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  Article: The vocabulary of teaching: Claiming our voice from the inner critic

by Tim Burnett

Image: CC0 PublicDomainPictures.net/Linnaea Mallette

Learning to teach mindfulness and compassion is a little like learning to speak a foreign language. You start by becoming familiar with the language, listening carefully, saying words and simple phrases to yourself before you’re comfortable opening your mouth. You learn something of the rhythm and intonation of the language. You come to have a feeling for it – but you don’t know many words yet.

Experienced teachers have a robust and flexible vocabulary because they’ve been practicing the practice of teaching for as long as they have. Those of us newer to the art of teaching may feel in awe of their mastery and unhelpfully elevate the experienced teacher in our minds. We may see the experienced teacher as having some kind of special unobtainable understanding that is beyond that we, the new teacher, are capable of.

We learn by listening as a student, and we learn even more by speaking when we take the teacher’s seat.

While there is transformation and fundamental change through mindfulness training and more experienced practitioners may indeed have shifted the base of how they think and operate, this isn’t a helpful aspect of the training to focus on.

Focus instead on vocabulary; on learning the language of teaching mindfulness and compassion little by little. There are several overlapping vocabularies actually: the language of leading exercises and meditations, the language of nurturing safety and space in a group, the story telling language for talking about scientific studies in a way that’s engaging and meaningful. There’s the language of greeting people warmly but spaciously and respectfully; there’s the language of leading yoga or other mindful movement. The invitational language of inviting people to turn towards their experience. It’s a lot to learn!

And like any language, the vocabulary builds gradually. We learn by listening as a student, and we learn even more by speaking when we take the teacher’s seat.

But little by little I’ve come to see that a clear and rough approximation actually using the language I have is the path to learning and growth.

And just like when we are trying to communicate in another language we don’t know well, we do well to use the words we really know clearly and simply and trust our listeners to fill in the rest. Even if our grammar is bad and our word choice a little rough, if we speak clearly and with confidence in what we do know, the message will be received with joy.

A trick here is not to second guess ourselves. I remember one time in Mexico when my Spanish was very limited I thought long and hard how to request something – in this case another serving at a meal. I carefully put the words together in my mind, screwed up my courage and requested what I needed. Wonderful! It was understood. My hosts seemed to appreciate my effort even though one of them answered in English. I was so happy. But later I reflected on the construction of what I’d said and realized it was something like “the dish more to have please to have can I?” and felt embarrassed by my clunkiness. But little by little I’ve come to see that a clear and rough approximation actually using the language I have is the path to learning and growth. To be celebrated, not second guessed or scorned. Our inner critic is not our friend in this process and needs to be met with kindness. “Thank you, Inner Critic, for trying to help me do this well and protect me from embarrassing myself, but if I follow your advice I’ll never learn a thing so please relax.”

It’s much the same teaching mindfulness. If learning to lead mindful yoga feels like a special challenge, for example, learn a small set of poses that are comfortable for you to do and learn them with conviction and clarity. Bring forward the world’s simplest yoga routine and remember that what we’re offering is a deep opportunity to practice mindfulness of the body. Notice the critical voice saying “this routine is boring” or “you don’t know enough to lead yoga” and keep on, keep on. This is not to say it wouldn’t be valuable to do additional training and ask the advice of others, study a mindful yoga book and so on, but we have to start where we are. If we wait until the inner critic is happy with us, we’ll never teach and many people will miss out on the benefit of practice that we could have offered.

…interestingly it is often just those new emergences in our vocabulary that participants in class find most helpful.

Sometimes our vocabulary grows in an organized, step-by-step way. This time trying to lead one new yoga pose, this time to offer one more poem, this time to share a personal reflection or explain a science study for the first time. We build our vocabulary of teaching in this deliberate way. Little by little. Patient. And not with a feeling of lack, but inviting a feeling of growth and delight in learning.

Other times our vocabulary grows unexpectedly and in fits and starts. Learnings from other parts of your life and other areas of work integrate and move in the darkness of the mind, emerging surprisingly coherent and clear. Or they arise as the glimmer of an idea or an impulse and then can be gently moved, in the first way of learning, towards clarity. Now a new phrase in your teaching vocabulary is available to you. Wonderful. This is always a surprise and usually a delight. I often find myself saying something in meditation or folding my body into a pose that I’ve never led before.

And interestingly it is often just those new emergences in our vocabulary that participants in class find most helpful. Something authentic and natural emerges sometimes when we let it. A willingness to be surprised is a key part of this second kind of learning.

Meet the critic and invite her to relax a minute: you have teaching to do.

There’s a deep element here of trusting the journey. Trusting the emergence and growth of your teaching vocabulary and your ability to speak clearly and with conviction.

Will we misspeak and stumble and confuse people? Absolutely. Could you ever learn a new language without misspeaking? The idea is silly and yet the inner critic loves to impose this idea. No mistakes are allowed in the inner critic’s universe. Again, remember the inner critic is just trying in his or her crude and unhelpful way to protect you. Meet the critic and invite her to relax a minute, you have teaching to do.

About the Author, Tim Burnett

Tim is the Executive Director and founder of Mindfulness Northwest. He has been teaching mindfulness and compassion courses since 2010 and practicing meditation since 1986. Tim is fully certified to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts; Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion; and Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) by Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Tim is also a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher: he received full Dharma teaching authorization from the well-known Zen teacher and author Norman Fischer in 2011.

Upcoming retreats:

Roots of Compassion, August 27 - September 1, 2017. 5-day residential silent teacher-led retreat focussed on compassion and it's Buddhist roots. Approved by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion as a teacher training Qualifying Retreat.

Roots of Mindfulness, October 15 - 22, 2017. 7-day rresidential silent teacher-led retreat focussed on mindfulness and it's Buddhist roots. Approved by the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society as a teacher training Qualifying Retreat.

Tim's website

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