Why I am Quitting the Bangor Mindfulness MSc

Edit: 2014-04-24 ~ Three Years Later ~ A friend just pointed out that this post is now coming second on a Google search for “Bangor Mindfulness”. I am somewhat amazed at this and slightly disturbed. It makes the post appear far more significant than it is. I considered taking it down but that seems a little too much like 1984. Instead I decided to add this note and a robots = noindex which should prevent it appearing in Google search in due course. Please take what is written below as a foot note by someone who was on the course and nothing more.

You will see from previous posts that I have been on the Mindfulness MSc at Bangor University for the past year. This will be the tenth post that comes in that Bangor MSc category. If you were to read through all the older posts you would see that I have become disenchanted with the course and will not be surprised that I am stopping. I have now completed the Foundation module and the Research module and have sufficient marks to exit the course with a Post Graduate Certificate in Mindfulness Approaches.

The Crux Of It

The course is highly focussed on the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) interventions as initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn some thirty years ago. There are differences between the interventions but from 20,000 feet they are so similar you can treat them as being the same. I’ll just say “8wk course” from now on.

The Foundation module is an expanded 8wk course stretched over the three terms of the academic year but taught over the five teaching weekends at Bangor. Normally when one does an 8wk course for real one would meet every week for a two and a half to three hour session. Doing it on the foundation means that those hours have to be fitted in to five 9-4:30 working days taking up approximately half of the teaching time. When the logistics of a large group are taken into account this means there are only a couple of hours on each teaching weekend when you are not ‘doing’ an 8wk course and actually talking/learning about the course. There are also five phone tutorials which I was never clear about whether they were talking about doing the 8wk course or the 8wk course.

The bottom line is that there is virtually no discussion as to the how and why of any of the elements of the course. There was simply no time for it. If I said “Why do we do X and not Y?” then I felt like I was rocking the boat and stopping the tutors from delivering the learning outcomes for the other students – and these learning outcomes were the same as the learning outcomes of the 8wk course itself.

I decided to leave after I carefully asked my tutor “Are the Teaching modules just training courses in how to deliver the 8wk course or do we get to discuss the format more?” She missed my heavily emphasised “just” and responded that, yes, they were very much training course for delivery of the 8wk course.

This contrasted strongly with the Research module in which we were exploring and discussing what might work and even what we meant by ‘work’. The research module was really academic and it was, in my mind, really Buddhist because everything was up for grabs. If you don’t apply healthy doubt to everything you aren’t really on the path.

As an example when I expressed doubts about the structure of the 8wk course on the Foundation module it would be pointed out that it is evidence based and has been shown to work. At the very same time on the Research module I am reading that it has not been show to have a significant effect compared to active controls and there has certainly been no comparison between different ways of teaching mindfulness. Only the other day I was reading about effects of mindfulness meditation not being shown to be significantly different from TM! of all things. I’m not saying this is a definitive study. I am not saying mindfulness meditation isn’t the answer to all our ills. I certainly believe it is but I am trying to be a scientist and one has to be very careful not to believe ones own hype.

On top of this I was wrestling with the fact that some elements of the 8wk course just didn’t work for me at an experiential level and I couldn’t see them working for many people I know. Thinking back to how I have been taught to meditate with the FWBO or the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives or Community of Inter-being or my wife’s stories about the Goenka Vipassana method I can see threads running through these approaches that would be useful but that are lacking in the 8wk course and I can see things in the 8wk course that come from its psychology origins that are irrelevant.

So I don’t want to be trained to deliver the 8wk course because I don’t believe it is the best way for me to deliver mindfulness. It is a way to introduce people to mindfulness but not necessarily the best way for everyone. Because I don’t want to do the Teaching modules (of which there are two)  I can’t gain enough credits to do a research project which is what interests me most and there is no route through to an MSc or MA.

It is odd because re-reading books by Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli I don’t get the feeling of rigidity that I get from the teaching process at Bangor. I wonder if the 8wk course is becoming ossified there – but I don’t have the experience of other centres to tell. There was so much emphasis on people developing their own practices during the foundation that it worried me. It should have been taken as read that everyone had a solid personal practice of a good few years standing but the experiences many people were reporting sounded as if concerted practice was new to them – but then hey! I’m no Zen master!

Secular Mindfulness

On the broader matter of teaching secular mindfulness outside of Buddhism things have become clearer for me. I likened mindfulness on its own to a one legged spider crawling across the floor. It is a very sad vision and is going to take a long time to get anywhere. Compare this to a spider that has eight legs – one for each of the parts of the Noble Eight Fold Path. She can happily scuttle across the floor and up the curtains just like that.

