Being mindful is great, but who is going to teach you?

Image via Flickr.
Image via Flickr.

Last week, on a fine sunny day, I saw a woman teaching her grandson to ride a bike in the park. I say ‘teaching’ but in fact neither teaching nor learning were in evidence. She gave him no advice of any use other than ‘put your feet on the peddles and go’. She was patient and encouraging. Her love for the little boy was obvious to all who had eyes to see. But as a teacher of the fine art of bike riding, she was bloody dreadful. After quite some time, the little boy got off the bike rather angrily and said “you do it then!” There was a momentary flicker of some emotional turmoil on the woman’s face. “I can’t.”

There are certain things it’s easy enough to learn through theoretical knowledge only. Read a basic recipe and even those with rather little experience can produce something that resembles food. There are other things where theoretical knowledge can add wonderfully to the learning experience, but where it most definitely cannot replace practical experience. Nobody ever learned to swim by correspondence course alone.

Mindfulness is a silver bullet, right?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably have heard about mindfulness. Over the last decade, it’s become a cultural phenomenon in the west. From Google to government representatives, from psychologists’ offices to schools, people from all walks of life are learning to be more mindful.

There are good reasons for all this excitement. Mindfulness seems to be associated with an embarassingly diverse set of good things in life. The two most robust findings are that it improves general mental health reducing the likelihood of states like depression or anxiety, and that it leads to some degree of cognitive enhancement. The state of the science isn’t great — there’s still a lot we don’t know — but a pretty clear picture is emerging that mindfulness is neither new age bullshit nor the wishful thinking of ancient religious traditions.

That said, ‘mindfulness’ is being used in the west to describe such a diversity of human behaviours that it’s really nothing like a scientifically accurate term. Add to that the original words like smrti (Sanskrit) and sati (Pali) used in Buddhist traditions to describe mindfulness, and realise that these concepts don’t translate perfectly into our western definition of mindfulness and we might as well throw the words away and start again. (I’d love that actually, but it’s not going to happen. We’re too attached to them.)

Jon Kabat-Zinn had a large influence in bringing mindfulness to the attention of western scientists (as opposed to other kinds of western scholars, who’d been interested for centuries already). Here’s his usual definition…

“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” — Kabat-Zinn (1994)

That sounds fairly simple, right? That definition has only four parts. The basic MBSR course that Kabat-Zinn has been teaching for a couple of decades now takes eight weeks. Clearly learning to pay attention in a particular way is no mean feat. Try it for a moment, if you like. Close your eyes and try not to pay attention to your breath just for one minute. If you think of something else, instead, notice that you did, and then just pay attention to your breath again.

When I teach introductory mindfulness skills, many similar issues come up again and again. “It’s impossible!” is the most frequent ejaculation. People usually find their minds just won’t stop wandering onto other topics. “I sat there for ten minutes and I was probably only paying attention to my breath for one minute of that,” said one of my students. The harder you try to guide your attention to your breath, typically, the more it seems to resist. At the very least, having experienced most of these problems myself at one time or another, I can respond with empathy to these difficulties.

However, the problems in teaching mindfulness may be more pronounced. In traditional settings, the definitions vary, and the ultimate goal is often defined not as simply being healthier, but as enlightenment, satori, or nirvana. These are religious fields of enquiry, and we scientists could get ourselves into a right mess here in short order, but there are certain things about these states that we can say without too much complication. Let’s look at just one.

Englightenment is generally said to involve losing, at least temporarily, the sense of self. The dedicated meditator experiences, either briefly, or even for a bit of a while, the feeling, that he or she is not separate from everything around them. Over the centuries people have come up with all sorts of words for this feeling. William James called it the ‘oceanic feeling’ but a more modern and more hippyish term is ‘being at one with the universe’. This feeling is not often taken lightly. Some people experience it and think ‘no big deal’ in just the same way some people try skydiving for the first time and are left unmoved by the experience. As with skydiving, most think about it for days. They’ve never felt that way before. What does it mean? Does it suggest there is a god? Or perhaps I glimpsed the great nothingness of true existence? What does it mean if I can learn to switch off my ‘self’? It was like I just stopped being … but I noticed it, so I must have still been there…

It can be a deeply moving and a fairly scary experience. And those experiences happen even when learning mindfulness in a secular context. You don’t have to be surrounded by incense or especially beautiful architecture to have these wonderful, and often disquieting experiences. We can’t predict when they’ll happen.

Not everyone who meditates will have such experiences, of course, but practically everyone will have the experience of wanting to force their mind to slow down, of feeling unequal to the task, of feeling sure that there must be something wrong with them since their mind insists on throwing up such junk when they try to quieten it. These too can be disquieting or frustrating experiences. Learning to meditate might be extremely good for you but that doesn’t mean it has to be easy. No more than lifting weights, cycling up a mountain, or jogging in the park are easy.

So here’s the burning question. Whom would you trust to teach you to meditate, or to bring mindfulness into your daily life? What experience should they have? I’ll put my cards on the table. I strongly believe that you should treat with deep skepticism anybody who claims to teach any of this stuff if they don’t use it themselves. I can hear some of my professional colleagues screaming at me from across the wires, but honestly, that’s my view. Would you trust someone who’d never run to coach you in training for a 5k? Would you choose to spend your time and money getting advice on weight lifting from someone who was physically fit but whose closest association with a gym was a hardback textbook?

Is the grandma who can’t ride a bike the ideal teacher of bike riding?

The key question with mindfulness, as with almost any advice you might be offered by a coach, therapist, or teacher, is, “do you use these techniques yourself?” Keep it in mind if you ever decide to develop your meditation muscles.

(P.S. Like someone with a poor grip on reality, I thanked the little boy out loud, from my seat on a stone wall some 20 metres away, for giving me an opening paragraph to this blog post. Maybe some day he’ll read it and tell us all how he got on with learning to ride that bike.)