The Long View – perils and possibilities

The Long View – perils and possibilities

What can mindfulness learn from the mainstreaming of Buddhism in the West? Part 3 – Lessons for the future

In Part 3 of a four part post, Christina Feldman discusses the challenges facing the field of mindfulness for the future, and the lessons that can be learnt from the establishment of meditative traditions in Western culture over the last 45 years.

You can read Part 1 – History of Mindfulness here

You can read Part 2 – Contemporary Mindfulness here

I would like to share with you some of the lessons my colleagues and I have learned, and are continuing to learn, in 45 years of teaching about perils and possibilities.  They are, I sense, the same lessons the contemporary mindfulness community is learning.  Perhaps we are all asking important questions that will shape how these pathways develop in the future.

Traditionally it is said that generosity and ethics protect the integrity of the teaching and the path.  In meditative communities there is nothing that does so much harm as a failure of ethical guidelines by the leaders and teachers in those communities.  Yet integrity is difficult to define and perhaps even more challenging to embody. Colleague – if the investigation of ethics does not make you uncomfortable you haven’t understood the question correctly.  Classically ethics is much deeper than a set of rules, although in traditional meditative communities ethics is formulated in agreements and guidelines just as they are in many of your professional organisations, there are of course also many teaching mindfulness that have no formal ties to professional organisations and their ethical standards.

Classically ethics is described as an embodied way of living in which all of our thoughts, words and actions are rooted in kindness and compassion.  Integrity is concerned not with obedience to rules only, but with a commitment to care, respect and dignity.  Mindfulness itself is sometimes translated as ‘to care’, as an embodied ethical way of being.  What is the place of ethics in contemporary mindfulness, is it a set of rules or a shared commitment you consciously and collectively make as teachers and trainers?

In contemporary mindfulness in our culture, just as in meditative communities, I feel the question of ethics is too important to ignore and has nuances not known in ancient Indian communities.  Non-harming is the heart of integrity, but there are other dimensions of ethics that raise challenging questions for us all.  Teaching mindfulness could be described as a wise livelihood but no livelihood is implicitly wise or skilful – the skilfulness in teaching meditation or contemporary mindfulness is, I would suggest, directly linked to our own motivation, our deeply felt sense of our work being guided by compassion and a wish to serve.   In meditation communities today we are asking important and difficult questions, they are ethical questions.  Do we want our retreats and our programmes to be populated primarily by the white middle class who can afford to attend?  Do we have a responsibility to reach out, to commit to inclusivity and diversity – to find the ways to remove the barriers, real or perceived, that exclude people?  Teachers need to make a living, do we find the ways to provide places in programmes for those who cannot afford to attend, to understand cultural differences in which our language, our poetry, our stories feel to be exclusive.

Money is a real question, not always a comfortable question – I think it raises an even deeper and possibly more troubling question:  Is teaching mindfulness a career choice or is it a way of living, serving and working, born of a deep inner commitment to contribute to the healing of distress? –It is possible, as one newspaper remarked recently, to make a lot of money teaching mindfulness, just as in Asia it is possible to be intent on being a rich monastery or a monastery deeply committed to serving all. I am also aware of how many of you offer endless hours of unpaid service and work out of generosity and a deep commitment to making this path inclusive. We live in a time when financial hardship and all of the difficulties that come with it, plays a major contributing role in psychological distress, despair and depression.  So many young people face levels of pressure that they crumble psychologically, so many in our society feel excluded and disaffected.  Mindfulness as an embodied ethic teaches us to widen the circle of concern, to contribute to a culture of health, a healthy society.  Its ability to do this rests upon our capacity to include the whole of our communities and societies in the work we do.  There are no easy answers to this question of inclusivity and accessibility and I am not proposing solutions – but it is an important question and a responsibility that will have much to do with protecting the future of mindfulness and letting us sleep at night without regret.

Meditative communities in the West have faced true difficulty when teachers have forgotten to be students – instead becoming identified with a role and forgetting that this is a journey of a lifetime.  Forgetting too. that our capacity to embody this teaching, is directly linked to the aliveness of our own practice.   Mindfulness I think is something much deeper than a technique we learn solely as a means to teach others.    In developing and deepening our understanding of mindfulness there are two simultaneous journeys being made.  One is the journey of learning and developing the skills and practices that support the development of mindfulness-based applications.  The second journey, equally if not more significant, is the journey we make inwardly in understanding how our own world of experience is shaped, understanding what it means in that experience to find a freedom from being governed by habitual patterns and narratives that create personal distress.

Through dedicated and sustained personal practice we begin to develop an inner awareness of our own mind/heart processes that is the root of compassion, warmth, acceptance and understanding we are able to bring to being with others.   Through the development of our own practice and investigation we begin to learn not only what it means to be established in a mindful awareness in our own life, but what it means to be a mindful teacher, a mindful clinician who is able to embody the qualities we encourage clients and patients to develop.  This is a learning of a lifetime.