Of the legs missing from the poorly spider I think the most important is the first one in the eight fold Buddhist path which is Right View. I believe Thich Nhat Hanh has recognised this and westernized it into his notion of inter-being. He’s a clever guy. If I teach meditation I need to include notions of inter-being.

My Recommendation

You may be reading this as a kind of review of the Bangor course prior to applying which would be a shame because it is really just my personal, biased opinion and your experience may be very different. I couldn’t distill this down into an Amazon star rating form 1-5.

I would, however, recommend you did the course if the following things are true:

  1. You have a real solid practice. You will know if you have.
  2. You have recently done an 8wk MBSR/MBCT course and enjoyed it.
  3. You think the 8wk course format is the way you would want to teach mindfulness.

You will meet some wonderful, dedicated people, have a lot of fun and learn about yourself and others – I certainly did.

If you are a one-to-one therapist then I’m not sure I can give any advice at all because you could do a different route through the course but you would still have to do the Foundation and maybe Teaching 1 so you should be really comfortable with the 8wk course format.

I hope this is of some help.

17 thoughts on “Why I am Quitting the Bangor Mindfulness MSc

  1. Thanks for your comments. I have recently done the 8 week distance learning course and am thinking about the Teaching 1 course, so this has given me another perspective. I would still like to go on to do the course but I can see that it is very structure and rigid through Bangor, as you have said. That said, it seems like a solid grounding to me that is a step to start from.

  2. Hi, Coming from a lecturing background we had to explain things, and we hadn`t to be afraid of questions. Done the 8wk Mindfulness course and then they started a deepening mindfulness course. Tutor trained at Bangor and it was based on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) interventions as initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn .

    Some of your comments rang a bell with me, and I found it the same in Buddhist meditation classes, for example, one was not actually taught mindfulness or had it fully explained just thrust into a session. Your comments, “There was so much emphasis on people developing their own practices during the foundation that it worried me” and after asking the tutor about various aspects of practice you decided to leave because questions were not encouraged or the inquiring mind somewhat stonewalled.

    My experience is thus, had already some practice in mindfulness but wanted to go deeper, and understand the nuances between my practice and the mind. With the course being based on Cognitive Behaviour it is similar to CBT in the National Heath Service in the UK. Very much a problem focused approach and delivery of your homework for the week is based around the 8 week programme, that is why mindfulness (in mental health) has gained ground in the NHS, because CBT is one of the accepted methods of psychotherapy. It is delivered very clinically, your instructions are given and you go away and do it, and it is expected to work, without much discussion. On the 8 wk mindfulness course I kept asking questions, about how it worked, and I wanted to share what was coming up for me in practice and how to deal with it. There was no platform for sharing, there was very little group interaction, it felt like you just walked into a group of people sat there and then went home. I was left quite disturbed at times, by the lack of interaction. By the third week I was getting seriously anxious and trying to be mindful of it at the same time, and started to think this was some sort of test, eg to leave us without dialog or just brief curt replies to questions, to provoke an experience. So I started to focus at why I was anxious without guidance, and started getting myself in a loop. I kept saying to the facilitator (who was from a clinical background, (which made it worse) that there must be a platform for sharing and understanding about practice, if we were on the right track etc. I was informed that they can`t tell you anything because you must develop your own practice, because if we tell you you will have expectations and there is no specific goal. Ok fine, but how do I know if I am developing my own practice or not ? I found this very frustrating and it felt like I was left in a hole or on a journey with no map or guidance and did not know what I was doing. I pushed through the 8 weeks and knew this mindfulness linked to CBT which does not suit everyone. CBT is very clinical does little to address issues and deals only with the presenting problem, it does not look to the past for issues that could be affecting the mind/experience. Then Buddhist meditation is very clinical and not much sharing of emotional stuff and how it affects practice, goes on. At the deepening meditation course which was 8 weeks again, there was some explanation of how the conditioned mind/ego likes to be in charge and no matter how awful things are that come up you just have to sit there and accept, don`t react, judge and reject feelings just let it all happen. But there was no real platform for relationships or true sharing about practice. It felt very clinical, (and it was because that is how CBT works) not relaxed and it seemed like I was a nuisance to even bother to ask questions. The facilitator was excellent at the clinical delivery of the mindfulness sessions, they were executed with perfection. But the atmosphere felt tense every time when you tried to share. I wanted a really good heart to heart tutorial, some students need this.(and it is actually directional to prevent sharing or tutorials) When I read Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn on p 279 he says “we focus not on the symptoms or issues during the session, because such a forum would encourage self preoccupation behaviour and give rise to a never ending discussion, we tune into the experience of symptoms when they dominate our lives, we give them wise attention, the way of mindfulness is to accept ourselves as we are right now.” This is all well and good, but practitioners have to be told this from the word go (and have wise attention explained) and some students actually learn better if they discuss, and share. A good facilitator is supposed to be able to steer people away from self preoccupation and lengthy discussion about their body. Meditation works but I am not sure about my practice and I continue to sit with the pain and suffering of little guidance, and sharing with anyone. Maybe this all just shows I am a mess, who know, have no guidance!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Keith. A friend once described teaching people to meditate as being like teaching them to paint when you can’t see their canvas. It is unlike anything else. The ‘teacher’ will only ever be able to offer so much because they can’t share the first person experience of your inner world.

