Sunday, 8 August 2010

On Mindfulness Teaching and Transmission...

It's fantastic to see the current explosion of interest in practising mindfulness meditation. It's been happening in the US for a while, and now here in the UK there is the start of a real recognition that being mindful can make a tangible difference to health and happiness. Largely we can thank science for this - almost every day there is a new study linking meditation practice to health and well-being benefits - in the last month alone we've seen studies linking mindfulness to improved attention, decreased pain perception, PTSD, Parkinson's disease, alcohol relapse prevention, eating disorders and fibromyalgia. These studies have the credibility to convince those who wouldn't take the word of a meditation master - which in this age, is most people.
But there is a potential problem - while most research is carried out on courses taught by experienced guides, the surge in interest will inevitably create demand, and already there are many companies springing up to offer mindfulness training to those who want it, and some of those who are offering to teach have only minimal experience of practice themselves.
In the buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on transmission - the view that meditative insight is passed down from those who have great experience, and can embody the teachings they are presenting. In this way, the practices are not so much taught as modelled - a teacher with little insight will have little to offer their students.
The teachings offered in programmes like mindfulness-based stress reduction are fairly basic (and by that I do not mean to denigrate them). They offer a grounding in sitting meditation, mindful movement and body scan techniques, and have the potential to connect with a very wide audience in a way that an esoteric Tibetan buddhist ritual might not. But even so, the transmission of these techniques won't be effective if the teacher hasn't achieved some depth of understanding of them. And I fear that increasingly, people without sufficient experience will find themselves leading such courses, and that as a result, there will be a lot of bad mindfulness going on. We will see misconceptions like "mindfulness is relaxation", "mindfulness is a self-control technique", "mindfulness is concentration" and so on. Just because science is showing mindfulness works doesn't mean anyone can teach it once they have read about it.
To be clear, I am no meditation master. I have a fairly low level of what mindfulness academics would call 'dispositional mindfulness' - but that's also one reason why I practice and write about the subject. I know it is something I need, and which makes my life better when I am able to embody it. However, I also know that my own understanding (such as it is) has come from some years of consistent practice. And not just a bit of daily practice - it was only when I went on my first 28-day retreat that I began to really get some in-depth insight into what meditation could show me.  I understand that I don't find it easy, and I can empathise with others who feel the same way. At the same time, the more I have practised, and the more deeply, the more I've learnt.

There are some people who can embody mindfulness much more naturally than I can (though if they haven't practised as well, I doubt their ability to teach it to others, as they may not understand the frustrations we low-level practitioners go through!). But what concerns me are those who go on an eight-week course, have a daily practice for a month or two and then decide they are ready to teach, perhaps without undertaking any further study or in-depth retreat. Some may turn out to be great teachers - I fear many may not. There is the potential for a lot of bad mindfulness transmission - and as a result, some very disillusioned students, perhaps who might be put off engaging with the practice altogether. That would be a shame.

I agree with the good people at the Bangor University Centre For Mindfulness Research and Practice, who are resisting the idea of standard regulation for mindfulness teachers. After all - who would set the rules? If it was the usual kind of regulation, we could easily end up with a set of criteria that includes someone with an academic psychology degree and no experiential understanding and excludes, say, The Dalai Lama ("I'm sorry your Holiness, but we need to see a few more CPD credits"). Nevertheless, regulation is embedded in the buddhist system - a new teacher is validated by his teachers, within the context of a practice lineage.

Somehow, we will need to find a way - to recognise that to offer simple meditation instruction does not require the teacher to have undergone the trials of Milarepa, but also that graduation to instructor status requires some basic level of realisation that can be transmitted to the student. Also, that this graduation is approved by senior practitioners who have themselves attained some level of wisdom, and which is not solely dependent on having ticked a number of academic boxes. Basically, we need some sense of a mindfulness teaching lineage that can recongise experiential and not just theoretical attainment. But how to achieve that, when mindfulness seems to be taking root within a mainstream education system that tends to value only academic achievement and which validates students according to intellectual criteria Any suggestions?

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love this post. I am always looking for creative ways to teach mindfulness. Clients need this so badly, and I think that one of the things that I really try to bring to my mindfulness "shorts" are inclusive of what matters, means something, or impacts me as well. I have seen lots of DBT "mindfulness" teachings a watered down version of something they are trying to replicate from Marsha Linehan, and the integrity of the message is lost. I think that mindfulness includes creativity and that's what I love about it.

    I'm trying to post a weekly blog, most of them include mindfulness applications, and what I may tell clients during the course of a week. I'm still learning the social media business...but I'm hoping to have my blog a little more shaped up shortly.