Using thematic analysis, the following superordinate themes were identified: motivation to teach; professional challenges; personal challenges; and practicing what they teach. The latter three superordinate themes contained nine subordinate themes between them (see Table 2).
Superordinate Theme: Motivation to Teach
The majority of participants articulated a strong motivation to teach MBPs to others, which were rooted in the benefits that they had personally gained from practicing mindfulness. Mel said:
[The MBSR course] genuinely like had such a huge impact on me, and it left me with […] a real thirst […] for exploring and finding out more. And it, it touched me in a way that I wasn’t expecting, um and it helps you in a really practical way as well […] there was a desire to kind of offer something similar to people.
Having a transformational experience of a mindfulness course led to a desire to deepen one’s own mediation practice, alongside a wish to pass on the potential benefit of mindfulness practice to others. Participants had a “Special relationship” with mindfulness and were thus keen to develop their teaching as an adjunct to their daily work, for personal fulfillment, and for the benefit of future MBPs participants, and beyond. Abi, for example, commented that by teaching MBSR she was “Contributing to society.”
This desire to teach and pass on the benefits of mindfulness to others was also linked to an intention about how best to do this. Fiona said: “My job as a facilitator [is] to create this environment where my participants can explore and move to their own wisdom.” Chris’s intention centered on the importance to him of being “Absolutely authentic about what I’m doing you know and […] I’ve no interest in, er, pretending or trying to be somebody that I’m not.” These intentions seemed to help these participants to ground themselves in the teaching process, and their comments further point to a desire to teach with authenticity and respect for themselves, the MBSR curriculum, and the autonomy of course participants.
Superordinate Theme: Professional Challenges
Trainees were deeply concerned about how they could offer high-quality teaching with integrity. This included gaining skills, knowledge and understanding; how best to engage in reflective practice; how to get paid (or not); and how best to recruit course participants. The process of beginning to teach enabled participants to begin to understand more fully the responsibility inherent in becoming a MBPs teacher; the time, commitment, and skill this would require long-term; and a growing sense of the range of practical issues that would be need to be addressed each time they taught an MBP. This theme also highlighted issues around the professional status of MBSR teachers, as well as the challenges being faced in the professional field concerning inclusivity and accessibility to courses.
Subordinate Theme: Getting to Grips with the Curriculum
The challenge of getting to grips with the MBSR curriculum was commented on by over half the participants. Examples included making sense of the “Puzzle” of the 8-week course themes and investing considerable time and effort in order to be clear about session content. As Fiona remarked, “The things that we are actually teaching are incredibly deep and the cultivation of er all these attributes […] could take forever for us.” Stephanie said:
The 8-week course is just a start, and most people haven’t really fully got it you know, even me with my background […] doing the first 8-week I hadn’t really got the depth and the richness of it […] and [as a participant] I’ve done it three times (laughs).
These comments help to contextualize the task that every new teacher of MBSR faces when required to impart, through the medium of their guidance and teaching, the complexities, subtleties, and nuances of the MBSR curriculum. Fiona was able to resolve the difficulty of feeling potentially overwhelmed by this responsibility by breaking the 8-week course down session by session, and telling herself that she was “Good enough for this 8-week course” which was an important approach for her, “Otherwise I will be crushed with what I should be learning (laughs).”
Subordinate Theme: The Importance of Reflection
The majority of participants considered reflective practice to be important because it gave them a means of gaining insight into their teaching practice, which in turn helped them to grow as teachers. Kim found, for example, that reflection helped her to identify a tendency to go into “Conceptual talking, rather than truly, genuinely inquiring into the participants’ experiences and let that unfold.” This reflection meant that she was noticing how her habitual behavioral patterns could get in the way of allowing appropriate conditions for her participants’ exploration of their experience. One participant commented that she was adapting the MBI:TAC as a reflective tool, helping her to gain a deeper understanding of the domains of competence and using this process to improve the quality of her teaching.
A few interviewees commented on the challenge of physically finding time and space to reflect after a teaching session. David remarked that he was making reflective notes on his train journey home after teaching, adding that he found reflection “Challenging […] and whether there’s any value in there being […] somehow more teaching around that [on the university course].” His comment was echoed by Jo, who felt that there was a lack of time for “Gentle reflection” on her training course “Because it’s so full on when we’re there.”
