What Is MBSR?
The first real course on meditation that I ever took was an MBSR course. It was not a cheap one, so I hesitated for a long time. But I’m so happy that I did. I guess this is obvious since I’m now writing a blog on mindfulness.
But what exactly does MBSR stand for?
MBSR stands for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It is an eight-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s to treat patients struggling with life’s difficulties and physical or mental illness. The program is heavily based on mindfulness meditation.
So, now that we know what MBSR is, let’s dive into some details to find out whether this program is something for you or not.
- What can you expect when doing an MBSR course?
- What will you learn in the 8-week program of MBSR?
- Benefits of MBSR
- The most popular exercises of MBSR
- Short history of MBSR
- Some Excellent MBSR resources
What can you expect when doing an MBSR course?
As said, MBSR stands for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to alleviate the pain in chronically ill patients.
The program runs over 8 consecutive weeks, where you meet up for sessions of 2.5 hours.
Sessions typically start with a meditation. Meditations in MBSR range in length between 30 and 90 minutes. Each week a new meditation skill is introduced. See below for more information about which skills are learned during which week.
After the meditation, there a short feedback session where you can tell the instructor how you experienced the meditation.
These feedback sessions are really invaluable as you will learn that what you are struggling with is very common. Everybody roughly has the same problems when starting with meditation. It is also an occasion to ask questions about how to improve your skills. I remember learning a lot from this.
After a short break, you will be introduced to a topic that is more related to modern psychology. There can be a reflection or a small exercise to make you aware of general patterns in your life.
In most weeks, a small exercise is introduced to bring more mindfulness into our daily lives. These small exercises are called ‘informal practices’ because you do not devote an extended period of time to them. Usually, they take from 3 to 5 minutes to perform.
Closing is done with some homework.
Yes, there is a small amount of homework. This is for you to get the most out of the course. To make the exercises stick better.
You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.Marvin Minsky
As the quote above says, you need to learn through different modalities. That is how we humans learn best.
As a part of the homework, you will receive a recording of a guided meditation. This meditation has to be done every day. Usually, it is one of the meditations that have been performed during the session.
These at-home meditations take up 30 to 45 minutes a day and are the real core of the MBSR program.
What will you learn in the 8-week program of MBSR?
In this section, I give a brief overview of the topics that are covered in the 8-week MBSR program. The details of the program vary quite a bit from teacher to teacher and from country to country.
For instance, in Belgium, where I live, the order of the weeks has been changed and meditations have been shortened.
So the overview below is a rough guide of what you will encounter. It is, however, the official one that was proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
So if you find a course that adheres closely to the original MBSR, this is exactly what you will get.
Theme: as long as you are breathing, there is more right than wrong with you, no matter what challenges you are facing.
Introduction to what mindfulness is and what it is not.
In the first session, you will be introduced to some of the most foundational exercises from the MBSR curriculum.
These are the body scan and mindful yoga. The informal practice of this week is the raisin meditation that introduces mindful eating.
You will also be introduced to the concept of the automatic pilot. We live our lives as if we were on autopilot. We rarely make conscious decisions. In the first week, you explore how this happens in your life.
Theme: Perception and creative responding: How you see things (or don’t see them) will determine in large measure how you will react or respond to them.
In week 2 there is a short yoga and body scan meditation, but the most important part is the introduction of a formal seated meditation based on awareness of the breath.
The focus of this lesson is on how we perceive things and how this molds our perception of reality. So, you are introduced to the fact that our response to the world is more important than whatever is happening.
You do this by looking at happy events in your life. People do not pay enough attention to the many blessings in their life. The course tries to rectify this by becoming mindful of the pleasant thing in our life.
Theme: There is pleasure and power in being present.
Mindfulness of the Breath and the Body in Movement
Week three starts with a very long meditation session that can take up to 90 minutes. It starts with mindful yoga for 1 hour and then 20 minutes of sitting meditation followed by 10 minutes of walking meditation.
During this week, the challenges of the meditation practices are discussed. Everybody starts to get some experience and now is the time to clear the confusion that you might have about the practices.
Homework consists of filling a calendar with unpleasant events. Mindfulness is not about pleasant events only. It is about getting to know your life in its entirety. The good and the bad. And giving you strategies to handle both.
Theme: experiential learning how conditioning and perception shape our experience.