    When I get the question “Am I doing this right?” crop up during my practice I treat it as mindfulness trigger. It is showing that I am engaging in precisely the intellectual process I am trying to avoid. As soon as I see it I ask myself rhetorically “What does this feel like?”. If I can’t sense a feeling tone I take it back to my physical experience. “What is happening?”

    Really there is very little to talk about within practice as the experiences are ineffable.

    My issues with Bangor were more that we didn’t talk about the method of teaching (pedagogy) rather than the practice itself. Depth of practice should be taken for granted on a teacher training course.

  4. I did the 8 week course on my own through reading FCL and listening to Kabat-Zinn’s CDs. Although I found it useful I was left with a lot of questions – like: Why the full body scan? Why the yoga? I didn’t really get on with these. I do highly rate the sitting meditation with a focus on the breath. In continuing the practice, K-Z recommends (at minimum) 20 minutes a day of sitting meditation – makes one wonder, then, if yoga or body scan is needed at all? If K-Z doesn’t push for you to continue with them, are they really needed in the first place? An important research question – would a streamlined course with sitting meditation *only* produce equivalent results? Check out research reported in Benson’s “Relaxation Response” and Rosenthal’s “Transcendence” (for TM) for starters.

  5. Thanks Malcolm.

    I think that yoga and bodyscan are very useful, especially coming to this cold, but I am not sure that it is the only route. Connecting with physical sensations is very important – see the Satipatthana Sutta – but is only part of the path.

    The original 8wk course was designed for people who had multiple, serious medical conditions that weren’t responding to treatment. I am not sure that rolling this format out non-critically to everyone who may benefit from mindfulness is a good idea and I don’t think K-Z would think that either – but sometimes it feels like what is happening.

  6. Hi everyone – I have found all your comments really interesting and relevant and feel that it is a great shame that such a forum is not open to students on the course at Bangor if the tutors are not willing or able to set up such a forum themselves. Pooling your experiences and your previous and acquired knowledge – you seem to be all helping each other in a beautiful and collaborative way. Generally, such a course requires one attends to see a tutor on a regular basis – to sound out your emotional and academic progress. I would have hoped that such a course as this – based on one’s own personal development in order to be in a position to instruct others – that you would at the very least have a mentor to turn to. Within the Buddhist system one would be able to turn to one’s teacher….
    Considering Compassion is central to Buddhist practice – it is a shame that no such support exists. It is a risky process for the university to leave students in such a predicament – particularly as it is quite clear that your inquiry is intelligent and not unreasonable…There is the Mst at Oxford Uni in Mindfullness and also Aberdeen University – both I feel sure would be happy to receive you. Aberdeen Uni. runs their retreats at Holy Isle and I can recommend you visiting there perhaps just as a volunteer (reduced rates if you are a volunteer). – I love it there. It would be a shame to not progress if you would like to. I wish you all well and feel sure you all belong in this vocation. The fact you challenge yourselves with self-doubt and look for answers and support to me indicates you are challenging your own egos and desire to learn.
    I wish you well and sorry you are leaving as I think your research would be very interesting – Mavericks are often misunderstood…Good luck all of you. Namaste.

  7. I am in the final stages of finishing my degree at Bangor University in Teaching Mindfulness-based Courses. I too first learned to meditate under the FWBO traditions, and have an exact opposite opinion of the Master’s course. The foundation year is about truly experiencing the course yourself and you should have taken a MBSR/MBCT as a requisite for this module. This module has nothing to do with teaching the course as this starts in the Teaching 1 module. In order to teach mindfulness we need to embody the practice ourselves first and this is what the foundation year is about. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about this quite clearly and from what I saw at the conference this year, is quite supportive of Bangor. I hope that if people are reading this they will first talk to mindfulness staff at Bangor before ruling out this programme.

  8. Hi Shelly,

    At the end of my blog post in a section called “My Recommendation” I say that people should do the course if they think the 8wk format is the way they want to go. I don’t think that is the “exact opposite” of your opinion. I am sure you would advocate that people did the course as well.

