It was kind of outrageous. There is no other way to describe my initial reaction to being told that teaching mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) would require that I begin practicing meditation myself. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way either. 

Mark Williams and John Teasdale shared similar reservations during our first visit to the Centre for Mindfulness at UMass Medical Centre in 1993. Still, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and a number of the senior mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teachers whose groups we observed, were adamant on this point. To be fair, we could see that they were only asking us to follow best practices as they understood them. However, as cognitive therapists, we had seen our patients develop the same decentering skills and metacognitive awareness that training in mindfulness provided--through the structured exercises and thought record work that are at the core of cognitive therapy (CT).

Thinking about colleagues who might be interested in utilizing MBCT, I couldn’t see the justification for requiring a personal practice and also worried that insisting on it might turn out to be an impediment to broader uptake and dissemination. Things became a lot less theoretical when running my first MBCT pilot groups. At this point, I still wasn’t practicing and viewed that component of the program as akin to relaxation training. What could be wrong with my leading the in-class meditation practices and then distributing audiotapes (remember this was back in 1995-96) to participants for their home practice?

Since mindfulness meditation was a pivotal element in MBCT, I listened carefully when group members described what arose for them when they practiced. What became increasingly clear was that my approach to working with participants’ reports of strong, often negative, affect was very much determined by my prior CT training. How could it have been otherwise?  My stance was essentially one of assimilating the practice into the frame and goals of CT. It allowed me to be attentive to their experiences, but did not fully convey the insights about emotional regulation that come from practicing myself.  It took me a year or so of reflection and discussions with John and Mark to figure out that MBCT, at its core, is quite distinct from relaxation and standard psychotherapies formats.  

Feeling that I needed to learn about mindfulness from the inside, I took the plunge and started to practice regularly in 1996.

At three years from my first point of contact with the mindful community, some may ask, "What took you so long?" while others may be relieved to learn this, perhaps because their own trajectories were similarly gradual. Now, 20 years later, this issue has resurfaced in an interesting way.  In developing our therapist training tools, Mindful Mood Balance for Professionals and the 3-Minute Breathing Space, I wanted to make sure we honoured the lessons learned from my earliest forays as an MBCT teacher. In other words, we wanted to avoid training others to teach in the absence of grounding in practice. 

As a result, both programs are predicated on the assumption that users already have a regular contemplative practice and that the skills they will acquire will be layered upon this understanding. If a novice approaches the programs, the first resources we provide are to help them develop a practice, before proceeding with the training.  Yes, it might be frustrating at first, especially if MBCT’s manualized structure implies that it can simply be delivered off the shelf.  As I learned early on, you first have to open yourself up and install the proper perspective before you can open the box and deliver the program.