In my college days, a thousand years ago, I used to hang out in part of the library that contained a large multivolume work: Pokorny’s Indo-European Etymological Dictionary. I would idle away hours looking up the derivations of words and tracing their meanings as they wended their way through many languages and cultures. It instilled in me a spirit of looking beneath the surface of a word to find the depth and breadth that lay within.
When I first discovered that the word “education” derives from an ancient root roughly meaning to draw out, to lead out, it lit up my mind. At that point, education had seemed mainly to be a process of having information and ideas poured into you, or wisdom bestowed on you from on high. This deeper sense of education conveyed both something being drawn out from within as well as the prospect of being led on a journey of discovery. It was a revelation, and an inspiration.
Even if I was overthinking the etymology—we can’t really know what people thousands of years ago meant when they used a word; the great Julius Pokorny was only making educated guesses—I came to find teachers who met this deeper standard of education. They were teachers who elicited something within that was ready to be brought out. For sure, they led me to new information, but with a spirit of inquiry and examination, rather than indoctrination. Many of them taught me mindfulness.
Patiently Planting Seeds
When it comes to learning meditation, having teachers who guide you in this facilitative way is vitally important. Meditation lies somewhere between an intellectual pursuit and skills training of the kind that athletes, martial artists, and musicians, among others, rely on. It involves techniques that have physical aspects, and it is indeed a bit like building up a muscle—at first the “attention muscle”—so some coaching and coaxing are integral aspects of real teaching.
Nowadays a lot of resources are readily available to get us started and help us along the way. Instructions for how to practice mindfulness and related practices abound—in books, magazines, apps, podcasts, and in video and audio form. The practice itself, as any number of teachers have said, couldn’t be simpler. In fact, it seems too simple. “That’s it? That’s all there is to it?” (One of the reasons it’s nice to have teachers around is to help us navigate that paradox.)
If you think you need a teacher, chances are you already have one—or many, for that matter.
In addition, authors regularly offer insightful commentary on the sorts of things that occur when one practices meditation. If you can afford it (or get financial aid), you can go to conferences and meditation programs to learn more and deepen your practice. Some of these ways of getting instruction can feel pretty intimate: Listening to a teacher on an app or podcast can make you feel as if you’re being spoken to directly, and in videos teachers can instruct with a lot of gesture and expression. When you’re reading, you can return again and again to a passage that speaks to you especially.
All of these supports actually are a form of having a teacher, or many teachers. So, if you think you need a teacher, chances are you already have one—or many, for that matter. It’s helpful to have some gratitude for that fact. Countless people in the world do not have the leisure or opportunity to access a wealth of meditation teachings.
Patience also pays off. Desperately rushing to find “the teacher” who solves it all results mostly in frustration. As Jessica Morey, cofounder and lead teacher at Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, says, “Meditation practice can lead you to become striving-oriented, obsessed with trying to get somewhere, to gain experiences.” Being a gardener, patiently planting seeds and allowing nature to take its course, rewards better than being a driver speeding to get to an appointment.
Eventually, however, no matter how patient we are, obstacles and challenges arise that ruffle our feathers. Mindfulness, awareness, kindness, and compassion practices do not simply work in a linear fashion: x amount of time and effort yields y results. They involve ongoing exploration of how we see ourselves, the world around us, and our relationships. They challenge preconceived views and fixations. They turn us toward life’s ups and downs, rather than away from them. They take us to difficult places.
Supporting Each Other
This is where support from someone outside yourself who can hear you and what’s going on in your mind—not a generic mind—can make a difference. This is where a teacher can provide true education: drawing out what’s inside us and leading us on a journey, not a journey that is prepackaged in a book or on an app, but a journey we cocreate. It’s not a paved road. It’s a trail that we must blaze—with help.
As longtime meditation teacher and author of You Belong: A Call for Connection, Sebene Selassie, says, while some people are “natural self-teachers, most of us benefit from guidance and instruction… We’re not practicing to become super-meditators. We’re practicing to gain some insight and wisdom. So, I’ve found it’s definitely helpful to have some insightful and wise people around.”
Such wise and insightful people come in various forms. They can simply be fellow practitioners with whom we have common cause and a developing bond of trust. They may be in a local group (formal or informal) or online, perhaps supported by an occasional gathering at a group program or retreat.
Finding human beings to support our practice, either as fellow travelers or teachers, may not be an easy prospect. It depends to a certain degree on the availability of teachers and practitioners who are compatible with the kind of path you would like to follow. For most of the history of meditation practice, it has been transmitted largely through religious organizations. The methods of teaching and supporting practitioners varied from tradition to tradition, but they have included everything from simple fellowship to intense forms of followership, with students taking very explicit directions from teachers in the form of commands, supported by vows on the part of students. As these religious traditions undergo many changes in the modern era, non-religious ways of teaching and practicing mindfulness and related practices have broken through. The expansion of these forms of practice is the reason that Mindful and mindful.org were founded.
