It was in the 1970s when a young American molecular biologist and university professor named Jon Kabat-Zinn began developing a revolutionary healthcare program, known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), that would eventually transform the ways the western world thinks about health and well-being. At the time, medical practitioners and governmental agencies had become increasingly interested in researching and treating stress-related mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, both because statistics were showing that over 30 million Americans were suffering from one of the two disorders and also because popular medications, such as Miltown and Valium, were proving to be addictive and less than ideal for treating individuals effectively.
Although Kabat-Zinn wasn’t trained to offer counseling as a psychologist or write prescriptions as a psychiatrist, he’d come to believe, with his scientific mind, that the Buddhist meditative practices he first became interested in while studying at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had the potential to holistically treat those suffering from a range of stress-related illnesses.
Upon coming to the realization that the greater medical community remained completely unaware of the powerful connection between meditation and health, which he’d gained firsthand knowledge of studying under prominent Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabat-Zinn began conceptualizing a stress reduction course that brought together science, mindfulness and yoga. Ultimately, after tinkering with the curriculum to make it non-religious in nature, he’d present the world with the now globally acclaimed MBSR program that’s taught in over 30 countries today. When recalling why he ventured down this path, Kabat-Zinn recalled:
I loved science, and when I discovered Buddhist meditative practices and martial arts, I was able to bridge those ways of knowing the world into my own unique way. From that grew the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which became my karmic assignment.”
Since developing the MBSR program and establishing the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who subsequently founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at UMass, has systematically become one of the western world’s most celebrated mindfulness figures and his MBSR course has become one of the most lauded alternative treatments options for individuals suffering from a wide variety of health disorders. University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard Davidson, a prominent mindfulness figure in his own right, tells us of Kabat-Zinn’s historic and monumental role in brining meditative practices to modern medicine:
Jon Kabat-Zinn has done more than any other person on the planet to spread the power of mindfulness to the lives of ordinary people and major societal institutions.”
An Overview of The Eight-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course:
The revolutionary and highly acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn takes place over an eight-week period during which individuals attend weekly group meetings where a certified MBSR instructor teaches them a plethora of meditative and yoga practices, facilitates group discussion and shines light on the science of stress reduction. Of course, as the name suggests, the program ultimately aims to help individuals cultivate an enhanced state of mindfulness so they’re better able to handle the inevitable stresses and hardships of life. When discussing this inborn state of present-moment awareness in his landmark book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as:
The awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Beyond the weekly classes, which last around two hour each, participants are given approximately 45 minutes of daily homework to complete in-between sessions, so they’re able to discuss their practice and life experiences with fellow classmates, and attend one six-hour full day retreat, in between the sixth and seventh classes, where they methodically review and practice the many stress-reducing strategies they learn throughout the course.
While the framework of MBSR allows participants to personalize their practice to best suit their needs, the program was structured to take place in larger groups so students are able to rely upon each other for motivation and support. Furthermore, by grouping individuals who may be suffering from a wide variety of mental, physical and emotional issues together, students are able to comfortably work on themselves without feelings as if they’re being therapeutically labeled or segregated based upon medical disorders.
To help individuals get to a place where they’re able to effectively work with the stresses that may come from physical pain, mental illness or just the demands of everyday life, MBSR teachers offer instructions on a wide variety of stress-reducing practices, primarily derived from the spiritual activities of meditation and yoga, while providing scientific evidence and insights about a number of relevant psychological theories that strengthen the legitimacy of their teachings. It should be noted that although many of the MBSR practices are historically rooted in the eastern wisdom traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the course to be secular in nature so all individuals, regardless of their faith-based beliefs, can attain the many benefits the program promotes. He tells us:
Mindfulness stands on its own as a powerful vehicle for self-understanding and healing. In fact, one of the major strengths of MBSR and of all other specialized mindfulness-based programs such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is that they are not dependent on any belief system or ideology. Their potential benefits are therefore accessible for anyone to test for himself or herself.”
Later in this article we’ll look at the full spectrum of MBSR practices in greater detail, but now is a good time to introduce you to the concept of mindfulness, which should be considered as the program’s most importance stress-reduction strategy. Rather than discuss this inborn ability of observational awareness in writing here, however, it’ll be more enlightening to hear from the man who developed the MBSR program. In the video below, you’ll be able to do just that as Jon Kabat-Zinn, and a number of other distinguished mindfulness figures, discuss the practice in this 60 Minutes mindfulness special:
The Foundational Teachings of MBSR:
Before we begin exploring the various practices taught to individuals in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), it can be helpful to gain an understanding of some of the program’s most important foundational teachings. Broadly speaking, the educational framework of the course seamlessly fuses scientific and psychological insights, related to stress, with spiritual wisdom coming from the Buddhist religion. As we’ve previously pointed out, although it would seem as though MBSR would take on a religious tone, Jon Kabat-Zinn went to great lengths to secularly design the course and points to the agnostic and universal nature of Buddhist Dharma. With that being said, let’s now turn our attention to seven of MBSR’s most important lessons:
Life’s Moments Are All We Really Have:
One particular teaching that permeate throughout the entire MBSR course illuminates the significance of our moment to moment experiences. It’s both because the nature of life limits the amount of time we have on this earth and also because personal change can only happen in the here-and-now that MBSR instructors continually point to the life-affirming power of the present-moment and tell us that we should graciously strive to fully absorbed ourselves in it. Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us of the transformative potential of the present-moment:
Our journey toward greater health and well-being is really a natural progression. Awareness, insight and indeed health as well, ripen on their own if we are willing to pay attention in the moment and remember that we have only moments to live.”
