Mindfulness is becoming more common than ever as a tool for stress reduction. Like yoga, more and more people are taking up mindfulness teaching certifications as well. To find a good yoga teacher, you may want to see if they are physically flexible. Different yoga teachers are good for different students. But ultimately, a student’s objective is to feel a deep stretch and relaxation in their muscles after a yoga session. But this is not so for a mindfulness course. You cannot tell, like yoga, if you have had a good stretch in your mind with mindfulness. How do you find a good mindfulness teacher? Or, how do you know if your mindfulness teacher is any good?
The Definition of Mindfulness
The definition of mindfulness is to pay attention in the present moment on purpose, non-judgementally. This definition was coined by Jon Kabat Zinn, touted as the father of secular mindfulness. However, this is a very broad definition of mindfulness and doesn’t tell you very much as to why one wants to do that. Unless a student has a deep trust in a teacher and follows the teacher’s instructions with faith. But this way of teach/learn is not so common in today’s world. Especially when there is the Internet where we can learn on our own. Or else there are scammers or fake gurus waiting to take advantage of anyone gullible.
Many mindfulness students may also feel unsure of what mindfulness is really all about. They know to pay attention to their breath and anchor their mind in the present. It does support calming the mind. But being in the present moment can also take a lot of effort and in the process can cause stress. Many who want to attain wellness through mindfulness may find the effect temporary and give up the practice altogether. Otherwise, they find being distracted from stress far easier than practicing mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness, Really?
Mindfulness is an ancient practice derived from the Buddhist tradition. Although Buddhism is designated a religion, it does not force its beliefs onto anyone. Buddhism is an exploration of consciousness and the mind, based on your own observation to know the truth. Truth is really something you experience. What others tell you is true isn’t true for you until you experience it.
Since the daily work of a Buddhist monk is to be mindful in whatever he is doing from waking to sleep, it makes it worthwhile to mention Ajahn Amaro’s explanation of mindfulness. Ajahn Amaro is a well-practiced Western Buddhist monk in the Thai forest tradition. He said that mindfulness practice is to become aware of our mind, speech, and actions in daily life. In short, mindfulness is a way to cultivate virtue.
The Relationship Between Mindfulness and Virtue
Virtue is something not outrightly taught in secular mindfulness. But it is present in every religion, including Buddhism. What is virtue? Virtue is often explained as a human’s highest ideal for attaining high moral and ethical standards. As an ideal, virtue may seem too high a standard to attain. When used by ignorant moralists, virtue may seem rather judgemental as it allows persons of certain social standing to judge and separate people as good or bad through reward and punishment.
Instead of striving to attain virtue, what if virtue is already something that lies dormant in us? For instance, we have met and known people who help others in need. We ourselves may have done charitable works, or simply learned to be patient with challenging situations. Generosity and patience are qualities of virtues, and they are not judgemental in any way. When you are patient, honest, and generous without expecting something in return, how does that experience make you feel?
Virtue as Embodied in a Good Mindfulness Teacher
Other qualities of virtues include compassion and forgiveness. But those who do not embody these virtues do not make them bad people, it simply is a potential they have not explored due to a lack of awareness. Sometimes, it takes certain situations for virtues to shine through. It takes awareness to know and be able to transform what is within you. A serious mindful practitioner would take challenging situations to cultivate virtues.
Virtue in the context of mindfulness is about giving to ourselves as well as to others. When we give to others, we are also giving to ourselves through the gladness we experience. Similarly, when we give to ourselves, we are happy and those around us also feel our joy. However, without much awareness, it is not possible for someone to know the effects of virtue within and without and so the practice may be inconsistent.
When we practice mindfulness to cultivate our inner qualities of virtue, it makes us happier. Virtues help us end conflict in ourselves. We can only forgive others when we forgive ourselves and love others when we are able to love ourselves. We can only change ourselves when we take responsibility for our choices or reactions. Because we are able to give (which includes forgiveness and joy, not only material things) to others, it lightens our minds and hearts. These qualities of virtue are also the marks of a good mindfulness teacher. S/he may not be perfect in their practice of virtue, but you can tell if they value or try to work on developing their qualities of virtue.
A Good Mindfulness Teacher Cannot Teach Mindfulness
Unlike other teachers, a mindfulness teacher’s role is very different. S/he does not teach another to pass on a skill. A good mindfulness teacher is only a guide. What does that mean?
Another word for mindfulness is awareness. We are all aware that we are conscious. But when we are busy making comments, judging, and thinking about how to get this or avoid that, we aren’t aware that we are aware. Confusion due to random and mindless thoughts pushed by a need to do something constantly (due to restlessness) can cause harm. We can become impatient and restless or even unreasonable. Thinking of what to do next and next… pushes us to constantly fix problems, so that we can take a rest from all the tasks and errands created. Though strangely, that restful time almost never comes.
Therefore, a good mindfulness teacher is someone, who knows s/he cannot impart awareness to anyone. Everyone already has awareness. A good mindfulness teacher can only point to the students their awareness of the addictive reactions and mental addiction that is gnawing at them.
A mindfulness teacher cannot make anyone a good or a bad student because there is nothing good or bad about awareness. Rather, being aware and unaware is really what separates individuals rather than the good and bad qualities we like to judge ourselves and others with.
After all, it is only those who have awareness of their inner processes and actions (that cause an effect within themselves and in the world) who are able to truly walk a path toward peace. But it does not come without sincere effort and the willingness to give yourself to the practice.
Finding Your Mindfulness Teacher
There are many mindfulness teachers out there. In my own experience, I have found it hard to find a good mindfulness teacher. After you find one, it is hard to find a teacher who really speaks to your heart or whom you resonate with.
Some students work well with a stern or uncompromising mindfulness teacher. Others prefer the softer approach. While there are also others, who prefer to learn and reflect before they develop faith in the teacher’s own practice. Some rare ones can recognize who they want to learn from and give their faith and trust to the teacher wholeheartedly. No matter what type of student you are, it is highly recommended that you observe the teacher and check his or her dedication to developing virtue through their practice of mindfulness. It can be a little hard to find a good teacher unless you already have some awareness of yourself.
At Mindful Breath, we encourage you (the student) to read through our resources and go through our videos to learn what we value and how we may guide our students. Mindfulness teachers in ancient times did not teach to earn an income. Therefore they have the freedom to choose to teach only students who are willing to put in the effort to look within themselves. But this is not the same in today’s world. Thus, we encourage interested students to learn more about their potential teacher’s values and practice or have a conversation with them before embarking on a course.