Wednesday, February 23, 2011

There Is No Telling

One of the friends I made during my recent retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn emailed me today:

"The MBSR leader I was speaking to has told me that it will take 3 years or so for me to feel comfortable enough to teach an MBSR group. He felt that it would take that long to develop my own mindfulness practise. Would you agree with that?"

I find it interesting, this need from some Dharma teachers to frame mindfulness practice in terms of the number of years on the cushion. To my friend's teacher, I want to say, why 3 years?  Why treat the dharmic journey as if it was a course of academic studies. Doesn't it matter more how one is while on and off the cushion? I have known 'long-term meditators' that had little to show for in terms of emotional and spiritual maturity. Also, we are not all equal in terms of the amount of dust we have in our eyes . . . The Buddha's teachings abound with accounts of students becoming enlightened instantly after listening to him. 

Maybe a better answer to my friend's question is, practice with all your heart, under the guidance of a skilled teacher, and with the support of a sangha, and one day you will know when you are ready. You will know when you have found out for yourself, the four noble truths spelled out by the Buddha, the five hindrances that keep on demanding to be examined, the four foundations of mindfulness that will become your friends . . . You will know, and there is no telling when that will be.

And of course, the teacher was right. Having an established mindfulness practice is essential before one is to go out and teach even 'pre-digested dharma' in the form of MBSR . . . 


  1. At the risk of rehashing your post... teaching others is great, but it should never be a reason for studying the Dharma. Ideally, we are not the ones who decide to teach -- instead, our teacher will ask us to do so.

    Your post reminds me of a famous story (I don't remember where from) about an eager martial arts student who asks his teacher how long it will take to master the style. At first, he is told that it will take ten years, but he persists, asking how long it will take if he works twice as hard. The master's response (hehe) is that it will take twenty years.

  2. Thank you Harry. Yes, I love that story also. And contained in it, is the inherent danger as you point out, of engaging on the Dharma path with the stated goal of teaching from the get go. This is unfortunately how many MBSR 'teachers' become familiar with the teachings, and is even more so now that mindfulness has been shown to increase grey matter! :) This is the price to pay for the exponential rise of the popularity of mindfulness. There will be some joining who are not really equipped to teach, and will nevertheless. This question of 'what do I need to do to teach MBSR' was a common one during the retreat I took with Jon Kabat-Zinn.

  3. It seems to me a mystery of multiple unseen reasons why some are quicker to become infused with the Dharma. And perhaps this doesn't even make them better teachers. It takes as long as it takes, and to say there is some formula or time frame seems questionable to me, as you point out.

    There are many ways to share the Dharma without becoming a "teacher" I think, and while I think there are admirable reasons for wanting to be a teacher, there might be other reasons to. As always shining the light of awareness on our motives is important.

    Ah, life can be so interesting and mysterious!

  4. Mindfulness is a new practice for me. The more I practice the better I feel about myself and those around me. I can't express the amount of gratitude I have for fellow practicioners who have taught me so much. I love zen

  5. Carole (zendotstudio), yes, to all :)

    I am heading over to your blog now . . .

  6. Taoistopher, thank you for sharing your freshness, and your gratitude. I feel the same. Mindfulness practice is so powerfully transformative . . .