How Do You Practice MBSR?
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By Dr. Gus Castellanos, Mindful Leader MBSR Instructor
Stress is a normal human response to external causes that we experience as demanding or threatening. Good stress is short-term, and it inspires and motivates you. It increases your focus and enhances your performance. Bad stress or distress, however, leads to anxiety, overwhelm, confusion, poor concentration, and decreased performance. Mindfulness-based practices are key to reducing stress and anxiety and helping you manage emotions, focus your attention, and increase performance. These practices are the foundation of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
MBSR is an evidence-based, 8-week mindfulness-based program founded in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts. The program aims to increase self-awareness leading to self-regulation and self-care by combining mindfulness meditations, mindful movement, and informal practices to inquire into one’s patterns of thinking, feeling, and action and how these affect one’s life. The practices, exercises, and inquiry, along with the support of and discussion with the other participants, help one skillfully relate to life and its circumstances, especially the unwanted ones.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally”—in other words, being aware of what is happening as it is happening with a friendly and non-reactive attitude. To cultivate this present moment, nonjudgmental awareness, MBSR offers meditation practices including the body scan, sitting meditation, mindful movement and walking, and mindful eating. The teacher introduces these practices and guides them during class. The participants are asked to listen to recordings of these practices at home every day.
Here is a summary of the practices and their intentions:
The Body Scan
In the body scan practice, the attention is moved systematically through the body while the participant lies or sits still. There are no goals to achieve and no right way for the body to feel. One learns to be intentional about how to pay attention by bringing kind attention to the body and being present to how things are moment-by-moment without needing to change things. Practitioners are also taught how to relate skilfully to mind wandering when it occurs (acknowledging and bringing back nonjudgmentally, again and again). Practicing this way, one sees difficulties as less of a problem and discovers new ways to handle challenges by making skillful personal choices.
Mindful movement practices build on the body scan. After two weeks of daily body scan practice, participants alternate the body scan and mindful movement every other day to experience awareness of the body in motion one day, and the body in stillness the next day. Mindful movement practices consist of simple and gentle yoga stretching. The exercises aim to cultivate an awareness of the body moving (as it often is in life) while encouraging friendliness to the body. No experience with yoga is necessary as this is not about the perfect pose, alignment, flexibility, or balance. It is about awareness and self-care. One learns how to accept physical limitations, relate in new ways to discomfort, and respond to the body and its needs with gentleness—discovering new ways of taking care of oneself.
The sitting meditation practice (which can be done lying down) consists of anchoring to the present moment by bringing attention to the breath, body sensations, sounds, and thoughts and feelings. This practice cultivates an observer stance by fully being with experience and receiving experience as it is, distinct from mental labels and stories about it. One learns to see recurring patterns in the mind and how they develop, play out, and are either harmful or helpful.
The sitting practice also develops flexibility of attention by widening the lens of attention from a narrow focus to a broader one.
Everyday Mindfulness Practices
In addition to these formal practices, MBSR also encourages informal practicing of mindfulness – choose a daily activity such as eating, walking, brushing teeth, showering, doing the laundry, and bringing attention to what one is sensing, feeling, and thinking while doing it. With these various practices and exercises, participants begin to notice preferences and resistances and extrapolate them to other parts of their lives through group discussion and inquiry–thereby learning healthy and helpful ways of responding, instead of harmful and unhealthy ways of reacting.
The offering of several practices is one of the more practical and potent aspects of MBSR. It allows for agency and choice–you can choose which are the best and most feasible way(s) for you to practice mindfulness after the course.
These are some of the many insights realized by participating in an MBSR course.
Gus Castellanos, MD is a graduate of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He practiced Neurology and Sleep Medicine for 25 years and is now a full-time mindfulness-based program teacher and researcher who is certified to teach MBSR by the University of Massachusetts Center For Mindfulness. Gus is an adjunct instructor at Nova Southeastern University where he developed, delivered and researched a mindfulness-based program for their students, staff, and faculty.
Gus is a Mindful Leader MBSR Instructor. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes.