I was contacted recently by someone who wanted to find out more about the meditation class I teach in London, and he really got me thinking about this issue of whether mindfulness meditation should be taught for free. He said he’d been looking all over the internet for somewhere to learn mindfulness and come across all the “free meditation classes” that are “associated with religions” and all the “really expensive medical sounding ones” aimed at reducing stress. Neither of those appealed to him which is why he’d ended up calling Open Meditation. What surprised me was his inference that a free meditation class would attempt to convert him to a religion, when within communities of teachers there is an often expressed sentiment that it is either nobler to teach without payment, or indeed wrong to receive payment at all.
Interestingly, the world’s leading Vipassana teacher says that when he first attempted to bring Vipassana to the UK, he was advised against offering the meditation retreats or classes for free because people would be suspicious of his intentions. After my conversation with the man inquiring about the London mindfulness class, that seemed like a strikingly accurate observation! To understand it better, I think we only have to look at our culture. We live in a scientific materialist society where science has replaced religion as the dominant paradigm for understanding the world and our experience, personal possession is prized and the idea of charity has fallen out of favour. No wonder the next thought we have after being offered something for free is “what’s the catch?” In a capitalist society it is simply not possible literally or ideologically for an individual to not work or to work without payment and sustain themselves. Arguably that is the case in most societies around the world now. It’s also a fair observation that some, of course not all, but some “spiritual” teachings offered free of charge wish people to observe their doctrine, rules and what is in essence religion.
So why is there is still a perception among many that it’s wrong to charge for teaching mindfulness? Why is the idea of becoming a monk who relies on charity for food nobler than perfecting your skill as a teacher and earning an income? Why is it ok to pay for a yoga class but not a meditation class? Is there any reason that a meditation class should be free by default? In part this surely has to do with a rejection of capitalism, and the society that we live in. Perhaps the idea of renunciation has even been romanticised since being set against a backdrop of materialism. There is also to some degree, a collective resistance to the idea that it’s ok to earn a living doing something you love. On the whole, work is not seen as an act of love in our society, but as a duty performed to acquire capital. If you apply that idea to teaching mindfulness, there does seem something wrong with a person charging you to attend their meditation class. Mindfulness is a way of life and if you teach solely to earn an income, there is something missing, an emptiness to the teaching.
By the same token, if when you decide to teach mindfulness classes your purpose is to guide people through an exploration of their consciousness, to support their individual growth and even our collective growth as a species, the fact that you are paid for your work makes no difference to the value of your effort. In fact, you would never expect to go to a violin teacher and not pay for your lesson. They have spent years learning the violin and studying how to teach it. So has a mindfulness teacher done with meditation. For me, intention is the key to answering this question. If they have made their work out of something they love, I see nothing wrong at all in the current world we live in, that they’re paid. To pay to learn mindfulness from someone who doesn’t live and breathe the life, whose heart is not really in it is in my opinion far more the issue than payment itself. Likewise, just because a mindfulness meditation class is free doesn’t mean the teacher has better priorities than one who charges.
In the same way that yoga classes have adapted to the current western paradigm, and it has become acceptable to charge for the exchange of this skill, I am sure in time the same will come to pass for mindfulness classes in London and across the UK.
Author - Ashleigh Murphy