8 weeks of MBSR, Part 1: All is new
MBSR. These four letters are not the abbreviation for mind blowing sex reaction. Instead, they stand for „mindfulness based stress reduction“. And that’s at least as beneficial for your body, mind and soul …
This method, which is about meditating and connecting with your breath in order to anchor yourself in the present moment, was developed in the 1970ies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the MIT. Since the successes were and are scientifically proven and measurable, the method was quickly officially and institutionally recognised and are used and taught internationally for a while now.
You can learn the method in an eight-weeks-long course. And this is what I did.
In this article, I want to share with you what we learned in the first three weeks and I’ll also share my thoughts and feelings about these new experiences and insights.
MBSR is about focussing on coming into or being in the NOW. You learn to be in your body, to be aware and mindful, to go through life with an observing and non-judgmental spirit.
Although Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the method, is a practicing buddhist, MBSR is not about spirituality, religion or any other dogma. It was this sober and scientific approach that made me curious and that finally convinced me to take the course. NOW is my mantra anyway, at the latest since my encounter with Eckhart Tolle. It is the principle I try to live according to. One fine day I will get the three letters NOW tattooed on my wrist. One fine day …
„I never look back darling, it distracts from the now.“
– Edna Mode, The Incredibles
MBSR „doesn’t want anything from you“. Yes, we have to practice at home. It is a real requirement to practice daily for 40 to 60 minutes. But in this practice we practice to „let be“. We practice to let our body be. To let the thoughts be. To let everything be just as it is. We learn the high art of not judging.
The 7 principles of mindfulness:
- Non-judgement. Forget all categories of good and bad and instead, be a neutral observer of your mind’s reactions to inner or external events. This way, you identify less with the events and can act more calm and objective.
- Patience. Comes from the wisdom that things need time to unfold. Impatience will not bring you to your goal faster. Just relax!
- Beginner’s mind. With an open beginner’s mind you see people, things and situations as though you saw or experienced them for the first time and encounter them with a curious, open and unbiased attitude. Even when you think you already know them. If you go through life with a beginner’s mind, life will surprise you every day anew!
- Trust. Trust in your own wisdom, in yourself as a student, in your own capability to learn and discover. „It is impossible to become like somebody else, your only hope is to become more fully yourself.“ (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
- Non-Striving. Can be experienced during meditation, because meditation differs from our daily actions in that it doesn’t serve a purpose and we free ourselves as best as we can from wanting to achieve something specific. Meditation is an „active form of non-doing“. If you try to experience a specific experience through meditation, you prevent the mind from clearing itself and from resting. Observe upcoming feelings, thoughts and sensations without identifying with them and then try to let go all of it again.
- Acceptance. We often want things and people to be different from how they are. Everything should be exactly as we want it. If we constantly fight reality, this inevitably causes pain. Through meditation we practice acceptance and try to accept every moment as it is. Free from expectation, rejection or presumptions, we focus our awareness onto the present moment.
- Letting go. We tend to cling to things we experience as pleasant or positive. This often results in mental tightness, worries, fear and unrest and luck is automatically linked to the fear of loss. Letting go helps us to reach a more peaceful mental state.
„The highest form of intelligence is the ability to observe without evaluating.“
In the first sessions of the course everything is new and I feel like a sponge, soaking it all up. From day one I really enjoy the weekly 2,5 hours meetings with the group, an inspiring bunch of women. I also enjoy the daily practice we have to do at home. At first, it feels like I „have to find space and time“ to integrate the practice into my daily routine but after a while it feels like a present of mindfulness I give to myself. At some point it is no longer a matter of “doing my homework”. I just listen to my body and do what is good for me.
But I’m going too fast here. Back to the beginning:
In Berlin there are quite a lot of MBSR courses on offer. They usually go for 8 weeks and the price ranges from 300 to 350 Euro. My course is led by Anne. She has just completed her training as an MBSR teacher and now leads the course as the last step of obtaining her certificate.