The greatest and most frequently repeated complaint I hear from those teaching mindfulness is the uncomfortable awareness of the moments when they are asking their clients to develop kindness, compassion, intention and investigation; yet are not developing and applying those same skills and qualities in their own lives.  Some mindfulness teachers report feeling fraudulent. They lead a group and go home and find themselves snapping at their partner, irritated with their children and so busy they cannot find the space for personal practice.  I welcome these reports.  Dissonance is an uncomfortable awareness – the gap between our aspirations, our intentions and indeed what we emphasise in our teaching and how we ourselves live, act and speak.  Dissonance is not to be judged, it is the classroom of a dedicated mindfulness teacher and student.  We need critical friends, to develop a critical mind within ourselves to know when dissonance is not being attended to.  We need to develop our own capacity to receive feedback and criticism.  We may benefit from seeking out peers who can guide us. We need to know when it might be important for us to stop teaching for a time and attend to our own well-being.  Dissonance judged or unattended to disables our capacity to be with ourselves or to be with others in a skilful and kind way. We do not need to be perfectly mindful, perfectly compassionate, perfectly calm in order to teach.  We could wait a long time.  But perhaps we do need to hold embodiment as our aspiration and the heart of the teaching.

What do we mean by embodiment?   Mindfulness has key elements – kindness, unconditional positive regard, intentionality, sensitivity, investigation, empathy and present moment attentiveness.  My current working definition is – the willingness and capacity to be equally near all events and experience with kindness, curiosity and discernment.  These are not abstract theories or qualities – the invitation of this path is to live in this way, to embody these qualities in all moments and relationships as a direct way of caring for ourselves and others.  This can almost seem a frightening invitation as mindfulness reveals to us all the moments of heedlessness and reactivity in our own lives.  Embodiment in my understanding is not a future, remote goal it is a present moment invitation and commitment that is developed nowhere else except in the moments of dissonance.

There has been sufficient research done to draw clear parallels between the embodied mindful presence of the teacher and the positive outcomes for the clients.  We can never guarantee positive outcomes and indeed it would be unhelpful to assume that exaggerated responsibility.  Yet in teaching vulnerable populations who may have lifelong patterns of self-judgment, despair, depression and anxiety, there comes a huge responsibility. We may teach people who have no life experience of what compassion or acceptance feels like.  In teaching sessions people absorb the clues and change in attitudes that are embodied in the accepting, welcoming, empathic, compassionate teacher.  We cannot pretend or contrive these qualities; they have been developed in the classroom of our relationship to ourselves.

It is not the skills or techniques alone that have the power to transform suffering; it is the shift from aversion to befriending, from fear to capacity, from habit to mindfulness, from reactivity to responsiveness, from patterns of abandonment to relationships of curiosity and connectedness that transform suffering.  The most significant shift I have ever seen anyone make in mindfulness training is the shift from aversion and abandonment to the capacity to befriend their minds and lives. These primary shifts in attitude are guided by the teacher, embodied by the teacher.

As we all know there are numerous lively and at times difficult conversations about competency taking place.  They are necessary conversations if mindfulness is to have a viable possibility of becoming more deeply integrated into our society.  You can take a week long online training and become a mindfulness teacher.  You can take a postgraduate training that will incorporate personal retreat experience, supervision, understanding the core Buddhist psychological underpinnings of mindfulness and academic rigour.  There are pressures from services and organisations that people work for to present mindfulness training to clients even if they have done little training themselves.   There are pressures from services to deliver shortened trainings in order to meet demand.  We live in interesting times.  Competence may simply be another word for embodiment, it can and most likely will be increasingly regulated outwardly, most significantly I feel it needs to be honestly regulated inwardly.  Competence means more than accreditation, it is the primary way of protecting our own well-being, safeguarding the well-being of all those we teach and protecting the integrity of the path so mindfulness is not just the trend of the moment, but a genuine way of  easing suffering, facilitating healing that has a future.

Next on the OMC blog: in the final post of our four part special, Christina will continue to explore the greatest challenges facing the field of mindfulness, and asks, what is the compassionate way of dealing with bad practice and poorly trained teachers?

Christina Feldman is an Insight Meditation Society guiding teacher and co-founder of Gaia House in England. She has been teaching insight meditation since 1976 and has recently been involved in the dialogue between cognitive therapies and Buddhist practice. Her books include Compassion, Woman Awake, Silence and The Buddhist Path to Simplicity.

This blog is a transcript of Christina Feldman’s keynote at the 2015 Bangor Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice Conference and is republished with Rebecca Crane and Christina Feldman’s permission. You can watch a video of Christina’s keynote here.

Oxford Mindfulness Centre

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) is an internationally recognised centre of excellence at the University of Oxford, and has been at the forefront of research and development in the field of mindfulness. The OMC works to advance the understanding of evidence-based mindfulness through research, publication, training and dissemination. Our world leading research investigates the mechanisms, efficacy, effectiveness, cost effectiveness and implementation of mindfulness. We offer a wide range of training, education, and clinical services, all taught by leading experts and teachers in the field, who are training the next generation of MBCT researchers, teachers and trainers. We actively engage in collaborative partnership to shape the field and influence policy nationally and internationally. Through the charitable work of the OMC, we are improving the accessibility of MBCT for those most in need.

Photo: Red leaves, Susanne Nilsson