with both themselves and others when they don’t receive their normal ‘fix’ of mindfulness on a given day.
Mindfulness is a relatively simple practice but it’s also very subtle. It takes a highly skilled and experienced meditation teacher to correctly and safely instruct people in how to practise mindfulness. It’s our view that because the rate of uptake of mindfulness in the West has been relatively fast, in the future there will be more and more people who experience problems – including mental health problems such as being addicted to mindfulness – as a result of practising mindfulness. Of course, it’s not mindfulness itself that will cause their problems to arise. Rather, problems will arise because people have been taught how to practice mindfulness by instructors who are not teaching from an experiential perspective and who don’t really know what they are talking about. From personal experience, we know that mindfulness works and that it is good for a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. However, we also know that teaching mindfulness and meditation incorrectly can give rise to harmful consequences, including developing an addiction to mindfulness.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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