Mindfulness Can Make You Selfish

We have written extensively about how mindfulness can help you live a happier, healthier, less stressful life. It’s free to practice, can be done any time and anywhere and has no physical negative side effects. However, there is a darker side to mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness can make you more selfish, depending on how you view yourself. A study used 366 participants. Half were a control group who were just told to let their minds wander for 15 minutes. The other half did breathing-focused meditation. They were asked if they viewed themselves as independent or interdependent.

Afterward, they were asked if they would like to participate in charity work and stuff envelopes to help fund a charity for the homeless. People who had gone through the mindfulness exercise and considered themselves interdependent spent more time helping and stuffed 17 percent more envelopes than the control group. Independent-minded people in the mindfulness group were less likely to help and stuffed 15 percent fewer envelopes than the control group.

A short mindfulness exercise made independent-minded people less generous than they would have been otherwise,” said Michael Poulin, an associate professor in psychology at the State Univ. of New York at Buffalo. “We believe that mindfulness makes people more aware and accepting of their own thoughts, goals, and values. And for independent-minded people, a lot of these thoughts are about getting the best outcomes for themselves. Donating money or time may not seem like it’s in their own interest.”

Prof. Poulin then did a follow-up study. They had people read passages written with either “I/me” or “we/us” as the pronouns and had them choose the ones that resonated the most. Then they meditated. Finally, they were asked if they would like to help with charity work. People who chose the passages written with “I/me” were 33 percent less likely to volunteer than a control group. People who picked “we/us” were 40 percent more likely to volunteer.

Some critics of how people in the Western world practice mindfulness are unsurprised. In Asian cultures, where mindfulness originated, people focus more on interdependence and acting in the group’s best interest. People in the West have a culture of priding themselves on being independent.

Mindfulness practice was intended to lead to the clear insight that despite appearing separate, all phenomena — including our sense of self — are, in their true nature, relative and interdependent,” said Ronald Purser, author of the book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. “Mindfulness [in the West] has become a stripped-down, DIY, self-help technique.”

There are forms of mindfulness that can help even the most independent person avoid becoming selfish while practicing mindfulness. There’s “loving kindness meditation” that combines breathing and thinking about our sense of connection with others — from close friends to strangers. There is also “mindful listening,” wherein you pay close attention to someone else’s explanation of their emotions.

Merely making people think about the word ‘we’ instead of the word ‘I’ makes mindfulness bring out generosity,” said Prof. Poulin. “If it’s primarily for relaxation or a sense of peace, our findings might not matter all that much. But to the extent someone wants to practice mindfulness for help with being a compassionate or moral person, it might be important to pair this practice with deliberate thoughts about how we are connected to others — that is, to be mindful of oneself as part of a ‘we’ not just an ‘I.’

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