John Teasdale, one of the pioneers of cognitive therapy research in the United Kingdom, whose research findings have been applied to the development and evaluation of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, explains how Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction/Cognitive Therapy fit with Gaia House meditation retreats.
Mindfulness and Gaia House
In the last twenty years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness in Western society. This increased interest raises a number of issues. For example, one could wonder how does such mindfulness training relate to the meditation retreats that are taught at Gaia House? In the wider culture, programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) help people cope with stress or reduce the risk of recurrence in clinical depression. Does this imply that it would be helpful for stressed or depressed people to come to silent mindfulness retreats at Gaia House? Finally one could ask if insight meditation is primarily about handling emotional difficulties more skilfully, or does it have different, wider aims?
The ‘mainstreaming’ of mindfulness owes much to the MBSR programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The idea for this programme came to Jon more than thirty years ago when he was on a silent retreat led by Christina Feldman, one of Gaia House’s co-founders and currently one of its guiding teachers.
Jon describes mindfulness as: “moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness.” He says: “It is often spoken of as “the heart” of Buddhist meditation. However, its essence is universal…. Mindfulness is cultivated by paying attention to those aspects of our bodies, our minds, and our lives that we so often most take for granted.”
People find mindfulness training helpful in managing everyday life and emotional problems because awareness allows us to know more clearly what is happening in and around us in each moment; it allows us to respond to difficulties consciously and skilfully, rather than with the automatic habitual responses that often make things worse; and it allows us to sample a way of being that is freer, and less driven by the need to have things be a particular way.
Mindfulness training and Insight Meditation retreats
Retreats at Gaia House offer the understanding and practices developed by the Buddha as ways to help each one of us discover for ourselves the causes and cures of the unsatisfactoriness that, to one degree or another, we all experience. Mindfulness is central to these retreats, but their aim is wider and deeper than mindfulness training as it is used more generally. At Gaia House the aim is to help people awaken to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, that is fully knowing suffering, letting go of the craving that causes suffering, experiencing the cessation of such craving and cultivating the Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering.
In common with mindfulness training, insight meditation retreats teach skills that help us respond more effectively to difficult emotions and painful feelings. But such retreats go further. The aspiration of the path developed by the Buddha is freedom from all suffering – not just the obvious suffering related to unpleasant emotions and stressful situations, but also the more subtle and pervasive sense that ‘things aren’t quite right’ that can stand between all of us and our potential for greater freedom, peace, and compassion. This path seeks not simply to equip us with better skills to cope with suffering but, more radically, to develop the understanding that will uproot the basic misperceptions which underlie all our sense of discontent, and disconnection from others.
Reflecting the more extensive and challenging aspiration of the Buddha’s path, Insight Meditation retreats often include a greater range of practices and a greater emphasis on new ways of understanding than is usual in programmes of mindfulness training. Such retreats, themselves, are also most fruitfully approached as part of a wider, comprehensive path of practice.
Who are Insight Meditation retreats for?
All of us can benefit from greater mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. Silent retreats offer a precious opportunity to commit ourselves to a period of intensive practice in which we can nurture those qualities. They do not require any previous experience of mindfulness training, but, for those who have already taken part in such training, they can be a wonderful way to deepen and extend what they have already learned.
However, if one is currently experiencing acute emotional distress, such as clinical depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, attending a silent retreat could be difficult. When negative thinking patterns are very intrusive or persistent, sometimes it could be easier to develop mindfulness in a setting where there are more possibilities for active engagement. At such times, programmes such as MBSR or MBCT, taught by an appropriately trained and competent instructor, are probably more appropriate to help with one’s distressing condition. Once the acute phase of emotional distress has eased, Insight Meditation retreats can then offer invaluable opportunities for developing practice further.
Exeter University has been running part time postgraduate training in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy/Mindfulness-based Approaches for several years. They have an intake every two years and run their course at three progressive levels – Post-graduate Certificate, Post- graduate Diploma and MSc for those working in healthcare and other settings. Please see the Exeter University website for more details.