The role of retreats for MBCT teachers

The role of retreats for MBCT teachers

What is the role of retreats in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for teachers? A dialogue on the perils, possibilities and ways forward.

“When we use the term ‘mindfulness-based’ we are not only referring to what is being taught in the class or clinic is ‘based in mindfulness,’ we are also saying that the base out of which skill as a teacher arises is his or her own daily mindfulness practice. … Teachers who use this approach require the depth of practice and perspective that comes only from knowing, from the inside, what mindfulness practice is and what it is not. This means that teachers of mindfulness are practitioners of mindfulness in their own daily lives. Without a teacher having an on-going mindfulness practice, whatever is being taught is not MBCT.”

Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2013; pp. 6-7

Retreats are often described as fundamental to the professional and personal development of MBCT teachers. Numerous aspiring teachers experience retreats as a transformational element of the initial training pathway, sometimes in quite extraordinary ways. Regular retreats are also widely believed to be essential for continuing professional development for mindfulness teachers.

In this blog post John Peacock, Ruth Baer, Zindel Segal, Rebecca Crane, Willem Kuyken and Christina Surawy share their thoughts on the following questions:

  1. What is the intended role / function of retreats? Are retreats the only way to fulfil this function?
  2. Are there retreat teachers and centres that can fulfil this role, as we envisage it for mindfulness based practice teachers specifically? Is there capacity among these retreat centres to meet this demand ? Are there questions over safety at retreats with more vulnerable participants?
  3. Do we create any barriers to the accessibility of MBCT with this criterion and/or inadvertently discriminate against certain groups? If so what are the barriers, are these acceptable, and how might we overcome them?

John Peacock – Buddhist Scholar and Co-Director of the University of Oxford Masters of Studies in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy

I think we are at crucial juncture in the examination of certain features of the development and training of teachers, which means that this is a time of great opportunity, but also a time where some important features of that training are in danger of being lost. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of retreats and their position in the overall development of teachers.

Let me state this at the outset: retreats, from my perspective, are essential to the growth of compassionate, empathetic, responsive, and truly embodied teachers, who are resourced sufficiently in a world that demands increasingly more of those who work in caring professions. It would be sad if we were to relegate this “essential” feature to something recommended, but more akin to an “optional extra.” Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t re-examine certain key features of retreats (this might even include dropping the use of the term “retreat” to describe these periods of training, and the adoption of something more appropriate).

Importantly, and ethically, I think that “retreats” should be tailored much more rigorously for the professional groups being taught (this will include the prescribed length of the retreat period), so that the material connects more directly with both their personal and professional experience. This might mean a total re-thinking of the way that the Buddhist material is presented – I believe that it is neither wholly effective nor ethical to present a standard Buddhist retreat in an overwhelming secular arena as this has the potential to alienate those who come from different traditions. Nevertheless, we should work very hard to preserve what is valuable within the traditional retreat format, and find more effective ways of conveying this important “message” in a secularized language. I feel also that we should be moving towards a model where those who are teaching MBCT, or engaged in training, should be in a position to be able to offer “retreats” to their peers. This will obviously require considerable training and experience.

Ruth Baer – Mindfulness researcher and teacher

The development and training of MBCT teachers includes two distinct phases. During the initial training pathway, aspiring teachers must develop the knowledge, skills, and understanding required to function as competent professionals. Following formal training, continuing professional development is necessary for maintaining and refining skills and for learning about advances in theory, research, and teaching methods.

Silent retreats can be an important element of the initial training pathway. Even in secular environments, qualified teachers should understand something of the lineage of the mindfulness practices that have been adapted for contemporary settings. Through intensive silent practice and daily Dharma talks, retreats in the Buddhist tradition can provide this understanding while cultivating a deep experiential knowledge base from which to teach.

After the initial training pathway, regular intensive silent practice is widely believed to be helpful or even essential for maintaining the depth of knowledge, experience, and understanding required to teach MBCT with skill and compassion. Yet it is not clear how much intensive practice is necessary or what forms it should take. We need a clearer understanding of the purposes of intensive practice and how these purposes can be met.

Secular mindfulness teachers in professional settings face many demands and a yearly week-long retreat may be more useful for some than for others. It may be helpful for the field to consider a broader range of possibilities for continuing intensive practice, such as weekend offerings or all-day sessions, as well as week-long retreats. Their content should be designed to meet the personal and professional needs of teachers in secular programs. Creative thinking about modes of delivery (residential, day-only, online) may be fruitful.

After initial experience with several options, perhaps provided during the initial training pathway, teachers might be encouraged to experiment with different ways of practicing intensively and to find the frequency, duration, and formats that are most helpful to them.

