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Willoughby Britton and Jared Lindahl are two highly influential figures in the mindfulness community. Willoughby is an affective neuroscientist best known for her leadership in calling for a more nuanced and balanced conversation about the science of meditation. Jared is a religious studies scholar contributing to this conversation by raising sensitivity to cultural and religious diversity in meditative experience. They are both engaged in the Varieties of Contemplative Experience Project, which investigates the types of experiences meditators have, including adverse ones. This recently published paper is the first of many for this project.
I had a wide-ranging conversation with Willoughby and Jared that lasted a little less than an hour. They are incredibly articulate and rigorous and doing genuinely groundbreaking work on the science of mindfulness. Our conversation touched on:
- Willoughby’s widely appreciated optimistic 2011 TED Talk and her transition to a more critical stance on mindfulness research
- Jared’s take on the explosion of interest in mindfulness in the west and the importance of sensitivity to individual differences and cultural diversity
- The state of the science of meditation, including adverse experiences
- The training they developed to help mindfulness/meditation teachers deal with adverse experiences
Willoughby and Jared will be in Montreal this coming April 19-21 for Mindfulness Growing Pains, organized by mindfulnessMTL (mMTL). (They will be joined by David Treleaven, a Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness expert, whom I’ll be interviewing in a couple of weeks – stay tuned). The event features a public lecture about research on “Meditation-Related Challenges” and a 2-day training for mindfulness and meditation teachers on “Working Skillfully with Meditation-Related Changes.” mMTL is a not-for-profit community initiative I co-founded in 2015 to bring together mindfulness practitioners, teachers, health-care professionals in Montreal. All the information is available at mindflunessMTL website and Facebook page.
I asked WB about her 2011 TEDxTalk. You expressed a lot of hope and enthusiasm around the emergence contemplative neuroscience and the promise of that field in promoting well-being in the world. More recently, you have become known for your critical stance on the so-called “mindfulness movement.” What happened over that period?
WB talks about the evolution of the mindfulness movement from mindfulness 1.0 to mindfulness 2.0.
WB compares her relationship to the mindfulness movement to a romantic relationship: in the first phase, you feel in love and get caught up in the excitement and then as the relationship matures, you have a more balanced experience.
JL offers a brief history of the secular mindfulness movement.
JL suggests that the rise of mindfulness in the west can at least partly be attributed to the fact that mindfulness helps create meaning for people in a cultural context where religiosity is on the decline.
I ask WB about her recent publication: In recent years, there has been significant pushback from the scientific community to reign in the hype and do more rigorous science. In fact, you are an author on an important paper that just came out in Perspectives on Psychological Science called “Mind the hype” on the topic. What do really know about the benefits of mindfulness and what work is left to do?
I ask them about the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project: “What can you say about who is at risk for adverse experiences? For the clinicians out there, what can we say about contraindications?”
WB talks about some experiences she had during her psychiatric residency that inspired her to look into the darker side of meditation
I shared an example of a recent incident at our meditation studio, in which a participant had an intense adverse experience from a meditation practice. I asked them how they would recommend addressing it.
WB talks about the steps that should be taken long before that moment of crisis, including training the teacher and meditator to develop internal resources for finding safety in moments of difficulty.
JL: Why is it necessary to be sensitive to cultural diversity in teaching meditation?
I asked them to tell us about the origins of the teacher training they developed.
WB talks about the value of clinical training for instructions of Mindfulness-Based Interventions
WB describes the 6 modules of the training
I asked them how their research and interest in the darker side of meditation has impacted their personal practices.