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Three kinds of shenanigans going on in the world of mindfulness.

20 May 2019 | , Timothea Goddard | Mindfulness Courses ,

Shenanigans is such a great word. It is a noun that means: mischief, trouble, pranks, high-jinks, tomfoolery.   

Mindfulness is everywhere. The effectiveness of a mindfulness practice in for all kinds of stress and illness, as well as for supporting people to thrive and have more authority in their lives - is now quite widely known. 

And while there are many different skilful ways of going about mindfulness training, I do see that there are some shenanigans going on at the moment. 


The three shenanigans....


1. The illusion of choice

There is now a big emphasis on crafting interventions that provide people with a lot of choice to deal with two problems:

a) no-one has any time to practice, and

b) practice brings up unpleasant experience sometimes.

We are so accommodating. “If you don’t like the body scan, do the breath, or maybe just some mindful walking.” And perhaps something is better than nothing, of course and each person needs to be supported to find out what is right for them.

But sometimes I wonder if all this choice might have more to do with complying with a consumer ideology than with skilful mindfulness teaching. Maybe the illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom that we are perpetuating.

This kind of avoidance on the teacher’s part doesn’t lead to the benefits that are promised - because we are not helping that person to explore and inhibit their reactivity. We are not helping them to cultivate equanimity with things how they are.

What practice can offer is a marvellous lack of choice for those minutes we set aside - which brings us directly into contact with the way we habitually ignore, shut down, manipulate or control our experience. This is gold, but it requires us to start seeing our aversion as the site of practice, not something to react to by changing the practice. And often the more pained we are, the more avoidant we are, and the more we need to practice - not less.

In my training in mindfulness - personally and professionally - both formal practice and informal practice have been really important in becoming more free to make real choices in any moment.

But now there is “everyday mindfulness”. We have some proponents of mindfulness saying that they don’t meditate, they do “everyday mindfulness” (at the same time as using the research on 8 week programs which invite up to 45 minutes of practice a day to sell the neurobiological benefits, and implying that people don’t need to practice in a sustained way, to reap those benefits). This is tricky!

I do see that there are many contexts when the offering needs to be skilfully adapted to meet that particular context with intelligence and flexibility. And of course many people need practice to be titrated (eg. for trauma) - but not in these epidemic proportions that we see in the modern mindfulness movement.

Now you will see many short courses (four to six weeks long and offering between 4 - 9 hours of training) that claim to be based on 'MBSR' or 'the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn' and also inaccurately drawing on the MBSR research-base - when this is not evident in the structure of the course or the experience of the teacher.   I wonder about the ethics of advertising in this way.



2. People get to be expert in mindfulness without a grounding in practice.

Mindfulness is attracting a huge number of people wanting to position themselves as experts way before they have done much practice and investigation themselves. This is partly because as a culture we so overvalue the cognitive in learning anything. So people can go to a weekend workshop or read a few good books and feel empowered to teach others as an "add on" to what they already do.  I have contact with many wonderful health professionals who have “been teaching mindfulness for years” and yet who are seriously challenged by sitting still for 30 minutes and observing their own minds.   I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn saying at the end of a seven day introductory training in mindfulness here in Sydney to 150 heath professionals who had all fallen in love with mindfulness: “If you care about mindfulness, and are called to teach it, do a retreat. No. Do four retreats!” Good idea. 

The researcher, Paul Grossman, points to how our universities are set up to enable people without any experience to become expert in mindfulness in the academic world and who then have a lot of power to shape the conceptualising and research questions in the world of mindfulness.


3. Selling the results of practice get confused with the practice

The way people are informed about mindfulness these days describe the results of practice in wonderful and inspiring terms - more calm, productive and focused.

And then they turn their attention inwards they find it is a pretty crazy neighbourhood in there! In the first instance, what they find is not more calm and peace but that they come face to face with their minds as they are. And then people then get demoralised and say: “It doesn’t work for me”. The hard reality is that practice is full of experiences we are going to be aversive to. And if we are not helped to work with this, the benefits will not arise, and mindfulness will end up being a passing and not-very-helpful fad.

I deeply honour that each person will engage with mindfulness in any way that serves them and makes sense to them – which may involve no formal practice at all. Not a problem!

But as teachers of mindfulness – unless we know the ‘size of the cloth’ of how suffering arises and have investigated what is possible in terms of really opening up to the difficult inside ourselves, we are not in a position to know how to offer this process to someone else. A kind of feel-good professional laziness can ensue, offering more peace, love, kindness etc but not having the skills to actually help people discover this for themselves through experience and practice.