Zindel Segal – Clinical scientist and co-developer of MBCT

When Mark Williams, John Teasdale and I formulated the initial training guidelines for MBCT instructors in 2003 we had considerable discussion about where to position silent mindfulness retreats on the training pathway.  Our views were informed by diverse sources such as senior teachers at the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, John and Mark’s prior exposure to contemplative practice and my being embedded in the psychotherapy/psychiatry community.  We agreed that intensive silent practice was singularly valuable for deepening instructors’ understanding of mindfulness, cultivating compassion for self and conveying the embodiment of mindfulness in traditional dyadic and group contexts.

However, we were not unanimous in seeing a direct translation into more effective teaching.  Some of our colleagues held strong convictions in this regard, there were no data to support the idea that committed instructors with a regular mindfulness practice but no retreat experience taught the program more poorly than those with retreat experience.  It seemed that many other factors contributed to teaching effectiveness.  Second, significant numbers of MBCT teachers considered that their prior training in psychotherapy had allowed them to develop the same capacities for open and present awareness that are seen as foundational for the 8 week program.  At that time in the field’s development, we concluded that these capacities coupled with a sincere commitment to personal practice would represent a sufficient and pragmatic starting point, while also ensuring that the portal to entering this work was not needlessly narrow.

Fast forwarding to 2016, the central questions around teaching effectiveness remain.  This provides us with an opportunity for fruitful reflection and hopefully, evolution, since the increasing standardization of training pathways is likely to impact MBCT for years to come.  My own view is that silent retreats should not be used as a bar to becoming an MBCT instructor, but should be considered as formative for continuing professional education, especially for those interested in mentoring or leading MBCT training workshops.  I very much agree with John Peacock’s view that retreats offering greater time for clarifying how the insights and experiences of silent practice can meet and inform the demands of conveying MBCT in class would be an unusually innovative customisation of a durable and time-honoured teaching format.

Rebecca Crane – Mindfulness teacher and trainer, Director of Bangor the University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice

How does one develop the capacity to be vulnerable enough to be open to internal and external experience, and simultaneously confident enough to hold it in compassionate awareness? In mindfulness-based teaching we use mindfulness practice to deliberately cultivate these capacities both within the teacher and participants. We call what emerges through this embodiment. An embodied teacher creates and sustains a ‘climate’ of mindfulness   –   their inner work of practice naturally becomes tangibly sensed in the classroom through their presence and manner. We hypothesise that this offers participants an opportunity to participate in a different way of being in relationship with experience. The outer climate thus becomes an example of what might be possible inwardly.

As training programmes and professional requirements become more formalised it becomes more important to clarify what we are cultivating (skills, knowledge and attitudes), and the sorts of activities which will support these.  Some aspects of the teaching process (e.g., guiding meditations, facilitating inquiry and holding the group) can be seen as skills which can be systematically trained. Embodiment however is an emergent capacity rather than a skill to be learned – the natural outcome of engaging with the practice and teachings of mindfulness over time. Given that the embodied process of the teacher is understood to be one of the critical factors in supporting shifts in perspective, we need to ensure that training and ongoing practice requirements provide the conditions which support this.

It is still an open question what these conditions might be. Clearly it includes sustained engagement with mindfulness practice and teaching in our everyday lives, and periodically in the intensive context of a retreat. Other sorts of activity might also support embodiment including participation in follow-up training which includes in depth inquiry into mindfulness and teaching practice, mindfulness supervision, and collaborative peer explorations. It might well be that a range of continuing professional development activities are recommended and teachers pick and mix each year depending on what is most called for at a particular time. Retreats need to be part of this smorgasbord, but it would be unfortunate if there is a hardening around this in a way that excludes other important activities, and in a way that discriminates against those who cannot take the space each year to leave home responsibilities.  There also needs to be broad consideration of the sorts of retreats that particularly meet the needs of mindfulness-based teachers.  There is a critical need to ensure that the teaching which is offered within these retreats draws on the best available understanding we have for the frameworks underpinning practice within mindfulness-based courses. Whist this will draw on aspects of Buddhist psychology there needs to be clarity that this is not a Buddhist retreat. Venues and teachers need to be chosen which give appropriate consideration to accessibility and potential barriers for people from a range of faith backgrounds.

We are engaged in something new here – bringing contemplative practices into the mainstream and creating an appropriate professional context for the work. These issues are complex, nuanced and need careful collaborative thought over the next years of development. How do we operationalise the importance of a deliberate sustained engagement in learning to compassionately meet the inherent contradictions, vulnerabilities and pain, as well as the vibrancy and joy of our lives?  An exciting challenge!

Willem Kuyken – MBCT researcher, teacher and trainer; Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre

During an 8 week MBCT programme, there was a pivotal moment. It was session 5, in the inquiry following the sitting practice. Clare, a woman in her 50’s whose only daughter had recently moved out described her experience. But as she started to speak, her voice choked up; tears welled and her chest and neck contracted; the group were clearly concerned, many moved forwards in their seats, as if to reach out to her. We could barely make out what she was saying. It was along the lines of, “I miss my daughter so much, it’s an intense loneliness, I don’t feel I have much left to live for.”