By practicing mindfulness, you cultivate curiosity and openness. And through this process, you cultivate a more flexible attentional capacity
In week 4 you will deepen your meditation practice and now start to have more attention for discomfort in your life. This will enable you to engage with these experiences in a different way.
The message here is that we can be OK, even if the situation is not. This will open our perspective in such a way that we will be able to cope with the situation in a more healthy manner.
The sitting meditation will bring you the skill of looking at emotions.
Theme: You start to bring awareness to even greater challenges in your life. Like situations in which you are stuck.
The second theme addressed in this week is how you can connect to mindfulness in difficult real-life situations and how this opens the possibility to react consciously.
We now encompass the full range of human experience in our meditation: we are watching body, thoughts, and emotions. This is a very valuable skill when interacting with the outside world.
Theme: Looking at stressful communication and getting to know your feelings. Being able to express your feeling accurately.
This week focusses on stress and how to handle it in a mindful way. You try to broaden your inner resources in order to develop health-enhancing attitudes and behaviors
The meditation skillset is now full so you can continue to deepen the practice to reap more rewards.
Obviously, at this stage, you will see that you are progressing slowly. But this is to be expected. It is really important to continue meditating.
The all day silent retreat
Between week 6 and 7, there is an all day silent retreat.
This is the opportunity to practice with great depth during a longer period of time.
The advantage of doing this is that you will feel the calming effect of the meditation far more than in the shorter meditation session. It will teach you that you too can experience this inner calm. It is not just for yogis in caves.
Theme: this week is all about integrating mindfulness more fully into daily life.
The biggest struggle for a meditator is to take the skills they learned in meditation into the real world.
Sure, it rubs off with prolonged practice, but you can hasten the process by paying close attention in your daily life.
It is clear that if the meditation is not increasing our wellbeing in daily life, there is no point in meditating at all.
Theme: continuing the meditations once the 8-week program is over.
The hardest thing is to continue meditating once the program is over.
you have glimpsed at what meditation can bring for you, but as with anything, you will tend to forget quickly.
So it is important to build in some strategies to continue meditating and reaping the benefits.
Most of my former students tell me that they still do the shorter meditations or informal exercises. Unfortunately, few continue doing the longer formal practices.
But that is OK too. Even a small amount of mindfulness is beneficial for your life.
Benefits of MBSR
From the very start of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn started studying the effects on his patients in a scientific way. This means that he handed out questionnaires at the beginning of the course and at the end. He could then measure the effect of the course.
Since then, numerous studies have been conducted as you can see in the figure below, courtesy of The American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA).
As more and more benefits of mindfulness became apparent, more and more researchers grew an interest in the topic. The number of publications in this figure is an underestimate as it only takes into account publications in English.
So what are the findings or all this research? According to a big survey of the literature by the American Psychological Institute, there is compelling evidence that mindfulness works in the following areas:
- Reduced rumination
- Stress reduction
- Boosts to working memory
- Increased focus
- Less emotional reactivity
- More cognitive flexibility
- Better relationship satisfaction
- Enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation
All these benefits start to explain why people indeed report an increase in their general level of well-being. It also explains why people with depression find great relief when practicing mindfulness.
The most popular exercises of MBSR
The raisin mediation was invented by Jon Kabat-Zinn to introduce people to some core concepts of mindfulness.
You will be exploring a raisin without knowing that it is a raisin. You will explore its touch, smell, and other aspects with your eyes closed.
In this way, you will not put all your pre-conceptions on the raisin and experience it as if seen for the first time.
It is also a great introduction to eating meditation. Personally, I prefer replacing the raisin with chocolate, but the result is the same.
If you want to try this exercise, you can check out my page on the subject.
The body scan teaches you how to explore your body the mindful way. You slowly bring your attention to all the body parts.
The key lesson is to explore whatever we feel in the body. It is a great way to learn to move our attention deliberately, a basic skill in mindfulness.
But it also teaches us to accept whatever is happening in the body in this moment.
I have a page on the body scan too. You can check it out here. On this page, you can also try the exercise.
Mindful yoga is very similar to traditional yoga. But is very different from how yoga is mostly taught in the west.
The difference lies in paying attention to every movement you make.
The exact movement you do is far less important than the attention you bring to it.
Mindful yoga is also designed to bring mindfulness into your daily life. Since in daily life, we do not interact much with our eyes closed on a cushion.
The second practice designed to bring mindfulness to your daily life is walking meditation.
This meditation can be done as a formal or informal practice.
Personally, I prefer the informal one where you take a walk and start noticing all the sounds, smells, and sights that surround you.
