Mindfulness is a term given to the condition of being totally aware of the present. For centuries, eastern religions have promoted the use of this technique to escape suffering. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, even Christianity, have all had some aspect of mindfulness and meditation in their practice. In more recent years, the practice has begun to invade Western medicine and society.
From self-help books that fill the shelves of major bookstores to instructional videos, motivational seminars and even classrooms, the practice of mindfulness has grown deep into the Western psyche. If anything, its popularity in the West is one reason it is experiencing a resurgence in the other parts of the world where it was once more common.
One particularly fruitful avenue that mindfulness practice has taken, originally in the U.S., has been Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which uses meditation and yogic practices to help those who suffer from illness. Chronic illness and pain are devastating conditions and much of modern medicine can only provide regularly-administered (and not always cheap) alleviative solutions. MBSR provides a refreshing new take on pain relief by incorporating Eastern elements.
Here we will take a look at what MBSR is, its origins, who it is intended for and what health benefits it can bring. There are numerous programs in the U.S. and worldwide that provide the training. While their techniques may differ somewhat, the basic practice, and the benefits are essentially the same.
What Exactly is MBSR?
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a form of alternative solution that helps to manage and deal with various health problems. These can include chronic pain and illness, as well as temporary conditions, such as headaches. MBSR can also help those with purely psychological afflictions.
8-Week Intensive Training Course
The practice of MBSR brings together yoga and meditation in an 8-week intensive training course. It is based on very old healing practices originating in Asia. The yoga aspect is meant to bring out more physical activity, better coordination and a greater awareness of body, while the meditation is geared toward providing understanding and awareness in general. Focusing the here and now is a simple yet profoundly effective way to deal with many of life’s ills, be they mental or physical.
For the course, you meet a few hours every day, and one day toward the end is dedicated completely to the practice. MBSR has become so popular that is now offered in over 250 medical centers worldwide, including hospitals and clinics. The classes are taught by trained doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and others. The practice of teaching MBSR can also bring its own benefits. Teachers often report feeling better connected through the process to their students. The collaborative practice of MBSR has benefits for both sides.
The practice of MBSR is based on the practice of mindfulness, which requires that we focus on one thing in the present. This could be our breath, the sounds around us, what we’re feeling in our body, our movements, etc. Through such focus, our mind is able to let go of all the negative associations that often lead to and exacerbate mental and physical suffering. From that idea alone, it is obvious that mindfulness can be helpful to even people who do not suffer an illness. For those who do, it is an invigorating and groundbreaking perspective.
For those with chronic pain, for example, the mere practice of learning to feel the pain, in all of its nuanced coming and going, its throbbing and ebbing, can help alleviate the intensity of it. As much of the pain is physical, it will still be there, but we can control the way we react to it. Pain or illness does not have to run our life, and it won’t as long as we learn to observe and choose how we respond to it. That is what MBSR helps you to do.
Who Founded MBSR?
MBSR was founded at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center by Ph.D. Jon Kabat-Zinn. According to one account, Kabat-Zinn asked the doctors at the Stress Reduction Clinic to give him the patients for whom the medication was not working.
These were the hopeless—the ones who had been bedridden for years, unable to relieve themselves of the pain and yet forced to live with it every day. In hospitals throughout the world, these are the patients that the doctors look at with that rare mixture of wonder and sympathy, the permanent cases.
Kabat-Zinn did a very interesting thing with these patients. Coming from a meditation background himself (he had studied under some of the masters), he began using meditative techniques to get the patients to feel beyond their pain by developing a new relation to it.
The idea worked. Through meditation in a group setting, patients began seeing their illness more objectively and therefore suffered less from it. He then started spreading the technique through various means to other parts of the country and today, the practice enjoys a worldwide following.
What Will You Learn in the 8-week Program?
The idea of the program is to help people develop a keener awareness of the oneness of mind and body. How you treat the body affects your mind and your mind’s activities can have a profound effect on your body.
