From the Circle to the Square: Moving MBSR Online

BL00 - From the Circle to the Square Teaching Online MBSR-Max-Quality

By Mary Beth Stern  

It’s a beautiful fall morning as I look at my calendar. I smile at the utilitarian efficiency of the google calendar, emblematic of the great shift. I fondly recall the handwritten notes to self and the inspirational quotations on my perfectly sized, 7 1/2 inch square calendar, big enough to be clearly visible on the desk in my office and easily tucked away in my tote when on the run. Jolted by the arrival of the month of October, my mind is whisked away, like an old-fashioned high-speed rewind recording of the year 2020. I remember arranging the chairs for my mindfulness class in a large waiting room, intending but never quite achieving the “perfect” circle. There’s an art to getting the circle just right: creating enough space between the chairs and being sure they are all in easy view of one another. I loved the egalitarian nature of this formation, a constant reminder of the multidirectional learning that emerges in the magic of the MBSR circle. 

It’s a bit of a blur now, how January quickly became March. There was something along the way in the news, about a far away epidemic. News is always a bit far away until it’s not. My birthday happened in February and there was a wonderful visit from my daughter. Those few days were slow, precious, and sweet and there was a tug in my heart as I dropped her off at the airport for her cross-continent flight home. It was later in the month when she called, complaining of symptoms I’d been hearing about on those nightly reports. When I showed up for the last session of the mindfulness class I’d been teaching, there was a sign on the door: “DO NOT ENTER if you have the following symptoms…“ 

I had taken select classes online throughout the course of my mindfulness training and had become, in time, comfortable with the platform. I remember how my mind would pause and occasionally ask myself, “Is the comment you’re about to make “unmute” worthy?” But teaching the entire MBSR curriculum online? I was skeptical. Just in time, an offering appeared in my inbox for a training to teach MBSR online. There were all the requisite details of the technology included in the class, but beneath the details of gallery view, speaker view, shared screens, etc, was the heart of the message: the importance of kindness and patience with one’s self and the participants. My skepticism was softening. I recalled the lesson I’d learned in the distant past of not even attempting to solve the 9 dot puzzle, knowing “I’m not good at this.” I resolved to shift from teaching in-person to teaching online immediately, while the skills were still fresh. 

In MBSR classes, the question is sometimes posed: “What’s here now? What are the learnings, the discoveries, the challenges?” As I ponder these questions, as they pertain to online vs. in-person mindfulness training, my mind ping pongs from subtle differences to the more significant. To begin with, the iconic MBSR circle is now a square. The location of “my square” is undefined. I’m not in a particular corner and there is no hierarchy to the configuration of the squares on the screen. The multidirectional learning is apparent, as wisdom spews from the middle, top, bottom, and sides of the screen, and at times, from multiple screens. 

What is seeable for each individual on the screen is limited: mostly, just head and shoulders and a bit of background. A participant I taught who had taken both the in-person and the online class shared, “I could actually see and hear the people more clearly with the option of speaker view and volume adjustment.” As a teacher, what I don’t see and sometimes wonder about is if a particular person is short or tall, slight in frame, or overweight. The discovery, here, is that if it is important learning for the student, it will often emerge. They might mention it in a pre-class interview or in the course of the class. One young woman commented that her weight was at an all-time high as a result of sheltering in place, which led to a rich discussion of self-compassion, and acceptance as a foundational step to habit change. 

I was fortunate to teach in-person MBSR in a hospital with a meditation room with floor to ceiling windows. The view outside was of a lovely healing garden. Often we would engage in a “window meditation” gazing out, taking in the entire visual field.

“Life is a garden, not a road. We enter and leave through the same gate. Wandering, where we go matters less than what we notice.”

- Kurt Vonnegut

The “garden” in online MBSR, may be a pile of neatly folded laundry (or a heap of dirty clothes still undone!), it may be a view out a small window, or a favorite photograph hanging on a wall. The practice is in the noticing… in the ordinary spaces where life happens. 

What people see and notice and learn about one another on the screen has been a huge discovery. In a group I am currently teaching, as we gathered together, one window popping up and then the next, an individual intentionally unmuted himself and blurted out to another participant, “I am SO happy for you!!” We had all been muted to enter and were a little startled by his exclamation. What he had noticed in the rather tiny square of another student, was that she was sitting on a balcony and that the sky was visible. The prior week she had shared that she could not go outside due to wildfires that were closing in. What is seen, or perhaps not seen, on the screen is often more than compensated for by what it is heard and surely by what is felt. 

Whether people come to the class for tools to deal with chronic pain, anxiety, or out of control stress, the common thread that draws people to MBSR, whether in-person or online, is the longing for connection. I have found myself inviting all to unmute and share about an unpleasant event, a challenging communication, meeting unexpected loss. At times it’s been a little messy, people accidentally speaking at once, not sequentially in turn. It reminded me a bit of a large Thanksgiving family gathering… noisy, unpredictable, with laughter, political arguments, team rivalries, and perhaps even tears. There was a time I had a brief power failure; I hastily rebooted and logged back on thinking “THIS doesn’t happen with in-person classes!” I apologized to the group and someone said, “oh I thought it was MY computer!” We laughed, paused, and continued on, connected in ways that clearly transcended technology. 

“THIS doesn’t happen with in-person classes!”

The feature of breakout rooms in the online platform is designed to join people in pairs or small groups for a more intimate discussion of a particular topic. I’ve discovered this feature, perhaps more than any other, serves to bring people together and build group cohesion. In an in-person group, my experience has shown that folks tend to settle into the habitual pattern of sitting in the same seat or in the same section of the circle week after week. We even explore this tendency in class seven as we engage in a “ seat changing” exercise. In online MBSR, students are given the opportunity to interact with all the other members of the group over the eight week period. Folks are randomly assigned to be with different participants, not just those who are “geographically convenient” in the circle. Another obvious advantage of the online platform is the accessibility of the class to a worldwide population. The circumference of the MBSR circle now encompasses the entire globe and students get to know their intercontinental classmates in cozy gatherings of 2-4 people through the feature of breakout rooms.

Undisputedly, there are features lacking in online MBSR. One is the casual greeting among people as they enter an actual room as opposed to a virtual room. Another is the obvious, at times most palpable, lack of physical touch. No fist-bumps, no hugs, no high fives. To be connected often impels us to desire physical touch. How often a hug or a slight touch of a hand on a forearm has felt like an affirmation of connection for me. The challenge, then, as we embark on the Era of Zoom, is to explore this new frontier, attentive to innovative ways of being together in this new “square on the screen” format, allowing the heart to touch and be touched, in a forum where the hands cannot. 

Mary Beth Stern is a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, trained and certified by the Center for Mindfulness at UMASS Medical School. She is also trained in Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention and is a Florida Board Certified Addictions counselor. Since 2014, she has taught throughout Palm Beach County, and was the senior MBSR teacher at Jupiter Medical Center, in collaboration with UMASS Center for Mindfulness. She now teaches MBSR with Mindful Leader.

Mary Beth is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes. 

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