People mainly attend MBSR (and MBCT) courses on the basis of the promise of personal transformation, not having (as yet) the internal resources to cope with the suffering in their lives. Consequently, considerable time on courses is spent exploring similarities in suffering (McCown et al 2011, pages 87, 95). From a Buddhist perspective, this universal suffering ultimately comes from ignorance about ourselves and the nature of reality (Crane et al 2011, p.79) and is solidly based within the Buddhist conception of dukkha, a feeling of un-satisfactoriness where “a lot of suffering is mild, but chronic, such as a background sense of anxiety, irritability or lack of fulfilment” (Hanson 2009, p.23).
Santorelli (1999) evokes the myth of Chiron, the wounded healer from Greek mythology to highlight the need for a strong sense of humility of our shared human condition, revealing our wounds to each other, revealing our “inner healer” (pp.11-16). This turning towards our wounds is a key principle of the MBSR and MBCT approach. The role of the teacher is to meet people’s suffering wherever they are (McCown et al 2011, p.100).
The underlying teaching approach within MBSR (and MBCT) follows the generally accepted model of adult education, involving the transfer of authority from the educator to the learners; the educator is looking to become redundant, and a collaborative learner (McCown et al 2011, p.128). This move to a “community model” of education (Parker 1998, p.101) or within the context of mindfulness teaching, a “co-creation” position (McCown et al 2011, p.115) runs counter to the “banking” or “objectivist” model of education, where the teacher is seen as an “expert”, a conduit of the truth and the participants are “amateurs” receiving the wisdom from this “expert”. Instead, the ideal is a move towards the development of a “community of truth” where communication is circular, interactive and dynamic and based upon the subject matter itself using opportunities to de-elevate the status of the teacher (Parker 1998, pp.100-103).
The skills each teacher possesses within MBSR (and MBCT) may be somewhat eclectic. The teacher adopts a position of unknowing, which is likely to include some scrutiny of past professional context of group work (McCown et al 2011, p.105).
McCown et al (2011) argue the teacher can be described as a steward of the group circle, the key skills of the teacher being the “three treasures”. Firstly, helping to maintain the freedom of the group, bringing participants back to how they are in each moment. Secondly to sustain participants’ belonging, by offering them the opportunity to care for the group with an emphasis on deeply listening to others (p.113). Lastly, the skill of resonance, where “co-created inter subjective resonance” is brought into being, with the “teacher gently intervening in ways that generate rifts and repairs, thus deepening resonance” (McCown et al 2011, p.105).
The underlying structure within MBSR (and MBCT) can be seen as a set of interrelated teaching intentions, namely, experiencing new possibilities, discovering embodiment, cultivating observation, moving towards acceptance and growing compassion (McCown et al 2011, pp.142-186).
The intentions also have an underlying basis of loving kindness, particularly towards self, and trusting personal insights. The stress on homework supporting the class (rather than the other way around) can be radical for participants. There is an inherent orientation towards taking an observer stance towards experience, tracing impermanence through engagement with thoughts, breath and body, allowing the entire experience of the participant to be present (no matter how difficult) and the importance of the teacher steering the group back to the body as the basis of enquiry (McCown et al 2011, pp.142-186). These intentions are underpinned by the “attitudinal factors” of mindfulness practice: non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go (Kabat-Zinn 2004, pp.31-40).
Crane et al (2012), The Bangor, Exeter and Oxford, Mindfulness Based Interventions-Teaching Assessment Criteria (MBI-TAC) for assessing competence and adherence of mindfulness class based teaching
Crane et al (2011), Competence in Teaching Mindfulness-Based Courses; Concepts, Development and Assessment, Published in Mindfulness (2012): 3 (76-84) and published online 22 September 2011. Springer Science and Business Media
Hanson, R. (2009), The practical neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, love and wisdom, Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004 edition) Full catastrophe living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, London: Piatkus
McCown et al (2011) Teaching Mindfulness – A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators, New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London, Springer Science and Business Media
McCown, D. and Reibel, D. (2009) Mindfulness and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Published in Integrative Psychiatry, Weil Integrative Medicine Library, Oxford University Press
Palmer, J. (1998), The Courage to Teach — Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, San Fransico, Jossey-Bass
Santorelli, S. (1999), Heal Thy Self — Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine, New York, Three Rivers Press