Moving toward student-centric meditation teaching

October 23, 2019

This article was co-written by Linda Modaro, Nelly Kaufer and Janet Keyes.

In the spirit of ‘informed consent’ we attempt to speak clearly about what we are doing, how we are teaching, how that connects with the dharma and our history, and how it facilitates the meditative process.

Almost everything that has changed in how we have developed and teach reflective meditation over the past several years, arises from our experience reclaiming our practice and moving forward from a deeply painful split in our community. Like many Buddhist communities torn apart by failures of leadership, we continue to examine our ideals and assumptions about teaching and leadership and search for a middle path.

Although we still observe much of the conceptual framework of recollective awareness meditation, we have adapted it in ways that feel healthy and beneficial both to students and teachers. We explore several teaching points here and discuss our reconsiderations.

‘We sit in a circle showing that each person’s voice is important’

Initially, we have focused upon the power of the teacher’s role in our own and other spiritual communities. Placing the teacher above the students, figuratively or literally, encourages submissiveness, and risks disempowering students, making them dependent and passive. We are actively exploring different ways of teaching and learning.

Changing the seating configuration of the dharma hall is not in itself enough to alter the balance of power, though it does give a strong non-verbal message. What we have also found can change the dynamic between student and teacher is for two teachers to present the dharma through conversation, and with students through dialogue. We also encourage students to articulate their own understanding of the dharma through exploring dharma prompts in dyads or small groups.

‘You have permission to do any practice you would like to do’

We have uttered those words before and repeat them now. However, now we no longer think we know the best practice for everyone. Before we might have publicly given lip service to other practices and traditions, while privately disdaining them in our hearts or in the inner circle. Now we are more authentically curious about where different practices lead and what practices are best under the conditions of a specific student’s life.

We are all drawn to practices that resonate with us as things change in our lives. We try to help students discern which practices come to them with ease, and inspire them to meditate and reflect. Although unable to fully honor the diversity of different practices, we aim to come closer to what works for each student in a time and situation.

‘The dharma is found within your life and your personal experiences’

Our practice is different from many others in that we emphasize learning from our own and other’s reflections. Our approach is characterized by a dialogue between student and teacher around the student’s experience in meditation. Sometimes this is done in group settings and other times one-to-one. We have learned to develop deeper respect for students’ privacy, along with the vulnerability that comes from exposing innermost experiences.

Early in our relationship with students, we attempt to define our approach. For a few people it can feel invasive or re-trigger trauma from the past. When we become aware of this response, we may need to go outside the practice and suggest other skillful means.

We search for the middle path regarding teacher’s revealing their own meditative experiences, taking several possibilities into account. We have learned that a teacher’s unwillingness to talk about their own experience holds risks we never envisioned. Teachers will discover their own way through this conundrum through trial and error.

‘You have permission to share to the level of your comfort’

While we talked about confidentiality between teachers and students in groups, we never talked about how to honor this boundary when students talk individually with a teacher. Like the practice of psychotherapy, a meditation teacher is bound to practice confidentiality, although we have no licensing board to regulate us. We are committed to developing agreed upon standards of practice. Through ongoing supervision and peer support, we attempt to give our teachers ways to explore problems and dilemmas that naturally arise in the student-teacher relationship, as a protection for both.

Finally, we express our gratitude for the people who have taught us and the wealth of knowledge that has been available to us. Gratitude arises naturally in the course of a meditation practice. Each of us has been taught by someone, whether in person, through a book, or a discussion. This is how knowledge and wisdom are passed down, internalized, and evolve. Whenever possible we take care to mention the variety of our sources and share them, so others can benefit from their knowledge.

Our reflections here are provisional, from where we stand now after long-term practice. We acknowledge that further adjustments will be required in the future. We think we speak for many people when we say reflective meditation is a work in progress. We are committed to this ongoing exploration and welcome comments, questions and suggestions from our communities.

– Linda Modaro is with Sati Sangha, Nelly Kaufer is with Pine Street Sangha in Portland OR, and Janet Keyes is with Befriend Your Mind in North Berkeley CA.



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