The Undeniable Truth of the Mind-Body Connection:
Despite the fact that the idea of there being an intimate connection between our minds and bodies was thought of as preposterous, by western medical professionals, when Jon Kabat-Zinn offered the first MBSR course in 1979, the eastern based theory, which tells us that our thoughts and emotions play an influential role on our health, has more recently been verified by modern science. Consequently, because we can promote a state of wholesome well-being and circumvent stress-related illnesses by becoming aware of this connection and taking steps to monitor and mange our internal state, the framework of MBSR is comprehensively built around this undeniable truth.
The Impermanent Nature of Thoughts, Emotions & Feelings:
Another prominent MBSR teaching that’s rooted in eastern wisdom revolves around the universally fleeting nature of our thoughts, emotions and feelings. Although it can be easy to assume that we’ll never get ourselves to a better place when we’re going through the inevitable struggles of life, the truth is that the stresses we encounter, the negative emotional waves we ride and the pain we feel all eventually transform into something else because change is the only certain in life.
Therefore, when we’re able add understanding of the constantly evolving nature of reality and ourselves to our mindfulness practice, it’s certain that we’ll be able to look at issues differently and better handle whatever challenges come our way. Kabat-Zinn tells us why it’s important to understand impermanence:
If we learn to see change as an integral part of life and not as a threat to our well-being, we will be in a much better position to cope effectively with stress. The meditation practice itself brings us face-to-face with the undeniable experience of continual change within our own minds and bodies, as we watch our constantly changing thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and impulses, as well as continual change in the outer realm of everything and everybody with whom we are in relationship.”
Autonomic Stress Responses & Undesired Habits:
Over the entirety of the eight-week MBSR course, instructors aim to help participants become aware of autonomic stress responses, or involuntary reactions to stressful situations, and show how particular circumstances can lead to the development of undesired stress-related habits. In relation to these psychologically based truth, it’s of outmost importance for participants to develop the ability to consciously choose how to react to environments and events that cause stress or result in them behaving in ways they disapprove. To develop this stress-reducing and habit breaking capacity, individuals strive to mindfully observe bodily tension and habitual reactions to stress while learning how freedom of choice can mindfully be found in between cravings and actions (see diagram).
We Have the Ability to Manage our Stress Effectively:
Throughout the eight-week course, instructors go to great lengths to guide individuals towards the realization that, with the help of MBSR practices, they have the power to manage stress effectively, resolve problematic issues in their life and promote a greater sense of subjective well-being. To accomplish this goal, course participants are encouraged to look at the overall course, and weekly homework, as a challenge rather than a chore while focusing on developing the motivation and discipline needed to undertake a formal meditation practice over the longterm.
Additionally, MBSR instructors encourage students to develop seven foundational attitudes towards mindfulness practice: Non-judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non-striving, Acceptance and Letting-Go. When discussing the paramount importance of cultivating the right attitude, Jon Kabat-Zinn tell us:
The attitude with which you undertake the practice of paying attention and being in the present is crucial. It is the soil in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and to relax your body, to concentrate and to see more clearly. If the attitudinal soil is depleted, that is, if your energy and commitment to practice are low, it will be hard to develop calmness and relaxation with any consistency.”
The Core Practices of MBSR:
Now that we have an understanding of the theoretical teachings of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), we can shift our attention to examining the program’s most important undertakings. As we’ve previously mentioned, while the majority of MBSR practices are rooted in the wisdom traditions of ancient India, they have been secularly modified so all participants can nourish and heal themselves without feeling as though they’re going against their faith-based beliefs. Additionally, there are a number of unrelated activities derived from some of psychology’s prominent therapeutic approaches, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), that help enhance individuals’ self-awareness in everyday life. Of course, regardless of whether a practice is rooted in spirituality or psychology, they all similarly aim to help participants enhance their mindful awareness and reduces stress:
Throughout the eight weeks of MBSR course, participants are taught a wide variety of meditative techniques, which are primarily practiced sitting in silence, that help them develop stress-reduction skills and cultivate beneficial personal qualities. While practices such as mindful breathing and choiceless awareness are assuredly considered as some of the most important because they promote an enhanced state of mindfulness and allow individuals to better manage stress in the present-moment, this isn’t to say there aren’t other aims associated with meditation and a number of MBSR techniques promote wholesome health in more specific ways.
