Thursday, July 4, 2013

Teaching Mindfulness

As mindfulness is making its way into public and private consciousness, it is making its way into public and private institutions. In the legal profession, mindfulness is being shared with lawyers, law professors, law students, and judges. In all of these domains, but especially so with law students, the question arises whether those who teach mindfulness should be qualified to do so--and, if so, what it means to be "qualified."

The Huffington Post recently published "Beyond McMindfulness," which raises this matter, one that was explored at the 2013 Mindfulness in Legal Education Conference (See April 26th post) and has long been a topic of interest to law faculty interested in sharing mindfulness with law students. It becomes an issue of increasing importance as more and more law faculty are exposed to mindfulness or, having been longtime students of mindfulness, are motivated by its popular appeal to infuse it into their curriculum.

A fascinating dynamic and one which animates much of the present day discussion is the relationship between Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and the mindfulness being taught. One influential factor that has posited itself squarely in the midst of this relationship is the neuroscience research that strongly suggests that mindfulness practice can be associated with changes to the structure and function of the brain and that those changes are beneficial in the areas of focus and concentration, as well as areas of wellbeing such as the attenuation of anxiety and relapse of depression. Much remains to be learned in the scientific pursuit of the "active ingredient" of the mindfulness trainings and this area is sure to be fleshed out in the years to come.

An interesting piece of this conversation is the source of a mindfulness teacher's exposure to mindfulness. This is a question that not only may reach into the core of the debate, but also influences the very perspective of those engaged in the conversation. Some have rich backgrounds in Buddhist teachings, been immersed in Buddhist practice for many years, and are a student of a teacher who is part of a traditional lineage. Others have received training in Westernized programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR), which draws on buddhist teachings but tends away from their explicit inclusion in didactic portions of the trainings as well as in the richness of the experiential practices. And others have been exposed to mindfulness at legal conferences and workshops that increasingly are including mindfulness segments. And still others have been exposed to mindfulness through books, videos and audio recordings which derive from the three above mentioned forms.

As one might imagine, those with a longtime immersion in Buddhist teachings may well carry a special regard and respect for the teachings while those more recently introduced to the subject may have little or no familiarity with these traditional underpinnings. While the scientists exploring the properties associated with mindfulness trainings look to mindfulness experts to help craft and deliver the trainings, these trainings largely filter out contemplative components which, at least in the first instance of inquiry, create more confounds and clarity. And, not surprising, those introduced to the practice of mindfulness through more modern, secular trainings may not know enough of the Buddhist practice to even know how it does or does not factor into a modern training that has integrity.

It does appear that the growing presence of mindfulness trainings in corporate, educational, medical and legal contexts is indebted to its more secular form. Ironically, the growing presence is cause for many with a deep connection to the practice to voice concern over the quality of the teaching--as well as its content.

It will be interesting to observe how all this plays out. Perhaps owing to the heart of the practice itself and the clarity it engenders (as well as for many, wisdom and compassion) its ongoing evolution will assume a handful for forms and formats that allow for its continual blossoming in a manner that alleviates suffering--both to those to whom it is taught to as well as those who endeavor to share it with others.

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