On the flyer, which a friend forwards me via email, Anne looks nice and I think I’d like to have her as my teacher. The dates also fit into my plans for the next weeks. Our first phone call is very pleasant and I immediately like her. She sounds authentic and very likeable. I tell her about my previous experience with meditation and mindfulness – participation in the 8-month „School of Heart“, a class designed to open the heart chakra; participation in a 6-day silent retreat; 2 years of Grinberg method body therapy – and tell her about my own regular practice: regular meditation at home, e.g. Darkness Meditation, Bikram and Vinyasa Yoga, dynamic meditations according to Osho …
Anne takes an interest in all I say and asks many questions, only to explain towards the end of the call, that MBSR is never about the story and context. It is always about how you feel in a particular situation, not about the „why“ or what preceded the situation. That’s new for me, but it makes total sense. For the duration of the course we shall try to leave our personal history, our „luggage“ outside. It sounds pleasantly sober and somehow healing. Again, it is all about the „Now“. I begin to really look forward to the course.
The first meeting and week 1: What is mindfulness?
We meet in a joint practice in the northeast of Berlin in a beautiful bright room that doesn’t feel like a doctor’s cabinet at all. Anne, the teacher, emits an almost girlish, cheerful bustle but also radiates a gentle, calm and beautiful presence. In the course room, seven chairs are waiting in a circle, in the middle a vase with fresh flowers. The atmosphere is relaxed.
The group consist of six exclusively female participants between age 30 and 45, I guess. We begin with the following three questions:
- Why am I here?
- Why am I really here?
- What do I want from the course, what do I fear?
Some of us, including myself, fear that we won’t have enough time to practice in our everyday life and that we won’t „stick to it“ as recommended. A concern that soon turns out to be unfounded.
The first practical exercise consist of standing up and stretching to make us feel our body and arrive in the room. Then we do a short sitting meditation with closed eyes. Anne marks the beginning and the end with a blow on a small singing bowl that sounds like a giant gong.
After the meditation we remain seated with our eyes closed and now Anne puts 3 raisins into our open hands.
The raisin exercise
In my head I can hear a voice saying: „Oh, the raisin exercise, you already know it“. Although I have never actually done the exercise myself! How quickly the curious open spirit of discovery is covered up by this know-it-all … I will put him in his place!
The raisin exercise is about perceiving with all your senses and – finally – about enjoying with all senses:
- Seeing: Look at the raisin and describe its appearance.
- Smelling: Smell the raisin.
- Feeling: Press the raisin a little and feel its consistency. Then put the raisin into your mouth, WITHOUT chewing it. How does it feel on the tongue?
- Tasting: Bite and chew the raisin.
When the rind bursts under my teeth and the sweet inside runs out, it almost feels like an orgasm. Like the famous apple when you break a fast. A wave of delight flows through me and in this moment I know: Never before has a raisin tasted so good to me!
While we mindfully eat our raisins we try to direct our attention to all the little steps in the long journey the raisin has travelled to come to us, how many people have been involved in bringing it to us so that we can enjoy it now.
The Body Scan
After the break it’s time for the body scan, an exercise that sounds harmless at first, but quickly turns out to be the exact opposite for me.
The aim is to focus your attention on different parts of the body one after another. You literally scan your entire body once. The exercise does not serve the relaxation, but is an exercise in mindfulness and attention, which teaches you to noticing what is without evaluating it. You start with the toes of the left foot and end at the apex of the head. I fall asleep, when we have barely reached the right groin. I wake up when Anne says „So, now you can slowly come back to the here and now“. I have no idea how long I was „gone“ and feel a little bad because I fell asleep. Later, my friend tells me that the exercise lasted 45 minutes and that we went through all parts of the body. Oh well, looks like I’m good at letting go …
Homework and my observations during practice in the 1st week
Perform a routine task mindfully.
We are to choose a routine activity that we can perform mindfully. I choose the climbing of the stairs. Normally I would „use“ this transit moment – a sometimes strenuous activity, since I live on the fourth floor without an elevator – to check the latest news on my mobile phone, while I would be fumbling for the keys. Now that I’m conscious of every movement, of every step and every landing, I realize that climbing stairs – though strenuous – is also a moment in my life. And I’m grateful to regain these moments of my life. An amazing and beautiful experience.
