Recently I have received not a lot, but an unusual amount of emails and phone calls from people asking me how they can become a mindfulness teacher.
I admit, I have been surprised by this since I do not think of myself as a mindfulness teacher. A part of me feels flattered that people are seeking out this kind of guidance from me but another part of me feels perplexed. Asking me how to become a mindfulness teacher is like asking an abstract painter to explain how she or he made that strange, abstract painting. It is not an easy thing to do.
My first inclination is to respond to people by saying, “I really don’t know” or “Read a lot of books on mindfulness and then apply what you learn.” But I recognize that this knee jerk reaction is a kind of unwillingness to talk about how I think a person becomes a mindfulness teacher (although reading a lot of books is important).
I never set my life’s course in the direction of becoming a mindfulness teacher. It is not something that I ever thought possible for me. I have always approached mindfulness in an effort to help myself more skillfully deal with the intense anxiety, depression and anger that I have struggled with much of my life.
Fifteen or so years ago while I was meditating in my small apartment in Oakland, I did have a vision of myself as an older man, sitting in the lotus position with a group of other people also seated in lotus position. We were all sitting in a circle practicing meditation and it kind of seemed like I was the teacher but I was not sure. I remember thinking that it would be nice to be able to be a meditation teacher but I had no idea how that kind of thing could ever happen since at the time I was consuming high doses of paxil, beer and marijuana to get through my anxious days.
Fifteen or so years later and people are asking me how to be a mindfulness teacher. It does feel strange. I do think, “Who, me?” But let me tell you how I think this sort of thing happened.
Professional Development Mindfulness Seminars, Mindfulness Certification Programs, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programs and other mindfulness courses that you can take are all helpful in developing your understanding of the basic principles and application of mindfulness practice. They are almost always a necessary first step to install in your brain a better functioning operating system than the damaged one you have kept running all this time. But finishing one of these mindfulness programs is really just the very beginning and far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far from the end of your mindfulness education.
How you then proceed to deal with your daily suffering is the much more important part of your education.
Are you aware of your mortality right now? Are you aware that this next breath could really be your very last? If not and you want to be a mindfulness teacher you might want to work on this. The continual awareness of your own mortality is one of the most important understandings you will need to have in order to be an effective mindfulness teacher.
Why? Because when you are really aware of the impermanence that underlies every single aspect of our lives, it allows you to place a much greater value on letting things go and living as fully as possible in this moment. This moment will mean more to you than anything else.
The reason why most of us are not present is because we have forgotten that we are going to die. We are operating under the false assumption that life goes on forever. As a result we refuse to slow down. We take ourselves very seriously.
The moment you become more aware of your own mortality, the present moment automatically takes on a much greater value. You are not as easily caught up in emotions and thoughts about the future and past. You are not as easily seduced by judgemental thoughts of yourself and others. It becomes much easier to accept things as they are, let them go, have some compassion and live more fully in this moment.
Are you noticing that you are breathing in or out right now?
A mindfulness teacher without a deep and personal understanding of the importance of this breath, of living life from moment to moment, aware of but not attached to everything that is going on, is like a bird without wings. It just doesn’t make any sense. No certification program or class can provide you with this innate and immediate understanding of your own (and everyone else’s) unavoidable end. This is something you will have to come to on your own, through your own life experience. A mindfulness teacher ideally acquires this very real understanding and insight long before they find themselves in a hospital bed.
The present moment is not really a real thing. The moment you become aware of the present moment it is already the past. The future is continually becoming the past, so in a sense there is not really an exact present moment. I use the term present moment in the same way a religious person might use the term God. It is pointing to an experience of something that is never really right here. A mindfulness teacher knows that the present moment just means being aware of the experience you are having right now rather than being completely lost in thought.
Being aware of our present moment experience (sensations in the body, sounds, smells, tastes, breathing) rather than being caught in the web of the wandering mind, is the essence of mindfulness practice.
There are mindfulness teachers and practitioners who are very dialed in to their present moment experience almost all of the time. I have studied with teachers who could be called expert meditators and as a result are not that invested in their egos. When we talk about being caught up in the wandering mind (identified with thought after thought after thought) this just means a person is very identified with their ego. There are mindfulness teachers who have worked hard and thus are not very ego driven. As a result, they suffer much less than you and I.
But this is not the kind of mindfulness teacher I am. I suffer. I struggle. I am still identified with my ego. I kind of like my ego and don’t want to eradicate it. I am just like most of the other people I teach- trying to more successfully and skillfully manage my own physical and psychological afflictions through the practice of mindfulness.
I still deal with anxiety, anger and depression- sometimes a lot more often that I care to admit. But to be a mindfulness teacher I do think it is important to suffer and struggle with these very human things. It is important to humanize yourself by being open about your own personal struggles instead of trying to come of as a person who has all their shit together. People will see through this (hopefully).
Besides, what use is a mindfulness teacher to people who are really struggling with very human difficulties if they are not willing to honestly share how they use mindfulness to deal with their own personal struggles? This is the essence of being a mindfulness teacher. Show people how you do it and let them decide if they want to apply it or not.
I could be wrong, but a mindfulness teacher who has eradicated all anger, anxiety, depression, grief does not exist. This is why it is important not to hide behind credentials, certifications, status and degrees by pretending like you have eradicated suffering, because you will always know this is just not true. As a result you will feel like an imposter.
Be courageous. Talk about your shit. Talk about your struggles and about how you apply mindfulness to the problems in your own life.
When you are angry, depressed or freaking out take the time to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice. Do this again and again. This will be the most important and never ending aspect of your mindfulness education. No matter how angry or sad or worried or afraid or angry or depressed you get, keep coming back to your awareness of the present moment. Notice that you are breathing in and out. Let it go. If you can do this successfully more often than not- this will be your greatest qualification as a mindfulness teacher.
If you notice that days or weeks go by where you forget to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice becuase you are all caught up in frantic thoughts and emotions, this is normal. You are human. It is just important that at some point you remember to bring yourself back to the awareness of the present moment and let go of whatever crap you have been caught up in.
If you go away from the present moment a thousand times, what is important is that you bring yourself back into the present moment a thousand and one times.
Remember the importance of being fully alive in this moment rather than being caught up in worry, remorse or judgment. None of it is as important as you think. Let it go. Practice living your life from moment to moment rather than living in terms of tasks you need to accomplish and/or worry about. When you realize you have gotten caught up in thoughts and have been living your very precious and very mortal life from the neck up (lost in your head) bring yourself back to what is happening right now. Do this again and again and again……..
It is the degree to which you suffer and then apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice while being honest with others (and yourself) about your process, which will determine the degree to which you are effective as a mindfulness teacher.