These comments suggest that there may be uncertainties about how to reflect, and that more input on this topic on training courses might be beneficial. Stephanie thought that what she was being asked to do was “Not just reflection, it’s reflexivity, looking about how we interfere with the process, gaining understanding and greater awareness of ourselves.” Gaining this degree of perceptual awareness is a skill that requires deep engagement and there was a suggestion from a few participants that they were only able to pay lip service to this process, due to time pressures and a lack of knowledge and skill as to how to engage meaningfully with reflection.
Subordinate Theme: We Offered it for Free
Several interviewees remarked that they had been delivering MBSR courses for free, or charging a reduced rate, and some commented that they were not even covering their costs, despite having spent considerable sums of money on training course fees, retreats, and supervision. David remarked “Who can afford to teach? I think that’s a big question for us.” This comment suggests that training in mindfulness can be an expensive undertaking that is only be accessible to those with the income to afford it. Kim echoed David’s remark when she stated:
I’m not doing this to make a living, so I am fortunate enough to be in that position […] I do think it would have been extremely stressful […] if this was something I needed to do on a commercial basis.
Several interviewees felt that the standard MBSR course was too time-consuming for course participants, or even themselves. Chris commented that “I don’t know how viable 8-week courses are, in terms of commitment from myself and a lot of people,” and this had resulted in him offering tasters and day courses as an alternative. A few respondents were thinking about adapting MBSR (e.g., to a 4-week version) in the hope that this might make mindfulness teaching more accessible and commercially viable, but were simultaneously struggling with the dilemma this would raise, as making changes would perhaps detract from the ethos and deep learning offered by the standard 8-week MBSR curriculum. Stephanie said: “How do you [teach] in a way that yes is […] true to MBSR and is true to the research but actually just cuts a little bit of slack?”
Her feeling seemed to be that a shorter course would attract more participants as it would be more accessible for them and therefore more inclusive, but the paradox here was that the course could not then be marketed as MBSR. This remained an unresolved dilemma for several participants.
Subordinate Theme: Practical Issues
For several interviewees, recruiting participants to participate in their MBSR courses was a “Tricky” and “Frustrating” experience. As Jo stated, “The most difficult thing that I have found, which has surprised me, is bums on seats.” Jo’s surprise suggests that she may have held presumptions about the demand for MBPs in her local area and the ease with which participants could be recruited. Stephanie described driving around for hours in her rural setting, putting up posters:
Just for getting three or four people to sign up, and it’s not enough to run the course, so I have to stop. And then, when I try again, half of those have dropped off and then I get another two next time, so I’ve still only got four or five, you know it’s still not enough.
In contrast, Mel and Chris had offered their services to voluntary organizations which recruited on their behalf, so had an easier time recruiting. The interviewees described mixed experiences around recruitment, which were more or less stressful depending on whether they were teaching privately or for established organizations. This suggests that the teaching context in which they found themselves was a contributory factor to stress for some participants, impacted on by the closed-group, linear format of the MBSR course. As Stephanie pointed out, “I didn’t think about this beforehand, and I think this is where the frustration builds in, is that actually every eight weeks they go and you’ve got to start again.”
The time, effort, energy and financial costs of recruitment (e.g., advertising, printing, web design), together with its cyclical nature, are significant aspects of MBSR delivery that appeared not to have been fully anticipated by some participants. Addressing these practical, but essential, aspects of delivering MBSR courses added a further layer of complexity and time-demand to the delivery of MBSR courses for participants, especially those for whom recruitment challenges were unexpected.
Superordinate Theme: Personal Challenges
Participants identified a number of personal challenges as they began teaching. These challenges were mainly of a practical nature - teaching an MBSR course for the first time requires a lot of preparation, time, and effort, as many materials need to be created from scratch (workbooks, audio files, orientation and advertising materials etc.). This initial time-demand lessened with subsequent courses, where preparation materials needed to be tweaked rather than created from scratch. This process of a high upfront time-demand for the first MBSR course was unexpected and stressful for some participants and challenged their organizational abilities. With time, these demands reduced, and they reported that teaching their first few MBSR courses was a rewarding experience which had gone better than anticipated. Participants took their MBP teaching very seriously and were deeply committed to offering MBPs with integrity, knowledge and compassion, and these high standards were often interlinked with anxiety about being a “good” MBPs teacher.
