Teaching Mindfulness and Money

2883 words


One horn of a dilemma

Other horn of a dilemma

The New Generation of Mindfulness Teachers

The Superstars

Points to Remember in Payment for Services

Empathy, Generosity and Kindness matter with exception

An Alternative  Model for Cooperation and Financial Support

On the Personal

We witness a significant outpouring of mindfulness teachers in the past decade and more. The mindfulness teachers find themselves spending rather a lot of money in their training, which may or may not include attendance on seven day long residential retreats.

There is the cost of the training, the cost of supervision, as well as payment and possibly donations for the teachers/staff at the end of Buddhist retreats emphasising mindfulness and insight meditation.

MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) programmes, as well as other courses, both residential and online, offer a valuable training to those who wish to teach mindfulness. Teachers give practical support to others to reduce stress, develop the tools for peace of mind and find skills to handle situations in a non-reactive way,

Mindfulness teachers can find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.

One Horn of a Dilemma

The Buddhist tradition has remained dedicated for 2600 years to a vision of making the teachings freely available.  Rarely do we find such a tradition in the secular West.

The teachings on ethics, mindfulness/meditation and wisdom relate directly to the contributions of many people. Such people include volunteer work, organisation, service and financial donations as expressions of donations (dana in the Buddhist tradition). People who love and appreciate the Dharma (teachings/practices of the Buddha) will often volunteer their services without charge or rely upon donations from beneficiaries.

Mindfulness teachers may well find within themselves some discomfort at charging prices, per hour, per student, per day or per workshop. Some people exposed to the Buddhist tradition can get the idea that all teachers should offer freely or, at most, only say a few words at the end of the session with a donation bowl.

Mindfulness teachers with their spiritual roots connected to the Buddhist tradition, can feel very uncomfortable making any fixed charge for the teachings and practices which they offer. In the so-called real world, we cannot cling to such idealisation in teaching. Renumeration matters.

Other Horn of a Dilemma

Some Buddhist teachers have engaged in Dharma service in the West for two or three decades or more. They have a wealth of experience in mindfulness practice and associated teachings. They may have benefited from spending shorter or longer periods of time in the East, often India, Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. A smaller percentage of such people ordained as British monks or nuns in the East. Time in the East gives extra kudos in the West in terms of the qualification to teach mindfulness.

Mindfulness teachers trained in the West see the ‘success’ level of some mindfulness teachers, who perhaps have written a very successful book or two, used a variety of marketing techniques and become a well-known public figure in the mindfulness/spiritual /Buddhist world. Some of these teachers can charge very significant sums of money to attend either a residential course amounting to $1000 or more a week or an online course running into several thousands of dollars.

The teachers may have let go of the religious culture of mindfulness as found in Buddhist countries. The same teachers then grasp onto Western culture with its current emphasis on neuroscience, psychology, self-interest and personal wealth. This can appear to show a situation of two steps forward and two steps back.

The New Generation of Mindfulness Teachers

Most Mindfulness teachers in the West find themselves unable to offer teachings on donation and have no chance to become a superstar in the mindfulness industry.

Free teachings/practices will not cover the full basic requisites, food, accommodation, clothing and medicine. Expenses include far more than that. This means that is not an option to invite donations for living in the real world. Also, the book market has changed in the past decade.   Perhaps five books in every thousand become a best seller. New mindfulness teachers will have little opportunity to join the superstars.

A publisher in Germany told a friend, a Dharma teacher: “Please write a book for us on the condition you do not have the word ‘mindfulness’ in the title. Mindfulness books flood the market.”

Mindfulness teachers appreciate the benefits they witness to those who come to listen to them, whether individuals, small groups or an audience of 20 or more.

We, who offer teachings on a donation basis, need to recognise the very practical realities for those who cannot survive this way. Some orthodox Buddhists, monks, nuns and householders, appear to cling to the view that we teach mindfulness without making a charge or a donation basis. Such a view can tap into feelings of discomfort or even guilt with mindfulness teachers, who charge specific prices for their teachings, such as eight weeklong programmes.

You must listen to yourself on these issues. Be practical and not idealistic.

The Superstars

Those who follow the superstars of mindfulness may have attended their expensive courses, residential or online. Some will defend the high cost, even if it excludes the large numbers of poor people in society. They might point to Youtube where people can listen to the same teachers without charge. YouTube can work as a marketing strategy to encourage people to attend expensive evening public talks or pay an exorbitant price for the practice/teacher training.

I heard from three resources that one online mindfulness training course cost $6900. Sounds True, an American business offers an extensive range of spiritual/psychological/religious talks/videos and course. Every item for sale on the Sounds True website looks expensive.

I heard that around 1500 people paid for primarily an online course with two big stars. If the charge to take part is correct, the income from the mindfulness teacher training amounted to more than $10 million before costs. That is big business. Very big business. Practitioners asked me a few times what I thought about expensive courses. I responded: “Sounds True should change their name to Sounds Alot.”

