What Is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)?

IMCW teachers in both Virginia and Maryland are now offering 8-week workshops with a description that at first glance seems like a mouthful and a bit confusing: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. 

What exactly is this?

The first thing to know is that the word “stress” in the workshop’s title is simply a modern and more secular way of referring to the word “suffering” as it appears in the Buddhist teachings. This long title (and the workshop itself) was created 35 years ago by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who at the time of its origin was a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and a long-time practitioner of Vipassana meditation.

During his time at the hospital, Dr. Kabat-Zinn began to notice that, despite a series of surgeries and a variety of medications, many patients in the hospital’s chronic pain unit still were not able to experience much relief. Doctors were at a loss about what more they could do for them.

Based on his experience and study of Vipassana meditation, Dr. Kabat-Zinn believed that if he could lead these patients through a progressive series of mindfulness practices in a group format, they might be able to develop the ability to see their pain more objectively, learn how to relate to it differently, and therefore suffer less stress from it.

After receiving permission from the hospital, Dr. Kabat-Zinn developed an intensive and progressive series of eight 2.5-hour classes, and taught it to a group of patients in the hospital’s basement.

Turns out, he was right.

In fact, the results of Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s program were so outstanding that his workshop soon caught the attention of PBS’s Bill Moyers, who produced a documentary about it, “Healing and the Mind,” that was seen by more than 40 million viewers. Soon after, the workshop quickly started spreading throughout the country and even internationally. In 1995 the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center was created to not only offer MBSR, but to train experienced meditation practitioners to teach it.

Today, MBSR is being offered in almost 300 hospitals, medical centers, and clinics around the world — including some of the leading integrative medical centers such as the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, and the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine. Because of its success, the workshop is now also being offered to the general public in venues other than the hospital system.

The basic premise of MBSR is that the students take on significant responsibility for doing their own interior work in order to tap into their deepest inner resources for learning, growing, healing, and transformation. The teachings are based on Buddhist principles – primarily Vipassana practices — yet the MBSR program is designed to be offered as a secular, more science-based training in mindfulness.

The workshop itself is intended to help people establish their own unique mindfulness practice, teach them techniques that can help address physical and emotional symptoms made worse by stress, and increase their peace and quality of life. The classes are intimate, highly experiential, and focus on helping students understand the various mental causes of stress (i.e. suffering), how it affects the mind and body, and how to work with it through mindfulness to reduce its effects. And, while the more spiritually-based teachings that involve topics such as ethics, kindness, and compassion are taught, the modern science around the practice of mindfulness meditation tends to be strongly emphasized.

Since its creation in 1979, there has been a tremendous amount of research coming out of such places as Harvard, UCLA, Stanford, the University of Madison-Wisconsin and many more high-ranking institutions showing not only that MBSR works — but how. While not a cure, scientific studies have shown that MBSR can help participants manage the stress that accompanies many conditions such as: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, chronic pain, fatigue, headaches, fibromyalgia, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, menopausal symptoms, cancer, radiation, chemotherapy, addiction recovery, and difficult relationships, among a host of other things.

Before a teacher can offer MBSR, they first need to complete the 8-week workshop with a trained teacher, then be accepted to attend a series of intensive trainings offered by the Center for Mindfulness, including a weeklong training retreat with Dr. Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli (the program’s director), along with a 10-day teacher training program. Then, depending on their teaching experience and training, the Center for Mindfulness can decide to approve them to be listed on their website as a trained teacher. Teacher certification in MBSR requires much more additional training.

Generally, each class in an MBSR series includes 2 to 2.5 hours of instruction, and offers group dialogue and discussion, talks about stress, as well as guided instruction in mindfulness meditation practices. Students are assigned 45-60 minutes of formal practice daily, usually in the form of a body scan, gentle hatha yoga, and/or guided and silent meditations, along with homework assignments and reading (usually chapters from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living.) To help them establish these practices students are also given guided CDs or downloads and often a home practice workbook too.

While the series of eight classes as well as the daylong retreat are expected to be modeled after the ones offered at Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, because each teacher brings different skills and preferences to the structure, each workshop will be a little different. And depending on the experience and location of the teacher, the price is likely to be different, too. (For example, fees can range from as low as $250 in more rural areas to $600 in the city).

To find out where you can take an MBSR workshop with one of our IMCW teachers, please click here.


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