Mindfulness teachers’ meeting

Last February I posted a notice about a meeting of New Zealand mindfulness teachers. Well, the meeting has taken place and I thought I would share some feedback regarding the meeting. Most of what follows is part of a summary forwarded to the people who came along.

A gathering of mindfulness teachers was held in Dunedin between 13 and 15 March this year. The meeting was intended for those teaching mindfulness outside of formal Buddhist settings, though I am aware that at least two of the participants are formally recognised Dharma teachers within specific traditions: Glenn Wallis Roshi of the Diamond Sangha and Brendan Sillifant who in addition to his work as a psychologist and a therapist is a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition.

The aim of the gathering was not to offer training as such but to provide a platform for connecting with other teachers and for discussion of issues important to those working in this area. Twenty-eight people attended the day of mindfulness on Friday 13 March with thirty-two attending the days of discussion on Saturday and Sunday.

Participants came from as far north as Auckland and as far south as Gore and included people from a range of backgrounds including counsellors, psychologists, teachers, medical practitioners with at least one psychiatrist, people from other professional disciplines and those from a business background.

Like their backgrounds, the areas where participants taught mindfulness varied widely, such as in clinical and mental health settings, working with businesses, running groups for the general public and working with parents, children and adolescents.

My personal experience of the gathering was that while our training and our approaches to mindfulness practice and teaching could vary widely at times, as a group we held a fairly consistent set of views on a number of issues. On the final day, I made a brief list of what I regarded as the themes that had emerged over the previous three days and circulated them to attendees for comment.

This is something that people mentioned again and again over the day of mindfulness and again during the two days of the meeting itself. The fostering of a community seemed an important goal for many people and an important part of the gathering.

No one group or tradition owns mindfulness
This sentiment was expressed strongly at various times throughout the meeting and received widespread endorsement.

The importance of a personal mindfulness practice and contact with others experienced in such practices for anyone teaching mindfulness
This seemed to be the majority view. I was not aware of any dissenting voices. I am not sure if there was a consensus regarding the importance of (silent) retreat experience for teachers of mindfulness, though this was regarded as important. I do believe this was one of the requirements for teachers suggested by the NZ Mental Health Foundation.

Mindfulness is not simply a ‘tool’
Mindfulness was seen as more of an orientation towards life, or an experience/ability that develops over time, rather than a simple therapeutic tool.

In feedback from attendees, there was a clear view that mindfulness is not really a cognitive strategy, but more an ‘embodied’ practice. This is my understanding/orientation towards practice, however my impression was that this view was not clearly unanimous.

A concern over superficial uses of mindfulness, or attempts to use it in inappropriate ways or settings
Many people had different situations in mind, but a theme seemed to be that the popularity of mindfulness causes it to be seen as a cure all and it can often be applied or offered in a very simplistic manner; especially in a one-off fashion or as a quick fix. This approach was seen as particularly inappropriate when used in isolation for those in real distress, such as in acute mental health settings.

This tied in with what was seen as the need for training and experience in mindfulness based practices as a prerequisite for teaching and use in therapy. I believe it also highlighted the importance of using mindfulness-based techniques within a clear strategy for teaching, or within in a clearly defined therapeutic context, as opposed to simply throwing techniques at people. This was related to the point above regarding seeing mindfulness as a ‘tool’.

What basic training or experience is needed before teaching mindfulness?
This is something that people signalled as an area for discussion prior to the meeting, and which Grant Rix of NZ Mental Health Foundation addressed very well. He suggested a number of key requirements for someone teaching mindfulness in NZ/Aotearoa. (I have included Grant’s summary below.)

He also asked the group for suggestions regarding additional factors necessary for teaching in NZ, in our specific geographical and cultural context. My personal view was that we have a rare opportunity to help craft guidelines for those teaching mindfulness outside of Buddhist settings which are specific to Aotearoa and that reflect local needs and local identity. If anyone has suggestions, Grant can be contacted by email here.

The possibility of developing a distinctly New Zealand flavour of mindfulness community and making use of local teachers and resources
This flowed on from Grant’s discussion of mindfulness in Aotearoa, and the general sense of community present in and sought by the gathering. While there are a number of good, generally Buddhist, teachers in New Zealand who can offer training, we tend to rely on the always popular overseas experts.

There is a possibility of learning from New Zealand teachers and working to develop models of using mindfulness-based approaches in the community specifically for local needs and circumstances. An opportunity for us all as part of a work in progress.

Regarding guidelines for those teaching mindfulness
Grant Rix of the NZ Mental Health Foundation provided the following:

‘When people request their details be posted on the directory [of mindfulness teachers] I have been asking that they meet the following:

1. Maintain a daily formal meditation practice
2. Attend regular professional development in the form of annual teacher-led (or solo depending on experience) meditation retreats
3. Have had some formal training in mindfulness practice (either classical or modern pathway)
4. Have experience within the setting where mindfulness is being introduced
5. Undergo regular formal supervision for professional best practice.

If anyone has any questions regarding the meeting I am happy to be contacted.

Another meeting is planned for Wellington, possibly in November. When more information becomes available it will be posted on this site.

You can respond through commenting on this post, or click here to send me an email.

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