The body scan practice which derives from the Buddhist technique of Vipassana, for example, helps individuals become aware of sensations and stress at the physical level, mountain meditation helps individuals develop a sense of contentment and acceptance in the face of ceaseless impermanence and uncertainty, and loving-kindness meditation helps increase meditators’ feelings of goodwill and compassion towards others and themselves. Kabat-Zinn tells us of the power of meditation:
When you touch base in any moment with that part of your mind that is already calm and stable, your perspective immediately changes. You see things more clearly and act from inner balance rather than being tossed about by the agitations of your mind.”
The Art of Mindful Living:
Where as formal meditation allow individuals to develop and enhance their mindfulness skills while silently sitting, there are a number of other exercises that encourage them to bring their practice with them into the real world. Walking meditation and mindful eating, for example, are two MBSR activities that help practitioners nurture an enhanced state of observational awareness, in everyday life, without forcing them to change their routines at all. Moreover, because we have the opportunity to bring mindfulness with us into literally every activity we partake in while awake, MBSR teachers encourage students to discover the art of mindful living by assigning homework that instructs them to choose one monotonous daily occurrence, they usual conduct mindlessly, to consciously focus on being present for.
Stress Relieving Yoga & Stretching:
Where as personal undertakings such as awareness of respiration, the body scan and mindful eating combine to make up the first major class of MBSR practices, the second prominent group of activities is made up of stress relieving yoga and gentle stretching. As MBSR students quickly find out, there are a number of reasons why these non-strenuous yogic postures, which students are instructed to practice mindfully, are included in the program. For example, not only does yoga help individuals gain strength, flexibility and balance, but they’re also able to improve their self-awareness and discover how stress builds up in the body.
Subsequently, by learning how to pinpoint where stressful tension physically resides, they’re better equipped to monitor and relieve the unwholesome bodily feelings that can have an adverse affect on their psychological state and emotional well-being. Jon Kabat-Zinn offers the following mindful advice for yoga practice:
When you practice the yoga, you should be on the lookout for the many ways, some quiet subtle, in which your perspective on your body, your thoughts, and your whole sense of self can change as you are drawn to adopt different postures and stay in them for a time, paring full attention from moment to moment. Practicing in this way enriches the inner work enormously and takes it far beyond the physical benefits that come naturally with the stretching, strengthening, and balancing.”
There are also a number of other psychologically-based MBSR activities, which take on a complementary role to the primary practices of meditation and yoga, worth mentioning here. Throughout the course, students are given a number of weekly self-monitoring homework worksheets, such as the pleasant events calendar, unpleasant events calendar and communication calendar, that provide them with opportunities to systematically monitor, evaluate and learn from their everyday experiences. While these activities, which resemble a number of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises, take on less significance in comparison to the primary practices mentioned above, they do similarly promote greater self-awareness and serve as though-provoking topics for group discussion.
The Science of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:
When Jon Kabat-Zinn set out to revamp how the western world thinks about eastern meditative practices in the 1970s, he did so knowing for well that it’d be imperative to uncover and disseminate the scientific benefits individuals attain from practice. Now, some 40 years later, it’s safe to say he accomplished this goal as an ever growing base of reputable evidence-based research shows how Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and meditation in general, are effective at treating a wide variety of health related disorders. Empirical research has determined, for example, that MBSR can help individuals dealing with, amongst other physical, psychological and cognitive issues, anxiety, depression, anger, chronic pain, fatigue, high blood pressure, ADHD and sleep disorders.
Furthermore, research has also shown how the program can increase healthy individuals’ levels of subjective well-being while decreasing their levels of stress. While a whole book could be written on the research of mindfulness alone, you’ll be able to gain a broader understanding of what’s been discovered scientifically by watching this short video that was put together by the team at University of Massachusetts’ Center For Mindfulness:
As you can now see, there’s good reason why more than 24,000 individuals have completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and over 1,000 more have become certified MBSR instructors since Kabat-Zinn first offered the course some four decades ago. When taking into account the scientific research examining the program, in addition to health related statistics that tell us nearly 80% of American encounter stress on a daily basis, an estimated 75-90% of all doctor visits are in someway stress-related and that stress plays a contributing factor in all six leading causes of death in America, it becomes easier to understand why MBSR has far-reaching potential to transform lives in the United States and throughout the world.
Even if you aren’t currently suffering from a medical issue, it’s certain the MBSR can help you gain greater understanding of yourself and increase your levels of subjective well-being. Now, to end this in-depth exploration of MBSR, it’s only fitting to leave you with some inspirational word from the one and only Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Note that this journey is uniquely yours, no one else’s. So the path has to be your own. You cannot imitate somebody else’s journey and still be true to yourself. Are you prepared to honor your uniqueness in this way?”