In this section, we examine the questions: How can we best ensure that the conceptualisation and assessment of competence are compatible with the underlying philosophies and values of mindfulness, and serve the integrity of developments in the field? We also discuss how the issue of foundational and speciality competencies relates to mindfulness-based teaching.
Competence and the Underlying Philosophy of Mindfulness-Based Approaches
The development of a competence framework for mindfulness-based teachers raises the understandable concern that the endeavour represents an attempt to operationalize a process whose life blood is a spontaneous responsiveness to the momentary arising and an experiential understanding of the impermanence of experiences. The underlying philosophy of mindfulness practice is based on the 2,500-year-old tradition of Buddhism which articulates a methodology for engaging in a process of inner exploration or ‘interior empiricism’ (Owen 1996). Through direct connection with the interplay of internal experience, an exploration of our own nature and the nature of the world around us becomes possible. Underpinning this is the understanding that there are limits to the reach of the conceptual mind and that a rethinking of consciousness, awareness and the way the mind processes information is needed—aspects of reality and truth are ungraspable by the narrow limits of most contemporary accounts of the mind (Teasdale and Chaskalson 2011; Williams 2008).
There are clearly some inherent tensions in applying a paradigm of competence to the field of mindfulness-based teaching. For example, the traditional language of workplace competence includes the expression ‘performance’ of ‘roles’. It is not possible to conceive of mindfulness as an ‘add-on’, or for the teaching process to be seen as a set of techniques, a collection of skills which can be learned. Rather, the ‘way of being’ which emerges through sustained engagement with the practice becomes an integral part of the ‘person of the teacher’ (McCown et al. 2010), not a role which is performed. A second example of this tension relates to the risk of duality which the language of and focus on competence can create. There can be a shift in perspective towards ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, judgement, opinion and a focus on ‘my’ teaching process and ‘my’ competence. These mind states lead away from the capacity to be open and connected and towards identification and separation. Whereas, inherent within mindfulness teaching is the message that there are universal aspects to the experience of being human: centrally, that we all experience suffering, which ultimately comes from ignorance about ourselves and the nature of reality. Mindfulness practice leads us to see more clearly the ways we fuel our suffering and opens us to experiencing our connection with others.
The competencies that are under examination in the context of mindfulness teaching are thus that the teacher is able to become a vehicle for conveying this by allowing themselves to be human (and so to be vulnerable), in contrast to holding onto a position of ‘expertise’ or indeed competence. Clearly, if the need to be competent or to develop competence is in the forefront of a teacher’s mind while they are teaching, the capacity to be connected to the participants and the wider perspectives and spaciousness which inform the teaching are likely to be compromised.
Acknowledging these tensions, we also argue that on all levels of experience—intuitively, emotionally, cognitively and viscerally—participants recognise when they are on the receiving end of an authentic, skilful, attuned teaching process. Rather than purporting to define the teaching process, a competence framework for mindfulness teaching can be descriptive of what we see, hear and sense when we are participating in skilful teaching. The various lineages and traditions from which mindfulness arose have long used the conceptual articulation of mindfulness practice to point towards the essence of the process. There is also a literature describing the pedagogy and processes of MBSR and MBCT teaching (Kabat-Zinn et al. 2011; McCown et al. 2010; Santorelli 1999; Segal et al. 2002) which offers a robust basis for developing descriptors of competence.
Competence and the Integrity of Mindfulness-Based Teaching Developments
Issues related to competence impact on all the areas of growth for mindfulness teaching—within training programmes where larger numbers of trainers are supporting and assessing larger numbers of developing teachers; within mainstream contexts such as the UK health service where MBCT is increasingly being commissioned and implemented and governance relating to teacher readiness is required; and within research contexts where methods are needed to assess that the teachers delivering classes in research trials have achieved an appropriate level of competence, that they deliver the intervention with fidelity during the research.
