Future

The Mindfulness Boom And Its Modern Misconceptions

Invented by Buddhist monks, secularized and developed by Western science, mindfulness seems to be everywhere. But the aim is to make the most of life, not to seek nirvana.

A mindfulness-based yoga lesson in St. Petersburg, Florida, in March 2011.
Nic Ulmi

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."


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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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