Why I’m a Mindfulness Coach, Not a Buddhist Teacher

I’ve been practicing Buddhism – in a sort of slipshod fashion – for about 20 years. That’s quite a while, even considering how often I half-assed it. Some students who do it that long become teachers, helping spread the dharma and bring a tiny glimmer of enlightenment to this weird world.

Once, I wanted to do just that. As trite and eye-rollingly nauseous as it sounds, Buddhism saved my life. It let me see why I was suffering so deeply, how I was responsible for it, and what I could do to alleviate the agony. It did – and continues to do – so much for me, I wanted to share it. Not with the unwilling, of course. I wasn’t going to stomp door to door witnessing to groggy afternoon-nappers. I didn’t want to corner hapless party-goers and relate a long and uncomfortable tale about my shitty life before Buddhism turned it all around and now everything is great YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS!!

I just wanted to help people interested in Buddhism along their journey as others had done for me. I felt compelled to do it, like I’d found my vocation.

As a kid, then a teenager, then a twenty-something degenerate, I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. Nothing called to me or impassioned me or even held my interest, not even in college. I was eventually kicked out because I gave up on academics and focused entirely on inebriated mayhem. I continued drinking and drugging my way through the 90s, which didn’t make anything clearer. Even so, I continued to think that something would eventually present itself, something that gave me a purpose.  

At 23 I was a college reject, slowly drowning without a hint of ambition or a breath of aspiration. I was aimlessly waiting tables and bartending, drifting down to that rock bottom I’d heard so much about. The discovery of Buddhism changed that. It made sense in a way that nothing else ever had, and everything else made more sense because of it. I gained some perspective, got a handle on my torment, and stepped off the suicide ride. At last, I’d stumbled across something I honestly loved. I quickly decided I wanted to make a career out of teaching it.

It’s 20 years later and I’m a mindfulness coach, but not a Buddhist teacher. There are three big reasons why.

First, I’m absolutely unqualified. I’ve bounced around from one Buddhist lineage to another and explored many different approaches, without fully committing to any of them. My intellectual and experiential knowledge base is very broad but not deep. I’ve never been a traditional person and none of the age-old traditions of Buddhism were soul mate material. I logged a lot of time in the Tibetan style and a fair amount in Zen, but I’ve probably gone furthest into Theravada, the oldest extant school of Buddhism. I love them all in different ways but none ever felt like just the right fit.

Second, I couldn’t afford to become a Buddhist teacher. That sounds shockingly, perhaps appallingly, materialistic. Believe me, I fucking know. Especially since I just went to a lot of trouble making it sound like teaching Buddhism was a calling.

There are a couple of ways to become a Buddhist teacher here in America. The first is to study and meditate with an experienced mentor for years. Most people who do this don’t start out wanting to be a teacher. They’re interested in ending their own suffering and they’ve found a guide they connect with. If they’re a particularly adept student, their teacher may recognize that and eventually ask them to teach.

This works great in places like LA, Manhattan, Chicago, and San Francisco, where Buddhist centers grow like kudzu. It’s not as awesome in Lexington, KY, which is clamped down a bit tight under the Bible Belt. I wasn’t elbowing Asian masters out of the way to get to the one I wanted. They were scarce-like.

The second way is a dedicated teacher-training program. Lots of established Buddhist groups have a curriculum specifically designed to turn students into teachers. It takes a lot of time, massive dedication, and a rowboat full of cash. Again, there weren’t any of these programs in central Kentucky, so that meant the added expense of travel several times a year, racking up airfare and accommodations in addition to the crippling cost of the program itself. Even if I’d bitten that bullet and put five to seven thousand dollars a year on my battered credit cards, I didn’t have any benefits from my serving job. No vacation time. No personal days. No sick days. No flexible spending plans. Nada. If I needed a week off to go study and practice in another state, I had to foot the bill for everything plus save enough cash to cover the lost income from not working. I just couldn’t make it happen.

Maybe all this makes you question my commitment to teaching. As well you should. I certainly did. For decades, people have found ways to do this. They’ve abandoned jobs and families and gone to India for 10 years. They’ve worked 16 hour days for six months and then moved into a monastery until the cash runs out. They’ve worked as English teachers in Japan and spent every free moment at the local Zen temple.