    I still don’t get what “embodying the practice” means. Perhaps it means having insight? Do people with insight have particular behaviours that can be assessed as part of an academic course? Someone once unkindly defined “embodying the practice” as “smiling and nodding” but I think that was a joke 🙂

    Good luck with it all and thanks for your contribution.

    Roger

  9. Hi,

    Embodying the practice to me means that we have such a strong mindfulness practice that we are able to let go of techique, with a sense of trust, and teach from this place. In this place, I believe I have had insight as sometimes words appear that I don’t normally use. Does that make sense?

    Yes, I believe that someone who teaches this way too will be able to assess whether an individual embodies the practice. I also believe that participants experience this on a course in the fact that they receive a stronger teaching.

    A fear of mine is that teachers will deliver a diluted version of mindfulness if they do not reach this place before teaching.

    All the best to you too.

  10. I have completed the Mindfulness Association 1 year Mindfulness course (4 weekends) and I have started to share my practice with work colleagues.

    I emphasise that I am not a therapist and I do not wish to share Mindfulness or promote it as a therapy. Whilst it can be used as a therapy I feel very strongly that you do not need to be in need of therapy to start to practises Mindfulness and that it should be seen as a healthy life style choice like going to the gym. I fail to see the need to involve either stress based or cognitive therapy aspects in the practice of Mindfulness. They aren’t necessary to the practice and I hope to be able to develop my teaching skills to bring Mindfulness to people to avoid the need of therapy or get stressed out. Or am I missing something?.

  11. Hi Glynis,

    Thanks for your contribution. I would agree that you don’t need the therapy aspects to ‘do’ mindfulness but I would argue that mindfulness is interconnected with right view (wisdom/insight) and with ethical behaviour (sila). You either have to let these arise out of the mindfulness practice or actively cultivate them. If you don’t then you won’t get the benefits of mindfulness it will ‘just’ be another way of relaxing.

    I wrote more on this in my post Practicing Back To Front.

    All the best,

    Roger

  12. Thank you for your insightful comments. Coming from a culture and tradition where meditation (mindfulness & TM ..known as symran or smritti) are the very cornerstone of life, it is rather disturbing to see individuals “teaching” mindfulness to others yet have very little understanding of the importance of “Right view” or “Dristi” and ethical lifestyle. Coupled with absence of any meaningful solid practice (in my tradition, someone is only capable of teaching if ; 1. they have been taught my a MASTER (what qualifies as a master is not qualifications, degrees and certificates, but linage, experience, sanga, lifestyle and authenticity) 2. they have sufficient solid practice (5 years plus) and 3. an understanding of the transpersonal dimension of meditation practice (something not even discussed in current provisions).

    Mindfulness is far more than dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. The reduction of unwholesome mental states is just scratching the surface, meditation is not about ego-fixing, but moving beyond that. As the understanding of Mindfulness and other meditation practices become apparent, perhaps, individuals will seek out authentic teachers and masters who have been engaged in meditation, lifestyle and linage as part of their life, and not part of their vocation.

  13. I’m coming to the end of an 8 week MBCT course and have struggled with some of the early aspects of it – especially 50 minute body scans in week 2! This, to me, feels like an inordinately long period of time for people to be expected to maintain mindfulness, especially with an expectation of practising it daily for a week. Surely it would make more sense to start small, develop some confidence and focus, and build up? But no – that’s what the programme says, so that’s what we have to do. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to do!
    I do think there’s a danger of mindfulness becoming the new opium of the masses, and seen as a replacement for psychological work. Buddhist writers I’ve encountered seem very clear that meditation is NOT a substitute for psychological work. Are we in danger of forgetting this?

  14. Mindfulness is only one part of the medicine. Ethical conduct and having a world view that is in harmony with reality are also required but they are probably not appropriate for conventional medical interventions. Not sure what you mean by “psychological work” though.

  15. Hi
    Learning the basic of delivering an 8 week course does not qualify one to teach in my view.
    A teacher MUST be well advanced on the path of liberation. Mindfulness is not a technique. Good teaching is informed by depth realisation and building the right foundations; anything less and the blind are being led by the partially sighted.

  16. I can’t speak for Bangor but the one year mindfulness course at Caerphilly Buddhist centre is amazing. Dialogue between students is encouraged all the time, and indeed it is seen as an essential part of learning. The teaching method seems to be to explain something in detail, then allow students to try it out, and then ask the students how they got on with it. The tutors then respond appropriately. So many students have commented on how much they have learned off each other, during these dialogues.

    The other positive aspect is that compassion is taught alongside mindfulness, which is actually essential. I am a very fussy student indeed, and I’m normally very critical of education methods, however I am really impressed.

    There seems to be connections with the Aberdeen masters in mindfulness, but I can’t vouch whether this is good also.

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