Mindfulness and Shambhala

Tessa WattMindfulness has become a big buzzword, as you’ve probably noticed unless you’ve been meditating in a Himalayan cave for the past couple of years.  My own experience of this sudden fad has been quite extraordinary, being asked to run sessions in the past year for Parliamentarians, bankers, university teachers, publishers, carers, and TfL staff among others, and to do interviews for press ranging from the Telegraph and Evening Standard to Cosmo, Good Housekeeping and the WI Magazine! Meanwhile, as with anything that gets popular, there is also a backlash.  Some are rightly concerned about the spread of a commercialised ‘McMindfulness’, and by teachers leaping on the bandwagon without a solid grounding in meditation practice.

Nevertheless, when Mindfulness is taught properly it can help with a great deal suffering, and to be a powerful counterbalance to the speed and stress of 21st-century life. The gold standard in Mindfulness training is an 8-week course known as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) or MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy): they are almost the same course but MBCT has more emphasis on helping participants with depression.  The founder of the secular Mindfulness movement, Jon Kabat-Zinn, was trained in Zen, yoga and insight meditation, and considers Mindfulness to be a form of dharma – a ‘skilful means’ for the 21st century.

As with Shambhala, Mindfulness works with gently training the mind through practices like mindfulness of breath, and with developing a kind, compassionate approach to ourselves and others.  There are also many differences, for example:

  • The Body: Mindfulness puts a lot of emphasis on the body and embodiment – also very much part of Shambhala training but not as prominent. The first practice in the MBSR course is the ‘body scan’, lying down and moving attention through the body from the toes to the crown of the head.  Another practice is ‘mindful movement’, usually based on gentle yoga stretches. This emphasis extends to working with emotions, paying attention to how they manifest in the body. A number of long-term London Shambhalians who’ve done the Mindfulness course say that the body emphasis was the most useful element, and complimented their Shambhala practice.


  • Mental health: While many people do come to Mindfulness for general wellbeing, a good proportion are there because they suffer from depression, anxiety, stress, sleep problems, and other mental health challenges. We don’t recommend people to attend in the midst of a severe depression, but for those who want tools to prevent a relapse it can be very helpful, and is recommended by NICE. Much of the course content is geared towards handling stress and rumination.


  • Guided practice: The teacher guides the mindfulness practices, and in the first weeks participants have only short gaps of silence before the voice brings them back. For many people who attend mindfulness classes, longer periods of silent meditation are intimidating as an entry point. During the course we increase the gaps, so by the end many graduates of the course will be ready and keen for more silent meditation.


  • Mindfulness in daily life: In Shambhala this is very important, but we tend to leave meditators to explore for themselves how to integrate their practice into their lives. In Mindfulness courses there is more structure, so participants are given ‘home practice’ which includes specific tasks like eating a meal mindfully, and mindful routine activities.


  • Path structure:  As yet there is a lack of resources to support participants once the 8-week Mindfulness course is over. Many will never want to attend a Buddhist centre, so I try to offer some ‘graduate’ retreat days and courses. I encourage people to come to Shambhala – or other meditation centre, as much as I can without being evangelical.  A steady trickle do come to Shambhala London after doing the course, and those who stick around discover that it offers a lifelong journey.


  • Warriorship:  Mindfulness emphasises the Hinayana path of taming the mind, and some Mahayana compassion, but not the training in fearlessness and confidence which is found in the Shambhala teachings, and which is such a powerful approach for our challenging times.


  • Lineage, teachings and community: Shambhala offers connection to a profound lineage and an ongoing community. I asked for comments from a few of my former mindfulness participants who are now Shambhala regulars.  They emphasized their appreciation for the richness of the Shambhala lineage, and the sense of community:


‘During the course, Tessa read excerpts from some of the texts by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and other spiritual leaders, which I found intriguing and left me wanting know more about the Buddhist roots of mindfulness. When the course came to an end, I was pleased to hear that opportunities existed around the corner at the London Shambhala Centre. I realise that I’m only at the beginning of dipping my toe into these very deep waters, but I feel I’m starting to develop at least some understanding of the rich possibilities Shambhala and Buddhism more generally offer in living a more authentic life.’ Ben Willis


‘MBSR did not make reference to Buddhist concepts. However, it made me really curious about Buddhism: the MBSR instruction to “just notice your experience, don’t judge it” was so radically different from the messages we normally get that I felt that it must have come from a whole other framework… it made me curious to find out what that framework was….Shambhala is a community, whereas on the MBSR, while the people on the course felt like a group at the time, when the course ended, there was no equivalent of the Sangha.’ Jessica Harneyford


‘The mindfulness course allowed me, for the first time, to experience a different way of living; of slowing down and being present and engaging with my body. It was an excellent introduction to meditation in a gentle, non-scary, secular manner. In hindsight this course feels like it was a gateway that led to a bigger path. The mindfulness course gave me the confidence and interest to seek out another practicing community, and I feel very grateful and happy that it was the Shambhala community that I found! Attending the Shambhala Centre has opened up a world of community and opened up my mind. I have come to appreciate and value the rituals and traditions of the lineage. I am inspired by the sense of community, the support and kindness…It is a very rare and special place where I can be with whatever I am feeling and know that it is okay.‘ Meredith Husen


Tessa is a mindfulness teacher, consultant and coach, running workshops in organisations as well as the 8-week MBSR course. She is author of the books Introducing Mindfulness: A Practical Guide and Mindful London: How to Find Calm and Contentment In the Chaos of the City.

Tessa has been practising meditation for 20 years, and is an experienced instructor and student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. She is a fully qualified yoga teacher, trained with the Life Centre in Notting Hill and registered with the British Wheel of Yoga.

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