Editor’s note: There are numerous factors to consider when leading a meditation practice. In this four-part series, clinical psychologist Greg Serpa, PhD, and physician turned mindfulness teacher Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, answer some of the most noteworthy logistical questions about teaching mindfulness. Keep your particular population in mind as you go through their tips; it’s possible that you may have valid reasons to adapt or change the guidelines to suit the needs and experiences of your participants.
In our previous post, we provided some suggestions about the use of voice, cues, and instructions when leading mindfulness meditation. Today we’ll talk about distractions, cultural factors to consider, and how to use scripts, poems, and stories when leading sessions.
Dealing with Distractions
We incorporate whatever comes up in our shared experience. This includes unexpected distractions, like a cell phone suddenly going off. You would address this with something like, “Noticing how the attention gets pulled away by an unexpected sound. And maybe there is also some judgment. See how you can redirect the attention back to the breath.” Addressing what’s going on in the room will also help the students to feel supported. For example if a latecomer enters the room, you might say, “Being aware that the attention might go to the sounds of a class member entering the room.” You would say this once during a session or as it feels appropriate.
The mindfulness program offered here is non-Buddhist in nature and intended to be accessible for people from all walks of life. Facilitators are encouraged to promote access for all participants. Issues of specific language and cultural sensitivity impact the quality, utilization, and effectiveness of care. Facilitators actively promote the understanding of culturally and ethnically diverse populations related to gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, physical ability, gender identity, age, and other factors.
One recent, small qualitative assessment of the cultural relevance of mindfulness for African Americans suggests that inadvertent comments from a facilitator mentioning “Buddha” or “support from the universe” can be perceived as culturally and religiously incongruent and result in a rejection of the practice (Woods-Giscombé & Gaylord, 2014). We encourage facilitators to use inclusive, non-Buddhist language with the utmost of care toward cultural factors.
When leading a group, it’s helpful to have a bag with some essential teaching aids: a bell or chime, a timer, a whiteboard and markers, handouts, sign-in sheets, and anything else related to the session’s theme.
We provide scripts for all of the meditations in our book, A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness, and others are available elsewhere. But, scripts are best used at home while you are familiarizing yourself with the meditation and understanding how to teach it. We do not recommend you read the script in class! As we have stated previously, guiding a meditation asks you to do the practice along with your students and to guide them with your own moment-to-moment awareness as appropriate while including the possibilities of their own moment-to-moment awareness. A guided meditation script is a transcription of somebody else’s moment-to-moment awareness in the past! While that person might be a very experienced teacher, and a lot of the meditation might be what she says pretty much every time, it’s still her experience and her resonance in the moment of the recording.
There is no magic in the words of the script itself. The facilitator uses his or her own sensations and kind awareness of each moment as a guide. Students easily sense the difference between mechanically reading a script and when the leader is in his or her own practice, serving as a model for how to be with each moment. Your cues provide the framework that allows each participant to be with his or her present experience without directing any specific result or “right” outcome.
Poems and Stories
Reading poems and stories is a wonderful addition to any mindfulness class. In the session outline we give some examples of poems and stories we like for that specific class theme. Poems in particular are a great bridge between verbal and nonverbal experiences and concepts. Poems are particularly good to read at the end of a meditation, when people are more receptive to really listening (with their head and their heart).
Teaching Tip: Start a collection of printed poems and stories that you bring to each class in a binder (or use an app on your smartphone). Choose a poem for that particular meditation before you start the class session (or, once you have more experience, before the start of the meditation) from your collection. You can transition from guidance to the poem by saying something like: “As we are coming to the end of our meditation, I want to read you a poem by…”
We love poems by Rumi, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Hafez, and John O’Donohoe, to name just a few. In class we try to use poems and stories from different traditions and include a wide diversity of authors.
When it comes to poems, try to step it up: Learn to recite your favorite ones by heart. Practice until they live inside you.
For more from Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, and Greg Serpa, PhD, check out their new book, A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness.
Woods-Giscombé, C. L., & Gaylord, S. A. (2014). The cultural relevance of mindfulness meditation as a health intervention for African Americans: Implications for reducing stress-related health disparities. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 32(3), 147–160.