“For mindfulness is not just one more method or technique, akin to other familiar techniques and strategies we may find instrumental and effective in one field or another. It is a way of being, of seeing, of tapping into the full dimension of our humanity, and this way has a critical non-instrumental essence inherent in it.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn in the Foreword to Teaching Mindfulness.
Teaching Mindfulness is authored by Marc S. Micozzi, Donald McCown, and Diane C. Reibel. It is both a theoretical and a practical book, but what does that mean?
Back in 1972, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had a conversation with Michel Foucault, in which they discussed the importance of theory and practice (see Foucault’s Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews). Deleuze said, “From the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles, walls, and blockages which require its relay by another type of discourse (it is through this other discourse that it eventually passes to a different domain). Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.”
What is the proper domain of mindfulness?
The authors don’t mention this explicitly, but the proper domain is life. Mindfulness can help you bring your attention to life, that is, your relationship with life. If we step back, then mindfulness is a fundamental practice of Buddhism. Buddhism presents us with a theory of how to overcome pain and, perhaps, reach enlightenment (e.g., the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path). However, this theory may encounter an obstacle in its Western context because of its religious undertones. However, mindfulness is also—in its Western practice—a set of relays from psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy. The beauty of mindfulness is that it is more flexible than Buddhism, although it acknowledges the lineage and teachers within this very diverse tradition. Still, I refer to Deleuze because he can help us see that practice— mindfulness—makes the constitution of being alive possible.
When Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is a way of being, in my opinion he is saying that it’s a philosophy, a way of life. This also illustrates how the theory of practice (how to practice and teach mindfulness) progresses to the level of ontology. “Mindfulness in everyday life is the ultimate challenge,” writes Kabat-Zinn.
I read Teaching Mindfulness with gusto and not just because I recently taught my first session about mindfulness to children. Rather, it takes mindfulness as a practice between Eastern and Western philosophy seriously. Most teachers practice mindfulness out of love; they have been introduced to it because of personal angst or because of their travels in the East, where they met extraordinary teachers. Today, the story is a little different. People are teaching not only out of love but consider their teaching as a profession, which, of course, can be motivated by love. This addresses several problems or challenges. Like those in many other professions (e.g., teaching, nursing, and medicine) it is often assumed that these individuals are directed by some sort of “calling.” This calling often functions as a moral motivator since one could also feel “called” to become an assassin.
So, although I see philosophy as a way of being—and not a discipline where you need to assimilate a specific curriculum to pass—I am also aware that certain background knowledge from reading and practice is needed.
Philosophy is an approach to life that can be qualified through experience, including reading and discussion. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Most philosophers and mindfulness practitioners would agree, even though they may disagree on how to investigate life.
The authors of Teaching Mindfulness address pertinent questions, such as: Who becomes a teacher? What do I know? Do I know it well enough? In answering these questions, the authors offer their own experiences, which give the book a personal radiance. They also place mindfulness in a Buddhist context and explain how it gradually came to the West. “If the 1960s and 1970s were a period of foundation and growth, the 1980s and 1990s could be seen as the painful passage to maturity,” the authors write.
Being mature means being accountable for your actions. Especially when the teacher becomes something like a healer.
The authors identify four interrelated skill sets that are common among mindfulness teachers:
- Stewardship of the group
- Homiletics, or the delivery of didactic material
- Guidance of formal and informal group experiences
- Inquiry into participants’ direct experience
By using these skill sets, the authors present many interesting ideas about balancing the interdependence of the group’s freedom and resonance, the teacher’s responsibility, how to deal with aggression, and other topics. They present concrete exercises and meditation topics for each of the potential challenges: development and care for your “teacher’s voice,” connecting and maintaining curiosity with your students, etc. In this way, the book is useful for the individual teacher, for a group of teachers who can debate and develop their own style of teaching, and even for schools.
One of the book’s greatest advantages is that it illustrates the full range of practices: awareness, being present, yoga, and loving-kindness. In that sense the three authors establish the beauty of mindfulness. I would like to stress this point.
Mindfulness is part of an industry that attracts many good teachers, but it also draws those who are in it only for the money. If you are interested in mindfulness (or anything else) because of the money, it negates the so-called goodness, loving-kindness, and true altruism intrinsic to these individuals and makes them hypocritical. When profit or payment enters, the world is again for only those who can afford it. The rest? Let them scramble in the dirt. What I mean when the authors show the beauty of mindfulness is that they pass on their experiences instead of capitalizing on them. Even though these textbooks are ridiculously expensive, we are grateful to the authors for explaining their practice.
Mindfulness can teach people to pay attention, and to become aware of themselves and what happens around them. This can help them see that they need to do something. For instance, I imagine living in a world where people can become who they are. Unfortunately, the persecution of gender, race, and sexuality still hinders the individual’s freedom to become. Before this can be changed, we need to pay attention to how we think and act to make equality and respect possible in the future.In other words, mindfulness can’t change the world alone but together with critical thinking, I believe, children (and others) will have a good foundation for engaging in this world.
In conclusion, I recommend this book to all who work with mindfulness, but it is also a valuable resource for teachers in general.
Finn Janning, PhD in philosophy, is a writer.