Just bring your attention to all that is happening. As you continue to practice this exercises you might discover that your surroundings somehow become more alive.
Colors tend to be more bright and landscapes more impressive. but, don’t take my word for it, just try it.
This is the foundational concentration practice used in MBSR.
It consists of starting to notice the in-breath and the out-breath. And then to continue following the rhythmic movement of the breathing.
Inevitably, your attention will wander to some topic that you find more interesting.
At that moment, you just bring it back to the breath and continue the exercises.
This great practice strengthens your concentration and acceptance. For your attention will inevitably stray. So you will have to bring it back often. This is a very sobering experience.
Mindfulness meditation starts like the breathing meditation, but at the moment you notice a thought or a feeling or a bodily sensation, you now have the liberty to turn your attention towards the distraction.
You do this because you want to explore the distraction. You want to know all there is to know about it.
This is not an intellectual inquiry about its origins or reasons to happen. No, you look at it with all your power of attention and see what you can discover about the distraction.
Once the distraction subsides, you can return to the sensations of the breath.
Repeatedly doing this exercise will give you more insight into your reactions. You will start to see emerge patterns over time. And once you see a pattern, you can do something about it, if you wish.
You can find a more in-depth discussion about mindfulness meditation on my post detailing how to start practicing mindfulness meditation.
In loving-kindness meditation, you repeat a few phrases to yourself like: “May I be happy. May I be well”. You also do this for other people.
This practice makes us more kind towards ourselves and to others. Research has shown that when people start to be more open towards others, their well-being increases. Therefore, this practice is very important.
If you want to know more about this practice, you can read my general introduction on the topic or a more in-depth article on how to craft your own phrases if you feel no connection to the standard ones.
Short history of MBSR
At that moment, Jon had his Ph.D. in molecular biology and was involved in zen Buddhism under the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh.
He felt that a lot of people would benefit from mindfulness training, but he feared that the Buddhist background would withhold many people from taking the training. In those days, meditation was still very much viewed as something hippie. And adding an eastern religion was certainly not going to help.
That is when he decided to distill a secular program that was based on traditional mindfulness teaching. As he sais: “I ditched the Buddha”
The beginning days were therefore not so easy. Jon tells the story that he only got a room in the basement of the UMAS to give his course. And the room was too small to fit everybody in, so he had to put some people in the corridor.
From his days as a Ph.D., Jon knew that it was important to collect data. So he immediately started to assess the change in stress levels of his participants via a questionnaire.
That was the beginning of the scientific validation of MBSR. Since then, thousands of articles in peer-reviewed magazines have been written on the subject. Many of them finding that MBSR indeed helps people coping with stress in a healthy way.
The spreading of MBSR
In the view of the scientific evidence that was piling up on the benefits of MBSR training, other people started to wonder if they could not adapt the program to the needs of their patients.
The most well known derived program is MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) that is specifically targeted at patients with depression.
John Teasdale and colleagues proved in the very early days of that program, that MBCT was as good as medication in the treatment of depression for people having their 3rd episode of depression.
It seems strange that people have to go through 3 episodes of depression, but it is actually a huge breakthrough. Mostly since depression is very hard to treat and every insight into the condition is more than valuable.
Since this insight, MBCT is used in most hospitals to aid in the treatment of depression.
Some Excellent MBSR resources
There are dozens of books on MBSR. Some treat only the exercises, and some cover the program in more depth. For an overview of what is available, you can see it at this link on Amazon.
There is one that I like, and it is ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality’ By Linda Lehrhaupt and Petra Meibert.
The book closely follows the original MBSR program and is approved by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
The big disadvantage I see with a book is that you do not get the guided meditations. It’s a pity they did not include it.
You can check the book out here.
There are two excellent MBSR courses out there.
The first one is completely free and is made by Dave Potter. It is a ‘do it yourself’ MBSR course. This means it is your responsibility to do the exercises and follow the curriculum.
I have looked at the material and it is really good. So I recommend it.
But, you must be aware that doing this on your own is much more difficult. The other minus is that there is no forum where you can interact with other students.
But if this is something for you, head over to Palouse mindfulness.
The second one is hosted at Sounds True. A lovely company that provides only high-quality spiritual products.
The course is run by a close collaborator of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Saki Santorelli. So you know you are in good hands. It does not get better than that (well, except for if Jon would give it himself, but he is retired)
Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009.
Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.