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Sunday, April 7, 2019

Buddhist vs. Secular Mindfulness Training

Dr. Seonaigh MacPherson is a certified MBSR teacher and teacher trainer who began meditating over 40 years ago. She has studied with leading meditation teachers, including HH the Dalai Lama, Ven. Tara Tulku, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. 

She participated in a formative Mind and Life dialogue at the Dalai Lama's residence in India in 1997, observing week-long exchanges between the Dalai Lama and leading Western physicists. 

She collaborates closely with the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto, and has taught undergraduate courses in Buddhism and mindfulness at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV). In September 2019, UFV will launch a graduate certificate program in Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning

In this interview, Seonaigh discusses her perspective on mindfulness with Catharine Hannay, editor and publisher of

Catharine: Your career covers nearly the same time span as the increase of interest in Buddhism and meditation in North America. What do you see as the pros and cons of the popularization of secular mindfulness in recent years?

Seonaigh: The pros of the popularization of secular mindfulness in recent years are that it has enabled the core practices of mindfulness to be disseminated to a much broader group of people who are able to benefit from the practices. 

The second huge benefit is that it has opened a space for researchers in cognitive science, neurology, psychology, and an array of social sciences to investigate the nuances of causes, correlations, effects, and theories to dramatically improve our understanding of mindfulness. 

This scientific frame, in turn, offers strong evidence and shifts the way we view the practices, largely in a positive way I would say. For example, in traditional Buddhist contexts, they don't usually see mindfulness training as relevant to young children in my experience, yet the scientific process is validating their extended use with these and other vulnerable populations.

There are cons as well, of course. One con that I have personally experienced is a lower bar for ethical conduct, which is worrying. 

Buddhists train vigorously in personal ethics to practice:
  • truthfulness, 
  • not killing or harming, 
  • not stealing or taking what is not freely given, 
  • respectful sexual conduct, and 
  • not taking substances that alter or harm the mind. 

These are not part of the usual approach to training in secular mindfulness. 

In Buddhism, this ethical training and conduct are said to "cool the mind," thereby making it easier to practice mindfulness. They are related in this sense. 

Also, Buddhism doesn't end with mindfulness; it just begins there. So, while all the secular research and programs tend to focus on mindfulness, in Buddhism mindfulness is understood as part of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (both of which are presented in the satipatthana sutra.) 

The Seven Factors begin with mindfulness, but only when catalyzed or focused with investigation and energy (which together could be understood as "interest" perhaps), does the full import of mindfulness for teaching and learning begin to be appreciated and experienced. Likewise, the seventh and final factor, equanimity, teaches us a lot about the implications of how and why we practice mindfulness. We are looking for that equal interest or curiosity between experiences we might ignore, crave, or reject (feel averse to). 

This equanimity is not unlike the equanimity that culminates from the foundational practice of compassion in Buddhism, The Brahma Vihara or Four Immeasurables. Those four trainings are: 

  • loving-kindness (metta), 
  • compassion (karuna), 
  • sympathetic joy (mudita), and
  • equanimity (upekkca). 

Both The Seven Factors and The Four Immeasurables culminate in equanimity. This is important.

That said, as most of us working across the Buddhist and secular-scientific context of mindfulness understand, the process of translating across these cultural and contextual differences has only begun. It will continue for a long time, well into the next century I am sure. It's only just begun. Most of those involved in the secular-scientific study of mindfulness maintain a firm footing in the Buddhist roots of these practices and theories of mind.

Catharine: Much of your training is in the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. What would you most like secular mindfulness teachers to know about traditional Tibetan Buddhist practices?

Seonaigh: Well, given I entitled my doctoral dissertation, A Path of Learning: Indo-Tibetan Buddhism as Education, I suppose my first interest is to consider Tibetan Buddhist practices, and all Buddhist practices, as education rather than religion. 

Second, Tibetan Buddhism is an inclusive tradition that includes all of the basics of Buddhism found in Thervadin traditions (e.g., Vipassana); the emphasis on compassion and emptiness of Mahayana traditions (e.g., Zen); and a very sophisticated set of theories and practices associated with understanding, unleashing, and embodying the creative potential of our experience as human beings. 

Only in Tibetan Buddhism do you find a full appreciation in theory and practice of constructivism, the world is constructed in our perception and projected in the world to make us believe that it is more concrete and fixed than it is. 

This is a very important insight that is reinforced with contemporary insights in cognitive science and even particle physics. This underlies the reasons why Tibetan Buddhism uses so many visualization practices as well, that are designed to untangle and heal our obstructions at their primordial roots. Rather than judging and rejecting or controlling fundamental human drives associated with desire and fear or aversion, we learn to use and integrate them in the service of the world.

Catharine: You’re the cofounder of the international scholarly journal Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education. What can indigenous peoples teach us about compassion and present-moment awareness?

Seonaigh: Tibetans are an Indigenous people, so part of the answer is outlined above. What Indigenous people as a category or group have to offer are a strong connection with place and the Earth that too many of us colonial migrants and settlers lose touch with. A sense that the earth or world around us speaks to us in multiple voices if we could just listen and hear. 

Tibetan Buddhism emerged from the encounter between Buddhism and the Indigenous culture and religion of Tibet - sometimes referred to as Bon. When I was doing my doctoral research in the Indian refugee Tibetan communities, a young Tibetan scholar published an exciting article about the translation of a text that was said to exist PRIOR to the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. This Tibetan article discussed how to read the positions and movement of ravens as signs or predictions. This reminds me what the Indigenous sensibility teaches us - that the movement of ravens and other birds is significant. 