Secular forms of practice have been happening explicitly for about 40 years, so while there are a fair number of teachers, this movement has not developed to the point that there are many secular places to go on retreat with an optimal ratio of teachers at varying levels of ability to students, which would allow for widespread, ongoing individual attention. The supply of teachers is growing, but nowhere near as fast as the number of people interested in taking up meditation. And someone doesn’t become a teacher overnight. Think of wine—it can take decades for a vintage to become finely aged, and not every wine is up to the task. Still, many are very drinkable on the way to becoming fine. Teachers are like that—mastery may be decades off, but many have wisdom and insights to share even at early stages.
Support from someone outside yourself who can hear you and what’s going on in your mind—not a generic mind—can make a difference. This is where a teacher can provide true education: drawing out what’s inside us and leading us on a journey.
As many teachers have noted, people often come to a weekend program, go on a retreat, or take a mindfulness-based course such as MBSR, and then drift away, without finding the ongoing support—and human interaction—they need to truly integrate mindfulness into their lives. Mark Leonard of Mindfulness Connected, who played a key role in establishing the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, believes that the lack of ongoing connection with others, in favor of a kind of private mindfulness, cuts us off from more profound effects at both the personal and societal level. Presenting at the 2020 Mindful Society conference, he emphasized that “well-being is a social function, it’s not a psychological process.”
I look at the guidance we receive from others on the path of meditation as coming at three different levels, with each a bit more intimate and intensified, and placing more trust in the teacher: fellowship, mentorship, leadership. The lines between them are not hard and fast, and one is not better than another. They work together.
3 Levels of Mindful Guidance
As I mentioned above, we already have a teacher—in fact, many teachers—in the form of resources full of instruction and insightful guidance available via so many channels. But one of the principal elements we need is something that keeps us coming back to meditation regularly, and in this case, fellow meditators can make a great difference. As we get trapped in old habit patterns or fall into ruts, lose our inspiration to keep going, or start to feel we’re the only one who has difficulties, connection with meditating friends—in person, online, or both—can make all the difference.
It’s not that we’re all leaning on each other so that we’ll all fall down together. Rather, we help each other stand on our own two feet, as it were. We may do retreats together or find ways to integrate practice in other areas of life, such as starting a mindfulness program in a local school or hospital. There is great power in learning together.
Tara Healey, program director for mindfulness-based learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, is a strong believer in the efficacy of ongoing small doses of support, because as she says, “Mindfulness is self-correcting. As we go off course, it will guide us, as will our fellow meditators and friends. The ability to appreciate the quiet and listen to how you’re being guided gets clearer and clearer the more you practice. The practice itself serves you the life lessons you need.”
Fellowship, being in community with others, becomes an important foundation for going forward on the path of meditation, because it gradually encourages us to think less of mindfulness as a personal pursuit and more as collective pursuit, the social well-being that Mark Leonard talks about.
Caverly Morgan, who founded Peace in Schools in Portland, Oregon, and established the groundbreaking for-credit Mindful Studies course in the high schools there, is committed to encouraging students to find how the personal expands into a greater whole, how mutual awareness leads to mutual understanding:
In the same way a teen experiences a sense of empowerment by discovering that she, he, or they can direct their attention to the moment versus a conditioned internal story, we have the capacity to do so collectively. The result: collective empowerment. When we are practiced at seeing where and how our attention moves personally, internally, in the privacy of our own minds, it becomes easy to see how our attention moves and is directed collectively. In our communities. In our culture. In our world.
At the level of mentorship, there is much more personal give-and-take with a teacher. It may also occur in a group, but is also often enhanced by one-on-one time. Many of us have experienced an inspiring talk by a teacher, perhaps to a crowd of hundreds or even thousands—what some people call “the sage on the stage.” That’s OK for getting an inspirational boost, but a mentor comes down off the stage and sits down with you at eye level, for extended periods.
The way that meditation mentors lead people is probably best described as facilitation. It can happen at an individual level, but quite often it occurs in small group programs, such as MBSR or MBCT or any meditation class, really, where personal instruction and group work combine. Facilitating is the act of making it possible for students to find their way. While in fellowship, there is a danger of incestuousness and group think, mentors can cut through that, since part of their role is to draw our habit patterns out into the light, to be examined with care in a safe space.
The skillful means that effective mentors use to facilitate learning are too many to enumerate. They’re inexhaustible, in fact, since they often emerge creatively in the moment, so the marks of effective mentorship are often spontaneity, humor, and a sense of play. While mindfulness involves work, a good mentor conveys that it is definitely not drudgery.
While the skillful methods are endless, two examples—inquiry and stewardship—may help to convey what these kinds of skills are about.
