Note from Editor
If you are new to mindfulness, read more about it in our article What is Mindfulness
If you are familiar with the world of mindfulness, you must have heard about Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR program. In fact, even though the name of the program says - ‘stress reduction’, there are many people who weren’t depressed or anxious per se, but upon participating in the program, they couldn’t help but sing praises for the 8-weeks they got to spend in a ‘life-changing’ environment. So, what is this program? How it works and why everyone on the planet need to know a thing or two about its existence? Everything will be answered here. Let’s start with mindfulness itself (in a nutshell, of course!)
Your mind either tends to get stuck in your past or it keeps dreaming about the future, which either makes people depressed and despondent or anxious and perturbed. Mindfulness is a state of consciousness where you intentionally bring your awareness back to the present moment, learning how to live your life purposefully and with an enhanced sense of awareness and mental balance.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn (PhD in molecular biology, Professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a New-York best selling author) revolutionized the field of psychotherapy, cognitive sciences, and behavioral therapies by introducing the world with mindfulness via his formal 8-week MBSR program. The aim of the program was to help people deal with issues like stress, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other stress-induced health conditions.
Though initially the program was developed to treat patients, due to its effectiveness and practicality, MBSR programs are now pursued by people from all walks of life. If you can’t go for a residential program, you can even participate in an MBSR program available online.
The potency of the program can be deduced from the fact that now it has been adopted by more than 250 medical centers and hospitals around the country. Several scientific studies have been conducted on mindfulness and MBSR programs (find references below) and their results have shown that participants of these programs experience decreased social anxiety and depression and an increase in self-worth, sleep quality, ability to handle chronic pain and overall satisfaction with life.
A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program is a practical and customizable system of stress reduction. Usually, it involves two approaches towards mindfulness - yoga practices and mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is an important aspect of Buddhism and Jon being a meditator from an early age wanted to combine the benefits of meditation with the principles of psychotherapy and cognitive studies. Contemporary psychology perceives mindfulness as a method of managing one’s thought patterns and emotions by developing behavioral recognition and metacognition (awareness regarding how aware you are in any given situation).
For example - It’s very common to see people getting angry when someone abuses them. Almost instantly they abuse them back and soon we get to see a full-fledged duel of anger and hatred happening before our eyes. But if someone abuses you and before getting all fired up and ready to ‘give it back’, you somehow manage to recognize the fact that this tremendous amount of negative emotion is building inside of you and what it’s really doing to you and how it’s actually making you feel, you’d stop yourself from going ‘all-out’. Isn’t it? The same goes for sadness and for anxiety and every other emotion as well. If you develop mindfulness regarding your thoughts and emotions, it’s very natural that you’d allow only the most pleasant and positive emotions to exist in your psyche, while eliminating (or at least controlling) the ones that make you feel horrible about yourself and about the world you live in.
So, MBSR teaches mindfulness as a coping mechanism to people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or chronic pain. Throughout the program, participants learn about the source of their stress or anxiety, how it’s affecting their physical and mental wellbeing and how they can escape from its clutches. They are taught various tools and techniques to enhance their awareness and ability to recognize the nature of their thoughts, emotions, and actions on a moment to moment basis. This allows them to become more conscious and balanced in their minds.
In most of the places, MBSR is conducted as an 8-week residential, group program which includes 2.5-hour weekly sessions and a 7 to 8 hour full-day retreat. The practice of daily exercises including a dedicated meditation time of around 45 to 60 minutes, outside the weekly sessions is required to complete the program. During the 8-weeks, the instructors carefully observe you, guide you and assign you with daily tasks and exercises which you need to complete.
These are some of the aspects of mindfulness which you’ll be introduced to during the course of the program -
This includes a number of breathing techniques that work directly to enhance your awareness and concentration. These breathing exercises also help you control anxiety and stress. While practicing these techniques you need to maintain your focus on every inhalation and exhalation, keeping your awareness on the present moment all the while.
Participants are taught how to eat consciously. They learn what to eat and more importantly, how to eat their food by focusing on the present moment. They learn how to recognize whether they are genuinely hungry and need nutrition or it’s their mind or emotions which are triggering certain sensations which they are perceiving as hunger. When you eat consciously, you tend to eat less and you derive more nutrition out of your food.
Combining mindful breathing with gentle yoga poses, participants are taught how to exercise mindfully. This type of yoga relaxes you deeply and helps you stay healthier both, physically and mentally. Even if you have never practiced yoga or any other form of physical fitness before, you’ll be able to do these exercises since they are pretty basic in nature.
You are taught how to practice mindfulness meditation on a daily basis. This includes developing a dedicated daily practice time of around 45 minutes in which you sit in a cross-legged posture and focus on your breathing, thoughts, and emotions in a certain manner. You are also taught how to remain in this state of higher consciousness while you are busy completing your daily chores and not just while sitting in a meditative position without doing anything else.
You get to understand how you get affected by the words or actions of others and how your own words and actions affect those around you. Eventually, you are taught how to interact with others and how to handle different situations in a mindful manner by making compassion, love, and consciousness the biggest part of who you are and how you live your life.
There are many different modules of the program which you get to explore and learn from. But essentially, MBSR helps you become more aware of your habitual reactions and the compulsive nature of your mind. You are given practical tools and techniques to evolve your state of mind to a higher state of consciousness.
Though it’s a group program, you will receive one-on-one attention since many aspects of the program are developed to cater to your individualistic needs. The group environment helps people realize that even though their individual issues are different, the core of these issues is the same (compulsive, unconscious nature of their mind). Also, when people are in a group setting, in a program like this, they support each other in successfully completing the program. If you are pursuing the course online, you can still interact in a group via forums and chat windows.
These days so many mindfulness experts offer MBSR courses online. Most of these courses are just as good as a residential program but some aren’t up to the mark. If you want to pursue MBSR online, make sure you are selecting a competent website, with a good reputation and track record. One such course is the MBSR online course by Sounds True with leading experts and long-time practitioners Saki F. Santorelli and Florence Meleo-Meyer.
The online course helps you learn all the basics of mindfulness and assist you to develop your daily practice while being in the comfort of your house. Be regular with your practice and complete the tasks with as much sincerity as you can in order to get the maximum benefit out of the program.
Published in MinfulDevMag issue #5 – Back to Issue TOC