by Beth Glosten
This past week marked the beginning of another 8-week series of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes from Mindfulness Northwest. Each time I dive into teaching this deep curriculum with a new group of people, I am reminded of the genius of Jon Kabat Zinn in creating a rich organization of material that assists bringing mindfulness to people from different backgrounds. And each time I meet the class of participants, I am amazed at the varied and deep events of people’s lives.
But…..I am always a little taken aback by the title of the class: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. How can a class reduce stress? I always feel compelled to explain in the first class, that taking this class won’t make your stress go away.
Do we want stress to go away? There are benefits to stress: it challenges us, helps us recognize what we value, and, at times, stress keeps us safe.
What causes unwanted stress?
It is first worth considering the First of the Four noble truths taught in Buddhist philosophy. That is, there is suffering in life. We get sick, we lose loved ones, we die. There is no escaping the truth that life involves suffering, unpleasant events, distasteful interactions, and tragic community and world events.
MBSR approaches stress by suggesting that we have more say over how we respond to these events in life than we often give ourselves credit. Enter the Second of the Four noble truths of Buddhist philosophy: We increase our suffering by clinging to those things that we want, and shying away from those things that are difficult. In other words, we are often unwilling to accept the reality of the ups and downs of life.
How can mindfulness help?
This is where MBSR assists us in reducing stress. MBSR, through practices and exercises, helps us understand how we enhance and exaggerate the normal stresses of life.
Our brilliant human brain, with its ability to recall the past and plan into the future, can, at times, add to our suffering with these traits. Have you ever found yourself going over and over and over something you did in the recent past that you wish you hadn’t? Sure, we can learn from these past events, but we can also ruminate over them to a degree that goes beyond helpful and can contribute to our angst. Planning into the future is a fantastic feature of our minds and helps us be prepared. In my life as an Anesthesiologist, being prepared for the next case was crucial: considering the characteristics of each patient and each surgery helped me plan for (and, of course, hopefully prevent) untoward events during the surgery. But, there were times when anxiety led to a sleepless night prior to a case: a situation that took future considering too far, and to a detrimental place. The practices and tools from MBSR can help us recognize when our minds are generating imagined stories – stories that are not helpful.
Mindfulness helps us accept what is. You may not like it, but what is, is. Does this mean we are complacent about the events we see around us that cause stress? Absolutely not! But wishing a situation to be different than it is does not help. Let’s say you are unhappy with the outcome of an election. Being angry about it does little except underscore your disappointment and stress. However, your dissatisfaction may be a wonderful impetus for getting involved with your community so officials of your choice are more likely to be placed in positions of influence.
Traffic is another source of stress where mindfulness can be of great help. When in traffic, I remember that I’m part of it. I am part of a community all struggling with the stress of “getting somewhere by __ o’clock.” You can’t change traffic once you are in it. After making calls (hands free, of course!) to explain you’ll be late, there is really nothing to do but breathe into the situation of traffic. Try offering Loving Kindness to the driver next to you! And while you’re at it, offer Loving Kindness to yourself.
It's up to you
In our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes, the “reduction” part is up to you. The “reduction” part is becoming aware of how our reactions to the events of daily life can create a positive feedback loop to our stress. The “reduction” part is pausing, taking a breath, taking a moment to consider the best response.
In words attributed to Victor Frankl: “In between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”