MBSR, or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, is a modern, secular, scientific curriculum, using ancient meditation techniques, including sitting meditation, walking meditation, body scan, and gentle yoga. This curriculum is a specific, well-tested formula introducing and using these techniques to help us address the stressors in our daily lives. It was first introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn, at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. It has gone on to be applied in and outside of medical settings all over the world, and currently thousands of people teach and/or practice this approach. In my trainings I have met people from the US, Canada, and Mexico, but also people from Taiwan, Mainland China, Brazil, Kuwait, Norway, Vietnam, Portugal, Germany, France… MBSR has become a truly global phenomenon.
While this approach came to JKZ while on a Buddhist meditation retreat, the connections to Buddhism and Hinduism are deemphasized, and instead there is a strong emphasis on the now voluminous peer-reviewed science which clearly shows that our ancient ancestors were on to something, when they calmed down these highly reactive, busy bodies and minds and calmly looked within, paying attention with intention. Mindfulness is making inroads in the schools as well. Some people who teach kids have noticed that, in this arena, we frequently exhort children to pay attention, while giving them almost no instruction regarding how to do so.
This practice is meant for any interested person, of any or no religious affiliation. All that is asked is to give the practice a sincere try. Confidence in this approach grows from one’s own individual experiences with it. Meditation, with its’ related subcategories of mindfulness and concentration, is a skill. It is a talent that can be developed, like a chef develops recipes, or a musician works on scales and repertoire. It is one of those activities that pays back a disciplined approach to it, by becoming easier and more rewarding the more skill that is developed. Mindfulness has been described as a muscle, that becomes stronger and more flexible with repeated use. One of my teachers talks about that magical, turnaround moment when a practitioner finds that they are making the necessary time to practice, not because they “should”, but because they want to. They now find the practice enjoyable and indispensable to their mental and physical health, and would not skip it for long, like they do not skip drinking water or eating nutritious food for long. But the path to that moment can be rocky and can present real challenges.
The many teachers on this path are really guides, pointing in a direction that they have traveled themselves, but which, ultimately, must be traveled individually. At the core of a meditative approach, there lies a strong paradox that must ultimately be confronted by any sincere practitioner. On one side of this paradox is the reality that we are social, tribal beings, and I am not aware of anyone who has successfully walked this path without some guidance and help from another person who has more experience on it. And on the other side of the paradox? No person can walk this path for another person, it is, ultimately, an individual journey.
A meditative approach strongly contrasts with our current, mainstream consciousness, with its’ many flashing, buzzing, sense-grabbing distractions, conflicts, addictions and issues, which all must be attended to RIGHT NOW, we are told. When I was living in the monastery, I was struck by a mental image, that walking a sincere spiritual path, seemed to me to be like a fast spinning potter’s wheel. It is very hard to get centered and stay there, and very easy to get thrown off, any number of ways. I was there in the mid-90s. In my experience, the speed of the wheel has only increased dramatically since then. So it can be very helpful to seek the guidance of a teacher or guide to help sort through this situation.
The best teaching that I have experienced comes from a teacher’s grounded experiences on the path. As one of my teachers pointed out, a good teacher can only really successfully teach you what they have experienced themselves, what worked for them. This can be wonderful, but also, we are all unique individuals with unique interests, tendencies, problems, challenges, talents and resources. Finding a teacher that can speak effectively to your situation can be a magical experience. There is also a long legacy of written and oral experience going back countless years, from which we can garner profound insight, that is much more accessible to us now than ever before, via the Internet. But a practitioner still does need to ultimately find their own unique balance of their own inner guidance and seeking outer guidance.
For me, the key has been stopping speculating and pondering possible outcomes, and starting trying, starting the process of trial and error which is the basis of learning for yourself what calls to you and works for you and what does not. Structured experiences guided by a person more experienced can help, because, as mentioned above, sitting quietly, being with yourself deeply is not a common practice (yet) in our culture. In certain corners of it, here and there, for sure, but it is not (yet) the norm.
I’m reminded of an experience at graduate school, at Naropa, here in Boulder. The program that I was in included a month-long meditation retreat (dathun) in the first year. My girlfriend at the time was going to Naropa and working at Barnes and Noble, so after she was gone for a month, her co-workers were curious about where she had been. One young man was trying hard to figure it out, after hearing about the long periods of silent sitting, walking meditation, chanting, and listening to teaching, over a month, with no TV or entertainment. He struggled to fit such a strange activity, such a unusual set of choices for spending a Christmas break from school, into his view of the world. After pondering with furrowed brow, he asked, hoping for reassurance, “But you had ESPN?”
Kosha Yoga will be offering a MBSR Class taught by Eric Belsey Septmber 2017.