The Three pillars of Excellent Mindfulness Teaching
18th September 2019
THE THREE PILLARS OF EXCELLENT MINDFULNESS TEACHING
Not just what you teach, but how you teach.
Over the years I have been training people to teach mindfulness I have noticed some common mistakes. Firstly, I think most of us over complicate mindfulness for our students. Secondly, I thing we tend to give too much information. On seeing these tendencies I developed what I call the three pillars of excellent mindfulness teaching. These pillars are keeping mindfulness teaching simple, elegant and practical.
“It is easy to pile up a load of facts, but true wisdom knows how to simplify.” Martin H Fisher
Below I explore the three pillars. You can find more in my Book, A Handbook for Mindfulness Teachers, How to Surprise your Students not just with what you Teach, but by how you Teach.
My dictionary definition of simple is, something that is easily understood presenting little difficulty.
I was observing one of our trainees during a teaching session and he was explaining what mindfulness was to the students. I thought he gave a good definition about paying attention in a neutral kind of way. However, some people were still struggling with his explanation, as students often do at first. In the Q & A later two students actually said they still did not get it. The trainee went on to further explain what it was but still they were confused.
In our supervision session later he was a little frustrated by this so we talked this over. I told him he was over relying on words and over explaining it, and he would do better to keep it simple.
For me this is a classic case. What he could have done was to give them an experience of mindfulness, instead of further intellectual explanation. He could have asked them to listen to the wind, sense their hands resting in their lap, or feel their contact with the chair. They expected and wanted an intellectual explanation of mindfulness, and of course this has its place. There are times, however, when we need to cut through the whole intellectual mode of understanding to a direct experience.
For example if we want to know what an orange tastes like we can ask people, we can read a hundred books about what an orange tastes like, or we can pick one up and eat it, tasting it for ourselves. That way nobody can really tell us what an orange tastes like, because we have had a direct experience of it, it is similar with mindfulness.
There are times when we can simply lead our students into a direct experience of mindfulness, which often leaves them speechless. This is because you have by-passed the thinking mind. Once they re-enter the thinking mind mode they may still question, which is completely natural and understandable. But what you have begun for them is a new way of learning, not from information but from their own direct experience. Of course our life is more complicated than tasting an orange or listening to the sound of the wind, but over time we can show how to bring mindfulness into other areas of our lives which are more complex, but still the direct experience approach has it essential place. The direct experience approach is one way of keeping teaching simple.
In the words of that great teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, elegance is refusal. When I heard this it changed my teaching forever. When teaching I need to refuse some teachings, I need to leave out some ideas, activities and practices. If I don’t then I am in danger of cluttering up the simple message which mindfulness is.
Elegance is related to beauty and we all respond to beautiful things, beauty touches the heart. This is why I think our teaching can have an element of beauty. If it does it is more likely to touch peoples’ hearts and make a difference to their everyday lives.
How do we achieve elegant teaching? The first thing is, we have be willing not to clutter up our teaching. It is very easy to get new ideas and just put them in. This can gradually just fill up our handbooks and our teaching sessions.
Another way is to use silence and pauses. An example is a work of art. A beautiful painting has space around it, if we have a vase we cherish we put it on a shelf so that is can be seen and appreciated. These works of art are not hidden under clutter, but open so they can be seen.
A teaching is something precious, at least it is something of value, and so giving it the space to land and to be appreciated is vital. Too often I see teachers dropping in a teaching then rushing straight into another. I think there is another way. I call it the tea-bag approach. A tea bag sits in the pot and just permeates the water. Likewise we drop in a teaching and let it permeate so that it impacts the students. If we teach elegantly and give space then the teaching can permeate the many filters of resistance which we all have.
Simple and elegant teaching often leaves students silent, and when it does we can have the courage to go with this and hold the space. When teaching with simplicity and elegance we are not trying to stimulate our students’ intellect. Mindfulness is not an intellectual pursuit, it does of course include the intellect but is in the realm of direct experience.
Information alone will not make a good teacher, it is how you teach, not just what you teach.
So to make your teaching elegant, learn to pause after making a point, bring silence into your teaching. To make your teaching elegant learn to refuse more and include less. Be mindful of believing that the more you give them the better it is for your students.
As well as keeping teaching simple and elegant our teaching also needs to be practical. It needs to be relevant to people’s lives. My dictionary defines “practical” as being concerned with the actual doing of something rather than with ideas and theory.
I often hear terms in mindfulness teaching such as acceptance, letting go, be with it or staying with it without an explanation of what they really mean. They can so easily become cliches and end up rather meaningless. As teachers we need to explain in very practical ways what they are pointing too. How do we accept? How do we just sit with something? What if a student is grieving? To say sit with it is heartbreaking, we need to show them how. What do we mean when we use the term let go?
Just as an aside I rarely use the term let go as it is not something we do, but is what can begin to happen once we see what we are doing. For example, if a student is lost in thoughts instead of asking them to let go, we can ask them to notice when they are lost in thoughts and to label it as ‘thinking,’ letting go has then happened. But also by labelling they become more aware of their mental obsessions and habitual loops, if they ‘just let go,’ which they cannot do anyway that insight is less likely.
We can also be very practical in giving our students their home practice. We often ask them to be mindful when brushing their teeth, or drinking a cup of tea and so on. However, we can be more practical, we can show them what this actually means in practice. To ask them to be mindful often leads to disappointment as it cannot be sustained. So they think they cannot “do” mindfulness. However if we ask them to notice what takes them away from the experience of brushing their teeth, then they learn something about their own experience, but also it is “do-able”. I cannot stay mindful all of the time, but I can notice what takes me away from being mindful, my mental activity, the stories I tell myself.
To be practical means knowing the basics. If we think that mindfulness/awareness is what we need to develop over many decades then that will feed into our teaching and give students the wrong message. The message they will most likely to hear is that they need to try harder.
Mindfulness is not about trying to be mindful. We are already mindful right now - try not being mindful/aware right now - impossible. So in a very practical way we can show our students that practice is more about seeing what takes them away from being mindful and aware. There is no straining or striving necessary.
Written by Suryacitta
He also runs Mindfulness Unleashed an online programme for practitioners and teachers
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