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 4 – Lessons for the future continued

We may need to hold the long view for the practice, ourselves and those we work with.  Understandably services and organisations in which mindfulness training is offered to clients will be primarily concerned with the measurable outcomes of mindfulness training and the economics of mindfulness.  We are easily drawn into being solution-centred.  Mindfulness can be seen as a therapeutic tool for managing life or can be seen as part of a transformative pathway concerned with understanding and uprooting the causes of distress and developing liberative understanding.  There are those in more traditional meditative lineages who see contemporary mindfulness as a movement that has abstracted one aspect of the path from the training in liberation and is presenting that fragment as being the whole of the teaching.  There are those in contemporary mindfulness who feel misunderstood and judged by the traditional communities who are unaware of the ongoing investigation in secular mindfulness into ethics, and the whole of the path of awakening.  There are the voices that suggest that to deeply understand mindfulness relies upon deeply understanding core psychological processes outlined not only in Buddhist psychology but increasingly in western psychology.  There are voices that suggest that understanding the origins of mindfulness in the ancient teachings is irrelevant.

The perspective of mindfulness being a skill and attitude that helps us to navigate our way through life and the perspective of mindfulness being one significant feature of a path of transformation are not in my mind mutually exclusive.  There is an immediacy to mindfulness and there is the long view.  Any of you who have undertaken a serious path of cultivating awareness, stillness, calm and understanding know this is the work of a lifetime.  Eight week courses are offered to people who often come to startling understanding and changes in a short period of time.  Yet it is a beginning.  Just as for someone doing an introductory course in meditation or a weeklong retreat – it is a beginning. We have yet to fully develop a comprehensive way of sustaining and supporting people over the long term.   In traditional meditative communities in the west we were good at establishing centres and offering retreats.  We have also come to understand the need to provide a means of people feeling supported and inspired in their lives when retreats come to an end.  Post an eight week course how do we continue to encourage people not just to survive but to thrive, to build upon the learning that has taken place in the eight weeks.   It is a work in progress and I feel it will be another significant step in developing contemporary mindfulness in our society.

Perils – what we have learned in developing meditative pathways in this culture is the peril of sectarianism.  One lineage claiming supremacy over another, one tradition disdaining another.  A similar peril exists in the contemporary mindfulness world.  Whose teaching is better or more comprehensive?  We can take it all too personally.  The heart of all transformation rests in learning to take the self out of the centre of experience.  We need to learn lessons of respect and dignity.  Rather than personalising it perhaps we can, as is happening, simply outline what the components of good teaching and practice are and commit to developing those components.  At the heart of all that we do is compassion, the commitment to understanding the ways to the end of distress and learning to be a conscious participant in the healing and awakening of our world.  Effectiveness relies upon skill and upon understanding.  This is what we commit to.

In times of greatest distress the first capacities and qualities to disappear are kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  In times of greatest distress these are the very qualities that are our greatest allies that guide us though the landscapes of bleakness, depression, anxiety and pain.  In traditional Buddhist psychology these qualities were sidelined for the last 1500 years.  Seen to be secondary to mindfulness and insight.  There is considerable change currently going on through the exploration of the early texts where the Buddha describes kindness and compassion as a mindfulness and a path to awakening in themselves.  They are qualities that can be cultivated, trained and rest upon the same intentionality as any form of mindfulness.

In the first decades of contemporary mindfulness it was accepted that kindness and compassion are implicitly interwoven in the eight week programmes.  Mindfulness is not the cold stare of attention but imbued with the willingness to welcome, accept and befriend all experience.  We cannot assume that we instinctively embrace pain and suffering in our lives with compassion.  We are hard wired to primarily perceive what is wrong and broken.  We respond far more easily to suffering in others with compassion than to the suffering we encounter in ourselves. The shift from aversion to kindness is a transformative one, but deeply challenging.  Much research is going on focussed around the ways in which these core attitudes of kindness and compassion can be cultivated and trained.

Clearly the attitudinal presence of the teacher is central to communicating the significance and centrality of compassion and kindness in the deepening of mindfulness and changing the shape of our minds. Is a mindfulness teacher automatically a compassionate teacher?  Does this rely upon the lessons of compassion they have learnt in the classroom of their own distress and resistance to distress?  Learning inwardly to release our own judgmental, aversive and blaming tendencies is perhaps the ground of the ways we learn to engage with those we teach. We cannot pretend or contrive kindness and compassion, it would never be convincing but we can commit to them. Mindfulness teachers are frequently working with people whose lives have been bereft of compassion and kindness.  They look to the teacher for clues to what compassion looks like.  How do we bring this into our teaching other than through having learnt to make that shift from aversion to befriending within ourselves?

I think we can acknowledge that contemporary mindfulness as a therapeutic tool and path of healing is still in its infancy.  I do not say this in a perjorative way – in a very real sense that is its strength.  We are learning together, exploring together, finding together the ways of deepening in mindfulness inwardly and offering it to others in ways that can be most effective.  Yet we are asked to walk this path with care.  To be open to scrutiny, to be honest inwardly, to be the best teachers we can be.

Gathering together we can support one another, to learn from one another and to inspire one another.  It also offers us a moment to stand back as a community with a shared commitment to the development of mindfulness, and take an honest look at how mindfulness is developing in our society.  We all know this is wonderful and significant work, there are countless people committed to serving others from the basis of their own rigorous training and understanding.  You do not need me to tell you, please don’t be offended, that there is too much flakiness out there under the umbrella of mindfulness.  If this field is to flourish it needs its scientific basis, it needs competence, it needs people willing to consistently examine their own motivations and embodiment.  We can all do our best to take personal responsibility for our own teaching and practice.  Yet if mindfulness is truly to be embedded in our culture, the services and organisations we work for will ask us to take collective responsibility for good practice and competence.  What do we do when we see bad practice, untrained teachers or trainings that are not comprehensive? Compassion can be receptive, it also can be fierce if it is to protect people from harm.  These are difficult questions – yet they are raised on a regular basis from our mainstream organisations and service and we need not flinch from the difficult.

All that we are now is a result of all that we have been, all that we will be tomorrow will be the result of all that we are now.  Mindfulness is a rigorous training, developed in the midst of confusion and adversity.  We cannot take responsibility completely for the outcomes of any teaching we offer.  We can take responsibility for the comprehensiveness of our own training and practice.  We can take care to root our teaching in the deepest motivations of service and compassion.  We can widen the circle of our concern to include those in our world who would or could not walk easily through our doors.  We can commit ourselves to learning the craft and the art of mindfulness that allows the seeds of empathy, integrity, compassion and care to deepen in ourselves.  We can commit to being students of awakening and compassion.

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: Under A Blood Red Sky, Ian Sane