By Sheena Burke
Strengthening teaching integrity through practice, inquiry and community.
Open Groups for Mindfulness Teachers
When COVID-19 and the consequential nationwide ‘lockdowns’ landed with us in Europe, I was in Spain, completing my work as a trainer of MBSR teachers with the Mindful Academy Solterreno. Amidst the shock and disbelief, from this ‘home-base’, I was also drawn to being part of a creative and flexible response for our international teacher training community. Together with the Director of the Mindful Academy Solterreno, we adapted our MBSR teacher training retreats for online delivery. The initial response was overwhelmingly positive and equally effective as means of training MBSR teachers. Different for sure, but perhaps even uniquely and deeply relevant at this historic time for us all. It seems all our training and practice has carried us in living the curriculum of mindfulness during this global pandemic.
At the same time I was equally reflective on the demands on our wider teaching community who were now responding to this new context and adapting their in-person courses to online delivery across the globe. Another member of our training team mobilised to devise and deliver training for teaching MBSR online and I felt drawn to offer ‘SIT with Inquiry’ sessions to our community of MBSR teachers with Mindful Academy Solterreno, as a support in the midst of the unfolding public health crisis. The intention of this initiative was to co-create a safe space where MBSR teachers could sit together in companionable silent practice and I would offer some inquiry into the practice. These small-group sessions presented a weekly opportunity to show up with ‘participant’ rather than ‘teacher’ hats on and to connect with fellow MBSR teachers. I was drawn to offer a quiet space. To practice trusting our own inner teacher. To deepen our practice of listening deeply to our own experience, to speak and to listen to each other with the same depth of practice, embodying and actively practising non judgment of our present moment experiences. Thus it was an opportunity to tend to and deepen a core competency of our teaching skills – teacher embodiment. An opportunity to Strengthen our Integrity of MBSR Teaching through inquiry, i.e, to SIT with Inquiry.
Commitment to Integrity
To keep their teaching and learning alive, MBSR teachers are expected to engage in the “highly personal process of exploring their own experience through the lens of their mindfulness practice on a continuing basis” and participating in “inquiry into personal practice by an experienced teacher” (Crane et al, 2010). Such personal practice is regarded as foundational to developing ‘teacher embodiment’, a core teaching competency that is ‘unique and indispensable’ to MBSR programmes (vanAalderen et al, 2014). ‘Embodiment’ is also emerging as a key mechanism in the positive impact of MBSR for many in moving towards experiencing their lives with greater ease, awareness and choice (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; McCown, Reibl & Micossi, 2010; Crane et al, 2012), further emphasising this competency as deserving of our attention in our professional development priorities. Learning from foundational teachings of our buddhist teachers, sustaining engagement in practice is supported by 3 key mechanisms: a relationship with a teacher, a group of practitioners and a place of practice (Mulligan, 2017). Yet we remain in the early days of creating secular mindfulness communities of MBSR teacher peers who may offer the vital support to sustain and deepen our personal practice as we share the path together. Our new Sit with Inquiry sessions nurtured the seeds planted from our shared Solterreno training ground.
The ‘Sit with Inquiry’ sessions were scheduled for 75 minutes on a weekly basis from 7th April 2020 for an initial 6 week block. Interested teachers were invited to register. Each session would comprise an introductory section, to each other and the intention of the session, a 30 minute silent sit and a 30 minute group inquiry. Sessions were provided free of any charge. There was a wave of positive interest from our community, with 34 teachers getting in touch to register for the sessions. As the intention was to keep group size small, 3 groups were created: Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings. In this initial 6 week period we sat together for a total of 22.5 hours across the 3 groups and a total of 109 ‘seats’ were taken. Teachers joined from across the globe: Spain, USA, Hungary, UK, Canary Islands, Ireland, Thailand, Israel, Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Malta, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, Ukraine, Dubai and Luxembourg. A phenomenal investment of our time and being together in the midst of this global crisis.
A short survey was completed by 65% of the participants who engaged with this initiative, The responses to 8 questions were collated and analysed revealing 3 main categories: Motivation, Experience and Future. The experience was resoundingly positive and enriching for all who participated. The opportunity to connect with each other as an international community was a powerful motivator, mediator and gain in the experience. In the words of one participant:
“I’ve really enjoyed the global aspect of this experience and meeting others from around the world. It helps me to feel more connected and a part of a bigger whole. I particularly like the elegant simplicity of your sessions. … The silent meditations have allowed me to really check in with how I’m doing. … I am always surprised at how a connection and presence can still be felt virtually. It’s very encouraging and comforting to meet complete strangers and find common experiences, especially during this time. It is grounding at a surreal time to hear others’ experiences.”
The word cloud below captures what participants appreciated most about the sessions. The feedback served as a mandate to continue to meet in this way as we move through the next phases of uncertainty and challenge. More details can be found in the full report (available on request email@example.com).
The experience of these Sit with Inquiry sessions has been an enriching and fulfilling one. It has been an honour to reconnect with so many MBSR teachers from around the globe and to co-create a calm, trusting and deeply caring centre together in the midst of this global storm. I look forward to deepening the space and experience further and seeing how we unfold together. The Sit with Inquiry sessions will continue and additional supports for the Mindful Academy Solterreno graduate teachers continue with online Masterclasses, Retreats and Group Supervision options available. With much joy, awe and gratitude for being part of this dynamic international community of MBSR teachers who are dedicated to growing integrity together.
“Mindfulness can only be understood from the inside-out. It is not one more cognitive-behavioural technique to be deployed in a behaviour change paradigm, but a way of being and a way of seeing that has profound implications for understanding the nature of our own minds and bodies, and for living life as if it really matters.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn