What to Look for in a Mindfulness Teacher

Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.” —Albert Einstein

Mindfulness is easy: all you have to do is be there and pay attention. However, weaving mindfulness into your life is hard. It takes practice, motivation and the courage to keep going even when it seems pointless—even when your loved ones think you’re nuts.

The mindfulness teacher inspires by demonstrating what is possible and how you can discover it for yourself. In short, how to deconstruct the flow of experience that is your life.

It starts with raw information delivered by the five senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch, but it’s not raw for long. Almost immediately, it’s colored by the feelings that accompany every experience, and then it’s overrun by a torrent of thoughts that want to know what’s going on and how it all relates to you.

The role of mindfulness is to gradually reveal all those layers of interpretation, judgment and planning with which you lay claim to the experience—to bring them from unconsciousness into your conscious purview. This sounds nice, but in fact it’s chaotic. You advance by fits and starts. Sometimes it’s unpleasant, but it’s always enlightening.

The teacher’s skill lies in helping you slow down all that automated mentality so you can see for yourself how consciousness takes shape. What “slowing down” actually means depends on you as well as the teacher. You must be temperamentally suited to each other. There’s more to mindfulness than sitting in peace, and you may have to challenge the teacher.

This could not be more different from the teaching and learning that goes on in school. That is all about information. Mindfulness is about unlearning old, automated patterns and reminding your self of its natural freedom.

Forget about emptying all thoughts. As long as you’re conscious, there’s always mentality in some shape or form. The skill is to be aware of it, whether it makes sense or not. This is what it means to accept what is. It doesn’t mean you condone everything but that you see what’s before you without sentiment or judgment. A skilful teacher helps you accept paradox by holding views loosely, and is always content to admit, “I don’t know,” for this is the root of integrity.

Lama Thubten Yeshe, circa 1975

I learned all this from my teacher Lama Yeshe, who I thought the funniest man I’d ever met. He made me want to teach like he taught and care like he cared. I too wanted to be a storyteller, a stand-up artist with an eye for human foibles. Every aspect of my teaching style is colored by his example. He was the perfect teacher for me and although he died 34 years ago, and although I didn’t actually spend that much time with him, I’m grateful for him every day.

Most importantly, a mindfulness teacher helps you become self-reliant, guided not by rules and regulations but by the intelligence that grows from attending your own experience. The very essence of mindfulness practice lies in the determination to figure life out for yourself.

That doesn’t mean you’re on your own. On the contrary, the teacher’s job is to keep nudging you back to that observational space, to lay bare the preconceptions, expectations and judgements that overwhelm your attention. You let go of views not because they’re wrong but because they’ve served their purpose and no longer need to occupy your mind.

Once views have been formed however, they do not go quietly. They protest their importance and claim your attention. The great and indispensable skill of the teacher is to show you that you can let go and be yourself without any props.

All this takes practice. Lama Yeshe’s confidence in me when I was unsure of my abilities was his great gift to me. Since then, all I’ve ever wanted to do is to pass it on down.

Herd Mentality

On our way to Niagara this week, we stopped at an ONroute service centre. These are places on the 401 between Montreal and Toronto where you can relieve yourself, eat and fuel up.

Complexes like this which pepper the highways of the world are designed to efficiently and profitably direct large numbers of visitors in and out. They work. As we converged on the entrance we became one of the crowd. Once you’ve been in one you know them all. They’re identical. You could be anywhere. You could be anyone.

Signage was clear. The bathrooms appeared within seconds. Each concession, automat and service was perfectly positioned to be at hand before you even knew you wanted it.

I realized what I hate most about consumer culture. I felt like cattle—part of something larger than me, and not in a good way.

Each visitor is stripped of her or his individuality simply by virtue of being there. Everyone follows the same pattern. We all have the same road-weary look. We all obey the signs. These are awful places.

I mentioned it to Caroline.

She nodded. “And yet,” she remarked, “Every one has a story. We’re all individuals. We all suffer and try not to. Everyone’s wants to be happy.”

Happiness? What’s that? Half the visitors came out clutching oversize soft drinks, munching on fast food wrapped in artificially colored containers.

“Wow,” I said.

“Wow,” said Caroline.

Feeling ashamed, I heard Shylock’s voice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes we’re all the same, but a part of that sameness is the need to express our uniqueness. Here, I don’t feel anything like that.

“Let’s get out of here.” We said it together.

Later that day in Niagara we were met by Caroline’s cousin Peter and his husband Luc. They’d invited us and two friends for dinner, and it was a perfect match. There was no small talk. The conversation was personal, confessional and deep. We each expressed our uniqueness, and then some. I love people who are honest about themselves and know how to share.

Two days later we headed home. After a couple of hours we needed a bathroom. This time we ignored the convenience of ONroute and exited the highway. We found an old gas station. The bathroom was grubby. Toilet paper was strewn on the floor and the porcelain was stained. Without thinking I said, “Eew, gross.”

But I smiled. Although there’s something definitely revolting about a dirty public washroom, it’s nothing compared to the horror of being a herd.

Three Reasons Doctors Should Practice Mindfulness

I’ve had a large number of psychologists in my workshops. They heard about mindfulness years ago and took to the practice as a natural extension of their training. Now I’m being sought out by physicians, but their interest is more personal.