I wanted to do it but stay embedded in modern America. That was where I saw so much suffering; that was where I wanted to work on my own suffering, in the middle of the chaos. Also, I didn’t just want to teach, I wanted to teach for a living. When I found out that most Buddhist teachers don’t make much money, I was crushed. The majority have professional day jobs and teach evenings and weekends, usually on a donation-only basis. They were usually upper-middle class and could afford the travel and training.

And there I was: broke-ass serving job; tossed out of college; no desirable skills; no savings; no prospects. So, like every other time things got tough in my life, I gave up.

I kept practicing Buddhism but mostly dropped the idea of teaching. After spending most of my life with no real goals, it was devastating to see my first legitimate dream slowly unravel. Especially because of something as tedious as money. I wondered if I was being selfish or stupid. If I really felt compelled to teach Buddhism, shouldn’t I make it happen no matter what? I hated the service industry and I wanted out. But couldn’t Buddhism ease that pain, too, the way it had soothed so much of my other suffering? Surely I could be happy waiting tables and teaching for pennies. Maybe I needed to drop the desire to do exactly what I wanted, exactly how I wanted. Buddhism had taught me to let go of expectations, of the craving for things to be different than they were. Had I not learned the lesson?

Soon, it became moot. I drowned myself in pointless credit card debt and eventually had to scorch the earth and declare bankruptcy. It was a desperate option that left me financially broken and starting over from scratch.

The dream died. With zero savings, no disposable income, and a credit score of “Fuck off,” I had no chance of paying for a teacher training program, traveling, or embracing a vocation that didn’t pay. It felt extra-great that I’d done it to myself.

After a couple years, I had a little money in the bank and I wasn’t scrabbling just to survive. I took stock of my situation and realized I wasn’t burning with desire to spread the dharma anymore. Maybe because I’d been practicing a very secular Buddhism for many years, which had evolved from my discomfort with traditional approaches. I’d also become completely intrigued by the modern mindfulness movement, which taught meditation removed from any religious philosophy or ritual to create a more universally applicable practice. It was being used in medical settings to alleviate pain, corporate boardrooms to reduce stress, in schools to teach focus and calm, and just about anywhere people were hurting, angry, nervous, or flustered.

Spiritual seekers were also embracing it as a direct, practical path to awakening. Stress, pain relief, and all the health benefits were pretty nifty. But they saw those as side effects, with classical liberation being the prime thing.

I was in that camp. Mindfulness is an industrial-strength method for psycho-spiritual enlightenment, with few frills and an endless Swiss Army knife of pragmatic techniques. Given my Buddhist background, that’s what I was after. But I was also thrilled by its massive array of real-life applications that could be used by anyone, of any religion, philosophy, creed, or none at all. I realized that’s what I wanted to teach: a clear and accessible form of meditation open to everyone.

That’s the third reason why I’m a mindfulness coach and not a Buddhist teacher. I can help far more people with mindfulness because far more people are interested in it. As a corollary of that, it’s also possible to make at least part of my living doing this. So this reason’s sort of a toofer.

After Buddhism spread out of its native India, it was modified by every new culture it met. For two millennia, it’s been tweaked, tickled, massaged, morphed, finagled, fiddled, mixed, married, rocked, and rolled. Buddhism is relatively new to America, but we’re already seeing our attitudes of skepticism, rationality, and practicality beginning to shape it.

While Buddhism itself is being changed and reinvented, the mindfulness movement is a new offshoot that sprouted from the intermingling of Eastern spirituality and Western science. With its general emphasis on health and happiness, mindfulness appeals to a much broader range of Americans than religious Buddhism. Many fields of modern science are now studying and measuring the effects of meditation on the brain and our lives in general, which lends it a credibility outside the bounds of pure philosophy.

Christianity is still the big dog in this country. Numbers in the 2016 polls vary slightly between Gallup and Pew, but approximately 70 percent of Americans currently identify as Christian while about 20 percent say they’re “unaffiliated.” That’s everything from “nothing in particular” all the way to “atheist.” The one thing most of those people have in common is that they’re not looking for a new religion, or even a religion at all.

