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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Advice for Mindfulness Teachers and Practitioners (interview)

photo courtesy Melli O'Brien
Melli O’Brien, aka Australia’s “Mrs. Mindfulness,” is an internationally-accredited meditation and Satyananda yoga teacher and an MTIA-trained mindfulness teacher.  Ms. O’Brien was  selected by the Satyananda Mangrove Mountain Ashram  (the largest ashram in the southern hemisphere) to teach their mindfulness retreats.  She also offers talks and workshops on mindfulness, happiness, meditation, and conscious living.  [update: Melli has organized a free online Mindfulness Summit, to take place from October 1-31, 2015.]

In the U.S., there’s been some backlash against the popularization of mindfulness. Is that also true in Australia? How do you respond to concerns about “watered-down” mindfulness practice?

I think there are two main issues that have come to the fore in the popularization of mindfulness practice (both here in Australia and abroad). The first wave of backlash that I became aware of was centered around talk of mindfulness being a ‘panacea for everything’. After the initial avalanche of positive media and all the research-backed benefits and testimonials constantly hitting the headlines, critics claimed that mindfulness was just the latest self-help flavor of the month and criticized mindfulness enthusiasts for promoting it as a helpful tool in so many domains of life (such as relationships, physical health and mental health, etc).

I think mindfulness has already proven itself to be much more than just a fad and while it certainly is not a panacea for everything, we now have over 35 years of solid research showing that mindfulness does indeed have a long list of proven benefits.

The second issue with the popularization of mindfulness is that there are many concerns about improperly educated teachers, as you mentioned, teaching a ‘watered down’ version of mindfulness.

This is a tricky subject. I have heard talk of introducing a regulatory body and even a list of approved mindfulness teachers--only those trained through the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) teacher training programs. 

There has understandably been quite a backlash to this idea, from the Buddhist community and other contemplative traditions, because this kind of regulation would mean excluding exceptionally experienced Buddhist, Yogic and other teachers.

On the one hand this regulation could protect mindfulness students from shoddy teachers. On the other hand it could mean that some of the most talented and experienced teachers don’t get the opportunity to share their gifts simply because they haven’t been through one particular training program. 

To this conundrum, I don’t think there is an easy answer but I will say that I am not fond of the promotion of the idea there is any ‘one right way’ or a ‘best way’ to teach mindfulness. Especially when I have had the pleasure of being exposed to mindfulness through many different traditions and teachings and feel I have gained equally from each of them.

What kind of background and training do you recommend for someone who wants to teach mindfulness?

The most important thing is that they’re a devoted mindfulness practitioner. They know the practice inside out and they love it. They aim to live and breathe it as best they can in their daily lives. That doesn't mean they have to be a monk or swami or some kind of perfected person who never gets cranky or sad. Just that they truly are devoted to mindful living and they are experienced at that.

If a mindfulness practitioner wants to then share mindfulness with others I do think that undergoing some teacher training is imperative. I do highly recommend the MBSR teacher training program and I know that the Buddhist, Yogic and other wisdom traditions offer some wonderful teacher trainings as well.

You offer private mindfulness training as well as workshops. What are the advantages and disadvantages of training one-on-one as opposed to practicing in a group setting?

I think that a group setting is the best way to learn mindfulness for most people. People learn so much from each others’ experience, questions and stories. They support and encourage each other. It is often the interpersonal interactions within groups that are the most powerful agents of change.

There is also something about practicing together in a group that seems to deepen and energize each individual’s practice.

I now encourage those who approach me for one-on-one sessions to come to a retreat first (if they are able) and then use the one-on-one training (if they still want to do that) simply as a way to fine tune the practice and keep up momentum.

The one advantage of one-on-one sessions is that the sessions can be catered to specific challenges that person may be facing.

In a recent interview, Maggie Dunne shared a Lakota (American Indian) prayer that reflects the belief “we are all related and we all have an obligation to help each other and treat each other with respect.” Are you familiar with any traditional Aboriginal beliefs that reflect a mindful way of life?

Yes, the Aboriginal people have a similar outlook. Everyone is family, even the rocks, trees and animals around them. To them all life is sacred and they feel deeply connected to it all. They have a wonderful ‘law’ that they live by called the ‘seventh generation’ law. It says:

“What we do today will affect the seventh generation to come and because of this we must bear in mind our responsibility to them today and always."
If we all lived by this beautiful law, we would live a more natural, mindful and compassionate life.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

It means being authentic and open. It means truly listening and connecting. It means accepting myself and others as they are. It means embodying what's deepest and truest in my nature (to the best of my ability) and inviting others to do the same. It means meeting myself and others in love and understanding, and it means living each moment together fully. We are always each other’s teachers. I am also constantly learning and receiving wisdom from participants at my retreats and workshops.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

I aim, to the best of my ability, to not separate my mindfulness practice from the rest of my life. I think of mindfulness as a way of living rather than a practice that I do for only 30 or 45 minutes a day.

I do however set aside time for formal practice every morning. Sometimes I do a sitting meditation or on other days I will do yoga or go for a mindful walk. Often I will do a second practice during the midafternoon (usually a body scan practice). I also take time for retreats every year to strengthen and deepen my practice.

On a daily basis there are many ways that I integrate mindful living into my life. One thing I find very effective is having a dedicated everyday activity that I'm committed to doing mindfully. For me, it's making a cup of tea. I love tea! Because I make a cuppa several times a day I have these guaranteed mini mindfulness sessions interspersed throughout my workday. These mindful moments dotted throughout my workday make me feel more centered and connected.

Another way I apply mindfulness to my workday is doing only one thing at a time. That means no multitasking! I aim to give each activity my absolute attention as I write, call or pay the bills. That way each activity can become my practice. It’s so much more enjoyable and energizing working this way.

I am truly passionate about integrating more mindfulness into daily life so if anyone is interested to check out some more ways I integrate mindfulness into my daily life you can check them out here.

related posts:

Mindfulness as a Way of Life (interview)

Teaching Mindfulness with Integrity (interview)

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