The Three Pillars of Mindfulness Teaching
12th March 2018
Mindfulness is now being taught in so many ways, in so many settings and by many different people.
Mindfulness to me is something of beauty. Although it is not a thing, an object, to me it is still beautiful. I often use the image of a jewel to illustrate mindfulness in teaching. A jewel has many facets, you turn the jewel a fraction and there is another facet, shimmering right at you. When running a course, or a series of workshops what we are really doing is exploring the jewel of mindfulness or awareness, and it is something we explore for the rest of our lives if we commit ourselves to it.
Before I go onto the three pillars of teaching I just want to mention two aspects of mindfulness or as I often refer to it, awareness. I use them interchangeably.
There is the practice of mindfulness, this is where we sit down, and practice the mindfulness of breathing, or the body scan, for example. We also bring mindfulness to our everyday activities. This is one aspect, this is mindfulness as a practice, as something we endeavour to do.
Another aspect of mindfulness is what I call the container of our life. This is not a practice. If we don’t understand this other aspect of mindfulness then our teaching will be unbalanced and very limited, in some cases it will just put people off practising, because people will try too hard, they think it is something they don’t already have.
When I say awareness is the container of our life, I mean just that. Awareness is similar to space. Space contains all things, but itself is not a thing. Without space though, no things can appear.
Space is a given, it is just here. Awareness or mindfulness is similar, it is just here. Don’t believe me? Stop being aware right now…impossible. Mindfulness is part of being human, so if we have this basic right understanding (which is the first step on the eightfold path of Buddhism) then we can communicate the right attitude to our students. Mindfulness is already here, we are not trying to develop it, to bring it into being. It is already here. I will say more in the three pillars about this.
The Three Pillars of teaching mindfulness
Awareness is simple, our minds, however, can be complicated. Right now be aware of your contact with the chair you are sitting on, the sound of distant traffic, or seeing these words before your eyes. Simple – this is awareness.
In the dictionary the word simple means easily understood, presenting little difficulty. So our teaching needs to convey the simplicity of mindfulness and the practice. I think it is very easy to give too much information when teaching mindfulness. Giving lots of information, reams of handouts can make us as teachers feel we are giving value for money.
Mindfulness is not philosophy, it is not a theory about life, but a practice which transforms the individual.
We need to keep in touch with the essence of what we are sharing with our students, otherwise, it becomes a lot of words and ideas. In Joko Beck’s book, Nothing Special she said something which changed my practice forever when I read it. It changed my practice because it was simple. She wrote something like — what we are aware of is secondary, the fact that we are aware is primary.
To me this is beautiful, simple and uncomplicated. When I teach I teach from this position. Rather than debate with a student the meaning of this word, or that phrase, I often bring them back to awareness, and awareness that this thought, this intention to find the right answer arises then will pass away. What is it like to not know something? — Is sometimes my question to them. Then another arising will enter into their experience — a sound, a thought, bodily sensation, a perception.
I prefer not to give too much information to my students, but for the information, I do give, I want it to make a difference, to challenge or even to stir them up a little.
Keeping teaching simple means coming back to this very moment, is in my view the essence of good mindfulness teaching, not fancy ideas.
Remember in mindfulness we are not looking for answers.
The second pillar of elegance may surprise you. In the dictionary Elegance means, stylishness, but also means, beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity. When our teaching is simple and elegant it is effective and makes a difference to a students life. To be elegant is to communicate in a way that is uncluttered with jargon and cliches and too many fancy activities.
Elegant teaching is often knowing when not to say something, to be quiet. Pausing when we teach is a wonderful way of taking people out of their head and back into their present experience. Elegance is what we leave out, not always what we put in. An elegant woman knows what not to wear. A gorgeous Zen garden is simple and elegant because it is uncluttered.
Be aware of cluttering your student’s minds with too much theory, too many ideas and modern day, or even your own beliefs. Can we have the courage to just pause quietly when they are expecting the answer to their question or the next mouthful of information? This is very daring and can be exhilarating for both teacher and student at the same time.
To teach with simplicity and elegance take courage. If we ourselves are not aware of or in touch with the essence of mindfulness, we will teach it like another subject, which is the passing over of information.
Elegance can mean pausing after sharing a particular teaching. This allows the teaching to ‘land’, to have an impact on the students. This space or pause gives them the opportunity to feel moved or challenged by it. It is much too easy to just to move straight onto the next theme, the next teaching, the next activity.
Elegance is also knowing how and when to use stories, images, and metaphors. The use of these can communicate in a way that a thousand words will never do. Often in our classes, after sharing an image or a metaphor we will fall quiet and the students are then allowed to digest what has just been said.
Elegance also brings beauty to the journey. Although we are looking at how we suffer a lot on a mindfulness course we need also to show our students that there is a way out of it. This is where beauty comes in. I always start my courses with beauty, a glimpse of the jewel of joy which is already shining within their hearts, but dusted over with years of neglect, much like the sun is covered by clouds, but continues always to shine. My purpose is to show each student how to clear away the clouds of anxiety, worry, guilt, self-obsession and allow the jewel of joy to shine in his or her life once more.
We learn how to take a student on a journey, a journey from here and back again without going anywhere.
In the dictionary, clarity means comprehensibility, lucidity and coherence. I put directness after clarity because clarity goes straight, without meandering and deflection. Although our teaching is done with kindness and gentleness it also needs to be clear and direct. Confusion helps nobody, a teaching that doesn’t challenge is useless to your students.
In my experience of training hundreds of mindfulness teachers on our programme, two things stand out above all else. Firstly there is too much niceness and not enough challenge, and secondly, too many cliches are used. Once we begin to get behind, that is, to get to the essence behind these cliches then our teaching naturally becomes more challenging and leads to change in our students.
When we are teaching we need to know who is teaching. What I mean is there is no place for the people pleaser, and we all have a people pleaser inside. The people pleaser needs to step aside and allow our clarity and simplicity to do the teaching. It is easy to see niceness as being kindness and compassion, but it is not. True compassion is willing to challenge people and to wake them up out of their suffering.
Our work as teachers is not about us, not about being liked. Our purpose is to show each person who walks through that door how they create their own suffering and how they can stop doing it, or at the very least do less of it.
If we are truly compassionate that we won’t be afraid of gently challenging when it is appropriate to do so.
If you are willing to challenge your students and not make it all nice and woolly, they will be forever grateful to you, even if at first they may resist it.
When our teaching is clear, simple and elegant it comes from our heart and goes straight to the heart of the student. It moves them, it stirs them, but most of all it changes them.
Thank you for reading three pillars mindfulness teaching.
There is much more that can be said about teaching mindfulness and I may write another soon. I do hope you enjoy your journey without getting anywhere at all.
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