Cloudy with a Chance of Mindfulness - RSA

Cloudy with a Chance of Mindfulness

Blog 6 Comments

  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

So, at the beginning of your mindfulness practice… Oh, and by ‘beginning,’

Light through clouds

So, at the beginning of your mindfulness practice… Oh, and by ‘beginning,’

I mean the first 15 years…

- Joseph Goldstein speaking at a 3-month silent mindfulness retreat

At the heart of today’s mindfulness debate lies the uncomfortable question of expertise. What does it take to become a mindfulness expert? Although it may not be an ideal measure of expertise, the figure of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice has been considered to be a rough indicator of it [1]. How then, if we apply this figure, do modern mindfulness instructors measure up? It certainly varies from person to person, but recently, a mindfulness coach intimated his belief that 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day, for 40 days, was a sufficient foundation for teaching others – a regimen amounting to a total of 13 hours and 20 minutes of actual practice. And by actual practice I mean meditation.

So, at that rate, how long would it take to become an "expert"? To reach the 10,000 hour threshold at a rate of 20 minutes per day, a mindfulness practitioner would have to meditate every single day for 82 years. For comparison's sake, if one were to meditate an average of 10 hours per day, as is customary in intensive retreat settings, it would take the person nearly 3 years to reach 10,000 hours. Whichever way the figures are broken down, that’s a lot of mindfulness. I have a strong feeling that the coach I mentioned previously is not alone in his "loose" conceptualization of required practice, as many or even most mindfulness instructors today are unlikely to have accumulated this many hours.

To reach the 10,000 hour threshold for expertise at a rate of 20 minutes per day, a mindfulness practitioner would have to meditate every single day for 82 years.

As with most subjects, teaching mindfulness without substantial first-person experience is bound to have consequences. Likely among these is the generalized sense of confusion and opacity surrounding the aims and purpose of mindfulness that we see today. A simple Google search for ultimate goal mindfulness provides a good illustration of this:


  • “…the ultimate goal [is] becoming ‘one’ with current experience.”



  • ”…the ultimate goal [is] increasing productivity.”



  • “…ultimately about becoming like a child and experiencing life like many of us haven't in years.”



  • “…ultimate goal is to be able to live mindfully all day long.”



  • “Cessation is the ultimate goal…”



  • “I don't think there IS an ultimate 'goal' to mindfulness.”


With mindfulness now being integrated in corporations, hospitals, universities, and in countless other life domains (including prisons, primary schools, sex, and… dogs?), making better sense of mindfulness sooner rather than later may benefit all of us. Dogs too, apparently. So how might we begin to do so?


Skiing and EvolutionSkiing fall

Learning to ski can be a harrowing experience. The boots are clunky and cumbersome, the skis are awkward and unnatural, and the winter clothing hot and bothersome. A novice at this stage might have a very different experiential understanding of skiing than would an extreme skier. The beginner is unlikely to describe skiing as the experience of “freedom”, “oneness”, or of “insight into your being,” as some experts do [2]. Between these two distant degrees of experiential separation lie countless understandings of what skiing is, what it is for, and what skiing is really like. Mindfulness is also like this.

I have witnessed my own conception of mindfulness evolve numerous times over several silent meditation retreats. As mentioned previously, such retreats involve 10+ hours a day of mindfulness meditation over the span of a few days, a few months, or a few years. I remember sitting dumbfounded, on a wooden bench at a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand waiting on the instructor to provide my first ever mindfulness instructions. As I pored over the laminated “retreat guidelines” sheet for a sentence justifying sitting alone and in silence for three days, I found this: “The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to see things as they really are.” It is only now – several years and retreats later – that these words are beginning to make some sense. I emphasize some.