What a career choice! Doctors work unnaturally long hours and have high rates of burnout, divorce and substance abuse, as well as the highest suicide rate of any profession. Physicians are more likely to suffer from mental illness but much less likely to be treated for it. A 2012 study on physician suicide begins with the lament that there have been so few studies.

1. Equanimity

Although you must be highly ambitious to become an MD, it often starts with the simple motivation to relieve suffering and help others. Simple on the surface, at any rate. This is a huge moral commitment, and since it’s impossible to take on the emotional load of every suffering patient young doctors are taught emotional detachment that is reinforced by the fierce competitiveness of the profession and the tendency towards obsessive-compulsive perfectionism. Over a lifetime this often boils down to plain insensitivity. Emotional detachment has been described by one professional as, “an unnatural skill in which you must suppress your innate sympathy.”

Suppressing your innate sympathy is clearly at odds with your fundamental motives and renders your practice of medicine inherently stressful.

There are other ways to manage emotional overload. The resolute practice of mindful noting cools your emotional reactivity by building equanimity without sacrificing your sensitivity to others.

2. Care

Central to the whole notion of mindfulness is care. You care about life and what you do with it. You care for yourself and others by seeking physical, mental and emotional balance.

You express care most tangibly by managing your reactivity. While mindfulness is known to be calming, it also has a more profound purpose: to recognize and let go of reactivity. This happens not by force of will but by understanding yourself from the inside. As you master this reflective skill you exude presence and become a powerful role model. You express the full potential of your healing sensibilities.

3. Resilience

You’re not only under pressure from patients. You also have to function within systems that can be bureaucratic, discriminatory, heavy-handed and sometimes just plain irrational. You can become hardened, or you can become resilient.

Resilience is a flexible inner strength that enables you to consistently bounce back from adversity. By training you to accept what-is with equanimity, Mindful Reflection™ keeps you firmly in touch with your convictions so you can pursue your highest goals with poise and presence.

With resilience arises the recognition that human ignorance, like human mortality, is inevitable. Both summon your desire to heal, and both at times are beyond your power. Resilience enables you to accept your limitations without being defeated by them. You honor life by always seeking new pathways and by exploring life without preconceptions.

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These three qualities of Equanimity, Care and Resilience are intimately connected and overlap naturally. They arise together from a committed training in Mindful Reflection™.

Mindful Reflection™ combines the well-known practices of mindfulness with the less well-known reflections that corral your thoughts and bring mindful attention to all you do. For more information contact the author.

Five Ways to Stop Being Emotionally Reactive

How many times have you promised yourself you’ll never behave like that again, only to find yourself reacting the same old way?

—Excuse me, why are you doing it that way?

—Jeez. Just because I’m not doing it your way doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

—That’s not what I said. No need to get all defensive.

—Me defensive? What about you.

And so on.

Even the most intelligent, educated people can get like this. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to acknowledge that you’re not quite the person you like to think. It seems childish. It upsets the self-image you like to maintain. You lose face, you feel bad and in an effort to avoid this unpleasant reality you look for somewhere else to pin the blame. Needless to say, no good comes of any of this.

Eventually you calm down, admit your mistake, apologize—and make new promises. No matter how contrite you may be however, you’ve done nothing yet to trigger real change. Defensiveness is an instinctive impulse towards a perceived threat. Your reaction’s unlikely to change until you see why it feels that way. What’s the threat exactly?

This is what mindfulness is for. I’m not speaking of mindfulness as a movement or a technique or an ancient teaching. I’m talking about the mental factor of mindfulness—the self-reflective way of seeing that gives you choices and opportunities other animals lack, that makes it possible to stop reactivity and be the person you want to be.

You don’t need to learn mindfulness; you already have it. It’s a natural mental factor. However, it can’t do much by itself. Only when it’s trained along with other mental factors such as effort, discernment and open-mindedness does it become an effective tool for long-term change.

And then you put it to work. Let’s revisit that conversation:

1) Pause, take a breath and get centered.

This first step is the hardest. You can’t just expect to be mindful when you need it, but with as little as ten minutes a day of meditation it becomes second nature. It leads you to a natural go-to place within yourself where you feel centered and see clearly. That sense of peace colors your day and guards you against reactivity.

—I like the way you’re doing that.

—Oh really? I learned from my dad. He taught me to do things right.

2) Don’t be surprised if your partner is defensive too. Use mindful listening. Try to clarify the situation rather than avoid, ignore or reject it.

—My dad was like that too. Only one way to do it!

—Well, I wouldn’t say that.

3) Show personal interest. Mindful watching helps you understand what the other person feels and needs at that moment.

—Really? You think there’s something to learn from other ways?

—Absolutely!

4) Spell it out. Come to an agreement that reactive emotions are not the way to communicate. Ask the other person to point out when you do it.

—How about this way, how I’ve always done it?

—Well that’s interesting too.

5) As you explain your own needs, watch out for any tendency to invalidate those of your partner. Remember, she or he is just as vulnerable as you.

—Thanks for your help.

—Well, thanks to you I’ve just learned something new.

The difference between these two conversations has nothing to do with being right or wrong. It’s about letting go of defensiveness and exploring the conversation open-heartedly.