3 Questions that Strike the Vital Point of MBSR

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By Janet Solyntjes, guest contributor

Several days ago I received a list of common questions that potential MBSR participants have voiced to the staff at Mindful Leader.  In looking over the list I thought I would address one, but found that three questions, when combined, strike the heart of what we could call the MBSR experiential journey.  These questions represent the beginning, middle, and end of any journey one might take: the view, practice, and result.  

Take, for example, the path of helping others. Before one can help others one must become familiar with one’s own motivation for doing so and then aspire to truly help.  The aspiration might be to bring about racial, gender, and economic equality, to heal the sick, to offer shelter to those unhoused, to protect those who are in abusive conditions. Recognizing the motivation for what one is going to do is connected to view. 

The aspiration then needs to be engaged with practicalities.  This stage, the practice of engaging one’s view, requires effort and determination, skillfulness and wisdom, as well as a willingness to fail.  Along the path of engaging with one’s aspiration arise glimpses of the result or goal.  The truth is, these three stages of view, practice, and result are not bound by linearity.

Let’s apply this framework to the 3 questions raised about participating in an MBSR course:

Question #1: What should people know before they take an MBSR course?

Nestled within this question is the invitation to become familiar with the view of MBSR and noticing whether or not, through familiarizing, you feel the arising of an aspiration to move forward to the next step - registering for the course.

What do you become familiar with?  While it is helpful and necessary to know the details of the course – a highly participatory group learning, once weekly for 8-weeks, including a daylong silent practice intensive, and weekly home assignments – it is vital that you understand the basic view or perspective that MBSR is based upon.  Is the view one that takes the perspective of problem-solving stress or is it a perspective of drawing out an already present unconditional healthiness?  

People should know that MBSR takes the approach of cultivating what is already worthy, dignified, and basically good in you, in every participant, and in the group as a whole.  Through becoming familiar with the perspective of innate goodness and healthiness, a genuine aspiration to remember and trust the unconditional within naturally arises.  A trust in one’s basic dignity, goodness, and healthiness allows a person to move forward into life. 

In fact, this view becomes a source of strength when meeting the inevitable challenges of growing, healing, and deeply accepting life, as it is. Since most of us have moments where we view ourselves as broken, flawed, or lacking in some way, the approach of innate wholeness and goodness can bring about a powerful healing.

Question #2: What is the hardest part of taking an MBSR course?

Underneath the desire to know what difficulties lie ahead is a fear that we might not be able to handle the “hard” or a hope that the experience will be smooth and free of any unpleasantness. The invitation to abandon hope and go beyond fear is perhaps the hardest part of anything we undertake in life for it requires a willingness to be with the unknown, and often with uncomfortable feelings and emotions.  

When we are in the grip of fear about what lies ahead and moving forward in our life we feed the self-talk that focuses on the potential negative in relation to something that has not yet happened.  This inner dialogue is a projection. The experience of fear is real, but is not true in this case. Conversely, when we are ambushed by hope and the sense that something better lies out there in the future, in another moment of time, we lose the ability to be fully present. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment if what we hoped for does not come to be or if our expectations for feeling good are not fulfilled.

Participants in an MBSR course are encouraged to let go of all expectations of what the experience might be like.  Easier said than done. In the words of the American meditation teacher, Pema Chodron, “Nothing in its essence is one way or the other.” 

When a person fully engages in the process of going through the 8-week MBSR course, what is hard may turn out to be good.  And, what is hard for you may be easy for someone else. So, one is encouraged to “put out the welcome mat” and see what shows up.

Question #3: How does MBSR reduce stress?

There are two approaches one might take to this question: 1) What has been proven through scientific studies about the reduction of stress following an MBSR course? and 2) What is the inner key to feeling lighter, less stressed, and more resilient regardless of the published results?  

Research on the outcomes, results, and effects of MBSR is abundant and beyond the scope of this article to include.  (Here is a meta-analysis on the PubMed.org website and an exploration from Mindful Leader.)  What science may not be able to measure accurately is how the impact of the inner action of letting go, practiced over and over again, contributes to stress reduction. In addition to the inner art of letting go are the contributing factors of connection and community. And finally, like the fictional figure Zorba the Greek –– who inspired the phrase “full catastrophe living” commonly quoted in MBSR–– the simple and daily celebration of being alive, regardless of the number or enormity of challenges the day has brought, contributes to a lightness and joy of being.  This way of joyfully celebrating life is not dependent upon the successes or failures of work, the presence or absence of dramas in our relationships, or the ups and downs of personal health.  Whenever I remember Zorba I am inspired to find my version of singing and dancing on the beach every night so that I can allow the result of a day’s journey to be that of celebration, not just a sigh of relief that I survived.

My response to these three questions about MBSR can be captured in the following phrases:

  1. Trust in basic goodness (view)
  2. Engage life wholeheartedly (practice)
  3. Let go and celebrate (result)

In conclusion, this excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke which speaks to the heart of this article:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves

as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language.

Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is, to live everything.

Janet Solyntjes, MA, is a Certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher offering courses in Colorado since 2000 and has been leading mindfulness meditation retreats in the U.S. and internationally for over 25 years. As the co-founder of the Center for Courageous Living, Janet is committed to promoting the inherent goodness of individuals and groups by uncovering their basic health and well-being. 

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

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1 comment

Siobhan Smith

Thank you for this article. The reminder of the Rilke poem is very timely for me. I love the 3 point summary. I shall remember that.

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