6 Ways to Develop Community in Online MBSR Classes

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By Dave Potter, guest contributor

“The data show that relationships may matter more than technique and suggest that meditating as part of a community or group would increase well-being.  So to increase effectiveness, meditation or mindfulness apps could consider expanding ways that members or users can interact with each other.”

- Corrie Pikul-Brown, in Mindfulness Benefits Hinge on Who’s Aroundwriting about Willoughby Britton’s study of mindfulness training 

Restrictions brought on by COVID-19 inspired many MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) instructors who had previously only taught in person to move to online classes. Many discovered that, with appropriate adjustments, live online classes can provide meaningful interaction and true community (see 3 Tips to Effectively Teach Mindfulness Live Online).  These instructors, once skeptical about the effectiveness of online instruction, now report deep and transformative learning even among participants who will never meet in person.

But what about self-paced online MBSR?  Is it possible to create community when students are starting at different times and progressing at different rates? Can their experience be as profound and transformative as with live MBSR classes?

I have been living with these questions for eight years, ever since I created the free self-paced online Palouse Mindfulness MBSR course.  I’ve concluded that the answer to these two questions is a definite “yes.” What follows are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, many of which are applicable to live MBSR courses.

1. Make it personal

Shortly after I made the Palouse Mindfulness course available on the web, a prospective student called to verify my credentials because a free MBSR course seemed too good to be true.  After our phone call, she was reassured but suggested that I share on the website what I had shared with her on the phone.  In response, I created a new page, but when I showed it to her, telling her that I was afraid it was too personal, she said, “No, it’s not nearly personal enough. A prospective student needs to know not just your credentials, but who you are and why you care enough about them to make this course available to them for free.” 

Her comment inspired a 3-minute video in which I welcome new students, as well as a promise on the website that anyone who finishes the 8-week course and submits their fourteen practice sheets and “letter of learning” will get a personal response with specific feedback on their learning and practice, not just a boilerplate letter of congratulations.

Many graduates have told me that even though they had never had a single conversation with me, they felt I was reaching out to them personally, through the introductory video, the meditations recorded in my voice, and through the obvious care that I had taken to make it a productive experience for them.

2. Provide a way for students to share and have questions answered in real-time

As soon as the online course was up and running, I began to receive emails with questions about personal practice.  Some patterns emerged and a FAQ page I created in response was a reasonable start.  But I soon realized that what students needed, at least as much as an answer to their questions, was to know that someone has actually “heard” them and that they are not alone in their concerns. To address this, I started a Facebook group.

Because it is important that the sharing be personal and practice-based, participants are asked to limit their postings to their direct personal experience.  They are specifically asked to not repost interesting quotes, articles, event announcements, or videos, no matter how inspirational they might be. This group is active and engaged, and posts are personal and practice-related. 

This is one area in which a self-paced course may actually be superior to a typical live once-a-week course because the student doesn’t have to wait until the next weekly meeting to ask a question or get feedback.  Almost always, a student posting a concern or asking a question gets a response within an hour or two. The immediacy is both supportive and reassuring.

3. Encourage peer-to-peer interaction

This first Facebook student group was “seeded” with 15 experienced graduates (from all parts of the world to cover all the time zones) to help create a sense of community for new students from the very first day the group was operational. Having a number of experienced meditators (and not just a single “expert”) ready to respond to questions and concerns was key to encouraging peer-to-peer interaction. Although I monitor the Facebook group every day, I rarely need to answer questions or concerns myself - usually a student or graduate responds with skill and warm encouragement.

4. Provide opportunities for live interaction

In April of 2020, we converted what had been a monthly in-person meeting for local graduates to a Zoom meeting for everyone, no matter where they were located, including current students as well as graduates.  The meetings include a meditation, followed by a 30-minute break-out session with groups of 4-5 people to share their experiences related to the theme for that month, and ending with whole-group sharing (see typical break-out instructions).

There was clearly a hunger for live interaction: 220 people from all corners of the world participated in our first Zoom meeting. Over the ensuing months, students and graduates alike have said that the small group break-outs are the most valuable part of the meeting, providing the opportunity to meet with other meditators from around the world.  

5. Integrate MBSR practice with weekly live meditation and discussion meetings

Because the monthly Zoom meetings have been so effective in creating a sense of community, we recently began hosting weekly meditation and discussion meetings at various times and days, led by experienced Palouse Mindfulness graduates. My Online Meditation and Discussion meetings page lists these and many other free meditation meetings that emerged during the pandemic (for instance, Mindful Leader’s “Meditate Together”, which provides 24 hours of meditation meetings five days a week).

Students taking the Palouse Mindfulness course have the option to substitute one of these weekly meetings for one of the six meditations that are part of the course curriculum, giving them the opportunity to meet weekly with a vibrant and active community of fellow students and graduates.

6. Give them time and resources to go deeper

Thanks to the self-paced format, students are not limited to eight weeks of learning - they can take as long as they need to absorb the teachings and practices of any given “week.”  We recommend that they move on to the next “week” only when they feel they have gotten the essence of the current “week” through practice and study and have completed at least six practices.  Some students take many months to complete the course and report that spending more than eight weeks actually enhanced their learning and allowed them to better integrate their practice into daily life. 

Because the student and graduate groups are ongoing, students have community support no matter how long they take to complete the course, and if they wish, even beyond graduation.

Graduates can also access a rich set of regularly updated resources that allow for continued learning after they complete the course (see Graduate Meetings).

The Result: A world-wide community of MBSR students and graduates

Now, eight years after sending a certificate of completion to the first Palouse Mindfulness online graduate, the online community includes more than 5,000 graduates from over 90 countries and 7,000 members of online student and graduate groups. The Facebook groups and Zoom meetings are active and dynamic, and provide a sense of community and continuity that would otherwise be missing from a traditional self-paced online course.  Many of our graduates and students say that an important part of their learning is the sense of belonging and community that the course provides.  

My conclusion, after reading the letters of completion and practice sheets of 5,000 online students, and having previously taught MBSR to 400 people in person, is that students who complete the self-paced online Palouse Mindfulness MBSR course have just as deep an experience as those who complete a live MBSR course.  

That being said, because a self-paced online course is easy to start but challenging to finish, and because a regular live MBSR course increases the odds that a student will finish what they have begun, we still recommend that people take a live course if possible. But for the thousands of students who are unable to attend or afford a live MBSR class, a self-paced online MBSR course such as Palouse Mindfulness can provide deep learning, a sense of community, and personal transformation.

Dave Potter is a retired psychotherapist and is fully certified as an MBSR instructor by the UMass Medical School where MBSR was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The free online MBSR course he created in 2013, Palouse Mindfulness, is based on the 8-week in-person MBSR class he taught for 12 years.  To see videos and readings on the topic of “community” from a past Palouse Mindfulness Graduate meeting, see Belonging and Wholeness.

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