The criticisms that can be legitimately levelled at Mindfulness Based Approaches boil down to a single issue: the entire mindfulness movement is based around eight-week courses. Teachers of secular mindfulness, along with others such as Buddhists, need to face this limitation squarely and help people sustain their practice after the course
I have been teaching eight-week mindfulness courses for seven years and I have grown to love the activity and been deeply inspired by their transformative effect on people’s lives.However, amid all the excitement of ‘the mindfulness boom’, I think all of us who are involved in this movement need to look honestly the limits of what we offer and consider how we can address them.
Many points are made discussions about the MBSR and MBCT courses, both critical and in their defence. But I have come to think that the criticisms that can legitimately be levelled at MBAs boil down to a single issue: the entire mindfulness movement is based around courses that include just eight sessions and a practice day for whatever you wish to convey.
Eight weeks is long enough to learn meditation in enough depth and detail to continue it and even to have a powerful glimpse of a different way of living. But every serious meditator knows that it’s hard to maintain a practice without contact with others who are doing the same, especially those who are more experienced. Some teachers offer follow on courses and ways for graduates to keep in touch. I do this myself and applaud others’ efforts to do the same. But many teachers don’t, and in general what we offer is quite unstructured.
The eight week format constrains what mindfulness courses can include. Critics, especially Buddhists, sometimes complain that the courses do not include an ethical framework: they are taught as part of pre-deployment conditioning by the US Marines for example. Others believe that some form of compassion-based practice is essential in meditation is to be balanced. In fact, these elements are implicit in the MBSR course, but there is no time to make them fully explicit. Over eight weeks the course does certain things very well, and if you shoe-horn in extra practices (some variants that I have taught do include loving kindness meditation, for example), then things start to feel very squeezed. The problem isn’t what you cover in eight weeks: it is that there are only eight weeks.
From what I have seen and experienced for myself, I think the fundamental reasons for the eight-week format are economic. MBSR started as a healthcare intervention and MBCT was developed as a course to help people avoid relapsing into depression. A course is recognised form of workplace training and eight weeks is a manageable commitment for people seeking a way to work with stress or another condition.
In other words, a mindfulness course is a product that fits with people’s expectations of what this sort of product will look like and in which they are willing to invest. Mindfulness teachers like me can then earn a living by offering that product – typically a ‘brand’ such as MBSR or MBCT – to organisations and the public. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; but I am alert to the limitations it brings and try to seek ways to mitigate them. More subtly, it frames participants expectations. They are in the familiar and safe role of a consumers.
The eight-week format also skews the research into the effectiveness of mindfulness, the majority of which focuses on the effects of participating in a single programme. We know relatively little about how many people continue to meditate or use mindfulness practices in the years after the course or how effective they continue to be; and I have seen no research into what helps people to continue with the practice.
Several things follow from this for those directly involved in the mindfulness movement.
- We need much more research into the long-term effects of mindfulness training and what helps people to maintain the practice.
- Mindfulness trainers who take on this point will probably seek to help people sustain their practice, for example by offering follow-on courses and other events. This is an area where mindfulness trainers can co-operate, offering activities to the pool of people who have graduated from all the mindfulness courses that are taught in a particular city.
- We should be discussing what additional teaching will support and deepen mindfulness practice over the long term.
- Buddhists have a role to play here, offering precisely the holistic, long-term settings for practice that mindfulness course graduates need. However, they must learn how to relate to this group. Mindfulness course graduates aren’t necessarily seeking Buddhism and they will come with particular needs, especially relating to whatever took them on the course in the first place. All this requires sensitivity from Buddhists; and the same is true for those with any other spiritual or religious background who offer support to mindfulness course graduates.
- A particular instance of what Buddhists already offer is retreats. However, the retreat centres I know have not adapted their offerings to meet this new group. I am wary of sending vulnerable people with just eight weeks experience of meditation on the intensive silent meditation retreats offered by places like the retreat centres associated with the Insight Meditation Movement. Rather than assuming that a retreat must take a particular form, we should be asking, what do people in this group actually need and how can we best offer it?
More broadly, I think we need to think in terms of establishing a culture that values and supports meditation and mindfulness. That’s essential if mindfulness practice is to fulfil its potential to transform individuals and society.