Mindfulness teaching is becoming a profession. As interest grows exponentially, much is being asked of a grass-roots movement. How can mindfulness teaching retain its integrity, avoid the pitfalls of professionalisation?

In the late-1950s my father trained at The London School of Economics as a and launched himself into a brave new profession: social work. He was an idealistic refugee, who wanted to transform his anger into a mission to change society. As a Socialist he saw the new Welfare State as a collective effort to transform society; as a Freudian, he believed that this required compassionate human interactions and awareness of the unconscious forces perpetuating cycles of suffering. But by the time he retired in the mid-1990s, after several decades training social work students, the profession he helped found had become bureaucratised, legally prescribed and infected by a culture of fear. In the two decades since, these processes have gathered pace.

A similar story could be told about teaching, medicine, the probation service and many other caring professions. Millions of people in these fields feel a sense of service, want to help others, and they achieve a lot. But too many struggle to stay in touch with their motivation and most don’t believe that their profession truly expresses their ideals.

These reflections are prompted by what’s happening in mindfulness teaching in the UK. Until recently this was a grassroots movement with Buddhists and other long-term meditators at its heart. The University mindfulness departments, which its the most coherent elements, are staffed largely by practitioners, surprised and happy to find a professional outlet for a personal passion.

But things are changing fast. Mindfulness is well established in clinical psychology, and is being used in other aspects of the Health Service; it’s growing fast in education; coaches are including mindfulness with other workplace offerings, and in many public-sector fields we seem to be on the cusp of much more substantial professional engagement. So many people now teaching mindfulness have come to it through their profession rather than through a long-standing interest in mindfulness itself.

In response we are hearing demands for standards and accreditation to guide members of the public and organisations that are commissioning or recommending mindfulness training. The training organisations have formed a network, offered Good Practice Guidelines and are devising a register of accredited mindfulness trainers. We are starting to describe ourselves as ‘a profession’.

I am sympathetic to this because of what I consider poor practice. One area is workplaces, where people who may be trained as coaches or stress management teachers are offering mindfulness with very little training or experience. The other is the NHS, where mindfulness is sometimes considered a simple technique that can be offered to large numbers of service users in a few sessions by people with a modest amount of specialised training.

The problem in both cases is that, while it’s quite possible to offer certain techniques for attention training and possibly relaxation in this way, the mindfulness that has been researched in MBSR and MBCT (let alone in the Buddhist tradition) is much more than that. It requires extended personal experience of mindfulness practice and a broad understanding of what it involves. This means that teachers must have an effective and well-established personal practice; and experienced meditators need the training that will enable them to work confidently with vulnerable groups. The essence of mindfulness training is communicating a certain spirit and attitude, and this should be reflected in all mindfulness teaching. If we are asking people to give themselves time, care and compassion, we need to be communicating with them in that way ourselves.

On the one hand, we need a certain kind of professional rigour in our work; but the wrong kind of professionalism will brings its own perils. For this reason, the process of forming a mindfulness teaching profession requires great thoughtfulness. The good news is that the university departments in Oxford, Exeter and Bangor have been set up very well, with a strong emphasis on personal practice. However, we are encountering issues that effect all mindfulness teachers before we have developed the forums in which they can be discussed and debated. To take the example of accreditation, in the case of psychotherapy, moves towards statutory regulation prompted fierce opposition. Important choices face us: some professions in the UK are subject to statutory regulation through the Health and Care Professions Council, while others use voluntary registration, which psychotherapy currently employs.

However we regulate ourselves, we need to consider what’s needed to retain the spirit of mindfulness. Much turns on the integrity of individual mindfulness teachers; but trusting to that probably isn’t enough.  I suggest, for example, that NHS bodies should require that everyone teaching mindfulness under their auspice adheres to the Good Practice Guidelines, meaning that they meditate daily, go on retreat regularly and have supervision.

We need this sort of wise but firm regulation if we are to keep mindfulness connected to its driving spirit. If we lose that spirit, we will have nothing at all.

In a future post I will discuss how mindfulness can help revive other caring professions.