In the work I know best, with people with recurrent depression, there can be seismic shifts – movements of the mind and body that have within them the potential for another depressive relapse. These are exquisite teaching / learning moments.

How can we best work with these moments? How can we as MBCT teachers support people to access the capacity to turn towards the difficult, befriend experience, decentre from powerful negative thinking, and cultivate compassion, tenderness, joy, and connection? Can we see the natural tendency to move away from or fix these moments, and choose to respond  instead with discernment?  A good formulation based on cognitive science of depressive relapse is the tiller for this work, directing the teaching, how we lead the mindfulness practices and support the inquiry. But embodiment, knowing the territory of the mind from the inside out, through our own direct experience of seeing how the mind creates distress and joy gives us and our participantsan unshakeable confidence in the capacity to turn towards, befriend and respond skilfully to experience, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Christina Feldman and I put it this way in 2012:

The role of the mindfulness teacher is instrumental in enabling participants to attend to their suffering and cultivate compassion. The teacher needs first and foremost to have through their own mindfulness practice cultivated compassion in relation to his/her life and experience. This experiential learning is a pre-requisite to teaching others and is experienced by participants as an embodied teacher who “walks the walk.”

So how is this capacity and confidence cultivated? How is this knowing acquired? Regular mindfulness practice, supported by a good teacher is essential. Good retreat centres provide a containing space to let go of all the have to do’s of life and drop more deeply into practice, so we can do the work of investigating the mind, knowing the mind, transforming the mind and experiencing first-hand the challenges and joys of this work. Daily and sustained practice builds capacity and confidence.

But (1) everyone is different, and may require a different path and support and (2) there are real bottlenecks (even dead ends) in providing this support.  At different stages different guides, teachers and supports may be needed. As teachers, our own vulnerability and resilience waxes and wanes, and what may deepen learning at one time may overwhelm and be “unsafe” at another. The numbers of people who can support mindfulness teachers in deepening their mindfulness practice and lead retreats is a relatively small pool for a growing need. In some parts of the world there are simply none.

Drawing on my experience as an MBCT teacher, trainer and my personal journey, my opinion is that foundational MBCT training include at minimum (1) participation in an 8-week class as a participant, (2) access to a mindfulness teacher to support the development of regular sustainable mindfulness practice and (3) sitting at least one retreat with a teacher who really understands both the contemplative traditions/practices that MBCT draws from and mindfulness-based programmes. The retreat needs to be long enough for this work to happen.  After training, my view would be to have a much more flexible requirement that supports teachers continue their mindfulness practice and embodiment, in ways that suit their requirements. Our job during foundational training then is to help people know what it is they need so they can be guides of their own on-going mindfulness practice. We need in parallel to work to develop retreat teachers and centres that can support MBCT teachers. Finally, each of us needs to take responsibility for own embodiment, as best we can being the change we’d like to see in the world.

Christina Surawy – MBCT trainer, teacher and researcher and Co-Director of the University of Oxford Masters of Studies in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy

From a personal and professional perspective, as a teacher and trainer of MBCT, and drawing on what I see in others who are teaching this delicate work, one of the most significant effects of a busy life is an erosion of the capacity for empathy and compassion and inner resourcing.  This is particularly the case for many teachers who are working in the context of busy organisations such as (in this country at least) the National Health Service and in particular the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies service, where demands are great.

So I would agree with the general consensus, with caveats, that embodiment can be enhanced through intensive periods of practice such as offered in a retreat format and which Willem and others so clearly outlined. We can deepen our learning through investigation, and through this develop the confidence to offer to our participants a way of knowing which is grounded in our own experience and which we trust from the inside. This is key to the training of new teachers.

What of CPD though? An important part of being an MBCT teacher is to keep up with literature, attend conferences and workshops, all of which is considered legitimate by our established organisations. But how can we protect the replenishing of personal practice, embodiment, compassion, and empathy which underpins the teaching of MBCT within the contexts in which many of our new teachers work?  Few of us are immune to the pressures of modern working life. Taking the time to nourish and nurture our own practice in the retreat format, if only for a short period of time, can certainly have the effect of replenishing enthusiasm and rekindling interest, all of which supports our personal practice on a day to day basis. Of course other formats could also have this effect, for example finding one’s own personal teacher, and it is true that what teachers need at different times also varies, but I wonder whether there is something useful about encouraging teachers to set aside a dedicated period of time to engage in personal practice which is clearly visible to and accepted by those who might seek to undermine its importance? Here is where the secularisation and naming of retreats seems to be a really useful discussion. A colleague suggested ‘experiential training programme’ which is what a retreat is. What an important and timely conversation to be having.



 Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression.(Second edition ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

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: Blue Love, Nahid V