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 for whether to have students keep their eyes closed or open, and how to determine which posture to use. Today we’ll explore language.
Mindfulness has a very particular lexicon. By familiarizing yourself with different wording options and tone, you will make the experience for your participants a lot easier. All of them might feel unfamiliar in the beginning.
Teaching Tip: Practice guiding all of the different meditations with another new teacher. Afterward give each other feedback on language, voice, cues, space, and so forth. Please practice with all the different elements until they become second nature.
Use of the Present Participle
A prominent feature in guiding a meditation is the regular use of the present participle. All the –ing words, like noticing, allowing, sensing, and breathing, represent things happening right in the present moment. This allows for the language to be inviting. For example, notice the difference between the following two sentences: “Close your eyes” and “Closing your eyes.” The latter invites the listener right into the action of the present moment. It is allowing and reduces the potential for resistance related to perceived hierarchy between the teacher and the participant. Closing the eyes is not an order; it’s a suggestion or the description of something happening in the present moment.
You want to be as inclusive and inviting to your class as you possibly can. You could say, “Allowing the eyes to close.” Or “Closing your eyes, if that feels right to you.”
We also like to include options. For example: “If it feels right in this moment, allowing the eyes to close. If you choose to have your eyes open, softly gazing down on your cheeks.” Let the language of your cues always be inviting and supportive of the participant’s autonomy and internal locus of control. The language directs them to work at their own practice. But allow yourself the flexibility to vary your language to keep things fresh.
Use of the Possessive Pronoun
We invite you to experiment with the different feeling tones of, for example, “Feeling your breath moving” and “Feeling the breath moving.” You want to invite your students to move more often from the personal (“I, me, mine”) to what is common for all, to the “not taking everything so personal”—including the breath. Moving more from “this is what my breath feels like” to “this is what breathing feels like.” It can be helpful to feel “the thighs,” for example, as compared to “my thighs—which I hate so much and which look horrible in jeans…”
However, there is no need to abandon the possessive pronoun altogether. Just be aware of the different effect it has, and mix it up as it feels appropriate. You can also use pronouns as a skillful means depending on the group you are teaching. If you have, for example (we are using a cliché here), a group of lawyers who are potentially very disconnected from their bodies, it can be helpful to use “feeling into your feet” and “feeling your body” often, compared to a group of yoga teachers who might possess a tendency to overidentify with their bodies. In the latter instance, focusing on “the legs” and “the body” might be beneficial.
And last, the absence of the possessive pronoun connects the person leading the practice and the people being guided. There is just breath being experienced: just breathing and the knowing of it.
When leading, be as inclusive as possible with your instructions and cueing. Avoid assumptions about your participant’s experience. For example:
Avoid adjectives that value an experience. For example, “Breathing in the next yummy breath” or “Noticing how nice and solid the ground feels under your feet.” Not everybody experiences the breath as yummy or the ground under their feet as positive. The same is true for the opposite. For example, “Becoming aware how much you hate the noise of the traffic outside.” Even if the noise is bad, there might be people in the class who are not bothered by it.
Avoid ability bias. Refrain from suggesting that students do something that may not be possible for everybody. This is true for physical movements, like sitting on the floor or doing a particular stretch, as well as for summoning up a particular mental state in meditation, for example “Feeling appreciation for being alive” or “Accepting the moment as it is.” A lot of people can’t do these things, and they will be left feeling inferior or like a failure. If you want to introduce the idea of acceptance or appreciation in your guidance, we recommend rephrasing it into something like, “As you feel into your legs, there might be a feeling of appreciation. Or there might not.” Or “Inviting a sense of acceptance into the present moment” or “Opening to a sense of acceptance, if that is available to you right now.” Or exchange the word “acceptance” for “acknowledging.” We can’t will acceptance into being. But we can intentionally acknowledge something even if we don’t like it (and if we don’t accept it).
“We” or “You”?
In general, we recommend that you lead a meditation in the “you” form, not “we.” While you might feel that you are more connected to your group when you say, “Now bringing the attention to our body,” not everybody in the group feels supported by that. It’s their body. Not general property. An exception is when you want to guide the attention to something that might be challenging, like lower-back pain. Here it can be supportive and inclusive to use a phrase like, “Now feeling into the lower back. This is an area of the body where many of us feel tension.” You’ll get a knack for the wording with practice.
For more from Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, and Greg Serpa, PhD, check out their new book, A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness.