Assessing mindfulness teachers
Assessing mindfulness teachers
It is interesting that even 2500 years ago the historical Buddha found it necessary to give advice as to how to select and relate to a teacher of mindfulness.  Basically he said to examine the teacher’s motivations, to observe whether the teacher lived what he /she taught. Did they walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The historical Buddha also invited the students not to take a teacher’s instructions purely on trust but instead to test the teachings against their own experience.
More recently one of the main pioneers of modern secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat Zinn, has found it necessary to make strong statements about the competence of mindfulness teachers. At the training he ran in Sydney Australia in 2009, he stated that people who taught mindfulness without their own established and ongoing regular practice were guilty of malpractice. Unfortunately this is all too common now that the benefits of mindfulness have become widely recognised in the Western secular world.
Nowadays a commercialised form of Mindfulness has become popular and it has been referred to disparagingly as McMindfulness. It is difficult to distinguish this type of opportunism from people genuinely trying to spread the benefits of mindfulness widely to areas such as the corporate sector, sporting teams and the armed forces. If we are being truly compassionate and believe in equal opportunity then there is no reason why these people would need mindfulness any less than those working in schools and hospitals.
There is no problem with taking mindfulness to these sectors. The problem is people teaching mindfulness without having a good understanding of it themselves or without having their own established mindfulness practice. The most common misunderstanding that is perpetuated by unskilful teachers is an incomplete understanding of the notion of non-judgemental awareness. Many practitioners find this so challenging themselves that they teach ways of avoiding unpleasant experience instead of the openhearted curiosity that is the hallmark of mindfulness.
It is quite difficult for someone new to mindfulness to distinguish the authentic skilful teacher from the imposter. Sincerity is not a helpful distinguishing factor, as many unskilful teachers sincerely believe they are being helpful. So I have outlined below some key features to look for. The most important thing to remember is to test the teachings of any teacher you go to. When you get confused ask questions and sincerely try out the offered solutions. If you are still not sure you can try out a different teacher. Sometimes when you do that you can find out that the original teacher was the right one for you after all.
ASSESSING TEACHER'S MOTIVATION
We can tell if teachers are motivated by greed, hate and confusion, by carefully examining their deeds, words and thoughts:
Is the teacher overly pushy in getting people to come to his/her classes or workshops? (especially repeat workshops)
Is the teacher somehow putting themselves on a pedestal?
Does the teacher work to make participants stronger to face life or do they create unnecessary dependence?
ASSESSING TEACHER'S ATTITUDE AND UNDERSTANDING
Does the practitioner promote an attitude of compassion and understanding of all or do they denigrate certain groups? (e.g. males or females, perpetrators or victims, various religious or political groupings.) Beware of liking a teacher just because their prejudices align with your own.
Does the teacher focus mostly on relaxation or awareness?
Even though relaxation is part of mindfulness, it is not the main game. The main game is changing the way you relate to your thoughts, feelings and experiences by cultivating non-judgemental awareness. If your teacher is not making that clear then they don’t really understand mindfulness themselves. A good teacher should be able to make it clear as to how you train yourself to change the way you relate to your experiences.
Is the teacher’s main focus on helping you to learn how to be with whatever experience arises rather than trying to control it?
That is the correct focus but many teachers try to teach you to change your experience using visualisations or breath control techniques. This is not mindfulness. There is no evidence that is helps any more than reading an enjoyable book. Visualisations and breathing exercises can be used along with other techniques like exercise or physical yoga to set yourself up to practice. All of these practices can also be done mindfully. That is applied mindfulness. That is quite different and in fact vey useful.
However, when these practices are habitually done to avoid unpleasant sensations and maximise pleasant sensations, they are working against the core element of mindfulness, which is here and now non-judgmental awareness or an openhearted curiosity. Avoiding unpleasant sensations and maximising pleasant sensations is still teaching you to run way from yourself. As long as you do that you can never find an authentic deep inner peace and it won’t help you to be more skilful in your day-to-day interactions and activities.
ASSESSING A TEACHER'S OWN PRACTICE
Good teachers have an extensive mindfulness practice of their own. You can see evidence of this in the following
The teacher has the ability to stay calm when difficulties arise such as late arrivals, unexpected noises during the mindfulness practice, dealing with a difficult or argumentative student.
The teacher does not achieve this calm by zoning out. They display compassion and empathy without buying into student’s troubles so much that mindfulness classes change into therapy sessions.
The teacher occasionally discloses difficulties that they have arisen in their own mindfulness practice – and also the solutions that they have found for those difficulties.
Once we place trust in a good person we do not need to accept everything they say merely on the basis of faith. We must verify for ourselves whether what we have accepted on good faith is true or false. We can do this by a careful examination of how things have come to be. One of the most important things is to look for teachers who emphasize that the effort of mindfulness/meditation is focused on increasingly subtle awareness of experience not on trying to control experience. Interestingly a sense of control and efficacy can follow from that.
 Kalupahana David J & Indriani (1982) pp 199201 The Way of Siddhartha; A Life of The Buddha Shambhala Boulder & London