A large part of the mind’s activities that cause physical, emotional and spiritual anguish are unconscious. Meditation helps you develop an ability to notice these unhealthy mental practices and work against them by breaking bad habits. This gives you more choice in life as the involuntary shackles of fear are slipped off one by one.
A typical MBSR course will involve at least one 2.5 hour class a week for 8 weeks with a full day session somewhere between the 6th and 7th week. During this time, participants take part in mindfulness meditation training and practice, yoga and body awareness, an exploration of patterns of thinking/feeling/acting and various lectures and discussion groups such as:
- Learn how to do a body scan meditation
- Learn how to do a sitting meditation
- Understand stress and how it affects us
- Learn how to do a mindful yoga practice
What are the Key Health Benefits of MBSR?
Meditation itself has many noted health benefits, both physical and mental, and so too does yoga. MBSR combines the two modalities to produce a positive effect on a range of autonomic physiological processes. This includes reducing arousal and reactivity, as well as decreased blood pressure.
From a physiological perspective, MBSR can actually address disuse atrophy, which is what happens when we sit around all day and are immobile. Muscles tend to disintegrate from being used much less often than nature intended.
MBSR gets your blood flowing again through regular physical and mental work. The sedentary lifestyle is especially a curse of those with chronic pain or illness, the original target group for MBSR. Moreover, MBSR is intended to help those with anxiety, stress, depression and other medical conditions.
Who’s it For?
MBSR can benefit all kinds of participants. The components of MBSR (the yoga, meditation, etc.) can help anyone who wants to increase their health and well being.
MBSR specifically started as an aid to those with chronic disorders or disease for whom traditional medicine could only do so much. People who suffer from constant stress (because of family, work or relationships) also stand to benefit greatly from MBSR.
Anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, various panic disorders, cancer, heart disease, or even people with headaches or high blood pressure are among the targeted.
What are the Costs?
The practice of MBSR can come in various forms. The most common are group sessions, often in secluded areas in the presence of nature. There are also distance programs and private instruction. Many MBSR programs offer a sliding scale for prices, based on the participant’s income level. Below is an example of a typical pricing arrangements.
- Under $30,000 annual income: $300
- From $30,000–$60,000: $450
- Over $60,000: $600
If you are a full-time college student without family support, you may be able to enjoy a discounted rate. Additionally, should a participant have any mitigating financial circumstance that precludes their ability to pay, MBSR programs are sometimes able to work around these conditions.
In Canada, MBSR is either partially or fully covered by the provincial government. In Toronto, for example, some MBSR programs, e.g. at North York General Hospital, are covered by OHIP as long as you get a referral from your doctor. Aside from a minimal cost for course materials that you have to pay out of pocket, the program is free. Although there may be a waiting list.
The most effective programs are those done in person in a group setting. There are, however, courses that you can take online and still receive the health benefits.
I found this free online MBSR course created by Dave Potter, a retired psychotherapist and certified MBSR instructor, that you may want to check out.
What Does Science Have to Say About the Effectiveness of Mindfulness?
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (of the U.S. National Health Institute) has provided grants to research how effective MBSR can be. Among their findings were that the use of pain drugs was decreased and activities and self-esteem were increased through the use of MBSR. In several studies, it was determined that MBSR can be as effective as antidepressants.
Research proving MBSR’s effectiveness has been carried out in such illustrious institutions of advanced scholarship as Harvard, UCLA and Stanford.
Though an ancient practice, mindfulness is needed more than ever today, with the hectic lifestyles many of us live. Those with chronic illness are doubly affected, as they have to deal with the rush of the world and the anguish of their particular conditions.
MBSR can go a long way in achieving a modicum of comfort through an active, engaging sort of medicine. Participants can access their own resources in order to learn, grow, heal and transform. But being mindful is not just a practice for a retreat. It should be a lifetime activity, useful anywhere and anytime.
Have you participated in an MBSR program? What was your experience like? Share in the comments.