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Why was MBSR Created?

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., didn’t intend to create a mindfulness program that would be taught globally when he started MBSR in 1979—at least, that was maybe a pipe dream, but never his primary goal. MBSR, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is an eight-week course, plus an orientation and full-day retreat, that teaches participants mindfulness and meditation techniques and aids in both stress and pain reduction.

If you heard about MBSR between the 1970s and early 2000s, it was probably from Kabat-Zinn’s books (Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, and others) or from Healing from Within (1993), an episode of the five-part TV series hosted by Bill Moyers, Healing and the MInd that explored what researchers were discovering about how emotions affect health and alternative health care. Now, MBSR is one of the most well-researched and wide spread mindfulness classes taught. But you may not know how it came to exist.

Asking about the origins of a course like MBSR is difficult, because there are always at least three reasons: the one that sounds good and is true, the one that is true but doesn’t sound as good, and the unspoken one. It’s impossible to pin down every factor that led to the creation of MBSR, but here are several.

For medicinal value

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught the first class in September of 1979 to chronically ill patients. It wasn’t yet the regimented program it would later become, but many of the elements in the MBSR taught now first emerged in those early sessions. At the time, it was called the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. It was renamed the Stress Reduction Clinic later, to emphasize the medicinal aspect of it, and then became MBSR when talked about in a more general way, outside of the hospital where it was created.

The most common reason known for why Kabat-Zinn created MBSR is as a way of helping chronically ill patients cope with pain. Kabat-Zinn was working in the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and wanted to explore the mind-body connection and how it might help patients. A program that started in a hospital basement is now considered the gold star standard for mindfulness training.

Kabat-Zinn may have created MBSR and there may be standards and guidelines for instructors now, but he has always been adamant about the fact that his work is a guide and there is not one canonical way to teach MBSR. Part of that is because, when working with people dealing with chronic illnesses or pain, an all or nothing approach is not helpful. It is far more useful to help people adapt practices to their needs and abilities, and to teach to the class you have. Often, instructors learn from their classes in return, and that is because of the way Kabat-Zinn shaped MBSR as a program explicitly designed for people often forgotten by medical professionals and society to have a voice.

To bring mindfulness to a secular, Western society

“As I reflect on it now, from the very beginning there was for me one primary and compelling reason for attempting to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of society. That was to relieve suffering and catalyse greater compassion and wisdom in our lives and culture.”

-   Jon Kabat-Zinn

In 2011, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote an article in Contemporary Buddhism titled “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.” This article does not simplify the question of how MBSR was created, but it does introduce some interesting ideas about its conception.

Kabat-Zinn was aware of mindfulness’s reputation in the United States. He sought to bring the concept of dharma to people in an understandable and secular way. He wasn’t creating a course for the sake of creating a course—he hoped to advance the understanding and acceptance of mindfulness. He has also been explicit in saying that his intent was never to exploit or decontextualize the dharma, but instead to recontextualize it so it was accessible for those who would never discover it through more traditional methods (and their insurance companies).

MBSR has Buddhist roots. This is undeniable. But for a mainstream American audience, MBSR creates a secular way to learn about mindfulness concepts. In a country that is religiously divided, this is incredibly important and, likely, a lot of the reason why the program can be implemented in clinical settings, schools, and workplaces.

The program also shies away from what may be considered negative thought patterns, with black and white thinking such as “I am going to be the best meditator ever” or “I am not good at meditating.” Instead, MBSR asks practitioners to reinvent the ways they speak to themselves and others, and to reframe their view of an all or nothing world. Instead, saying the common MBSR refrain of, “If you’re breathing, there is more ‘right’ with you than ‘wrong’ with you.”

As a humanitarian/societal effort

Paying attention is an essential part of any mindfulness program. This has never meant only internal attention. Kabat-Zinn describes it as waking up to humanity’s true nature, because there has never been a period where people’s children and grandchildren would suffer more because of the choices made by generations before them. That the program became a part of the medical and psychological worlds was not accidental, but it also was not the entirety of his intention. He wanted to put more mindfulness into the world in the hopes of stopping some of the “us” versus “them” mindset he saw. His book Coming to Our Senses expounds on the idea of mindfulness as a way to learn about the interconnectedness of the world and how MBSR is more than just a personal self-reduction program.

In short, MBSR was not created to make money or to make Kabat-Zinn famous or even to become a mainstream, well-known course—although, he had his hopes for the latter. It was created to help improve the lives of a few patients in a lot of pain who could come to one spare room, and who probably did not have access to these methods or teachings outside of Kabat-Zinn’s classes. It was created to make an actual, measurable difference in the lives of a few individuals. And it grew because it worked for many, and because Kabat-Zinn allowed it to. It’s far past anything he, or even a university or hospital, could manage now. And that’s just the way he wants it.