Contemplative traditions and practices
“Everything rests on the tip of intention” (Feldman 2016
). Clarity of intention of mindfulness-based program form and within the teacher delivering it are essential. In its fullest meaning, mindfulness is a radical reorientation to an individual’s approach to experience and to life. It embraces an understanding that it is inherently challenging to inhabit the human condition, and that suffering cannot be escaped but can be skillfully faced.
MBPs developed for delivery in mainstream contexts are naturally targeted at mainstream concerns (i.e., depression prevention, stress reduction) and are a time-limited short-term intervention (usually over 8 weeks). The motivating concerns and length of engagement in the training process are different from mindfulness practice within its originating religious contexts where the practices were used to enable the development of insight, wisdom, and virtue over an individual’s lifetime (Davidson 2016
). However, there is of course much alignment between the underlying aspiration of mindfulness training to ease emotional distress and the societal need for this.
Tensions can arise if there is a divergence between the core ethical underpinning of mindfulness practice to do no harm and relieve emotional distress with that of institutionally driven and favored targets, such as hard work, high performance, and reduced absenteeism of maximization of profit. There are some risks and expressed concerns that the deeper transformative potential of the practice gets lost in the popularization of mindfulness in the mainstream as a way to create favored states such as calm and acceptance (Pursor and Loy 2013
). Although a critique of mainstream mindfulness is that it risks developing passivity in the face of capitalism, in practice evidence suggests that individuals become more attuned to their own experiential process and empowered to make skillful choices in their life (Cook 2016
). It is important though that MBP teachers and the wider field proactively engage with the societal and institutional issues which create collective distress. Some MBPs are explicitly intentioned to support individuals to change unsustainable institutional behaviors (Pykett et al. 2016
), whereas others such as therapeutically oriented MBPs emphasize individual patterns. Teacher training requirements for these are somewhat different, but both sets of teachers need awareness of the wider cultural context within which human distress develops.
Every institution, culture, region, and nation presents a context whose dynamics need understanding to enable successful implementation of a new approach within that setting (McCormack et al. 2002
). A key to the success of the pioneering work of Kabat-Zinn (1990
) in developing the MBSR was the way in which he created a program which balanced a number of potentially divergent issues: it skillfully met the challenges of people who were coming to the course; it honored the ethics, agenda, ethos, and concerns of the American mainstream hospital setting within which the course was implemented; and it maintained the rigor, integrity, and transformational potential of mindfulness practice. Multiple MBPs, which have developed out of the root form of MBSR, have built on this approach.
Over many years, our Western mainstream healthcare, educational settings, justice system, and workplaces have evolved their own forms of integrity. These include an ethos of accessibility to the breadth of the demographic of society, of public accountability for the sorts of activities which take place inside our institutions, of working in ways which serve and are in the interests of the general public who provide the funding for these institutions, of providing services which offer value for money, and of implementing practice which represents the best empirical evidence available (Horton 2006
). It also includes professional codes of ethics for the range of professional activities that take place within these institutions. Within these overarching value systems, there will be a context-specific nuance for each service and setting. There is much to critique in the current context for public service in which arguably there is a gap between ethos and reality, and a shift from a wholehearted focus on service towards a new set of more individualistic values, beliefs, and institutional relationships. Nevertheless, the values surrounding the public service ethos are part of the founding principles of our institutions and are held dear by many working within them.
All this needs a depth of recognition and understanding when considering implementation of any new approach. MBPs, coming as they do with their own particular value systems, present particular challenges to implementers. Table 1
shows some of the places where MBP teachers might be challenged in terms of holding the value systems of both mindfulness and the institution within which they are operating side by side. One can see the importance from the perspective of the institution to prioritize service and evidence, and from the perspective of an MBP teacher to prioritize creating a process and “container” which enables a particular sort of investigation and learning to take place. Sometimes these priorities are challenging partners. However, these tensions require holding and inhabiting. They need skillful navigation rather than resolution. They point to some of the fundamental dilemmas that every human being experiences as they navigate through life, and therefore are grist for the mill for exploration within an MBP.
Balancing fidelity to the ethos of MBPs and mainstream contexts
– Emphasis on process rather than outcome
– Goal orientation
– Activity driven by targets
– Measuring outcomes routinely to check efficacy
– Approaching internal and external experience non-judgmentally
– Emphasis on judgment and “view”
– Value placed on giving time and attention to the immediacy of the moment
– Emphasis on efficiency and productivity
– Emphasis on sensing experiencing
– Emphasis on conceptualization
MBPs are the product of the integration of contemplative practices into the mainstream. They set out to balance fidelity to mainstream norms (i.e., religiously neutral, empirically tested, theoretically informed, ethically informed by professional context) and to the norms of mindfulness practice and teaching (i.e., teacher strongly embedded in personal experience of the practice, values led, emphasis on learning process rather than outcome). The point is not that these are incompatible but rather that the issues in both areas need valuing and attending to.
