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.