What is MBSR?
A few weeks ago, I started taking a new course called the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The creator of the course, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is an academic who was big into meditation for his own personal practice, saw its immense benefits, and created a bridge for an Eastern practice to meet the very measured world of Western medicine. He was given the opportunity to run clinical trials on patients at the UMass Medical School and out of that, created this 8 week program.
The program offers practical guidance and simple tools on how to better handle everyday stress and meets for a few hours, once a week. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” and this is what the course is all about (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).
As a new student, I understand MBSR as a methodology that presents the practice of mindfulness and meditation without the spiritual component by presenting the action and result in an observational and scientific manner. Like do this practice of x and observe what happens for yourself.
I find myself at this intersection of academic/Western school of thought and Eastern philosophy/metaphysics a lot so it makes sense that I am drawn to MBSR. I really appreciate this version of mindfulness and meditation that bridges the gap between the esoteric and modern.
The first meeting was just an orientation. The building was nondescript and somewhere off to the side of the busy part of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Walking into the center, it was a standard office building space. On my way in, I met a fellow student, Charlie*, an older man about my dad’s age. The room was small and cozy, a ring of chairs were arranged in a circle, each with a meditation cushion in front of it.
Striking conversation with the guy next to me about my age, Harry, I learned that he was really into personal development and already practicing meditation with the Headspace app when his therapist recommended MBSR.
Our conversation drifted off as more people filtered in and the teacher surveyed the room before pulling out a stack of papers and starting the session. She introduced herself and the course. The following hour was a blur of logistics and details.
We were given a questionnaire to fill out, one question was what is my interest in the program? This was the third time I was being asked this question and so I wondered whether there was something very intentional about getting us really clear on why we were there.
While on one hand, it seemed somewhat repetitive and needlessly laborious to answer the same question over and over again, it was surprisingly refreshing to dig deep into my motivations and intentions. I answered the question first on my application back in late October, then again in January before the program started, and now here in the classroom on day one.
There are many reasons I was super excited to take the course, I’ve since distilled it down to these Top 5.
What’s My Intention?
- This past year, I was having a hell of a time with my emotions. I don’t know if it was quitting my job, leaving friends/family, moving to a new state and in with my partner, or wondering what the hell it is I really want to do with my life but all these “New Things” (or potential stressors) suddenly were present in my life all at the same time. And the crazy that was lying in me dormant was suddenly awoken. Traumas and triggers well hidden when things were secure, came out to play when things got uncomfortable for a second.
- There was undeniable alignment with the universe. Back in the summer of 2018, I was taking a course at the University of Connecticut called Mind Body Health – about “the role of the mind and its effects on subjective well-being (e.g., happiness, stress, depression, anxiety) and the physical body …”. It was in this course that we learned about MBSR and Kabat-Zinn. My term paper about Mindfulness Training in Corporate America included research on MBSR. You can read my paper here.
“Follow up studies on initial data conducted by Kabat-Zinn showed that patient treatment with MBSR saw significant benefits not only post-treatment, but also at 3-month follow up and 3-year follow up… (Kabat-Zinn, Massion, Kristeller, Peterson, Fletcher, & et al., 1992; Miller, Fletcher, & Kabat-Zinn, 1995).”
After that summer, I forgot about MBSR until Jim brought it up during our tumultuous season as a recommendation for my emotional reactions. He had taken the course several years ago and found its benefits to be “profound”, even now.
3. I have so much social anxiety I feel like an alien sometimes. It’s not crippling per se, because I can still get around the world like a “normal person”. Meaning I have a handful of close friends, can awkwardly socialize at gatherings, make friendly acquaintances at work or school, and I’ve never had a problem with finding romance. But it is debilitating in that I constantly monitor myself and what I say or do. There is this disingenuous presence about me and my interactions with people because I am rarely relaxed, except when I am drunk or high. It limits my fullest expression of my essence, who I am, and what I am here to do. I feel like I am trapped in my own body. For example, sometimes I feel this deep belly laugh welling up in me, but when it hits the air, it’s tinny, hollow, and fake. What happened? All the juice and pulp of its true, rich, and hearty self was strained out, creating this polite, pasteurized version that doesn’t offend anyone and is such a drag. And I am so, SO over this.
4. This is a part of my spiritual journey. Not everyone has the time, interest, or resources to go after this and I’m not sure how it will be sustainable but this is my purpose right now – learning how to live well. My parents don’t really get it, they poo-poo it as that “yoga stuff” (??) and laugh at the concept of learning mindfulness as being less-than, but I see it as an investment. Because I really don’t know how to be emotionally resilient. I don’t know how to handle complex emotions in a healthy and strong way. I know how to work out Chemistry problems, memorize the flow of molecular reactions in the body, or create an analytical model of a data set, but it took me until 30 to figure out how to identify my moods/emotions, figure out what I need, and then how to address that need without lashing out against everyone around me or being a general nincompoop to be around. It’s a learning process.
5. At the end of 2019, I heard of a vocation called mindfulness consultant and I thought, “That’s someone’s job??” This dude goes to different companies to consult on mindfulness in the workplace. I’d love to do something similar one day – or in another way help others who are like me: socially anxious or generally anxious, guarded, unable to let go of this persona they’ve created, and stifled by the voices in their head, to break out of their self-created prison and really be present in their lives, for their lives. I think there may be an epidemic of overly polite and curated plastic people who are dying to be free of themselves, I know I am.
I’ve found that my best learning comes from writing about an experience; you can read more about that here. So over the next several weeks, I’ll be recounting what I’ve learned in my classes and any effects or observations from daily life. When I can sit and write, is when I can really see my mind at work and what is what.
Maybe you’ll find it compelling to check out and if it helps one person, that’s fan-fucking-tastic! That’s what I’m all about – the ripple effect!
Also, I do want to mention that I’m taking this course at the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Mindfulness and Compassion (check out this link to CHA’s website for more details on upcoming courses, including MBSR). The organization offers financial assistance, which, along with my incredibly supportive partner, Jim, who paid the tuition, made it possible for me to attend. Shout out to both! I love you, Jim.
*all names are changed
Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, M.D., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L.G., Fletcher, K.E., Pbert, L., et al. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 936-943.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Miller, J.J., Fletcher, K., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995). Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, 17, 192-200.
Read the next post here, Week 1: Beginner’s Mind