Meet a Teacher - Chris Goto-Jones


For the past three years, Dean Chris Goto-Jones has been teaching an online course called Demystifying Mindfulness. More than 86,000 students have completed the massive open online course (MOOC). Stephanie Harrington speaks to Goto-Jones about mindfulness, the evolution of the course, and the challenges of teaching thousands of students online. 

What drew you to the concept of mindfulness? And how long have you been researching this topic?

So, I guess my interest in mindfulness emerged from several directions at once. One of them is simple and rather autobiographical – I became interested in meditation when I was a teenager as a side-effect of being interested in the martial arts. By the time I was about 20, I’d been to Japan to train a few times, and had become interested in Buddhism. Over the years, I practiced meditation at a number of temples in Japan, spending an extended period in one while working on my PhD.

My PhD was one of the other ways I became interested in mindfulness, since I was working on Buddhist-influenced, modern philosophers in Japan who were themselves interested in the philosophical status and meaning of meditation and ‘pure experience.’ I traced their tracks through some of the temples in which they practiced, and began to get a sense of the essential, experiential connections between theory and practice.

But I guess my connection with ‘mindfulness’ in its contemporary usage came more recently, as I explored some of the ways in which mindfulness qua technology might be valuable to students, staff, and faculty – for people in high-pressure, high-stress environments around me. So I trained as a therapist and started to develop new courses for students that explored both philosophy, history, and practice of ‘mindfulness’ in various cultural traditions.

How did your interest in mindfulness lead to developing a massive open online course (MOOC) called De-Mystifying Mindfulness?

The course that eventually became De-Mystifying Mindfulness took a number of different forms before we developed it into its present form. At first, I created a version for the public – rather therapeutic in tone – which we ran for free for small groups who were not seeking credit. Then I made a credit-awarding version for the interdisciplinary honours students of Leiden University. We experimented with different formats and durations – and I still teach the intensive ‘retreat’ format (class meets all day every day for a week) each summer in Leiden. But eventually it became clear that demand for the course was greater than I could meet in a small-group format. 

At the same time, I became increasingly alarmed by some of the popular ways that mindfulness was being presented in the media, and by some of the claims made by people attempting to monetize it in various ways. Mindfulness and capitalism are dangerous bedfellows. And so I became increasingly conscious of the need to provide – for free – a responsible educational programme in this field that would equip people to make their own choices about this practice in a safe, informed way. This, it seems to me, is a clear instance of one of the core responsibilities of the university in general.

So, together with the studio-team in Leiden, we built a MOOC version of the course that would be available to anyone, anywhere, for free.

What are the advantages and challenges of teaching a massive open online course?

The advantages are also the challenges: balancing scale and intimacy; balancing dissemination with interaction; balancing theory with practice; balancing accessibility with integrity.

As a dean and a professor, why teach a free course? In other words, what do you gain from the experience? 

I guess I’m one of those strange professors who believes that the university has a responsibility to help make people’s lives better and to contribute to the well-being of society as a whole. So, in this particular case, it seemed pretty clear to me that monetizing mindfulness was creating incentive structures that worked to destroy the essential meaning and power of mindfulness itself, such that vulnerable people could be exploited. So, providing a course for free that could help people navigate these issues seemed to be the only option – indeed, it was the basic principle that our team used during the development of the course. We were very lucky that Leiden University believed in the course and its ethos strongly enough to invest resources into making it possible. The cost of building such a course is non-trivial, so it’s amazing that we were able to offer it for free. When you read the feedback from the students, it’s clear that the benefits are non-trivial too.

In the course’s introductory video, you say that tens of millions of people say they practice mindfulness in North America alone. “Mindfulness seems to be whatever we need it to be. It emerges into the public discourse like a mystical panacea from the ancient east, the cure for all the ills of contemporary societies. But what actually is it?” Given what you’ve said here, how would you define mindfulness for those curious but perhaps uncertain about what it means? 

I don’t define it.  I think the quest to package up mindfulness into a simple definition that can be bought and sold is part of the dilemma of the marketization of mindfulness, albeit also driven (often innocently) by scientists who seek to construct a definition that enables its convenient quantification.  Measuring mindfulness has become something of a fetish, as though the cultivation of mindfulness is akin to winning points in a videogame. Indeed, there are attempts to gamify ‘mindfulness’…

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the conceit that we’ve suddenly become able to define in a couple of sentences a practice or quality of experience that has been contested and debated and illuminated across thousands of years in dozens of cultures in myriad contexts. To me, this just seems vulgar. For me, mindfulness isn’t something to be defined as much as it is something to be experienced and explored. Of course, there are lots of things that aren’t mindfulness, but mindfulness itself seems to refer to a spacious landscape that takes in forms and qualities of attention, intention, awareness, compassion, discipline, and acceptance. Quite often, we cultivate it through meditation techniques, but not always, and not necessarily.

You’re obviously quite a busy person. Do you practice mindfulness? How do you unwind, or avoid feeling overwhelmed, given the constant pressures of academic life?

I don’t know what you mean ;)  Working at UVic is a pleasure every day.

I do have a regular meditation practice, which I find supportive. I also find that teaching this course is incredibly rewarding and energizing. It’s important that we can find strength in the things we do, rather than in things we’re not doing. I guess my practice helps me to appreciate that I believe in what we’re doing in our faculty and to draw strength from that.