04/03/2014 08:50 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

What You Want in a Mindfulness Teacher

The mind is priceless, and our most precious asset. The body absent a mind is human shell. But a body joined with a healthy mind, is much, much more than the sum of its parts. Why then, do some of us entrust our minds to mindless teachers?

Mindfulness is all the rage now. This is wonderful, because the practices hold promise for anyone who wishes to try them. But, it's also a very delicate and vulnerable moment, because the demand for mindfulness training outreaches the availability of authentic teachers.

If you want to learn and practice mindfulness, search for a teacher who will handle you mind, your most precious mind, carefully, compassionately and skillfully. The following tips can help you find your way.

Authentic teachers:

  • Have a personal meditation practice that qualifies them to teach. Studying with a qualified teacher is critically important for all of us, but there is a fine line between saying you "studied or trained with so-and-so" and implying that having studied with him/her makes you special or qualified to teach. Establishing credibility among teachers of mindfulness requires more than engaging in a sophisticated version of "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours." If she/he relies on his teacher's credentials, she didn't understand the teachings.
  • Understand that mindfulness is not a panacea. They know that that developing mindfulness brings many benefits, but mindfulness alone is not sufficient. They also understand that they cannot promise you anything other than to support you in your own practice. If you find a teacher who says he/she can "take you" to enlightenment, find another teacher who offers only to "show you the way."
  • Model the practice of mindfulness. You must observe teachers' actions and listen to how they speak before you believe what they say. If there is discordance between the "talk" and the "walk," look elsewhere.
  • Teach from a place of compassion. They understand that mindfulness is a mental skill that creates the conditions for cultivating compassion, and they never lose sight of the ultimate goal: to reduce suffering among all. They don't prioritize teaching mindfulness simply to sharpen attention or increase relaxation, although these byproducts are very real. They teach about the mind to touch the heart.
  • Are humble. They don't talk about their own realization, and they don't brag about "how long" they have practiced. Good teachers don't need or want to elevate their own experience.
  • Understand the limitations of Westernized mindfulness qualifications. Taking a "course" on practicing and teaching mindfulness might be the start of a potential teacher's training, but it's not the end. The learning curve is steep and continuous. The fields of education, psychology and medicine often spawn mindfulness teachers, but holding a license to practice in these professions doesn't confer credibility with mindfulness teaching. For example, don't automatically assume that you will get authentic mindfulness teaching from a nurse or a therapist who took a mindfulness training course and has years of experience in stress management. Be careful to whom you give your trust.

In all likelihood, the majority of well intentioned "certified" mindfulness teachers introduce the practice adequately. But very few have the depth in their own practice, skill, wisdom and compassion to teach those who hunger for more rigorous instruction. Also, some "certified" teachers are mindfulness, and they exploit their own charisma and teach to feed their egos. At the very least, this is dangerous because charlatans reduce the likelihood that their students will have a positive experience with mindfulness. At worst, the potential for damaging abuse is very, very real.

In sum, search hard before you start. Never abandon your critical thinking, and trust your instinct if something feels wrong. Consider a given teacher's capacity, and benefit from what the/she can genuinely offer but seek elsewhere if you want more. Use media to learn from recognized and established teachers, so you become familiar with the teachings. This will enrich your experience and enable you to measure other authenticity. Let your teachers earn your respect slowly: it's the only way to truly trust what they teach.