Teaching Mindfulness

“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:

  1. Stewardship of the group
  2. Homiletics, or the delivery of didactic material
  3. Guidance of formal and informal group experiences
  4. 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 illustrateteaching-mindfulnesss 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.

Mindfulness in Rome

May 11 – 15, 2016: 2nd International Conference on Mindfulness, Sapienza University of Rome. See here the website of the event.

Among the many interesting presentations, I presented the paper entitled Mindfulness as an Ethical Practice.

In this paper, I ask two questions. The first is: What is an ethical practice? The second question is: Is mindfulness an ethical practice? My ultimate concern, however, is the possible link between the two issues: What relationship does mindfulness have with ethics? To answer these questions, I first draw on three ethical theories from the Western history of philosophy—Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze—to define ethics as a particular way of being. Then, I integrate and compare some significant elements from these ethics with the practice of mindfulness, mainly as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it. This is done to clarify to what extent mindfulness is an ethical practice. My study reveals that not only can mindfulness be viewed as a classical ethical practice (as understood in a Western philosophical context), but—and perhaps more surprising—mindfulness is closer to some Western ethics than to Buddhism, e.g., regarding whether “the Good” is known beforehand, whether ethics is an immanent or transcendent practice, and whether ethics is a judgmental or nonjudgmental practice. Finally, I briefly discuss the ways in which Western philosophy can shed new light on mindfulness.


Er du opmærksom?

Fornylig var jeg i Zürich for at undervise i sportspsykologi og mindfulness. En regnfuld eftermiddag, søgte jeg på vej tilbage til mit hotel i læ i en større boghandel. Denne modtog mig med en stabel af bøger om mindfulness. Mindfulness og sex, mad, opdragelse, stress, parforhold og så videre og så videre. Der var flere end 50 titler.

I USA er mindfulness alle steder; i Europa synes tendensen at være den samme, om end udviklingen er lidt bagefter. Det er på sin vis forståeligt, da der er tale om en attraktiv måde at være i verden på, men det er også en udvikling, hvor noget populært kommercialiseres. Men selvom mindfulness nok er alle steder, betyder det langt fra at alle er fuldt tilstede. Det ville svare til at alle, der går rundt i en Messi fodboldtrøje, spiller fodbold ligesom ham. Moralen må være: brug din sunde fornuft, når du orienterer dig i dette felt.

Siden firserne har der været et stadigvæk stigende fokus på mindfulness i en vestlig medicinsk sammenhæng, der dog først for alvor kulminerede i 2000’erne. Den amerikanske biolog Jon Kabat-Zinn har været en katalysator for at fremme mindfulness i en ikke-buddhistisk kontekst. Han er skaberen af Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR-program) tilbage i 1979. MBSR er i dag institutionaliseret på mere end 700 medicinske universiteter, hospitaler og sundhedssystemer rundt i verden. I Danmark kan man eksempelvis uddannes i MBSR på Århus Universitet. Dette program er udførligt beskrevet i Kabat-Zinns bog Full Catastrophe Living. Det handler blandt andet om at genskabe en balance mellem ens krop og sind, hvilket sker gennem kropskanninger, yoga og meditation. I de seneste år har der været flere psykologiske forskningsresultater, der viser at mindfulness har en healende effekt på stress, smerte og andre mentale lidelser. Faktisk er Kabat-Zinn så populær (sammen med en voksende skare af mindfulness-forskere og alverdens mindfulness-programmer), at buddhistiske munke refererer til ham, når de skal fortælle om meditationens lyksaligheder.

Mindfulness er en psykisk- eller mentalintervention, hvor den enkelte træner sindet. Den vigtigste del af mindfulness er meditation. I Waking, Dreaming, Being refererer filosoffen Evan Thompson til flere studier, hvor EEG skanninger viser, at meditation kan forandre hjernen. Sådanne EEG skanninger siger selvfølgelig intet om selve kvaliteten heraf, blot at der sker nogle elektroniske aktiviteter i hjernen, når vi gør forskellige ting. Ens hjerne ændrer sig også, hvis du tømmer en flaske gin.