I practice on 5 days and fall asleep on 4. From now on I call the Body Scan my „Endgegner“. In order to not fall asleep, I try it once in the open air on the Tempelhofer Feld. Here I can observe passing clouds and birds and there’s always someone walking by. I manage to stay alert and awake most of the time and only sleep through the neck area. A small success.
The nine-points exercise.
This exercise calls to my ambition and I feel my intelligence being challenged. My ego really wants to get it right. But whenever I think I’ve got it, it still doesn’t work. The inner voice grows louder: „That can’t be true, I can do that. I’ll have it soon, wait a minute!“ After exactly 10 minutes I cheat and ask Google for the solution. I will not spoiler it here, but let me just reveal this much: The exercise wants to remind us that it is always possible to think outside our well-trodden paths. Now it’s your turn!
Eating a meal per week mindfully.
This is quite easy when I practice while eating, let’s say, an apple. It is difficult, however, with meals that consist of several ingredients. Muesli is especially difficult for me. Although I manage to concentrate on the food, when I try to be aware of the different steps and people necessary to bring this colorful mixture of ingredients onto my plate, my head explodes. Try it! I’m curious to hear how you dealt with it!
2nd week: Perception / Dealing with obstacles
I come to the second session in a rush, although I had actually intended to experience the journey in a relaxed and mindful (!) mode, turning this daily activity it into a mindfulness practice.
The day was pretty busy and I swept through it in a highly concentrated tunnel mode. Now I notice how exhausted I am, both physically and mentally. It would have been nice to sit on the park bench for another 5 minutes before we started, but as soon as we come together on the yoga mats laid out in a circle on the floor, all my tension falls away. What I had already sensed during the first session now reaffirms itself: The course feels like healing. I love the calm, the appreciation, the non-evaluation that we practice here. All batteries are gently recharged without much effort.
This time we practice a so-called visual meditation in which we look at Anne’s small singing bowl that she places in the middle of the circle. First we try to register all its details and concentrate exclusively on the bowl. In a next step we expand the focus. I prefer to look at the bowl with a broad focus. My gaze then becomes softer and I perceive the bowl as a whole, not as a mosaic or puzzle made of individual parts. The preferences within the group differ. And this is perfectly fine, as we’re here to practice not to judge. Wit this open spirit, everything can be „interesting“ and is worth to be “further deepened or observed”. I like this attitude. It decelerates and pacifies the mind.
Next comes a so-called breathing meditation, in which we concentrate 15 minutes only on our breath.
„The breath can be your anchor with which you can bring yourself back into the present at any time.“
We end the session with the body scan. I fall asleep again. Even though I follow one of Anne’s tips to prevent me from dozing off and rest both my elbows on the ground. In theory, if the arms collapses, you wake up. In practice, I just snooze on even after both my arms collapse. What does that say about me? While we are supposed to focus our attention on the stomach, I fantasize something about „uteral primal power“. I’m quite sure Anne never said a word about this. But maybe it’s a thought worth of further observation …
Homework and my observations during practice and the 2nd week
It doesn’t get any better. I fall asleep most of the time. Luckily I manage to stay open and curious and don’t get frustrated. I’m actually rather amused about the fact that I can seem to relax so well!
Again I practice the in the open air. On Tempelhofer Feld it was a good idea. Yet I quickly realise that not all places are equally suitable. The narrow concrete strip under a weeping willow on the banks of the Spree are not a good spot. Try to concentrate on your clavicles or to feel the area behind your kneecap when ants try to crawl into your underpants and you’ll know what I mean!
Choose a new routine activity to do mindfully.