Patricia Rockman, MD—senior director of education and clinical services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto, and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Embodied Presence and Inquiry in Practice—is one of the foremost articulators of the power of inquiry, which she describes as “an interactive process, a reflective process, on an experience that has just occurred.” She goes on to say that “what we’re trying to do… is enhance people’s ability to be with their direct experience versus what we normally do, which is to immediately have interpretations, ideas, conclusions, judgments about our experience.” In addition, she says that inquiry enhances people’s “capacity to reflect on the unfolding nature of experience and learn to track that experience without running off into storytelling or narrative or other ideas and conclusions.”
Rockman also points out that encouraging people to inquire about what’s happening moment to moment in their minds helps them “develop a language of experience, a vocabulary of experience—whether that’s describing their sensations, being able to describe their thoughts versus analyzing them, being able to name emotions in an attempt to manage them better and make them less overwhelming, and to begin to see how the body is a source of information” and the place where the sensory correlates of emotion (such as a tightening chest, when we are anxious) reside.
The marks of effective mentorship are often spontaneity, humor, and a sense of play. While mindfulness involves work, a good mentor conveys that it is definitely not drudgery.
Don McCown, co-author of Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators, has written extensively about the process of teaching mindfulness, particularly in small groups. In a chapter in Resources for Teaching Mindfulness: An International Handbook, he talks about how, in his view, the primary skill of a mindfulness teacher mentoring small groups is to be a steward who tends to the atmosphere of the class.
While McCown acknowledges the atmosphere in a room may seem like a vague notion, still, he says, “We all walk into the room and know, through body sensation and affect, that the atmosphere is tense, or friendly, or calm, or maybe a little sad.” In fact, he goes on to say that “a group can agree on, and even engage in dialogue about, what it is like in the room at a particular moment.”
A skilled teacher of mindfulness-based programs is the steward of this quality of atmosphere, “tracking the unfolding of a class session moment by moment,” paying mindful attention to something that is “evident not only to teachers but also to participants, making it a valuable and valid measure for the relational state of the group.” In this way, the quality of a mindfulness group is something the teacher and the group give rise to together.
In stewardship, McCown points out, the teacher uses all the care at their disposal to pay attention to the setting, how people relate to each other, the interplay between silence and talking, maintaining ethical behavior, and a number of other elements. In this way, he says, “Atmosphere not only teaches participants, it teaches the teacher.”
The ultimate—and the most intimate—level of teaching is when the teacher transmits, rather than simply teaches. Transmitting is embodying and sharing, most often by example, whatever understanding a teacher has. It’s not a highfalutin idea. In fact, quite the opposite. We see transmission happening in the most mundane of places. In describing a French baker he studied with, Bill Buford wrote in the New Yorker recently:
For Bob, farms were the “heart of Frenchness.” His grandfather had been a farmer. Every one of the friends he would eventually introduce me to were also the grandchildren of farmers. They felt connected to the rhythm of plows and seasons, and were beneficiaries of a knowledge that had been in their families for generations. When Bob described it, he used the word transmettre, with its sense of “to hand over”—something passed between eras.
A teacher committed to transmission cares little about their own stature as a teacher. Like the master baker, they care only about the results, the quality of the bread. They long to see students bake bread even better than they could bake. They don’t seek acolytes, a kind of permanent one-upmanship. They seek colleagues. They wish not merely to teach students but to learn together with them.
In so doing, like a good martial arts master, they will challenge the student to find the way by themselves. They also pay close attention to what’s going on with you, always alert to teachable moments, to turning points and possibilities for opening. It’s like the Deacon says in Season 4 of the HBO series The Wire: “A good church man is always up in everybody’s shit. It’s how we do.”
Their main tool is rarely the simple answer and more often the hanging question. Steve Hickman, executive director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and a longtime mindfulness teacher, spoke with me recently about how the most powerful teaching involves highly attentive listening and probing: “Students benefit the most not from simply having their questions answered,” he said, “but from seeing the example of your ongoing warmth, curiosity, and attention, as you listen and inquire, so they find handholds and pathways of their own. Then, they are empowered, not just taught.”
The mark of the teacher’s work succeeding is that the world itself and your circumstances become the teacher. When you have a setback, such as a financial loss or the death of a friend, there may be less discursive mental drama surrounding the event. It becomes more a message to you of how to let go further of the story of what you have to have, to find more simplicity. If in the midst of being isolated in a pandemic, your partner tells you, “I wish you would clean up more after yourself,” you may skip the steps of resisting or beating up on yourself, and simply see the opportunity for attention and mindfulness and kindness to reach into more areas of your life.
You yourself may begin to become a teacher, even simply because of your example. You may become a great source of fellowship to others, and even a mentor and leader. Your interactions with your teachers, your friends, even strangers—the grocery clerk or a fellow passenger on the subway—and yes, those you fiercely oppose, have a tendency to draw you out of your shell of self-cherishing. You are more vulnerable and yet more resilient and confident. Every day brings discoveries, as if you’ve baked a fresh loaf of aromatic bread to share with the world. These messages from the outside are really messages from the inside, what you’ve internalized from your teachers, your friends, and your experiences. The inherent brilliance of your natural state of being is drawn out.
That is real education.
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