There is no point in Sounds True marketing itself as ‘Waking up the World’ when it looks half-asleep itself.

Big business swallows up local independent initiatives. Self-employed mindfulness teachers find themselves ignored due to an elite running courses and training with high prices.

The big CEOs of mindfulness and their organisations need to be very, very mindful of their impact on the grass roots of mindfulness.  They churn out hundreds of mindfulness teachers every year or two. Few finds it easy to earn any kind of basic income despite their outlays in the training. The Mindfulness CEOs and their organisations face a growing backlash. They seem to offer no practical support for the mindfulness teachers struggling to establish themselves as teachers.

Mindfulness teachers need our voices, whether we work on donations for work or rank among the elite mindfulness ‘millionaires’ or thereabouts. A strength in a network shows in our  mutual concerns for each other. We speak of the importance of inter-connectedness. Are we walking the talk?

One Buddhist monk from the UK disrobed and designed a successful mindfulness App earning him more than £20 million within a few years. Newspaper used the headlines such as  From Monk to Millionaire. Asked my view on this, I responded. “Am unimpressed. From millionaire to monk. That would be impressive.”

What’s the point of great wealth? Don’t those who pursue wealth find time to meditate on death? Do they not realise how short life is?

Points to Remember in Payment for Services

As with most self-employed people, mindfulness teachers will work hard to establish a service. You probably must set the charge for an hourly rate, an evening, a workshop or weekend course.

If, for example, you offer an eight-week course, you will need to maximise  attendance of participants, otherwise it gets cancelled. This might include sending weekly emails summarising what took place each work of the course and e-mailing details of you will offer the following week. You use social media, put up posters and more. It is a lot of work.

Regular meetings with other mindfulness teachers can offer further inspiration and insights. You will need to develop contacts and friendships outside of the events.

The quality of your personal contact with people matters. Some people will make a monthly transfer to support your work. Others may offer some of their free time. Make sure you have work they can do for you.

Please remember that in recent years centres and teachers experience worldwide a frequency of cancellations, sometimes in the last day or two.  You will need a fair and thoughtful cancellation policy. Do not take cancellations on a personal level.

One person saved up more than £2000 to join a -year long training. She realised at the end of the first long residential weekend that the course did not suit her, nor did she like the attitude of the course instructor. She requested a refund of a percentage of her full payment. The instructor refused to return any of her money.

Empathy, generosity and kindness matter without exception

You may offer residential courses or retreats in a facility in a monastery, or a centre, country house or hotel. You may charge for the total event or people for their stay and you request donations. Both approaches are fine. Payment for services offered works as a fine model.

If you do request donations on a full day workshop/retreat or longer, ensure you speak on the motives and the history of the gift. Speak with confidence. Speak without apology. Explain your costs. Express much kindness to people. Speak for a minimum of 10-15 minutes on the day before departure and make sure the bowl is available. Give people the opportunity to donate, via Paypal, bank transfer or another means.

If you can allow scholarships for part or all the cost, you will support those with low income. One person appealed for a part scholarship for a mindfulness training. I know the person. She lives in a single room in a rented house. A representative for the training rang her and asked her a range of personal questions about her finances. The organisation gave her no reduction and told her to borrow money from her parents.

To repeat: Empathy, kindness and generosity matter.

An Alternative Model for Co-operation and Financial Support

The deep significance of mindfulness has its origins in the teachings of the Buddha. He replaced religious belief systems involving an afterlife with a deep exploration of the human experience. Mindfulness is a limb in the body of the teachings, not centre stage. In typical Western arrogance,  the mindfulness industry claimed to have dropped the Buddhist baggage in the East around mindfulness.

Many of us have little appetite for flowers, candles, incense, rituals, chanting and worship. Sadly, the arrogance threw out the baby with the bathwater.

With its addiction to money as a proof of personal success, the mindfulness industry threw out the teachings of dana, the act of the donation, to support the community (Sangha) of practitioners.

Influential figures in the mindfulness industry tell Westerners if you want to become a mindfulness teacher, you will have find the disposable income and pay for it. We sell you the product of mindfulness. Your buy our attention. We will take a chunk of money out of your bank account. The training of mindfulness teachers has become  the most profit making activity in the mindfulness industry, along with mindfulness courses for big business to increase their efficiency, productivity and profit through reduction of stress.

The Western model reveals a discriminatory factory since it excludes Western ‘yogis’, who live alone or with others in the most modest of circumstances.  I regard the Western model as a failure with an unwillingness to explore different models around money. In the Kalama Sutta, one of the finest statements ever on this Earth, the Buddha pointed out that we should not identify with something simply because numerous others approve.

We need to develop a radically different model. Some of us, who spent years in Thailand, experienced first hand a different model.  Residents in a village or town co-operate together to provide support to create a monastery. Local people share together the responsibility to provide food, clothing, accommodation and medicine for monks,  nuns and laypeople living in the monastery.