61uJ7oDfQJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Meditation er en unik form for mentaltræning. Der findes forskellige former for meditation, men indenfor mindfulness opererer man ofte med to former – og gerne en kombination. Den ene fokuserer på at styrke ens koncentrationsevne. Her fokuserer man på et objekt, fx hvordan ens åndedrag passerer ens næsebor. Ind og ud, ind og ud. De fleste vil her opleve, at ens tanker lige så stille (eller hurtigt) driver væk fra ens næsebor. Distraheret af mere interessante tanker eller følelser. Når personen, der mediterer bliver opmærksom på at han eller hun ikke længere er fokuseret på vejrtrækningen, er vedkommende instrueret til at bringe sindet tilbage til åndedraget. Dette sker venligt og – meget vigtigt – uden at dømme ens manglende evne til at forblive koncentreret for mere end et halvt minut. Gradvist styrkes ens koncentrationsevne. Den anden form for meditation forsøger, at kultivere ens generelle opmærksomhed. Denne praksis kaldes bl.a. ”valgfri opmærksom”, ”åben opmærksomhed” eller ”åbent nærvær”. Her er den mediterende opmærksom på det, der nu engang måtte dukke op. Vedkommende accepterer dette, fx tanker og følelser, hvorefter vedkommende giver slip og vender tilbage til en åben opmærksomhed. Der er ingen forventninger. Den, der mediterer er åben for alt.

Ideen med at give slip er vigtig, da mange har en tilbøjelighed til at fastholde tanker og følelser, fx at identificerer sig med sine følelser, selvom følelser aldrig er andet end gæster i ens liv. Grundpræmissen i buddhismen er, at intet er permanent. Ofte lider vi, fordi vi krampagtig prøver at holde fast i en illusion, fx den at vores kroppe ikke ældes, at vores forældre ikke dør, at vi ikke selv dør, at vores mave ikke er slatten, osv. Dette skyldes bl.a. at vores sind ikke ældes proportionalt med vores manglende hårpragt.

I Waking, Dreaming, Being beskæftiger filosoffen Thompson sig med hjerneforskning, meditation og filosofi. Han er en befriende guide i dette skæringsfelt, idet han er vidende om alle tre felter, men han oversælger ikke en meditationspraksis som løsningen på alle verdens lidelser. Snarere forholder han sig åbent til de erfaringer, som mere end 2500 meditationspraksis har generet. Men han konfronterer også disse med de sidste 100 års vestlige hjerneforskning og psykologi. En simpel, men vigtig pointe er, at hvordan vi er opmærksomme konditionerer, hvad vi er opmærksomme på. Vi kan eksempelvis være opmærksomme på, hvordan vores gerninger her og nu, påvirker vores fremtidige handlemuligheder. Min skjorte lugter rigtig sløjt, fordi jeg ikke har været i bad i tre dage, end ikke skiftet tøj. Et andet eksempel er miljøet. Hvordan vi behandler naturen i dag har betydning for næste generation. Så såre simpelt. Ikke desto mindre er der mange, der ikke er opmærksomme på, hvordan de er opmærksomme, fordi de blindt fokuserer på, hvad de mener, der er værd at være opmærksom på, fx titler, status, prestige, magt og, selvfølgelig, penge.

Tilsvarende hænger vores måde at være opmærksomme på også sammen med tidens opskruethed. I dag har ingen tid til at læse David Foster Wallaces Infinite Jest. Dette er en synd (såfremt ikke-religiøse kan anvende denne term?)! Af samme grund skal man selvfølgelig også være påpasselig med ikke at gøre mindfulness til en del af kapitalismen vækstlogik, hvor vi hele tiden føler skyld (et andet religiøst begreb!), fordi vi ikke mediterer nok (ligesom vi måske heller ikke dyrker nok motion, spiser nok salat, drikker nok vand …). Pointen er, at ingen bør meditere, læse Wallace eller noget tredje på grund af skyld, men fordi de er motiveret af en kærlighed til livet.

Ewans skriver et sted, at Vispassaná meditation (også kaldet insight meditation) kan ændre den rytmiske måde, hvorpå hjernen organiserer sansninger. Intensiv vispassaná meditation kan ændrer hjernens hang til at fortabe sig – ”mind wandering”. I stedet for kan den fastholde koncentrationen i diskrete erkendelsesøjeblikke. Hjernen bliver bedre rustet til at kunne rumme, hvad der end måtte komme i næste øjeblik. Pointen er, at meditation styrker den enkeltes sansemæssige erkendelse, ligesom meditation styrker ens evne til at fastholde ens fokus på et givent objekt – fra det ene nu til det næste. For nogle er det motivation nok. For andre er den kolde Estrella øl endnu ikke væltet af pinden.

Waking, Dreaming, Being kommer vidt omkring: drømme, død, bevidsthed og en masse personlige anekdoter. Selvet er en proces, ikke noget statisk. Når jeg drømmer, er “jeg’et” i drømmen mig, men ikke desto mindre er “jeg” en anden. Alt sammen er ganske glimrende fortalt. Det er svært ikke at blive lidt klogere sammen med Evan Thompson. Apropos bøger, så er det for mange kutyme, at købe en bog i en boghandel. Jeg købte nu ingen bøger i Zürich, da ingen kunne fastholde min koncentration. I stedet for købte jeg en ny stor notesbog, som jeg skrev disse ord i.

Philosophy for Everyday Life

I published the essay “Philosophy for Everyday Life” in Journal of Philosophy of Life.

