Saturday, 2 April 2016

Qualities of a "good" meditation teacher

Meditation has taken off.

Meditation is the new yoga.

Meditation is the new kale.

Meditation is the new Crossfit.

And, maybe, meditation teaching is the new bartending. (?)

The first four of those are my assessments. The last one belongs to Ira Israel, a -you guessed it- meditation teacher.

This and more like it here.
As Israel points out:

Since there is no unanimously accepted meditation teacher training certification or licensure program, anyone can call himself a “Meditation Teacher” with that title currently being as legitimate as “Published Author,” “International Speaker,” “Urban Shaman,” “Sought After Visionary,” “Spiritual Advisor,” “Intergalactic Warrior Priestess,” “Intuitive Healer,” “Life Coach,” “Wellness Expert,”... etc.
This is true. And in today's Western, Progressive Buddhist world, what truly qualifies one as a "Meditation teacher?" 

Historically, the answer would have been something like, "appointment by a recognized master in a respected/accepted lineage." However, as any reading of the history of Buddhism will tell you, the religion is filled with "masters" who have split off from established sects. And, as an eye on the news can tell you today, plenty of established monks/priests/lamas/senseis etc are teaching rather strange things and/or acting in morally dubious (and sometimes criminal) ways.

So it seems that "qualification by lineage alone" isn't going to cut it.

A second option is the completely secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (along with spin-offs, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and other "Mindfulness-Based Interventions"). But the MBSR route, according to the UMass website, requires:

  1. An 8-week intro course ($545-725 sliding scale)
  2. 4 long retreats ($500-1000 each)
  3. An 8 week practicum (price not advertised)
  4. A "teacher development intensive" (price not advertised)

If memory serves me, though, the whole process runs $10-12,000.

So that's out for most people.

Israel gives five "warning signs" one should look out for in finding a meditation teacher:
  1. They have an IMDB page (perhaps more of a problem around L.A. than elsewhere in the world)
  2. They are self-righteous - obvious enough. All of the meditation teachers I have learned from and respected were also incredibly humble. Granted they are all sharp and smart as a whip and can argue necessary points of doctrine and practice, but they also easily admitted when they didn't know something and didn't seem to go over-the-top when they disagreed with opponents.
  3. Talks like a seasoned brain surgeon (but isn't one). Again, that's a good sign. The medical benefits of meditation have been demonstrated time and again, but often in small, specific populations and with results that are really minimal or simply confusing to the non-scientist. 
  4. They have a publicist (sounds like another L.A. problem)
  5. They have their own "style" (brand) of meditation with no clear lineage. This is good advice. Remember James Arthur Ray, of "the Secret" fame, who led 3 people to their own death in an Arizona sweat lodge? 

So those are some good "warning signs" but what are key qualities for a good teacher? I'd tentatively propose the following:
  1. Meditation Experience: It's tough to say how long someone should have meditated before teaching. 5 years (minimum)? 10? At least 3, in my book, but 10+ is really best. A lot of good work can be done in a short time, especially if some long retreats are mixed in there, but it takes time for all of that work to "stabilize" into a whole life.
  2. Broader Education: Some of my favorite teachers were practicing psychologists, and this gives important foundation and language for understanding both oneself and others in meditative experiences. A solid academic grounding in the history, beliefs, and practices of Buddhism is great too. So is a background in brain science, human behavior, etc. 
  3. An on-going practice: A no-brainer I would hope. Your teacher should meditate. How much though? 10-20 minutes/day 5 days a week? 40-minutes plus, 7 days a week? More? Once again the rule seems to be "the more the better" and certainly if you find yourself meditating more than your teacher, it won't be long before you're having difficulties and/or experiences that he/she won't know how to deal with.
  4. Humility: see above. If you find yourself going to "teacher-x" just to be in his/her presence and to post on instagram/facebook about it, you're probably there for the pure celebrity appeal and not likely to get much of substance out of it. If the teacher actively cultivates a "cult of personality" around him/herself, time to get away, asap. 
  5. Support/Community: Therapists often need therapy, counselors need counsel, teachers need continuing education. So meditation teachers, unsurprisingly, should be expected to need and get ongoing education. 
Other points?