Over the last decade, mindfulness-based programs have become the go-to approach for mental health treatment in schools, prisons, and workplaces around the world. With this increased demand comes an urgency to produce qualified teachers who are trained in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other mindfulness-based programs that include ethics in their curricula.
As co-developer of Mindfulness-based Symptom Management (MBSM), my colleagues and I have trained more than 100 teachers over the past 12 years. This is a small number compared with large institutions that turn out hundreds of teachers annually, but we’ve found that the approach allows for both a financially accessible and intimate apprenticeship process.
While I understand the urge to give priority to quantity so that the high demand for teachers can be met, I believe the pressure to quickly train more teachers has resulted in critical oversights— in particular the selection of appropriate candidates and the length of time it takes to cultivate the qualities needed in a mindfulness teacher.
It’s a challenge to develop a solid training program that is comprehensive, allows the time to cultivate a wise teacher, and supports teachers in maintaining their competencies. And training secular teachers in a Buddhist-based approach to suffering without proselytizing can be a challenging process of balancing the Buddhist roots of mindfulness as a path to liberation with the secular focus on wellbeing. (It’s no wonder that mindfulness being offered outside Buddhist circles has kindled fierce debates about the appropriation of Buddhist training for secular purposes, the absence of sila [right conduct] as a core component in the programs, and concerns about the misuse of mindfulness by corporations and the military.)
There have been and continue to be global efforts to deal with these challenges within our professional community, and I had hoped that the new International Mindfulness Teachers Association (IMTA) would join in these efforts to bridge the dissenting views of Buddhist and secular program leaders. Sadly, IMTA has muddied the waters of existing professional certification processes by overlooking long-standing certification programs such as MBSR, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MiCBT), Breathworks (UK), and MBSM. Not surprisingly, IMTA’s approach has also caused a predictable international backlash from mindfulness program trainers who have already developed standards of practice and quality-assurance criteria.
The mission and vision of IMTA is impressive. The organization aspires to “oversee national and international mindfulness teacher education and training standards,” accredit training programs, and certify individual teachers. Still, I see three areas that are of serious concern: cost, competency, and community.
IMTA’s claim that it offers certification is definitely confusing, because “certification” has different meanings for regulatory licensing of professionals, institutions training mindfulness teachers, and professional associations. IMTA isn’t certifying teachers—it does not train anyone to the level of having their skills verified and confirmed by the program—but registering teachers with their organization.
On the positive side, IMTA’s offer to “certify” teachers may encourage potential teachers to seek appropriate training. But the expense of doing so may limit accessibility for potentially skillful teachers. An estimated cost of mindfulness teacher training obtained from MBSR, MBCT, and Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) websites is upwards of $5,000, with certification costing between $1,300 and $4,000, depending on the institution. This does not include prerequisite retreats and their associated costs of travel, lodging, and food.
Also, IMTA’s plan to certify someone at 200 hours can become a loophole that allows trainees to become teachers before they’ve completed their training program. For example, our 2019 MBSM training program requires 200 hours to attain a “foundational” status. “Qualified Teacher” status (an additional 40–80 hours) is required to teach the curriculum and “Certified Teacher” status requires another 100 hours. In other words, a trainee could be considered “certified” by IMTA while still not qualified to teach MBSM.
Defining and assessing competency in mindfulness skills is complex, as is determining who is an “advanced” teacher. For supervising teachers to have IMTA’s criteria of 10 years of “advanced mindfulness experience” requires clarification of what is meant by the term. It’s not uncommon for applicants to list many years of “practice” and “experience,” but rarely do the mechanics of the experience translate to an embodiment of it. An essay I coauthored with two graduate students explores the challenges of a training process that is experiential and relational, where time is not a correlative of growth in wisdom or skill. And, in my experience, this is also a consideration with “advanced” teachers.
In fact, despite the excellent teacher-assessment criteria developed by Rebecca Crane and colleagues at the University of Bangor, Crane’s recent publication in the peer-reviewed journal Mindfulness suggests we are still in the dark about what competencies matter to positive outcome in treatment. Terms like “advanced” invite caution, especially when a teacher can be pressure-cooked by attending a five-day or nine-day training. “Ten years’” practice experience and “five years’” teaching experience may not represent uniform growth among teachers or even consensus about the experience.
The hope implicit in an organization that pegs its identity as “international” is that inclusivity is not an afterthought. The mindfulness community comprises villages dotting a global landscape. We know the lay of the land—the infrastructure of what we teach—but not who we are to each other in our uniqueness or who we become to each other as we navigate this path.
I believe wholeheartedly that the differences between us are crucial to shaping what and how we train our teachers. While the requirements of IMTA are laudable, the advisory board and founders are distinctly American, albeit renowned, teachers. Excluding the guiding voices of such international secular and Buddhist trainers as psychologist and S. N. Goenka student Bruno Cayoun (MiCBT), Buddhist teacher and pain management specialist Vidyamala Burch (Breathworks), and mindfulness researcher Rebecca Crane runs a significant risk of IMTA being a US-values-centric clearinghouse.
That may be fine. However, I am prompted to ask if IMTA has considered the divisive consequences of reinventing the wheel and disregarding both international and U.S.-based training programs. More important, if the IMTA is seeking to cultivate community, it must begin with clear comprehension of who it is becoming: another bridge in an international community that is working hard at inclusivity through mutual respect, or a split that prevents this growth of sharing and support.