Abstract: The aim of this essay is two-sided. The first is to illustrate to what extent philosophy can contribute to our everyday living. The second is to illustrate how. The implicit thesis that I try to unfold in this experimental essay is that these two sides—what and how—constantly intermingle. Although the philosophical approach takes its inspiration from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres, as well as from modern secular mindfulness, the main consideration in any philosophy that contributes to our life must be the coherency of our approach to life. Philosophy is a way of relating to life, which, among other things, requires awareness. This essay, therefore, does not present a single way of living that is beneficial but instead advocates a form of life that is philosophical.

You can read the complete essay here.

The Spirit of Meditation

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Buddhism and mindfulness meditation as well as some new-age philosophies that are often nothing more than pale imitations of Buddhist techniques. The interest is obvious. We live in an achievement-orientated, performance based culture and we are constantly forced, and even force ourselves to do something, and to set new goals and so forth. The result is that we become less aware and experience more narcissism, stress and depression.

In Sarah Shaw’s The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation we are told “When the mind is restless, that it is time to develop the factor of awakening that is tranquility, the factor of awakening that is concentration and the factor of awakening that is equanimity.”

Meditation can in other words, help us to become more mindful. “Mindfulness is the true refuge of the mind, mindfulness is manifested as protection, and there is no exerting or restraining of the mind without mindfulness.”

After I finished reading this book I didn’t know whether I should be impressed by or doubtful of all those people who claim to be mindful, because it requires diligence and self-control. It’s certainly hard work.

For those who are interested in Buddhism it can — especially for newcomers — be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (such as much of New Age thinking). As Shaw stresses, “a good tradition, teacher and friends, along with text, are the best ways of finding out about meditation for oneself.” Shaw is a knowledgeable teacher and a caring friend.

She deals solely with the Buddhist tradition, although that doesn’t mean that she is critical towards the important contribution to mindfulness made by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, it is simply that her focus lies elsewhere. Shaw wants to show us how the texts have always been an important part of sharing Buddhist practices. In addition, she attempts to illustrate that Buddhism compared to other religions is less dogmatic. Rather it consists of good advice that comes from experience, or to put it differently: if one wants to wake up, then it is not enough to believe, one must act, and for example, meditate.

The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation can, therefore, be viewed as a rich introduction to the multiplicity of Buddhism, but also — and perhaps more likely — as a thorough guide for the more experienced meditators, or those who are already familiar with the philosophy of Buddhism. The book is littered with illuminating phrases, such as “What is required is that we try to live here and now ‘in our bodies'” — “You breathe in and out all day and night, but you are never mindful of it, you never for a second concentrate your mind on it. Now you are going to do just this” — “if we cannot control our minds, it will be impossible to control our actions and speech.”

A wide range of Buddhist writings on meditation are investigated and those already familiar with reading original Buddhist texts will appreciate the mixture of anecdotes, practical tips and endless repetitions within the same text. Sometimes this repetition can become a little boring unless, of course, one really pays attention to the minor differences that the text unfolds. Perhaps, the texts are written like that on purpose to cultivate our awareness.

Another reason for the repetition is that many of the texts come from an oral culture where the teacher would chant aloud. This of course explains why the reading can, at times, be a challenge. It is like listening to a love song on the stereo. Without the instruments, the rhythm and pauses, the experience can often seem more flat.

The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation explains the eight fold path of meditation, how meditation is practiced (sitting, standing, walking) and provides instructions on how to breathe, explaining why breathing is the foundation of a spiritual practice. (I may add that the word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning breath). We also learn why there is no sane reason for clinging on to anything. The goal of Buddhism is to release one from the cycle of existence (Nibbána) and here the meditator enters a sphere of nothingness where, if you believe it, birth is caused by death. However, if you don’t believe in reincarnation, and I am skeptical; then you can still be open-minded and admit that we do not know for sure what happens when we die. For most meditators though, the experience of death may be beyond reach unless a life lived in retreats is desired. Despite this, with some practice and guidance it may be possible to experience that “space is infinite”, even though this concept can make most people feel dizzy thinking about it. If this is possible, then we may also understand that “consciousness is infinite.”

Everything is interconnected but this is not only a Buddhist idea as it can also be found in ecological thinking, or in the works of Spinoza or Deleuze. We may cultivate an experience through meditations. Again, the point of Shaw’s study is not the engage with other philosophies or psychological traditions, but to show the richness within the Buddhist tradition.

The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation will most likely attract people who already meditate, or those who would like to do so. However, it can also serve as a useful introduction to Buddhism in general, as well as act as an inspiration for people who work in the growing service industry, helping people recover from the negative effects of modern day capitalism.


Published in Metapsychology (Volume 19, Issue 23).

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