Seven Ethical Guidelines for Teaching Mindfulness

First, do no harm. Seven Ethical Guidelines for Teaching Mindfulness from Chris Willard

Originally published on Susan Greenlands Blog.... Chris talks with Aviva DeKornfeld about what moved him to write this piece here.

As the conversation on “certification” and “professionalization” of mindfulness teachers waxes and wanes, it's clear that such a change would bring some benefits and certainly unexpected consequences. Fundamentally, I believe the goal is a noble one, and the effort appears to be led by smart, thoughtful people of great integrity. Finding the right balance of trade-offs might well be impossible, not for lack of effort or good intentions, but because, well, we're human.

Whatever ultimately happens, what strikes me as the most important intention is that we teach mindfulness in a way that we know minimizes any harm. What do I mean by this? The teaching of mindfulness and contemplative practices should do no harm to the student, to the teacher, the community of teachers, the movement itself, and should do no harm to the practices.

A useful model might be to create ethical intentions that teachers can agree to. A code of ethics like this provides a degree safety for everyone, without creating an overconfident false sense of security. Ethics keep individual students and institutional clients safe. What’s more, they protect teachers themselves, as well as the institutions in which they work. Lastly, ethical behavior protects the integrity, credibility, and reputation of the practices themselves and the larger "movement" we are all hoping to cultivate and sustain.

Such guidelines and intentions can maintain the integrity of the practices not to be misused or misrepresented. Thus the reputation of "mindfulness" remains powerful and credible, and therefore lasting. I’ve been playing with these ideas myself and in conversation with some other teachers, and wanted to share my incomplete thoughts, simply as a way of beginning a larger conversation. And of course, I’m not sure what this means in terms of enforcement or complaint mechanisms, beyond the idea that people are bound by the honor system.

Here are a few examples off the top of my head, I'm sure there are more good ones that I am not considering.

avoid harm in your teaching

To do no harm to our students, it is important not to exploit or mislead our students or institutional clients. In this way, I think some ethical behavior we can all agree to begins by ethically and honestly describing teacher and student roles, boundaries, expectations, financial agreements and mutual feedback systems, as well as our ethical obligations to each other.

While it may seem obvious, we ought to consider clear ethical standards of conduct to not sexually, emotionally, or financially exploit our students or clients. This again ripples out harming many individuals and the practices themselves.

To protect everyone, we need to also ethically and honestly characterize the benefits of practice, as well as potential risks[1]. Overstating the real (but still somewhat small) benefits sets up students for disappointment and conflict, and is risky not only to our credibility but to the movement's credibility at large, which impacts the growing interest in mindfulness and all of us who are teaching. Likewise, understating any known risks, especially when working with higher risk populations, can do the same.

Those of us that work with kids have a special responsibility to care for the safety of the kids, and whether we are mandated reporters of abuse and neglect or not, I’d suggest we consider ourselves to be.

describe your qualifications and experience plainly

I also believe that it is important to ethically and plainly describe our qualifications, training and experience, as well as the limits of our qualifications. Perhaps having these readily accessible on our websites or through advertising if we sell our services. One of the challenges of certifications is they are unclear what one is certified in, or certified to do, or by whom they're certified.

Many years ago, I got my motorcycle license at the end of a weekend-long riding course. The instructors handed us our licenses and told us in no uncertain terms “You are now licensed to ride this motorcycle anywhere in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. However, you are only qualified to ride this motorcycle around a parking lot as we’ve done for the past three days. Consider that before you start riding on the street.” It was a helpful reminder of the difference between certification, qualification, and endorsement- whether you are seeking these out or handing them out.

don't work outside of your qualifications alone, nor misrepresent your qualifications