As someone who descended in the not-too distant past from emigrants of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland (i.e., Highland/Island Scots), another group of Indigenous people crushed historically but reviving in more recent time, I have a strong sense of the value of these cultures and forms of knowledge.

The case of mindfulness is a good example. Here we have one of the first instances of the movement of knowledge going from traditional non-modern sources (what we might refer to as the "East") to the modern, developed world of secular-scientific life. It is a very fecund and rich movement as well, that is growing quickly with significant import. 

This will expand to other forms of Indigenous knowledge as well, as we come to respect rather than to crush their knowledge and knowledge-keepers: their knowledge of plants, forms of medicine and healing, the mind, and our relationships with the natural world.

Catharine: As a former ESL teacher myself, I’m curious about whether you integrate mindfulness into your TESL classes and whether you recommend that ESL teachers teach mindfulness to their students?

Seonaigh: We teach adult education and TESL. In adult education, as a BA program with about 18 required courses, there is a lot of curricular space to create explicit elective courses in mindfulness and to infuse mindfulness in courses like "Diversity in Adult Education," in which I focus on integrating mindfulness in anti-oppressive pedagogy (using the 2016 text by Berila of the same title.)

Our TESL program, on the other hand, is a 5-course certificate with intensive training in teaching and learning a language. It is recognized as a Standard 2 certificate by TESL Canada as well. So, as a regulated profession with so many requirements, it is difficult to find time or space in the curriculum to introduce the teachers in training to the import of mindfulness in their teaching. The most I do is lead them in a short practice at the beginning of class.

Instead, we are focusing on introducing mindfulness as a key curricular and professional development topic for established ESL teachers and for the field. Recently, for example, I was the keynote for a community organization, AMSSA's, workshop with representative coordinators and lead teachers from all of the settlement language programs in BC. We were considering together the great value of introducing mindfulness into these courses to support the social-emotional development, mental health, and trauma recovery of refugees and many immigrants as well. This is a new and important area in mindfulness, which has its applications in trauma-informed practice.

Catharine: What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

Seonaigh: I see 'mindful teaching' and 'teaching mindfulness' as quite distinct. Mindful teaching is about embodying mindfulness in our role and practice as a teacher. It is about noticing our students, being aware of our responsibilities to them and their needs, about creatively assessing and developing strategies to support those needs. It need never involve teaching mindfulness more than as an example. It is not just fluff, though. This means something distinctive. 

  • It means being in our bodies and senses. 
  • It means noticing students. 
  • It means accepting responsibility to care for them as whole human beings, which may take us beyond the usual limits we are conventionally told to respect as professionals.

As the Dalai Lama once said to me: 
"I don't understand education in the West. I hear that you refer students who have difficulties to counsellors. So, you are the teacher but if your student experiences difficulty you send them to someone else! I think that a teacher should take responsibility themselves. You teach students not a subject. You teach human beings not Math or History or Science."

Teaching mindfulness is another story, of course; I would invite any of your readers to do our MBTL graduate certificate to learn more about that!

Catharine: How does the certificate program in MBTL complement MBSR or MBCT training? 

The Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning graduate certificate offers graduates the option of including certification as an MBSR or MBCT facilitator if they meet certain requirements; however, it is designed to serve a much broader range of programming and purposes in the teaching and learning of mindfulness. As an accredited graduate program in the Province of British Columbia, the 12 credits earned in the certificate can transfer into a range of graduate academic and professional degree programs. 

More importantly, it is more comprehensive than the MBSR and MBCT training certificates because it is designed to train participants to read and apply research in practice. This would include learning the unique and distinctive approaches to mindfulness education, such as guidance, inquiry, inductive learning, and embodiment. 

Yet, it would go further

  •  in supporting scientific literacy; the critical reading, applying, and communication of research for the purposes of teaching and learning mindfulness; and 
  • for designing mindfulness programming for use in a range of contexts and with a range of learners, not just health-related contexts or purposes as implied with MBSR and MBCT. 
  • This might include ECE, K-12 education, higher education, healthcare, community education, settlement language education, criminal justice, and organizational or workplace training. 

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

Seonaigh: These days, I practice exactly what I recommend to students I teach in MBSR courses: a minimum of 35-minutes of sitting practice (breathing, mindfulness, open awareness) and at least 20 minutes of walking out in nature (forest or river) with my dogs. 

I do an annual silent retreat for at least five days. I teach MBSR and supervise students learning to teach it – both of which I consider practices as well. 

And, finally, I try to practice a continuum of mindfulness throughout the day, with patience and self-compassion, given how difficult that can be!

I do return to Tibetan Buddhist practices occasionally as well: Chenresig, Akshobya Buddha, and White Tara. I have also done Christian practices in the past, such as using the line from the psalm: "Be still and know that I am God" as a kind of koan or mantra.

Catharine: It's interesting that you've done Christian practices, as well as Buddhist practices and secular MBSR practices. I appreciate your mentioning that, since I've been trying to emphasize the range of possible approaches to mindfulness.  

Thanks so much for sharing your expertise, and all the best with the new certificate program!

The Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning Program at the University of the Fraser Valley is the first for-credit university mindfulness program in Canada and one of the first in North America. Learn more at


related posts: 

Resources for Teaching Mindfulness

Thought-Provoking Videos About Mindfulness and Meditation

How Christians and Buddhists Can Teach Each Other About Mindfulness

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning

How Mindfulness Can Help Us Wake Up to Oppression and Suffering