Practice before Teaching: The Importance of Having Our Own Meditation Practice Before Teaching Mindfulness to Others
From time to time, the Mindfulness Institute.ca receives a request to teach a group of people how to teach others how to be mindful. When we ask for a bit of background and find out that the people we are being asked to teach do not know much about mindfulness, do not have a mindfulness practice and are not prepared to develop one, but simply want to learn how to teach others (often children) to be mindful, we respectfully and compassionately decline the request. We do this knowing full well that the people we are declining to teach are being pressured by their administrators to offer the “new, best thing” (mindfulness) to their own patients or pupils. We also know that by declining to teach them, we may be missing an opportunity to share our love of mindfulness with people who are curious and open to learning. Furthermore, we are fully aware that there are people who are prepared to take up the opportunities we have declined. The purpose of this column is to explore this situation, the thinking behind our declining these requests and some thoughts about potential solutions.
At its simplest level, the request to be taught how to teach something that the learners are not themselves familiar with seems somewhat baffling. Can you imagine being taught how to teach any other subject without first being familiar with the subject itself? Can you imagine a teacher learning how to teach arithmetic to first-graders without first being utterly familiar with mathematics well beyond the level being taught? In the same vein, at the MindfulnessInstitute.ca, we believe that being familiar with the experience of developing and maintaining a personal mindfulness practice is an important prerequisite to learning how to teach it to others.
Having our own mindfulness practice allows us to appreciate the work that we are asking our class participants to do. Home practice during the eight-week program typically takes 60 to 90 minutes per day. Our participants are busy people and finding that amount of time to devote to something as challenging as learning to meditate can sometimes seem overwhelming. As teachers who have developed and are maintaining our own practice, we can empathize with the challenges our participants face.
Having a mindfulness practice is an important resource for another reason. This resource not only offers the content of what we teach, but the process by which we teach. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “The interesting thing about this work is that we (teachers) don’t really do anything for them (participants). If we tried, I think we would fail miserably. Instead, we invite them to do something radically new for themselves, namely to experiment with living intentionally from moment to moment” (1990, p. 19). This way of teaching requires a high level of sensitivity and a deep understanding of the work of developing mindfulness. Both of these characteristics come out of the teacher’s own mindfulness practice. No offering of tips, techniques or helpful hints would allow us to assist people in learning how to teach mindfulness without their having a deep understanding about what mindfulness is and how it is developed without their first having their own meditation practice.
You may have heard the story of “swimology” – a parable about the value of having knowledge about a subject and having the skills to put knowledge into practice (http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/swimology.htm). Although knowledge of a subject is perhaps more important than that parable might imply, certainly having the ability to use that knowledge is important in ways that can literally save your life, according to the parable. The skills or aptitude for mindfulness comes from regular practice. The aptitude that comes from having a mindfulness practice is an important component of teaching mindfulness skills to others. The swimology parable ends with these words: “You may study all the "-ologies" of the world, but if you do not learn swimology, all your studies are useless. You may read and write books on swimming, you may debate on its subtle theoretical aspects, but how will that help you if you refuse to enter the water yourself? You must learn how to swim” (http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/swimology.htm).
So, knowledge and skill are important for the mindfulness teacher, and they begin with “entering the water”; developing and maintaining the mindfulness practice before teaching others. This foundation is considered so important for teachers of mindfulness that it is written into the competencies for teachers of mindfulness-based courses (Crane, Kuyken, Williams, Hastings, Cooper & Fennell, 2012) and is a pre-requisite and ongoing requirement by the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts for anyone pursuing certification as an MBSR teacher.
So, how do we meet the needs of people who are sufficiently interested in mindfulness to want to offer it to their patients or students, but who don’t have their own practice? Do we have an obligation to help them in some way that honours their interest in mindfulness and that retains the integrity of mindfulness itself? These are questions that a number of mindfulness teachers explore and discuss on a regular basis. Stay tuned for a discussion about the possibilities.
Written by Priscilla M. Koop, PHD, MSC(A), BN
Consultant, The Mindfulness Institute
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Author Unknown. (n.d.). Swimology. http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/swimology.htm (retrieved April 6, 2016).
Crane, R.S., Kuyken, W., Williams, J.M.G., Hastings, R.P. & Cooper, L., & Melanie J. V. Fennell, M.J.V. (2012). Competence in teaching mindfulness-based courses: Concepts, development and assessment. Mindfulness, 3, 76–84
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, Delacorte, NY.