Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction - A Review
A few weeks ago I completed a new mindfulness course. For a while now, I’ve been interested in broadening my practice and learning about other styles and approaches to meditation. At the recommendation of a friend I decided to enrol in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
MBSR is quite a well-known secular mindfulness program available in major cities all over the world. It was started in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist, doctor and now prominent author and teacher of mindfulness meditation, at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The course was originally designed as a stress reduction and relaxation program for people suffering from a variety of physical and mental health issues. Its success is evident in the program’s longevity and geographical spread.
From week one, I found the MBSR program very engaging. It shook up my ideas about what meditation is, and how and why we practice. Spread over eight 2.5 hour classes and one full day of mindfulness, the course offered carefully scaffolded instruction in meditation and discussed the relevance of the practice for everyday life. Each student was given a course book including weekly readings, homework guidelines and a practice journal, and access to an app containing recordings of the various practices taught. The classes involved long practice periods, group discussion, reflections and questions.
Perhaps owing to its medical roots, MBSR takes a pragmatic, non-purist approach to mindfulness training and practice. I was taught a variety of styles: sitting, walking, mindful movement (slow yoga), metta (loving kindness), open awareness, as well as numerous techniques for in-the-moment or daily life practice. Having previously been trained in a strict insight tradition, this variety was both challenging and refreshing. I found the MBSR approach very inclusive: it acknowledges that different practices work for different people and prioritises finding ways of bringing mindfulness into a person’s life, regardless of the form it takes. In order for practice to happen, it has to work within the unique shape and circumstances of an individual’s life. This also means that there’s no one right way to practice.
Something that stood out for me was the role that expectations played in the course. As an evidence-based program claiming to help people better manage stress, anxiety, depression and pain, MBSR tends to attract individuals experiencing, or who have experienced, difficult life circumstances. And it makes sense that its participants (myself included) come with specific expectations about what they will get from the course – namely, an ability to better regulate emotions, attention and stress levels, and/or tools to assist in living with significant illness or loss. Thus, the people who show up are those with strong motivations for practice, and thus equally real expectations about outcomes.
Initially, I was a little sceptical of the claims made by the MBSR program, as I’ve previously been taught not to expect anything specific from my practice, other than awareness of my current experience. My teacher, Lynne Bousfield, describes meditation as a transformational practice, not a transactional one. If we apply ourselves to the practice, we are transformed by it – but in ways we can’t anticipate. But the practice is not a contract (‘If I do X, I’ll get Y’); we do not broker a deal with it. Instead, meditation teaches us the patience and courage to sit with our uncertainty and lack of control. I was pleased to learn that MBSR adopts a similar perspective. Students are encouraged to observe their expectations for what they are: ideas about what they want and the future, or more simply, mental phenomena. The aim is neither to fulfil our expectations nor get rid of them, but to open to them as they are with patience and gentleness.
One of the features that made MBSR different to other meditation courses I’ve done is the mixing of psychotherapeutic tools with mindfulness. The course book contains readings and strategies taken from mindfulness based cognitive therapy and elsewhere, which target specific physical and mental issues individuals might be dealing with (e.g. pain or anxiety). In addition, many of the MBSR teachers are themselves practicing psychologists, counsellors or psychotherapists who offer a high level of emotional support and are skilled at holding space for others. The space always felt safe and because of this, students felt able to honestly discuss their experiences.
I'd highly recommend MBSR to anyone looking for well supported, secular mindfulness training, and to those looking for extra tools to help them live better with mental and physical illnesses. The course is a little on the expensive side (especially for students), but the organisation offers generous discounts based on individuals' financial situations.
If you'd like an inside look, MBSR was the subject of a recent episode of ABC TV show Catalyst: The Mindfulness Experiment.