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Teaching Regular Folks to Reduce Stress With Mindfulness

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Two months ago, I signed up for a MBSR teacher training practicum with Bob Stahl, at El Camino Hospital, in Mountain View, California. MBSR stands for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a curriculum of classes designed in 1979, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, from University of Massachusetts General Hospital, to serve people living with stress, pain, and illness. MBSR classes are now offered in 250 medical centers across the United States, and also increasingly, internationally. It is being taught to employees at Google, and also in schools, in prisons, and in senior residential communities . . . I had heard and read great things about MBSR, but it took sitting for 8 weeks straight in Bob Stahl's class to witness firsthand the transformative power of the MBSR approach. Bob Stahl just published 'A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook', and I took advantage of the occasion to ask him a few questions:

What does MBSR consist of exactly?

People meet for 8 weeks, once a week for two hour and a half hours. They also participate in a daylong halfway through. The program consists of a series of mindfulness meditation practices, mindful yoga, walking meditation, and group discussions. Participants are given audio CDs to practice outside of class. They are also encouraged to bring mindfulness to their day to day activities. As they become more mindful, people start coming to terms with the way things are, and exerting greater compassion and acceptance towards themselves. Healing takes place.

How did you become involved?

After spending 8 years in a Buddhist monastery, I started teaching mindfulness classes at a stroke center. There, I kept witnessing the power of mindfulness, in helping people cope with the challenges of daily life after a stroke. An ex-monk friend of mine sent me a copy of Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn's book. After I read it, I was so enthused. Here was a man who had put together a program that articulated all I knew from working with the stroke patients. I wrote to him at once. Jon called me and invited me to visit him at University of Massachusetts. This was in 1991, and there was no training yet at the time.

What are some MBSR success stories that come to mind?

There are so many instances . . . I keep on seeing very courageous people who are actively working on meeting their suffering, and working with it. There was a woman with metastatic breast cancer, who not only learned to live with her cancer, but also insisted on living her life fully, with a deeper level of compassion and self-acceptance, including reconciling with her oppressive father. There was a nurse with chronic migraine who was ashamed of her irritability from the migraines, and the way it affected her relationship with her children. As the weeks went on, she learned to take care of herself, which in turned helped her show more compassion to her children. Her migraines eventually became less frequent. Then, there was Bob, who after having had one lung surgically removed because of lung cancer, could only stretch his arm up one third of the way. Thanks to mindful yoga practice, one millimeter, one breath, at a time, he was able to raise his arm all the way up over his head by the end of the eighth week. So many stories of no more panic no more anxiety, no more migraines, less pain . . .

Where can one go to learn MBSR?

I would start with the Center for Mindfulness, Jon-Kabat's Zinn's program, and look for a place in the regional and international directory there. People are also welcome to use my book, and the guided meditations that come with it. Of course, the book is not meant as a replacement for the whole MBSR experience, but it can be a start.

If you suffer from stress, pain, or illness, I hope you will consider MBSR. It may very well change your life.