The more one practices mindfulness, the more his or her understanding of it evolves in a particular direction

What is clearer, however, is that the more one practices mindfulness, the more his or her understanding evolves in (or aligns with) a particular direction. How one communicates it to others then depends on how far she has gone in her own practice. One experienced mindfulness researcher and instructor once shared that: “The biggest problem with mindfulness research is that the researchers themselves have not gone far enough in their own practice.” It may then be safe to assume that prior to developing full expertise, one’s understanding of mindfulness is guaranteed to be partial and inaccurate to varying degrees. And while it is not incorrect to claim that mindfulness “increases productivity,” for instance, it may be wise to caveat such a statement by acknowledging that mindfulness may both be much more, as well as something other, than a means to boost productivity or any other by-product of the practice.


The Rainy Seasonmeditator wants cookie

The demand for mindfulness instructors in the UK is skyrocketing. Brief instructor training programs have been deployed to quell the demand, despite the risks of developing impoverished understandings of the practice. Psychological researchers Crane et al. highlight that, “practitioners may be tempted to respond to this demand without having engaged in the personal preparation… required for these endeavours” [3].

Like a 6-year old teaching a 4-year old child to read, or like a childless parenting expert describing the joys of pregnancy and child-raising to an expecting couple, mindfulness instructors with sparse backgrounds can be found spreading the joys of mindfulness to organizations and individuals. While these instructors certainly help raise awareness of mindfulness in our society, the type of awareness they raise may be one that conceals or overlooks mindfulness’ most profound and valuable aspects. Do the benefits of such inaccurate or incomplete exposure of mindfulness outweigh the costs? I do not know for sure.

To conclude, I encourage most people to explore the “mindfulness revolution” sweeping the land while noting that incomplete understandings of it abound, even among self-proclaimed experts and instructors. So don't simply take their word for it. To part the fog and form a more accurate view, a silent mindfulness retreat may be a good – albeit highly challenging – starting point. Indeed, the Buddha’s practical antidote for confusion still applies today: “Go… see for yourself.”

Andres Fossas is Senior Researcher of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets @afossas0


[1] Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

[2] Allman, T. L., Mittelstaedt, R. D., Martin, B., & Goldenberg, M. (2009). Exploring the motivations of BASE jumpers: Extreme sport enthusiasts. Journal of Sport & Tourism, 14(4), 229-247.

[3] Crane, R. S., Kuyken, W., Williams, J. M. G., Hastings, R. P., Cooper, L., & Fennell, M. J. (2012). Competence in teaching mindfulness-based courses: concepts, development and assessment. Mindfulness, 3(1), 76-84.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Hi Carol. While we both agree that mindfulness is "good," why we think that may be significantly different. Your understanding of mindfulness reveals precisely what I mean by "not having gone far enough in the practice." There is more, much more, to mindfulness than can be deduced from the understanding you express here. I agree with you that it can create a space between stimulus and response, and that it can minimize fetters to rules and routine, but these "mindfulness perks" say little/zero about its full potential. Doing years of meditation is not the only way to get the perks, as you point out, but it is likely the only way to unpack its full potential... which neither you nor I have described here.

  • Hi Matthew. Interesting points. When someone tells me how many years they've been meditating, I have come to understand it as "this is how many years have passed since I first learned to meditate." In other words, it reveals nothing about the extent or depth of their practice. Depth may not be the sole indicator of readiness to teach, but, in the case of mindfulness, it may be among the most critical and, surprisingly, most overlooked. I can imagine that meditation does not work for some people, and I'm curious to learn more about that. Thanks for the suggestions by the way.

  • Hi Jonathan. If you are implying that some meditators may not be acknowledging negative experiences during practice, then it is not mindfulness they are practicing (knowingly or unknowingly). Mindfulness meditation entails acknowledgement of the contents of consciousness in the present moment, be they positive, negative, or neither. And regarding deliberate practice, mindfulness, if done properly, is deliberate. The definitions of both "deliberate" and "mindfulness" imply a moderate-high degree of conscious attention. It's kind of "woven in" to the practice, I feel.

    I agree that one need not be be an expert to teach, but there are significant benefits to the student when the instructor is an expert. It is important for the student to know this. Depth, as you point out, is the missing piece.

