Before There Were Meditation Apps, There Was Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – What It Is and Why It’s Endured for 40 Years
Mindfulness is becoming a word we hear often and the practice of meditation is gaining popularity. You may have tried one of the meditation apps available, which can be a great way to learn how to meditate, but if you are looking for something more, you may want to look into the program that helped to fuel the mindfulness movement–Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
MBSR is an 8-week course (plus a day-long retreat) that introduces the practices of mindfulness to those who wish to learn and perhaps incorporate them into their daily lives. This course has been around for more than 40 years and continues to train new teachers who bring it to their communities around the globe.
As the story goes, the creator of the program, Jon Kabat-Zinn, an avid practitioner of meditation and yoga, was attending a retreat. During a moment of silent practice, an idea came to him–to bring these practices that had so enriched his life, to others. He was specifically interested in supporting those who were suffering from medical challenges and weren’t finding answers. He brought the idea to UMASS Medical, a teaching hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in 1979 began teaching in a basement, complete with folding chairs. When he was asked by the hospital who he wanted to offer the course to, he replied, “Anyone you don’t know what to do with.”
Very quickly Kabat-Zinn began to see the impact of the course. You can find many stories of early participants in his book Full Catastrophe Living. People with very challenging illnesses and life situations were finding strength and comfort in the practices taught in class. Through meditation and other mindfulness practices, they were connecting with their own inner resources that were available to support them. And this experience hasn’t changed in 40 years. People all over the world are regularly introduced to MBSR and many find it to have a positive lasting impact on how they deal with stressful realities of life.
The invitation to participants is to, “enter class with healthy skepticism and simply notice your own experience.” Some of the key features of the course are less teaching and more time to practice guided meditations, gentle yoga, and walking meditation. And generally, practices are followed by periods of inquiry. This is simply the teacher inquiring about the experience of the participants and helping them to uncover what it was like for them…what they noticed. There is no expectation of what an experience “should” be because each person’s experience is unique.
The course is not focused on doing anything “right” when it comes to the practices, but rather noticing the experience, whatever it is. Most participants find that it’s a real shift from their regular ways of thinking. One of the main attitudes of mindfulness, according to Kabat-Zinn, is non-judgment. In other words, letting go of the natural tendency we all have as humans to immediately determine if something is good or bad, and instead, simply allowing it to be just as it is, and meeting whatever we notice with openness and curiosity, even if it’s unpleasant. This takes some training and that’s where meditation comes in.
Throughout the 8-week class, participants get the opportunity to practice as a group with the guidance of their teacher. They are also assigned home practice and asked to commit their time so they can experience the practices for a consistent period. Initially, meditations are guided by the instructor (that includes recordings to use at home), and through the guidance, participants learn to meditate and build a consistent personal practice. Near the end of the course, there is less guidance because participants have typically built up the ability to be still and sit in periods of silence for longer.
The people who take MBSR come to it for many different reasons and their motivation for attending is something they have the opportunity to connect with more deeply in class. Classes draw people of all ages from many diverse backgrounds. While the course originally started to help those with medical challenges, it quickly became a program that anyone who wanted to better manage stress could take. There are no criteria. All are welcome.
Some people have walked away feeling meditation is not for them, while others have felt transformed by their experience. I can share my perspective. I almost didn’t take the course. I didn’t know if I was ready for it. Honestly, I was kind of scared. I wasn’t sure that I could do it. But I decided I would give it a shot and am so glad I did. I found it to help me make a major shift in my relationship with myself and the world around me. I felt it gave me more space to explore my experience of being human and helped me quiet the voice of judgment that I hadn’t even noticed was so strong. Additionally, my mindfulness practice gave me the foundation to deal directly with some very hard things that I had been avoiding for years.
I can’t say what the class will be like for any other person, but as a teacher now (yes, I loved it so much I got trained to share it with others), I can say that I’ve seen it have a positive impact on the lives of many people over the past few years, helping them to make subtle changes and shifts to how they move through this life – subtle changes that make a big difference.
Meditation apps are great. I used Headspace when I was getting started and found it very helpful, but there’s something special about getting to practice weekly with a group where you have the opportunity to explore your experience. In times of COVID, MBSR classes have moved online and are a great way to feel connected in these isolating times.
If you’ve always wanted to learn how to meditate or are just looking to deepen your practice, MBSR might be a good fit for you. But I can’t say for sure. You’ll just have to try it out for yourself to know.
Amy Black is the founder of Mindfulness for Everybody, a Nashville-based organization dedicated to helping individuals, communities, and corporations connect with the benefits of mindfulness. Her next online MBSR class starts Monday, February 1 at 6 pm with a free orientation. For more information visit www.mindfulnessforeverybody.com or email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org