The emergence of MBPs is itself nested within wider developments within psychology, medicine, health care, and education which include other mindfulness-informed programs such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes et al. 2011
), Compassion Focused Therapy (Gilbert 2009
), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (Linehan 1993
), Mindful Self-Compassion (Neff and Germer 2013
), and developments in the field of Positive Psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000
). Like MBPs, these also aim to change core values and approaches to life, and some involve engagement in a range of practices to support sustaining inner shifts beyond the end of the training; they share some underpinning theoretical ideas with MBPs, and many include mindfulness meditation practice in their approach. However, MBPs differ from these sister developments in one key way: they employ mindfulness meditation practice as a central foundational methodology. This fundamental feature of MBPs is important to the integrity of the approach because the entire theoretical basis and pedagogy rests upon the experiential engagement in meditation practice by both teacher and participant. It is hypothesized that through the teacher’s embodiment of the principles of mindfulness within the MBP teaching space, participants are enabled to begin experimenting with this different approach themselves. This feature, however, gives rise to some of the critical voices towards MBPs because it can seem as if there is an intention to transplant an entire practice and its accompanying ideological system out of its religious context, and into this MBP context.
A key tenet and ethic of MBPs has always been that it is important to recontextualize the Buddhist teachings into a form that is equivocally not Buddhist; is free of ideology, dogma, or religious references; and is universally accessible to people of all faiths and none. This has always been a delicate maneuver, and MBPs have found themselves caught in a cross current of divergent criticism—too Buddhist for some and not Buddhist enough for others. Some raise concerns that MBPs have a covert (Buddhist) agenda. Conversely, on the other side of the spectrum, some raise the concern that because MBPs are not sufficiently explicit about the Buddhist roots, the interventions do not offer a robust enough context for the teaching process. As a response to this, second-generation mindfulness programs are being developed, researched, and implemented which make the Buddhist underpinning explicit rather than implicit (Shonin et al. 2014
; Singh et al. 2016
). These will offer another choice to those seeking to train in mindfulness. However, for the reasons outlined in this paper, it is important that interventions such as MBSR and MBCT, which are designed for implementation in secular mainstream institutions, are held and delivered in ways that are religiously neutral. Of course, total neutrality is neither possible nor desirable. For example, the Christian culture within which the UK is situated has imbibed implicit Christian values. The key point is that the teacher and the curriculum is not overtly linked to any religion, and both have an intention of cultural and religious openness and humility (Hook et al. 2013
The MBP teaching process is distinct and differs from traditional methods often employed in faith-based contexts. In an MBP teaching process, there is very little delivery of didactic teaching on ethics, virtue, or upfront teaching on the view or understanding which surrounds the meditation practices. The exception to this is within the first session in which the teacher facilitates participants in coming to agreement on ways of behaving within the group context, i.e., respecting each other’s contributions, confidentiality, and taking care of personal needs. The teacher then throughout is a custodian of the space, ensuring that the process is held ethically. As in many other therapeutic interventions, the ethics are mostly held implicitly. Participants are guided in meditation practices and group exercises, and are then invited to share and dialogue about what they noticed. The teacher (drawing on their implicitly held underpinning frameworks of understanding) supports the group to recognize key themes and understandings about the human mind/body as they emerge from the experience of the group. Participant experience leads—they are empowered to recognize their expertise in relation to their own experience, and make their own discoveries. Conceptual framing (if it happens) follows and is closely integrated with immediate experience. It is critically important that the integrity of this experientially led MBP teaching process is continued and maintained. It is through this that participants have the freedom to come to the course from a diversity of cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds with the confidence that their values and beliefs will be respected, and it is through this that participants are empowered to skillfully inhabit and honor their own process and experience. However, it is perhaps timely to make the particular philosophy and ethical process that informs and underpins MBP teaching more visible in contexts outside the container of an MBP teaching space.
Because the ethical basis, the value system, and the philosophical underpinnings to the programs are implicit rather than explicitly visible within the teaching process, the teacher takes quiet personal responsibility for holding the integrity of the process. There is a lot of unseen work taking place. The teacher is carrying frameworks of theoretical and practical understanding of the human mind, and of how these interface with the practice of mindfulness meditation. These are held in readiness so that they can be used to help participants make sense of experiential observations as they emerge. These frameworks are drawn from a range of settings—primarily from contemporary cognitive psychology, physiology, and aspects of Buddhist psychology. The teacher is also holding the ethical codes of their profession and of the institution. This is one reason why so much emphasis is placed on the teacher—they sit at the fulcrum point conveying the authenticity of the teachings, while also skillfully ensuring that the process is held and embodied in a context appropriate ethical framework.