The mindful scientist Part 2

The mindful scientist Part 2

After writing the FEBS Network article "The mindful scientist" where I described my experience with mindfulness and how it can help scientists reframe their struggles, I received some valuable feedback that could be important to follow up.

There is still a stigma around mental health. When discussing issues around mental health, I have observed that there is still too much stigma. Often, "mental health" is seen as a sinister expression filled with negative connotations, primarily associated with severe psychological disorders. Similarly, meditation, a practice that could improve our mental health, is still seen as an obscure activity imbibed with religious implications. These views couldn't be farther from reality. Although serious mental health issues should be taken care of by professionals, in my opinion, we need to reframe the broader concept of "mental health" and compare it to "physical health". Indeed, we need to see our mind as an essential component of our "self" (despite the issue I discussed of the illusion of the self, but that is another story) and we need to take care of it as we take care of our bodily parts. From this perspective, mental health is one of the overarching pillars of our health, and meditation is one of the tools that we can use to train our minds, a mental exercise with proven benefits. When I was a kid, exercise was not seen as something you would do for fun (why suffer?!). I remember watching people running and asking why they were doing it, thinking they were harming themselves (yes, that is bad considering how much I loved running some years later!). Using this analogy, I feel that meditation is now seen as exercise was in the 1980s, something for fanatics only. I hope that one day soon, as we now see exercise as part of our routine (correct?!), we will see meditation as an integral part of our lives, not only to be better scientists but also to be better human beings. After all, by practising, you will realise that there seems to be a sort of muscle (as Sam Harris would put it) that you can train every time you get distracted and you get back to focus on your object of meditation.

Mindfulness is not a panacea to the misdeeds of academia. In my previous article, I also pictured mindfulness as a powerful tool to improve our mental health, considering the many challenges found in our profession. However, there is a caveat: the main concern here is that mindfulness shouldn't be seen as the panacea to all the issues we face, as some academic institutions propose. In other words, mindfulness shouldn't be used as a card to silence people's concerns about misdeeds perpetrated by institutions. If there are significant problems in an institution, such as bullying, harassment, abuse, etc., offering mindfulness can be seen as a belittling of the problem and a strategy to transfer the responsibility of misdeeds to individuals who may be depicted as not sufficiently resilient or strong. So, while mindfulness could be used as a strategy to improve oneself, it cannot be sold as an antidote to destructive behaviours, which should be instead corrected and punished. Of course, this argument is perilous: when do these "destructive behaviours" depend on genuine misdeeds or are so because of the individual's perceptions of a specific issue? I guess this largely depends on current moral and ethical societal norms, i.e. what is accepted by society at any given time. As these norms are not fixed, there will always be a continuum, and behaviours once considered acceptable would suddenly be regarded as inappropriate or even toxic. This topic is very delicate, and it goes beyond the scope of this short piece, but it highlights the complex nature of the problem. My suggestion is to work on our mental health and societal standards simultaneously. It may be helpful to go back to the similarity between physical and mental health. Exercise can prepare one for strenuous activities, but it cannot prevent accidents (although it may reduce injuries). Similarly, meditation and mindfulness can increase one's tolerance to bad behaviours but it cannot stop people misbehaving against you, and this is when action should be taken.

Mindfulness is not a de-stressing exercise. Another relevant misconception about mindfulness and meditation is that people should use them as de-stressing activities. While it is true that proper mindfulness training could help release some stress and anxiety, removing stress is not the primary purpose of mediation. On the contrary, meditation is a set of exercises aimed at recognising stress for what it is, a set of bodily sensations and thoughts that are transitory. Realising how stress manifests and knowing when we start to be the personification of our negative thoughts are beneficial processes to reframe stress and anxiety. Again, meditation will not (at least initially) reduce the number of negative thoughts and feelings, but it will help to see them clearly and move on. Put differently, one cannot tackle stress and anxiety without knowing what they are and how they affect one's mind.

Happiness and sadness: two sides of the same coin. Besides a de-stressing exercise, mindfulness can also be seen as a strategy to achieve happiness. Is that correct? After realising that feelings are transient (impermanence), one will immediately appreciate that a degree of sadness must also be present for happiness to exist. Both sorrow and happiness are part of our existence, and they cannot be without each other. So, by learning to be mindful, one could accept that every feeling is transient and that clinging to short-lived happiness necessarily brings more problems than it will solve. This concept is one of the central tenets of stoic philosophy, which shows that reaching happiness is a transitory and illusory condition that quickly subsides, leading to hedonic adaptation (i.e. happiness will disappear as soon as a goal is achieved, and one will never stop chasing happiness, becoming constantly frustrated). While our brain circuitry may be hardwired to get a reward from these short-lived positive feelings, we must realise that "happiness" is just another craving imposed by modern society, which tries to satiate us via materialism and consumerism.

In conclusion, we need to train ourselves to be more compassionate and kind human beings to ourselves and our companions in life. We owe this to the new generation and we should let go of selfishness imposed by western society. As Adam Grant recently said, let's try to behave as virtuous ancestors, not as dutiful descendants.


Top image of post by S Migaj on Unsplash