Subordinate Theme: Teaching MBSR Is a Big Commitment
The majority of participants commented on the considerable amount of work that was needed to prepare for their first MBSR course, and how challenging it was to commit to the time needed to do this essential work. This included writing and organizing workbooks and handouts, creating lesson plans and making audio recordings of mindfulness practices. David said that he had not quite understood what he was letting himself in for:
You don’t really know what’s involved um until you’re doing it really […] I don’t think I’d have envisaged that it would have taken quite so much preparation even after I’d started on the [postgraduate] course, certainly beforehand […] I really couldn’t conceive of what was involved.
Comments like these suggest that some participants were not prepared for the amount of work involved in delivering their first mindfulness course, especially when they wanted to do things well, or had a certain standard of delivery in mind. Preparation may have been more time consuming due to the necessarily conscientious attitude of new teachers like Chris, who “Wanted to do a good job.”
Finding the time to fit in the preparation and teaching on top of work, family and study was for Mel, “A bit of a stressor […] yeah, a big time-commitment.” David noticed that “It’s been quite challenging for my wife and I. We haven’t spent as much time together, and so it’s working out how to make more time for us and make those times special if you like.” These comments hint at the wider sacrifices regarding work and family time that these new teachers made in order to commit to teaching MBPs.
There was, however, a benefit to this investment of time and effort, as the initial work of gathering materials could then be used for subsequent classes. Abi echoed the experience of several participants when she said “Obviously the second time around it’s much more about fine tuning and just improving the existing material.” Despite finding the preparatory phase stressful, Mel stated that it “Was an enjoyable experience as well […] because I learned quite a lot by doing that actually.” This ability to see a positive side to stressful experiences was an attitude that pervaded the commentary of the majority of participants during the interviews, indicating qualities of resilience, a willingness to use the opportunity to learn and grow, and an ability to see the whole experience from a wider perspective.
Subordinate Theme: “Not Good Enough”
Participants reported feeling anxious about their ability to teach an MBSR course, which seemed to peak before and around the first MBSR course they taught. Chris said he was nervous about teaching due to his uncertainties about “Knowing MBSR as well as I would like.” Participants held themselves to high standards and took the responsibility of teaching seriously. Fiona, for example, spoke of her fear about not being good enough:
My knowledge is not good enough, um, I am not connected with these people, er, I am not empathetic enough, I am not sympathetic enough, I am not compassionate enough […] so you know all these questions actually go round in my mind.
Another pitfall mentioned by several participants was being self-judgmental about their teaching and feeling awkward and frustrated when things did not go as well as hoped, or when something was forgotten. For Kim, “It is the inquiry part where I become extremely judgmental of myself and I feel as if I’m right at the beginning.” Jo articulated the commonly expressed experience of having to face up to and experience personal vulnerabilities: “I think we do judge ourselves harshly, and we set such high [standards] […] it brings us up to you know in close contact with a certain amount of suffering and our own vulnerability around performing […] and responsibility.”
These comments indicate the very human vulnerabilities of self-doubt, fear, worry and self-judgment that can be experienced by new teachers of MBPs, who - as neophytes - naturally have anxieties and concerns about their abilities.
Subordinate Theme: Pre-Course Worries vs. Reality
Any misgivings, worries, and self-doubt experienced by participants were somewhat quelled by the reality of the teaching experience, which went more smoothly, easily, and enjoyably than anticipated for all participants. Despite the challenges mentioned above, Chris found that teaching his first course was a “Fantastic experience” and Mel said that “It went really well, I mean much better than I was expecting.” Pre-course worries about potentially “Tricky” group members, or not being able to guide practices well, were unfounded in reality.
Interestingly, not one of the participants interviewed for this study talked about their actual teaching experience in a negative way, despite being asked an open question about how they had found their teaching so far. This could be because the experience was not negative, or because the participants were mindfully skilled at negotiating challenge and difficulty and able to bring an attitude of openness to their experiences, as well as a willingness to learn from them, so any negative events were seen as part of the learning process.
