An Unexpected Gift from Taking MBSR
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By Karyn Sandelman, guest contributor
There were many things that attracted me to this particular path when I made the commitment to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) years ago. First was my determination to share mindfulness—the practice that has been a steady, positive force of growth in my life for nearly 25 years. Beyond that, I was (and still am) committed to making mindfulness accessible to as many people as possible. MBSR, with its inclusive approach, evidence-based impacts, and time-tested credibility was without a doubt the route for me. Now, having taught nearly 30 cycles of the course, I know there’s another crucial factor that not only makes MBSR a joy and privilege for me to be part of, but is also a key to its effectiveness... that is the powerful support and impact of the group learning community.
Having grown up in an education system that reinforced and rewarded individual learning, the bonus of MBSR’s group format was a big surprise to me; one that is reaffirmed again and again with each group I lead. This was true when I began teaching, and feels even more important today as we navigate the imposed isolation of the ongoing pandemic and the consequential loneliness many of us feel at this time.
How does an unrelated group of individuals create community online?
You might be wondering how a group of strangers can quickly form a trusting bond or if this can really occur online. In my experience, yes, it can and it does happen, repeatedly! It starts at the beginning of each MBSR course, with a group discussion about what we each need to do to co-create a safe and welcoming space for all of us. We then agree to maintain confidentiality, to speak and listen mindfully (which we define), and to honor any other tenets we have identified.
With these agreements in place, along with a humbling amount of courage and vulnerability, authentic sharing and exploration begin, and our foundation of trust and connection start to take root. Over the eight weeks, our sense of community deepens and flourishes, supported by our ongoing commitment to hold space for each other and strengthened by our growing mindfulness practice, which is grounded in an attitude of curiosity, friendliness, and kindness.
At the end of the course, the richness and support of the class community comes up again and again as a meaningful and largely unexpected benefit of MBSR. Here’s what a few recent participants said about this:
“…people on Zoom feel like they were all in a room together as individuals but also as a cohesive, supportive group.”
“I really enjoyed getting to know my cohort and learning from them through their experiences.”
"The online MBSR program…offered unexpected connections to other human beings…"
Fruits of Mindfulness Practice
Ultimately, one of the fruits of mindfulness practice is a deep realization of our common humanity and interconnection. As described by the wonderful mindfulness teacher Joseph Goldstein in Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Awakening (2013/2016, p. 12):
“How does feeling our breath or taking a mindful step help anyone else? It happens in several ways. The more we understand our own minds, the more we understand everyone else. We increasingly feel the commonality of our human condition, of what creates suffering and how we can be free. Our practice also benefits others through the transformation of how we are in the world… Of necessity, how we are affects everyone around us.”
How can you cultivate a sense of connection through mindfulness practice?
First, you can take an MBSR course! If that doesn’t fit into your plans right now, there are other possibilities.
While all mindfulness practices help us better “understand our own minds,” some are specifically geared towards opening our hearts, helping strengthen our innate capacity for kindness and connection. The foundational heart-oriented practice is Lovingkindness Meditation, which is included in MBSR. In developing our capacity for unconditional friendliness, this practice naturally deepens our sense of connection and common humanity.
Research supports this, as well as other benefits of practicing Lovingkindness Meditation, with one study concluding: “Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals (neutral strangers) on both explicit and implicit levels. These results suggest that this easily implemented technique may help to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation.” (Hutherson, et. al., 2008, p. 720)
Bonus Practice: Lovingkindness Meditation
The traditional lovingkindness practice is to offer phrases of goodwill to ourselves and others, offering a way to connect even if you can't take a mindfulness course right now. The description that follows is a compilation that draws on too many sources to name, with one exception: my deep gratitude to Sharon Salzberg, who has devoted so much of her energy and wisdom to teaching mindfulness in general and Lovingkindness Meditation in particular.
Commonly used phrases are: May I (you) be (or feel) safe… as healthy as possible… happy… live with ease. You are encouraged to play with these, modifying them to best express what you wish for most.
The phrases are typically offered in the following order: To oneself, a benefactor, a loved one (or friend), a neutral person, a more challenging person, and all beings everywhere. You can begin with the full sequence, if that feels accessible. That said, for many people, it is helpful to start where it is easiest—where warmth and good wishes can flow most readily. Often that means beginning with a benefactor or a loved one. You might stay with that category for a while (days, weeks, or more), expanding to include others gradually, as you feel ready.
- Settle into a comfortable posture and adopt an attitude of friendliness and curiosity, as best you can.
- Take a moment to tune into the body, the heart, and the mind, noticing how it is for you right now without needing to change anything.
- Guide your attention to a focal point (like sounds, the breath, or a contact point in the body such as the feet or hands), resting awareness here for a few minutes.
- When you feel ready, bring to mind the being you will begin the practice with—this may be a benefactor, loved one, friend, pet, or someone else—visualizing them or getting a felt sense of them, as if they were right here with you, and taking in what you appreciate about them. It is helpful to send wishes to beings who are alive; otherwise, you may unintentionally bring up grief.
- Begin to offer your phrases of goodwill, allowing your attention to rest with each phrase, connecting with the meaning and noticing if there’s any feeling associated with the phrase (without trying to force any particular experience).
- As you practice, find a pace that is comfortable and allows enough space after each phrase for you to feel any ripple that might follow.
- When the mind wanders, as it will, guide it back to the practice with kindness.
- When you’re ready, gently bring the phrases to a close and let the image of this being dissolve. You might go on to another being, or you might conclude your practice.
- As you reach the end of your practice, bring your attention back to the body, resting right where you are. Notice again how it is for you now – body, heart, and mind.
- Take your time to transition gradually from this practice to whatever is next, bringing this kind awareness and sense of connection with you.
My wishes for you
As you continue to navigate this challenging time in the world, may you be safe and well… may you be patient and kind with yourself and others… may you know happiness and peace.