COLUMBUS, Ohio — Increasingly, Americans in settings beyond the yoga studio or nature path are engaging in the practice of mindfulness, a mental technique that dwells on breathing and periods of silence to concentrate on the present.
U.S. Marines are doing it. Office workers are doing it. Prisoners are doing it. The technique is drawing tens of thousands to conferences around the world.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, has written a book, “A Mindful Nation,” pushing mindfulness as an elixir that can tone down political divisions in Washington and return the country to an era of richer personal experience.
Corporations including Google, Target, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Comcast, BASF, Bose and New Balance now offer mindfulness training and encourage its use at work.
The practice’s critics, including some psychologists and religious scholars, say the approach is little more than Buddhist meditation repackaged and rebranded for a secular, and often paying, audience.
“The commercialization of Buddhism has been happening as long as Buddhism has existed,” said Rachelle Scott, an associate professor of religion at the University of Tennessee and author of “Nirvana for Sale.”
“It’s problematic, because most Americans who are engaging in these activities don’t know the cultural backdrop to that, so in order to gain access they have to go to one of these retreats, and they are expensive,” she said.
Of the $34 billion Americans spent on alternative medicine in 2009, $4.2 billion — about 12 percent — was spent in sectors that included mindfulness concepts, such as meditation-related classes or relaxation techniques, according to federal data. Participation in meditation therapy by U.S. adults rose 6 percent a year on average from 2002 to 2007, according to a study by the research group SRI International.
Marine 1st Lt. Scott Williams, 32, said skills he learned through Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training — known in the military as MMFT or “M-fit,” — allow him to rid his mind of negative thoughts and recover more quickly from emotional experiences.
The technique has also reached prisons, where it is being used to reduce stress, anxiety and violence.
Ryan learned the technique at a retreat two days after the 2008 presidential election — the end of a stressful campaign period and the beginning of another.
“I was to the point where I was OK, but I thought, ‘I’m going to be fried by the time I’m 40; I’m just going to be burnt out,’” said Ryan, who was 35 at the time.
For Ryan, the feeling he gets during mindfulness meditation reminds him of the utter concentration and single-mindedness athletes feel when they’re “in the zone.”
In fact, it was Phil Jackson, the legendary National Basketball Association coach, who was among the first to legitimize mind-body techniques in popular culture as he led the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to NBA 11 titles from 1989 to 2010.
Jackson was nicknamed the “Zen Master” for a holistic approach to coaching that drew upon Eastern religious philosophy. At the same time, brain science was beginning to validate what practitioners found evident: The brain can be trained to de-stress, and the body will perform better.
The growing body of research showing the brain has the capacity to change throughout life is bringing mental fitness onto the same plane as physical fitness, said Georgetown University associate professor Elizabeth Stanley.
Stanley, who runs MMFT and conducts research for the Army and Marines, said mindfulness meditation “isn’t touchy-feely at all” in its new uses.
Stanley said studies involving subjects engaged in repeated mindfulness have shown it changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain, leading over time to structural changes. The practice can shrink the amygdala, which controls our fear response; enlarge the hippocampus, which controls memory; and make the insular cortex that regulates the body’s internal environment more efficient, according to recent peer-reviewed studies by Stanley and others.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are touting several recent studies that have found the technique can reduce the severity of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in women and reduce stress and pain in chronic sufferers of fibromyalgia and depression.
Not everyone is sold. In her self-help website Mindful Construct, psychology master’s student Melissa Karnaze worries mindfulness runs the risk of encouraging participants to suppress valid emotions.
“We rely on various types of judgment for survival, and context matters,” she said in an email.