At the end of 2016 I left a regular teaching job to set myself up as a freelance mindfulness trainer in Sussex, in partnership with my colleague Dr Carolyn Drake. I had been practicing mindfulness and meditation for over three decades as well as leading Buddhist meditation classes and retreats for nearly two decades and knew that I had my own 'journey' with its many ups and downs to draw on in my new venture. Perhaps luckily, I had little idea what this life-change would mean in practice.
As happens with many people on a mindfulness journey, there were unrealistic expectations waiting to be uncovered. I had naively imagined I would be doing lots of mindfulness teaching and a bit of publicity. Wrong! Marketing and admin turned out to be bigger tasks than actually delivering the sessions. A little way down the line, I was surprised to find that my main occupation was sitting at my computer: finding ways of letting people know about the benefits of mindfulness for mental health; developing and managing a website; learning how to connect on face book with interested people and so on. There was a voice in my head saying 'it wasn't supposed to be like this!'
It took a while to realise that this expectation was creating unnecessary strain and at times bringing an edge of resentment to the task of learning these new skills. It is basic to mindfulness training that we learn to simply be open to how things are, rather than focusing on ideas about ‘how they should be’. Here was a golden opportunity to put the theory into practice! This area is still work-in-progress, however the conscious recognition that a disappointed expectation was itself creating a ‘problem’ has been more than half the battle.
The ‘oxygen mask principle’
For a mindfulness trainer, embodiment of the attitudes and qualities one is recommending to others is crucial. Who wants to learn about stress reduction from someone who seems uptight and stressed themselves? This is sometimes referred to as ‘the oxygen mask principle’, following the safety instructions on a plane, wherein adults are advised to sort themselves out before trying to help their child. Mindfulness teaching needs to be based on the actual reality of the trainer’s own practice, which will almost certainly be messier than theory alone. This, incidentally, is why when people contact me asking to train them to use mindfulness techniques with children, I recommend that they start with some training for themselves. We would not expect that someone could teach the violin or be a football coach who did not themselves play the violin or football. The same is true of mindfulness, which is an art and skill that likewise needs to be cultivated with time and practice.
The analogy of the oxygen mask only takes us so far. The intention to embody the qualities of mindfulness does not presuppose that one can only help others from some perfect end-point where all the difficulties of life are ‘sorted’. An underlying view that ‘I should be perfect already’ makes a regular appearance on mindfulness 8-week courses. A classic example would be someone who is new to meditation labeling themselves as fundamentally incapable or a failure because they struggle to focus the mind on their body sensations or breathing. In the example given above of learning to play an instrument or a sport, an expectation of being able to do it perfectly on one’s first attempt would clearly be absurd, yet when it comes to learning the art of mindfulness practice, the unrealistic nature of this expectation is often not obvious to people.
A case of perfectionism
Having uncovered countless expectations over the years for myself, I thought I understood this area pretty well. I was surprised, therefore, to notice a sense of inner conflict in acknowledging that I was finding the lack of structure and financial insecurity of freelance work stressful. I felt guilty and sheepish about this sense of struggle, feeling that I 'should' be able to deal with the transition with greater calm and perspective. The underlying view that 'I should be a perfect embodiment of all aspects of mindfulness' was in itself creating stress. Expectations are most problematic when they are not conscious. Clearly acknowledging these expectations, including with students on courses, helped to diffuse this tension and brought a recognition that sharing in the normal struggles of being human actively helps me to empathize with the people I work with. Of course I am not in some separate ‘mindful super-person’ category! Dropping the crazy idea that I should be was a relief.
A spiral path
I have been reminded through this period of transition that learning to skilfully respond to the challenges of any human life is an ongoing journey: any notion that I should have “arrived” already is a delusion. In the Buddhist tradition there is an image of a ‘spiral path’. Perennial issues such as a tendency to push one-self too hard or be stressed by one’s own unrealistic expectations can be expected to re-surface again and again. However, with the growing awareness that comes from mindfulness practice, such issues do not actually go round in circles: perhaps that old tendency towards unhelpful striving or self-judgement is recognised more rapidly this time around, or no longer has such a strong hold as it once did.
‘Physician Heal Thyself’ and enjoying the journey
As a mindfulness trainer, the phrase ‘physician, heal thyself’ is an ongoing challenge, and rightly so. Every so often I have to remind myself to drop ideas about whatever I imagine I should have achieved ‘by now’ and, in the spirit of present-moment awareness, enjoy the journey. I likewise wish you, the reader, that quality of appreciation of things simply as they are, however your life is right now.