Happy birthday, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The program that brought Buddhist mindfulness practice to Western medicine has hit middle age, and like a lot of us, it’s evolved and learned a thing or two over the years. MBSR is the most studied, respected, evidence-based stress reduction program ever developed, created in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. I used to hate when people suggested meditation for dealing with panic and anxiety. I’m anxious, bro—how am I supposed to sit in a lotus pose and think about nothing when my skin is crawling and my heart is pounding? There are plenty of studies out there that can tell you MBSR helps reduce stress, but let me speak from experience and tell you: It works.
Not just for me, either—in the chronically ill patients who practiced it with Kabat-Zinn, it actually reduced pain, depression, stress. In the 40 years since, MBSR courses have expanded to institutions like Johns Hopkins Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center as well as non-medical spots like meditation centers and yoga studios. MBSR teaches present-moment awarenessand helps you focus on the here and now instead of being carried away by your internal stream of thoughts, fantasies, and anxieties. You learn how to observe things as they happen without judging them as good or bad.
Before we get into it, let’s talk about cost. This shit is expensive. I paid $495 to attend the class once a week for 8 weeks. I’m pretty friggin privileged to be able to drop that kind of cash, and I realize that’s not the case for everyone. Check it out, though—there are awesome FREE resources out there that you can use to follow the program. Palouse Mindfulness offers the complete course with great videos, articles, and exercises that you can practice at home. Or head to the library or download Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, which is an in-depth look at the full program, plus an array of success stories and anecdotes. (If I could give any book to anxiety sufferers as welcome-to-the-club gifts, it would be this one. Do both things together, if you can.)
Anyway, the eight-week course is structured to lay a foundation and then build upon it every week until you have a mindfulness practice you can take with you and use for the rest of your life. Each class is two and a half hours long, once a week. The breakdown is as follows:
Week One: Simple Awareness. Meditation begins right away. You lay down for a guided meditation (it’s not too long, just a 20-minute body scan) which helps you become aware of any rising sensations while also focusing your attention. This is the most important part of the program. Weird how 20 minutes can turn a nervous, cranky me into relaxed, open-to-learning me.
Next is a clever intro to mindfulness: The instructor hands out a raisin to each member of the class and asks us to use our five senses. I touch its tiny grooves, look at its shriveled shape, smell its sweetness, and finally taste the raisin. I’m a grown-ass man sitting and feeling a friggin raisin with my fingers—like, really feeling a raisin—being very mindful about that raisin, and then feeling like a jackass for doing it. But I realized I never experienced a raisin like this before. Not once in my life did I ever think to devote several minutes to experience what a raisin really feels like, what it looks and smells like. I’ve only mindlessly shoved them into my mouth by the handful.
That’s basically a metaphor for most of our lives. Paying attention to my body (and a raisin with a capital R) is an experience that can move to daily activities at home. Washing dishes feels a lot less like a chore when you notice the soapy sponge and warm water on your hands instead of letting your mind wander while you robotically scrub. That’s mindfulness in practice. I felt a lot less goofy about the raisin exercise when I started to see that benefit.
Week Two: Formal Sitting Meditation. You sit, close your eyes, and focus your attention to your breathing while noticing thoughts, sensations, and feelings. This meditation is the core of the program. When thoughts creep up in your mind or you feel a distracting sensation in your body—this happens to everybody, even the Dalai Lama—you acknowledge it, let it go, and return to the breath. The first meditation might be for 10 minutes. As the class progresses, you work up to 45 minutes. This might sound impossible, and to be honest, even though I have some meditation experience, I still sometimes feel uncomfortable, annoyed, and think, “How much longer do I have to do this?” That’s normal. Let the thoughts and emotions go and return to focusing on feeling the breath going in and out. This meditation is great practice for when life gets overwhelming. You’ll eventually be able to acknowledge your stress, then let it go.
Week Three: Intro to Mindful Yoga. This class adds movement to meditation in the form of mindful yoga. Fidgety, high-energy people often feel like physical movements make it easier to focus their mind. I’ve learned to really enjoy the mind-body connection of yoga, where nothing in the world matters outside of the pose I’m currently in. The concept of non-striving is the focus, which can be a little hard to grasp when most of life is centered on setting and reaching goals. But really it’s not too difficult: The “goal” of meditation is to meditate. If you’re doing it, you win. Congratulations. And when unpleasant or painful thoughts come into your mind (and they will), the goal isn’t to get rid of them. Simply noticing the thoughts and allowing them to be is enough. It's also the hardest part. But not beating yourself up about whatever darkness comes to mind (i.e. self-compassion) helps you change your relationship with the thoughts and takes away some of their power.