  • Thanks for clearing the fog, which is getting rather heavy
    with a steady stream of email offers to train in mindful-this and
    mindful-that. Not yet seen one for dogs.

    Whatever emerges from this wave, I hope it’s more of
    this: what Ellen Langer describes as having the capacity to stay aware of context and perspective, and be less fettered to rules and routine. Or as Carl Richards write, creating a space between stimulus and response to create a more informed response. (

    Much like Inner Game’s STOP tool.

    It takes some form of training to be in this mode more frequently. But I don’t see meditation – and certainly not years of it – as the only way to get ‘there’. This might seem like ‘mindfulness lite’, but it’s worth going after, especially with some scale. If we took action from this state more
    frequently, we’d enjoy benefits like less road/airline rage, less silly

  • Hi Andres,

    Some fascinating challenges and inquiries you’ve shared with

    I’ve been in a regular Mindfulness-related group for approaching
    10 years – and I must say that I can’t really imagine one of the ‘students’ –
    like me – just deciding that they should be teaching meditation to beginners.
    We just don’t have the wisdom yet, still all too obviously caught up in
    automaticity, unconscious habits, over-thinking rather than being present et al…

    I’d personally also be hesitant about hours of sitting meditation practice being a sign of readiness to teach it. How much can meditation in that quiet state of
    withdrawal tell us about whether we can carry mindfulness into the real world,
    outside of the meditation hall/cushion?

    The approach I’m involved in is partly about daily
    meditation, but significantly also about carrying mindfulness into the real
    world – at home, at work etc. (Yes, it’s hugely difficult to stay
    present/mindful in those circumstances!). It’s also about, er…, dancing – but I
    don’t do that bit. (See the rather astonishing dances in this Peter Brook film about
    Gurdjieff’s approach to mindfulness etc:

    I recommend transpersonal psychology
    pioneer Prof Charles Tart’s book ‘Living the Mindful Life: A Handbook for Living in the Present Moment’
    (foreword by Sogyal Rinpoche) as a great integration of Buddhist mindfulness
    with the in-the-world mindfulness of the Fourth Way/Gurdjieff group I’m in:

    It’s interesting that meditation
    just doesn’t seem to work for some people: I remember one of the great scholars
    of spirituality and global religions (his best known book has sold 2.5m
    copies!), Huston Smith, sharing how meditation just didn’t seem to work for

    Interestingly, I’ve also had
    experiences with ‘tools of the mind’ such as Genpo Roshi’s ‘Big Mind’ process
    which can enable anyone in a matter of minutes to experience the kind of trans-egoic/transcendental
    states that might take a Zen meditator 30 years to experience. (Yes, it did
    feel a bit like a cheating short-cut, as it was so easy, so readily available –
    though this experience of underlying reality is sitting there all the time,
    waiting for us to slow down enough to finally notice!).

    I hope you and Jonathan will
    mention tools like ‘Big Mind’ in your report on ‘Spirituality and Tools of the Mind’.
    And – as you know – I also made contact with a US Minister, Tom Thresher, who
    has been tasked by Prof Robert Kegan with taking his ‘Immunity to Change’ tool
    out into religious communities. He seems to have developed a powerful approach to
    spiritual development, using Kegan’s overcoming immunity to change process as a
    scaffholding. Interestingly, he found that a focus on meditation itself didn’t
    work for most people.

    A big challenge in all this is
    how we can distinguish between – and integrate together – the altered states
    accessed during meditation (‘peak experiences’) with the structural psychological
    development that is happening to all of us anyway. The spiritual thought-leader
    Ken Wilber – admired by everyone from Clinton and Gore to Geoff Mulgan and the
    Bishop of London – tried to integrate meditative states with general adult psychological
    maturation by developing this model: http://integral-life-home.s3.a...
    - yes, it needs some explaining, but I’m not going to try. Wilber wrote a book
    called ‘Integral Spirituality’ where he explained his thinking on all this…

    Matthew Mezey

    (RSA Online Community Manager)

Related articles