In addition to the mindful stair climbing that I have been practicing last week, I now add mindful flower watering. I quickly feel that both activities are no longer annoying, but rather nice and even rewarding, especially the flower watering. I talk (now even more than usual) with my plants and am sincerely happy about their development. An offshoot of a colored nettle I got from the MBSR class room, gets special attention and love: I talk to it and tell it how happy I would be if it would take root and feel at home with me. To help it adapt to its new home, I keep it close while I practice yoga or the guided meditations, hoping that the recording of Anne’s voice and the sound of the gong will somehow make it easier.
Keep a calendar of pleasant experiences.
A beautiful and simple exercise. I notice pleasant experiences very consciously and really savour the moment. Delighted, I realise how many pleasant events happen in just one day and how different they are. Some involve only me, some involve other people or encounters with nature – meaning plants or animals.
Third week: Being at home in the body
In the third session, we discuss our experience with the mindful practice of routine activities. S. tells us how the otherwise unloved routine of setting the table every evening for the family has completely changed and her eyes glow. Before, it was a totally unconscious and automated chore. But when she started thinking of the person for whom she set the plate, the cutlery, the glass … it all became an act of love. While she speaks, her whole being radiates. I’m sure her family will feel the difference and give her love back in return! As I listen, my heart opens. Yes, you can transform filling someone’s teacup – or every other activity, just think of my flowers (!) – into an act of love and dedication.
The next exercise is mindful MBSR yoga lying down, which is characterized by slow, gentle exercises, mainly stretching. MBSR yoga is more a meditation than a workout and belongs to the style of hatha yoga. The 40 minutes seem like 20 to me and I’m already looking forward to starting the day with it at home the next day.
Homework and my observations during practice and the 3rd week
Practice body scan or yoga lying down daily.
I’m happy that I have an alternative to the body scan and practice yoga every other day. No more body scans for me for a while …
Practice the breathing meditation daily for 15 to 20 minutes.
I practice the breathing meditation on a bench after running in the park. This time not as usual with my legs down, but sitting upright. This is a pleasant and interesting new experience. The upright position makes me feel dignified and proud. With both feet flat on the ground I feel rooted and strong. I notice that it helps me to focus when I let the breath flow in and out loudly, a bit like the deep pranayama breathing from yoga. The sound of the breath lets all other sounds and thoughts fade into the background. I also notice the importance of the short pause between two breaths. If I stop breathing and only breathe again when I need it, instead of immediately breathing in again like a robot, I breathe a lot deeper into my stomach, which then rises and falls in a more relaxed way.
Keep a calendar of unpleasant experiences.
I realise that I am much less conscious with unpleasant experiences than with pleasant experiences in which I literally bathe. I perceive unpleasant experiences rather diffusely or try to keep them under the surface. This results in abdominal pain and a tense hard abdomen – my weak spot anyway. On the weekend, which I spend all by myself like a hermit, I don’t experience anything unpleasant.
Yes, life could be so simple if you spent it all by yourself: Nothing unforeseen would happen and everything would feel good, because everything goes just as you want it! Might be a little lonely, though …
En passant, I notice that I think less sadly of my ex and suffer less from the fact that things didn’t work out between the two of us. I can let things be as they are and that feels soooo good.
I also start doing things that are important to me and give me pleasure: I start writing this blog and play a little piano again. I clear out my apartment and clean it. Not because I have to, but because I want to.
My personal relationships also change: I feel more love for the people around me, even in unpleasant or not necessarily pleasant situations.
With regards to the group and the sessions, I once again find it wonderful to hear the experiences of others, to learn from them and simply to hear new and different perspectives. Sometimes they are totally different, sometimes similar or almost congruent with my own. Our exchange is very respectful, very open and appreciative and there is always enough room for everyone.
Nevertheless, I sometimes have the feeling that I take up too much space, because my need to share my experiences is so strong. As I notice that another participant is more silent I start to worry. But then I stop interpreting her silence, let go and try to and accept what is. There is someone who says less. That’s all. And this is neither good nor bad – it’s just the way it is. I can almost feel Eckhart Tolle looking over my shoulder, whispering into my ear, like a clever little rodent: „It is as it is.“
You want to know what happens next?
Part 2 „Integration. Mindfulness becomes routine“ will be published shortly.