Superordinate Theme: Practicing What They Teach
All participants said they found teaching MBSR intrinsically rewarding, although it was not without its challenges. They described how they used their personal practice as a support for their teaching and their well-being, to the extent that personal practice took on a new significance. In particular, the notion and practice of “embodiment” (which has been defined as a unified mind/body present-moment awareness, informed by attitudes of compassion and kindness, which infuses the ways in which we think, speak, act and relate to others [Feldman and Kuyken 2019]) during teaching helped participants meet difficult moments in class, and also acted as a reliable support throughout the process.
Subordinate Theme: “It’s Such Rewarding Work”
All the participants in the study commented on how they found teaching MBPs a rewarding experience. Abi, for example, said:
I have absolutely loved it! Just […] that sense of the group as it starts to bond, and people opening up, seeing people develop [and] begin to notice their patterns, and it feels really […] a privilege to facilitate that, so I do find it a joyful thing to do.
Other interviewees echoed this remark, commenting on the joy they felt, particularly when noticing changes in their course participants. Chris noticed how participants “Looked more relaxed and more at ease,” Stephanie enjoyed “Seeing them moving and growing and changing,” and Kim commented how “When I see them express […] that some big ‘aha’ has happened to them, that really brings me joy.” Stephanie remarked on the vulnerability and courage that she observed in her course participants:
I’m always touched by um how vulnerable and courageous people need to be to do this work. It’s not an easy thing to do, to lift the bonnet and to be looking at all of our processes, especially in a group situation with a bunch of strangers, so I’m always moved by […] what people will do, and […] that brings me joy.
Jo summed up these experiences by stating “It’s such rewarding work.” These comments suggest that these interviewees experienced a real “Feel-good” factor when observing the transformation of their course participants, bringing them a sense of personal satisfaction. This sense of worthwhile work may have helped to mitigate the aforementioned difficulties of financing and organizing courses that participants had experienced.
Subordinate Theme: Personal Practice Takes on a New Significance
The majority of participants commented on an enhanced relationship to their personal mindfulness practice since starting teaching, and this manifested in a number of ways. David found that, “If I’m feeling nervous or apprehensive in interactions with participants,” he could deliberately bring these challenges from his teaching experience into his loving-kindness meditation practice at home, which for him was particularly helpful. Chris felt that he had become “More understanding of myself than maybe I would have been originally” and attributed this to the development of his practice. Fiona, who had a long meditation practice, had found that “I sometimes touch my inner wisdom [when practicing] but not always, so I have to be patient with myself so that I can be patient […] with participants.” This comment gives a clear example of how practice can cultivate an ever-deepening relationship to the self, and how new teachers like Fiona could draw on their practice, not only as a means of personal support, but also as a means of developing the relational aspects of teaching through a shared understanding of the challenges and benefits of practice.
The majority of participants were also able to give examples of how, during teaching, they were able to experience connection to their practice through embodiment. For Jo:
My personal practice gives me trust in the process; trust, so that […] embodying that I suppose could be potent for the participants, because if I have trust in the process then they are more likely to be able to trust it in the face of difficult challenges.
This “Trust in the process” could be in reference to the ongoing cultivation of embodiment that most interviewees described drawing upon when meeting difficult moments—the process of “turning towards” their struggles with the unwanted (whether a thought, feeling or body sensation). This seemed to be a very supportive way for them of managing the “Little bumps” that occurred during teaching. Jo noted that “When those moments of difficulty […] come up, or fear might be there, or that overburdening responsibility, then having that capacity to drop into what’s going on for myself is underpinned by my regular practice, my daily practice.” Mel noticed a tendency to lean forward during moments of tension, and so used her awareness to pause and relax: “I was also kind of really delighted as well inside, going ‘oh well look, look, you noticed in the moment!’ (laughs).” Her laughter suggests that she was able to bring a light and playful quality of attention to her experience.
These comments draw attention to the significance and importance that the participants placed on their embodiment of their personal practice during the process of teaching. As such it suggested that personal practice was, to use Jo’s word, the “Bedrock” for their teaching practice and an essential support when negotiating moments of challenge during teaching sessions. Participants’ comments also indicated that the process of developing as an MBP teacher deepened their mindfulness practice and brought them into more intimate contact with the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness (e.g., non-judging, trust, patience). They found opportunities within the teaching challenges, such as a deepening patience (Fiona) and an increase in “turning towards” tension (Mel), because they were aiming to embody mindfulness and “practice what they teach.” This suggests personal mindfulness practice and training in the delivery of MBPs may exist in a symbiotic relationship.