In many licensed professions, an ethical standard is to not knowingly practice outside of one's area of expertise and training. For example, while both a hand surgeon and a psychiatrist may have an MD after their names from the same school, they are not qualified to do the same job. Ditto the history teacher and health teacher. I believe this is important when working with specialized populations; that we have relevant or specialized mental health, medical, developmental, neuroscience, movement-based practice, cultural or spiritual training (and surely other categories I’m overlooking) and competence if working with these specialized populations. Of course, not all of us do, and certainly few of us have all of these, but that is a strength, not a weakness. This makes us better at our strengths, while inspiring us to learn about where we may be lacking, and also not stretch ourselves too thin in our teaching.

view a lack of experience as an opportunity

When we don't have qualified experience or training, partner with someone who does. The good news here is this creates more opportunities for skilled teachings, strengthening the community of teachers sharing knowledge, and creating a strong community based on collaboration. 

explain the limits of your knowledge of specialized topics plainly

There is a tension here, in that there is book knowledge, classroom knowledge, cushion honed wisdom, and there is lived experience. As we work within our training and objective knowledge, the aim is to also honor the lived, subjective experiences of others. For example, I can read a hundred books or attend a hundred workshops on racism or other forms of prejudice, but I will never understand it on the unique personal level of someone who has survived those for their entire lives. With that, I believe firmly that pursuing an understanding of cultural awareness with an intention and curiosity to learn this more deeply should be another standard to which we hold ourselves.

In my work as a professional trainer, I explain that I'm not a neuroscientist, nor am I a yoga teacher. And that, even though I’m a psychologist, my expertise is not in certain topics like trauma. I ask my audience to share their knowledge about these areas, which empowers other voices in the community, gives me an opportunity to learn, and hopefully shifts the power dynamics between “experts” and “students."

encourage generosity and respect the contributions of others

I encourage my fellow teachers to be generous in the sharing of mindfulness and related practices you may have created or, more likely, adapted. This keeps the movement open to innovation and allows it to evolve and adapt while keeping our egos at bay.

At the same time, it remains important to honor and give credit to where you learned or adapted the practices you teach and not imply that they are “yours.” When possible, get permission to share others' practices and adaptations. This strengthens connections in the community of teachers, cultivates, a sense of trust, and encourages collaboration and cooperation. Many practices also have cultural origins that have been intentionally or unintentionally obscured.  It's important to recognize this and honor the cultural origins of practices that may be in danger of being erased or written over by a more dominant culture.

maintain your practice

Last, there’s a great deal of discussion about the importance of maintaining a formal, daily practice, including retreat practice. I believe strongly that a regular practice of a few years is important.  We should have a lot more experience than our students, especially when teaching deeper practices.  Those teaching retreats should certainly attend them, again significantly more than your students attend them, although I don't know what ratio is ideal.

The reasons are many, including credibility as well as experience, familiarity, and safety. Going on a potential internal journey of mindfulness can be a challenge, just like going on an external journey. Do you want to go on an expedition with a guide who’s been where you’re going, or a guide who’s only read some books about the destination and has the instructions for how to pitch a tent and start a campfire?

To be clear, the reasons to have a practice are not because retreats or regular practice makes someone a more ethical teacher- this gives people a falls sense of security. Most long-term practitioners can rattle off dozens of unethical teachers who have spent hours on the cushion or months on retreat, only to exploit or abuse their students and cause grave damage to individuals and communities. 

So with that my controversial last thought around safety- that perhaps more important than our practice or going on retreats is having your teacher and community of other practitioners and teachers to whom you are accountable. Many competent teachers, because of their work, family or financial situation, cannot afford the privilege of retreat practice.

As a therapist, the notion of supervision does not end after an internship. I still seek monthly consultation with a supervisor and regular consultation with peers about my work to be a more accountable, effective, and ethical therapist. While not foolproof, this model could work well for mindfulness teachers as well, perhaps more effective than mandating hours on a cushion or in retreat.

Agreeing to uphold these and other ethical standards could offer a more flexible and living framework for how to offer students of mindfulness the best quality instruction that lets students, teachers, and these practices to thrive for years to come.