Mindfulness isn’t a religion; it’s usable by everyone. While its benefits are often over-hyped and over-sold by a new, altogether too-enthusiastic industry, many of them are very real and very attainable. There are more and better scientific studies every year verifying the positive results of mindfulness meditation. Higher brain functioning, more efficient immune system, lower blood pressure, decreased depression rate, deeper concentration, clarity, equanimity, and improved overall mental and physical health.

These things are attractive to everyone, especially since their achievement doesn’t require any specific beliefs or philosophical capitulation. All that’s required is sitting still for 10 to 30 minutes a day and, preferably, the guidance of a competent teacher.

For every person I once hoped to teach about Buddhism, there are now five people interested in mindfulness. Whether they want to be more productive at work, tackle their road rage, be a kinder husband, work with chronic pain, develop a lasting peace, or shatter their suffering and fully wake up with rainbows shooting out their butthole, it’s all within reach. The spectrum is broad and the tools are there to achieve whatever goals students deem important.

I love that I can offer mindfulness to anyone. I’m not usually comfortable suggesting Buddhism to non-Buddhists. If someone complains about being miserable or depressed or scatter-brained, I seldom feel like broaching the topic. “Have you tried Buddhism? Its philosophy and complicated psychological insights are really spot on. The meditation techniques will allow you to totally deconstruct your experiences, understand there’s no inherent self or soul within you, nothing is permanent, and those seemingly nihilistic realizations will set you free, bro.”

That’s one step away from saying “Have you accepted Christ as your savior?” and no one wants to hear that shit, especially at a bar after work, which is when most people slow down enough to notice their unhappiness.

Suggesting mindfulness is a different story. There are no funny Sanskrit words and it’s compatible with anyone’s situation and convictions. With the weight of increasingly more precise science behind it, it’s hard to deny its comprehensive efficacy.

It’s also difficult to ignore the controversy. I collect a fee for what I do. Unlike Buddhism, mindfulness is a product, bought and sold, which can give traditional Buddhists a metaphysical wedgie. Since the dharma is funded mostly by donations, the idea of charging people to teach them mindfulness pisses some folks off. I understand, because it sounds like basic consumerist bullshit. And it totally can be. There are plenty of sketchy mindfulness scam artists out there looking to make a fast dollar from a saturated market. You know…just like there are in religion. Some “teachers” are untrained and unqualified to mentor a meditation student and will cause more harm than good. Again, just like some religious leaders. So let’s not get too carried away comparing the purity of a traditional approach with the vulgarity of a shallow modern permutation.

Mindfulness can be used for spiritual purposes, for material purposes, or anything in between. Even though it’s a product, it’s a versatile product that meets the needs of a lot of people. It can also become much more than a product. Some practitioners find that getting to know themselves on the deepest level and untangling the confusing strands of their existence brings a happiness and contentment they’ve never experienced. It becomes a way of life, a commitment, not a commodity. Mindfulness practice is hugely transformative and to sneer at it as mere merchandise because it can also make you a better basketball player is foolish.

I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours studying mindfulness and learning to become a coach. I’ll spend a lot more of both to keep getting better, to refine my understanding under senior teachers, to go on retreats so I can deepen my own practice. I’m fully devoted to this path, financially, scholastically, spiritually. I’m more dedicated to teaching mindfulness than I was to teaching Buddhism.

So why shouldn’t I be able to make my living this way? I’ve worked extremely hard to get here and my focus is on helping people. Like a psychologist. Like a doctor. Like a personal trainer. I love doing this and, in order to keep doing it, money has to change hands. I’m not getting rich, or even comfortable, and my rates are based on what students can afford. Try going in for a checkup next time and telling the doctor you’re a little short but you can slide him 20 bucks and buy him a shot of Jäger.

Mindfulness is here to stay. It’s not a fad and it’s not a perversion of Buddhist teachings. I hope to stay at the forefront of this surging movement because I think it’s the most important thing happening right now. We as a nation are more sharply divided every day. We’re looking for peace and hope and, most of all understanding. Mindfulness allows you to understand yourself, which is the first step to understanding everything. Although Jäger sort of works for that, too.


Featured image by Sebastien Wiertz: Flickr.