Week Four: Responding vs. Reacting. This week’s class stresses stress. (See what I did there?) Stress is a normal part of life. It only becomes unmanageable when we create a narrative around it. That’s also normal—it’s how humans learn to stop touching a hot stove—so it’s hard to peel that away and just deal with one moment in time. For example, I’ve had a billion panic attacks while crossing the street on the way to my local supermarket. Sometimes I avoid grocery shopping for days because I know when I try to cross the street, I’ll have a panic attack, pass out, and probably get hit by a car. When I respond to my fear instead of react to it, I can accept that there are no cars coming and it’s safe to cross. The danger is not immediate, it’s in my mind. Here’s an easy-to-remember system I found from Emory University for dealing with stressful situations called STOP:
- S - Stop. Just put whatever you’re doing on pause.
- T - Take a Breath. Take a big inhale, exhale it and get back to a steady, anchoring breath
- O - Observe- Notice what’s really happening around you, in your body, and in your mind.
- P - Proceed. Do what you have to do.
Week Five: Turning Toward Emotions. This is a seemingly counterintuitive way of dealing with pain and difficult emotions as they arise. Instead of shielding ourselves from “negative” feelings, we turn towards them. Experiencing them as they are, not as you fear they’ll be. It takes courage, but it’s really worth it once you get the hang of it. When I’m feeling anxious (notice how I said “feeling anxious” instead of saying I’m anxious—nobody is literally the embodiment of anxiety) I notice the thumping in my chest or feel the knots in my stomach. Yes, they’re unpleasant sensations even when I pay attention to them. But accepting that they’re there takes up less energy than fighting against myself, and the success rate is much better. Have you ever really been able to push those feeling away 100%? Didn’t think so.
Week Six: Mindful Communication. This a departure from the other weeks because you learn how to focus on other people. We practice really listening to others in a conversation instead of planning what we’re going to say back or judging what they’re saying. We learn to convey what we want to say in a clear way instead of waiting for the other person to read our mind. We deal with conflict on equal footing, without placating, avoiding, or being demanding. There’s a great guided mountain meditation that I still do to this day that helps you ground yourself. In it, you imagine being strong and stable like a mountain, experiencing the changes of seasons and activity, while you remain as you are—true to yourself and unreactive. Be a mountain, not a volcano.
Week Seven: Compassion Training. I had to miss class for weeks seven and eight because I was traveling, but I took a DIY approach and used the Palmouse Mindfulness site I told you about and listened to Sharon Saltzberg’s Loving Kindness talks on my own to make up for it. (Honestly, I didn’t like my teacher very much anyway.) Learning how to treat yourself with as much compassion as you’d give a friend is eye-opening. I didn’t realize how self-critical I was until I gave myself a break. Self-love feels great, and I’m a huge proponent. But I still can’t call it self-love without cracking myself up. (Have some compassion for the guy with the immature sense of humor, would ya?)
Week Eight: Developing Your Own Practice. I was still traveling, but my teacher told me that this week was just refresher of everything we had learned so I wasn’t missing anything. Turns out, the final class is a day-long retreat! I felt ripped off for a second, and then deployed some of that compassion I just learned about. I realized that I had already developed my own mindfulness practice in eight weeks, as promised.
Look, the MBSR program is not easy, it’s two months long, and you’re required to meditate for 30 to 45 minutes a day. I cannot overstate how helpful regular meditation training has been for me. Putting in the time on a meditation cushion (or mat if you’re into mindful yoga) allows you to reap the benefits of non-judgmental present-moment awareness when you’re anxious. When I feel my rapid heartbeat, I don’t let my thoughts spiral and anticipate the start of a panic attack. I simply acknowledge the heartbeat without attaching a story to it, and go about living my life.
Does it work all the time? Not even close. But practice makes perfect, right? The MBSR program is built so you can revisit it again and again. I plan to do it again this fall.The ability to successfully shift my awareness to the present when my mind goes into a spiral of worry, fear or negativity—even part of the time—is more reassuring than all the Xanax in the world.