Anyone can go and stay in the monastery as a layperson, ordain as a monk or nun for a few days or decades. Stressed out people, alcoholics, terrorists, the unemployed, the young, elderly might take refuge in the monastery. The disillusioned, spiritual seekers and aspiring meditators find their way into a forest monastery or Vipassana monastery. Those committed to the ethics and culture in the monastery  can stay as long as they wish knowing that the monastery and local residents would take care of all their essential needs.

Out of this communal approach, men, women and children can develop ethics, mindfulness, meditation and wisdom. Such come to share their understanding with the lay community. The West has an addiction to the educational model of taking courses for a weekend, week-long or 10 days.  It will need a revolutionary change to break out of this model that depends totally on personal financial circumstances. We need centres where people can go any day of the week for as long as the teachers/leaders wish.

Our towns and cities need large centres, as well as in rural locations. People can go to learn ways of practising a diversity of approaches for the destruction of stress (not just reduction), an integrated way of being and the emotional intelligence to support others.

Practitioners, aspiring teachers, therapists, counsellors, along with clients and patients, would go to such a centre without having to pay a penny. The regular dana from the surrounding community would cover the costs. Inspired by the model of Buddhist monasteries, such centres in villages, towns and cities would serve as the heart and soul of the community regardless of spiritual, secular or religious beliefs.

It would take hundreds or thousands of people willing to make a monthly bank order to support everybody connected with the centre.  Locals and from further afield could bring food daily to make meals for everybody and donate countless items to support teachers, healers, practitioners and others. The centres would be a new kind of monastery rooted in spiritual values and love of community.

The centres would focus on well-being, friendship and co-operation. The days of expensive courses/trainings/retreats would end. The Buddha said that we “go for refuge in the community.”

The West needs to wake up to the potential of co-operation of the collective.

On the Personal

Owing to age, I am a senior /Dharma/Mindfulness teacher in the West. Including six years in Thailand and India, I have the privilege of 50 years of full reliance on dana (donations) since 1970. I have the privilege of many conversations with thoughtful people on issues we need to address in the West.

Dharma friends daily send me links to essays, articles, critiques and polemics to read. My home contains 1500 plus books.  I regularly find what I hear and read insightful and inspirational. This triggers further reflection and inquiry.

In the experience of others and myself, we, teachers of retreats, receive our major donations at the end of a residential retreat following a comprehensive short talk on dana and ways to offer it.

It is a very rare teacher who lives entirely on donations through evening classes and short workshops. Those who do usually have another source of income – savings, inheritance, property rented out, pension etc.  Often, people who attend a one-to-one meeting with a mindfulness teacher or participate in a group or short workshop do not have the knowledge or experience of the tradition of dana. People drops a few coins into a bowl for coffee money because the participant does not realise the mindfulness teacher uses donations to help pay the bills.

The participant will not know about the costs of the mindfulness teacher for the training, the immense amount of preparation work to notify and organise a stress reduction programme, and all the living costs. Mindfulness teachers have all the expenses to pay and sometimes children to support.

I know teachers who spend days preparing a single 30-minute talk. They do not want to be a prescriptive mindfulness teacher, who repeats what they learnt in a training.

Your acts of kindness matter. Every person on this Earth wishes to be loved and understood.

You have much to offer. Keep practising yourself otherwise you become habitual, repeating yourself. This will not inspire people to return.

Senior mindfulness teachers, teachers living on donations, wealthy mindfulness teachers and ordained voices in the Buddhist tradition need to engage in regular reflection on our way of giving teachings. We also explore a wider view.

Mindfulness teacher Colette Power wrote on Monopolising Benevolence for the Mindfulness and Social Change Network. She pointed out that the current situation of Mindfulness in the West reflects other financial and social imbalances in society.

Mindfulness teachers, senior and the new generation, cannot keeping ignoring the stress within the mindfulness movement owing to pressures around money. This issue arises regularly in three continents where I teach.

We recognise and acknowledge the needs of the new generation of mindfulness teachers. This requires co-operation and sharing of concerns otherwise the mindfulness movement faces major issues, which will only increase – like a virus.

In the meantime, we can commit ourselves daily to the service of others, and keep costs as affordable as possible as a confirmation of empathy and love.

  www. Mindfulnesstrainingcourse.org

  www. Anengagedlife.org

  www. Insightmeditation.org

  www. Christophertitmuss.net

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book

The Buddha in the West

(on the application of teaching

 in the West for 45 years)

2 thoughts on “Teaching Mindfulness and Money”

  1. Irene (reni) ovadia

    A joy to deeply listen while I read and feel my heart sing in perfect accord
    Exactly my concerns and how I envision Sangha House and recently online zoom courses/retreats.
    Here is to confirmation of love empathy and wisdom

  2. I do myself struggle with the fact of asking for money when teaching mindfulness and usually rely on peoples generosity which many times ends with a deficit in my pocket.

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