Autonomy, Competence, and Connection: The Backbone of MBSR

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By Anna Smyth, guest contributor

What exactly will I get out of an MBSR class? 

This is the most common question I hear from prospective students. While considering an MBSR course, you may have some assumptions about what a “class” might involve such as lectures, course materials, group discussions, etc. At the end of an 8-week MBSR course, many of my students express surprise at how much they experienced and learned—much more than anticipated. But what exactly are you in for as an MBSR student?

Many people turn to MBSR as a way to deal with a source of struggle in their lives like chronic pain, relationships, professional burnout, etc. When a person signs up for an MBSR course, they may be feeling overwhelmed by life and have low levels of motivation to do much beyond simply surviving one day at a time. Some people sign up looking for an “answer” or “solution” or for some helpful personal growth. Upon completing an MBSR course, however, students who really commit find they have learned something much deeper and more valuable than simply a quick fix to a problem. And in my years of teaching MBSR, one thing consistently and pleasantly surprises students about this learning: what you learn in MBSR arises largely from how you learn. And the word students use most often to describe this kind of learning is transformational. To understand what I mean, let’s take a quick look at something called self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory, developed by researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, states that our motivation for personal growth—learning mindfulness, for example—relies primarily on three things (1). The stronger we feel in each of these areas, the greater our motivation.

  1. Autonomy: Feeling a sense of agency or control over our behavior and goals
  2. Competence: Believing we have the ability to succeed at a given task
  3. Connection: Feeling a sense of belonging with a person or group

One of the reasons MBSR is so impactful is that it effectively integrates all three of these elements over and over throughout the entire course. This nurtures and builds our motivation and commitment week after week, even for folks who are struggling with low motivation or interest in their daily life. Below are a few aspects of MBSR that contribute to ever-growing levels of autonomy, competence, and connection and, as reported by students, result in valuable and lasting change.

Home Practice 

A key aspect of MBSR is trying out mindfulness meditation at home on your own. As we practice regularly at home between weekly MBSR class sessions, we are building a positive feedback loop in the mind that tells us we do have the power to change our behaviors and habits. This sense of autonomy leads to a generalized increase in self-confidence. As we continue a regular home practice, that increased confidence turns into discipline. And as Aristotle said, “Through discipline comes freedom.”

Group Dialogue

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked several hundred participants for nearly 80 years to determine what most influences healthy aging, found that strong social support was the leading factor. “Loneliness kills,” said the director of the study, Robert Waldinger. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” (2)

When life’s challenges arise, our struggle is often compounded by a sense of isolation. One powerful, healing aspect in an MBSR course is the regular, open dialogue among participants—sharing insights, challenges, questions, and perceptions of all elements of life, both the pleasant and the unpleasant. This sharing leads students to discover a sense of common humanity; in some ways we are all working with the same things—pain, grief, worry, aging, death, and the like. This sense of connection and knowing we are not alone brings about greater ease and comfort.

Not Knowing

In MBSR, we practice approaching meditation with curiosity and inquiry, a sort of letting go and not knowing what the next moment holds. It’s the same state of mind we’d have when trying a new food, or visiting a new place, or hearing a new song from an artist we love--wonder, alert attention, even joy. In MBSR we learn how to cultivate this state of awakeness and freshness in even the most mundane moments of our lives, like brushing teeth or waiting in line at the market. 

Students are often surprised to find that this mindset we practice in meditation begins to seep into our daily lives and replace anxiety, neurosis, or cynicism with a sense of resilience and competence. If I don’t know what the next moment holds, then who am I to say I will fail or get hurt or whatever other scenario typically plays out in my worried mind? Instead we begin to simply live one moment at a time with confidence in our ability to handle what comes as it comes, and this change profoundly benefits our overall health and well-being.

Erich Fromm, in his book To Have or To Be, describes two modes of learning: Having mode and Being mode. In Having mode, we collect knowledge similar to collecting coins. “The students and the content of the lectures remain strangers to each other, except that each student has become the owner of a collection of statements made by somebody else” (3). He then describes the rich learning experience of students in Being mode, “Their listening is an alive process...They do not simply acquire knowledge that they can take home and memorize. Each student has been affected and has changed: each is different after the lecture than he or she was before it” (4).  MBSR gives us the opportunity for this sort of experiential learning, the transformational kind that deepens our sense of well-being in ways that last a lifetime. 

Anna Smyth manages the Mindfulness Utah network and is an Adjunct Faculty at Salt Lake Community College. She holds a Master’s Degree in Health Promotion and Education. She teaches MBSR as well as Mindful Motherhood, Learning to Breathe, Mindful Eating and Stress Management courses. Her primary motivation is helping people rediscover their innate resilience and well-being.

References:

1. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68

2. Mineo, L.  (2017). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. The Harvard Gazette. Retrieved August 7, 2021, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/

3. Fromm, E. (1997). To have or to be? Bloomsbury. (26)

4. ibid.

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