In the initial development of the integration of mindfulness into contemporary settings, issues relating to teacher standards, formation, readiness and assessment were held by a small number of teacher training organisations which were predominantly led by first- and second-generation leaders in the field. The expansion of training programmes creates concerns about potential dilution in integrity. There are inevitable questions about their accountability and the meaning of the credentials that they give to graduates of training.
Expansion creates a new context for the mindfulness-based teaching and training community to be operating within and needs a new response from within the profession. There are risks that if this response is not robust enough, the pressures from outside could inadvertently propel standards in a downward direction. Competencies are understood by mainstream settings, they support communication to service managers and others who are not inside the profession about ‘readiness-to-teach’, and they help to identify training requirements for developing teachers. The mindfulness field has a responsibility to the public, and to developing trainees, to be continually addressing these issues so that a professional context develops in which there are appropriate boundaries, expectations and guidance.
There is already evidence of an increasing urge from within to develop governance processes which set benchmarks for expected levels of competence, which ensure that mindfulness-based trainers and teachers who are working with integrity are not undermined by those who are not and which maintain public confidence in the profession. Examples of this trend are the work of the UK Network of Teacher Trainers and the recent publication of standards for trainers of MBSR teachers (Kabat-Zinn et al. 2011). We argue that the time is ripe to continue to develop these dialogues across the international community of mindfulness-based trainers and teachers.
Foundational and Speciality Competencies
In terms of foundational experience, the mindfulness-based training programmes represented by the authors require trainees to normally have a minimum of 3 years independent professional practice prior to embarking on training in mindfulness-based teaching. This is designed to ensure that trainees already have in place the generic professional competencies and experience within their particular context prior to developing specialist mindfulness-based teaching competencies. The differences between MBSR and MBCT are small but important. At the present time, MBCT is most commonly offered in clinical settings or in contexts where an underpinning psychological model is required, or provides a vital framework for understanding the factors that underlie and maintain complex psychological problems. MBCT trainees who plan to use the approach in such clinical settings need a clinical training plus training in the use of evidence-based psychological models and treatment. MBSR is offered in a broader range of settings including clinical, business and educational contexts. MBSR trainees require a professional background and training relevant to the context within which they intend to teach.
Furthermore, as described in our earlier paper on training, prospective teachers are required to have a developed mindfulness practice prior to engaging in teacher training (Crane et al. 2010). In addition to foundational experience, teaching mindfulness-based courses require a range of competencies including working to and within the curriculum, relational skills, guiding mindfulness practices, conveying the teaching themes through both the process and the content of the teaching and holding the ‘container’ or group context of the teaching. Woven across all these processes is the capacity of the teacher to teach everything through an embodiment of the qualities of mindfulness. ‘Embodiment of process’ by the teacher is the feature of the approach which differentiates it from other approaches and is therefore illustrative of the particularities which need consideration in developing a mindfulness-based teaching competence framework.
In essence, we are aiming to describe how the interior work of mindfulness practice is tangibly sensed in the MBSR/MBCT classroom. That is, the extent to which the teachers are in mindful connection with their interior direct experience and the interface of this with the group, individual participants and the teaching process. Through the process of inner contemplative exploration, the teacher comes naturally to embody the qualities that are inherent within the exploration itself (e.g. intentional focus of attention, engaged curiosity, equanimity, compassion). Embodiment communicates the essence of the potential which mindfulness offers on a level beyond the conceptual. Teachers are not sharing a sensible philosophical approach to life with their participants; they are participating with them in an exploration which is integral to their own life. In our personal experience, our capacity to embody the essence of mindfulness teachings depends on a continuing ‘alive’ connection with our own practice and with teachings from the wisdom traditions which gave rise to mindfulness. Of course, a related competence is the capacity to locate the teaching in mainstream secular contexts whilst sustaining connection to and remaining true to the wisdom and understanding inherent within the traditions which gave rise to mindfulness teaching.