Fostering the Mind of Poverty

Is it unethical to bring awareness to certain life circumstances?

by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten

The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic Teacher Training Retreat brings out the best in our participants and this session was no different.  One of the questions that arose from our examination of the impact of the various exercises we invite a class to do was particularly thought-provoking.  This question is also central to refining our intention as teachers of and participants in any Mindfulness-Based program.

“What are the ethics of an exercise that brings attention and awareness to a lack in their life?”

We take many levels of our comfort for granted; Cheri Maples, co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice, calls these assumptions “unearned assets”.  By virtue of our gender, race, creed, and access to education, certain avenues that get us what we need are available to us.  By virtue of our education, we enjoy a “value-added” level of credibility when we speak to people.  Our patients grant us, in our initial meeting, a trust and assumption that we likely are competent because of the title and degree.  We don’t have to work for these “credibility assets” because they come as a package along with the labels.

The specific question asked by one of our participants was about the ethics of asking someone to do the raisin exercise if this person may be in a financially tough situation and may not have enough food at home.  On the surface this may seem like a non sequitor however it raises a deeper question about the impact of our work as mindfulness teachers.  What are the unearned assets we bring to class?  What are the assumptions we operate from that could highlight a hardship or a lack in our participants’ lives that may not be helpful?

This is a tough and complex question.  Let’s look at the intention of mindfulness.  It is to bring not only awareness but also value to our life as it is.  Our tendency is to only see what is missing, to see the glass half full.  When we start from this stance our tendency is to continue down the path of probing for lack.  “What if my participants don’t even have a glass; what if they don’t even have potable water?”  This is where, we believe, the true work of practice happens.  The issue is absolutely about the glass and the water.  And it is neither about the glass nor the water.

The lack arising from life circumstances for individuals is very real.  A large percentage of the people we see will face poverty, abuse, fear, and many other challenges.  In these economic climes, job loss is a reality that can begin a spiral into many forms of loss.  The despair, anger, and the feeling of a loss of control are very real.  It would be unthinkably insensitive to bring a glaring public light to someone’s life state and also arrogant to suggest that mindfulness will make it more palatable.  As one participant said in a private interview, “I don’t need to be more aware of my life.  It’s because I’m aware of what it is that I need to find a different way of dealing with it.”

This opens the second part in addressing the question.  The practice of mindfulness is not only about awareness; it does not stop at seeing life as it is.  It is about reconnecting with the values that fire the cauldron of intention & attention.  As we often recite in our classes, it is not the situation that creates our difficulties; it is the stance we take to it.  Put another way, if in our life circumstances, we foster an attitude of shame and deprivation, we will be limited in the options I see for myself.  If we feel helpless in the face of our challenges and we see that as our lack of worth, then we are trapped in what is called “the mind of poverty.”  And yet, this is the very space in which mindfulness practice has its greatest power of transformation.  It opens us to value (but not be passively accepting of) the circumstance as a means of cultivating a desire and a path to transform ourselves.  This valuing stance may allow us to be available for any other changes that may arise.

And this is where we, as teachers, must be careful that by our own limiting assumptions and actions we do not foster a mind of poverty in others.  The responsibility is ours to resist adapting or excluding opportunities for awareness and valued choices because we believe our participants may be limited somehow.  Ironically, this view may arise because we believe we would be limited in similar circumstances.  Yet by limiting ourselves, we limit others.

Should we offer the raisin exercise if we know of deprivation in the room?  Absolutely.  That is because it is not about the raisin.  It is about seeing the many possibilities in one sensory event.  It is about not making assumptions about the capacity of the individual in front of me to take what they can from it and own it totally.  To adapt the exercise (or any exercise) because we have an assumption of the participants is to limit their experience and to collude with life circumstances that attempt to do so already.

Mindfulness practice is the development of nonjudgmental awareness with the intention of meeting our life circumstances through a practice of ethical actions.  Our ethic as teachers must begin by refusing to foster a mind of poverty in ourselves and thereby limiting our participants’ access to the richness inherent in each of their lives.


  1. I am finding that at some point in the session (in which a large focus is on deprivation, after full exploration of the situation as it is, I ask exception questions, “Was there ever a time when this was not so?” I then invite them to explore the experience in the present (body/mind, not the story). It seems that these experiences sometimes need invitation and then patience, as the mind finds what is needed for healing. Finding their own source of wisdom is essential.
    Our ethics as practitioners are to ask ourselves, “What does my question or my own state of minds warm the client up to? and is this beneficial?

  2. This is SO brilliant. Thank you thank you. You often give me the clarity I need, to understand and experience mindfulness.

    “…it does not stop at seeing life as it is. It is about reconnecting with the values that fire the cauldron of intention and attention” reminds me of your interview with Maia and the importance of the question “Is this who you want to continue to be?”

    Thanks again!

Leave a Reply to Lynette Monteiro Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.