Stories from Dr. Weiss' Graduate MBSR Courses
Teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
by Dr. Myra Weiss, D.S.W.
The clearest definition of “mindfulness” that I know of is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose; In the present moment; and, Non-judgmentally."
Years of teaching individuals, 2-persons, and small groups, I have recognized a variety of student needs and teaching methods that “fit” each student. For example, all students are assessed for their method of breathing. When someone suffers with either a high level of anxiety or low-level chronic depression , invariably, I begin by teaching abdominal breathing, which gives some immediate relief from symptoms. This “success of relief” also works to heighten their belief in the positives of meditating.
SKILLS NEEDED TO PRACTICE MBSR
Two meditation skills necessary to practice MBSR are: Concentration and Mindfulness. The purposes of these skills are different; although, they eventually complement and balance each other. The skill of Concentration is the ability to keep returning one’s attention back to a single object (student chooses either breathing, body or sound). My recorded “Guided Body Scan” is used to practice this skill at home.
After the student has achieved a comfortable ability for Concentration, it is time to learn Mindfulness. This practice involves becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations – how they interact and where all these phenomena are located in the body. My recorded guide for Mindfulness Meditation is also given for home study.
Eventuallly, with consistent practice, a meditator learns to be less “emotionally reactive” to difficult stimuli – instead moving through difficult events, knowing (from consistently practicing meditation) that everything constantly passes.
DISTRACTIONS ARE UNIVERSAL
Initially, students tend to judge themselves harshly and need a good deal of reminding that distractions are “normal” and plentiful in the mind of all humans. Distractions are not to be fought against; rather, they are to be met with respect, acceptance and compassion – then followed by the gentle, yet firm, ability to move one’s awareness to where one wants it to be at this moment… and this moment… and this moment….
OUR “WESTERN” DESIRE FOR GOALS
There is no end-goal to meditating. It is a process that a consistent meditator practices with the intention to live life with moment-to-moment awareness (never expecting to achieve this aim fully!). The most fundamental reason for practicing meditation is that, over time, fear tends to lessen and an interest and joy in Life increases - accepting and enjoying more for self and others.
Mindfulness Meditation When You Don’t Have Ten Free Minutes And Can’t Sit Still For Two
The last time I’d tried meditating, it gave me back aches so unbearable it took me decades to even think of trying again. Unless I’m reading or watching tv, sitting still is excruciating. And boring. There has to be a billion more useful or fun things I could be doing with my time, I decided. Then, a few years ago, I hit a low point in my life. Not rock bottom, not depression, but I wasn’t happy. Persistently, I was doing what I could, I got into therapy, made some life changes, but in the end I still felt this low-level bad. Around this time I started hearing about all the benefits of meditating and about a meditation technique called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in particular. It seemed like every day the news covered some study which had discovered some great thing that meditating was good for; it was effective in managing pain, anxiety, and depression; it was found to increase grey matter in the brain and neuroplasticity; and it increased the body’s immune response. Although just the word “mindfulness” made my eyes roll, what got me was the idea of pain management. I wasn’t in physical pain, but sometimes you can’t do anything about a bad spot you’re in, and if meditating could help manage physical pain, maybe it could help with disappointment and any one of a number of emotional aches and pains I was feeling. I also read that MBSR was useful in alleviating hot flashes, and that year I was generating enough heat to get all of Mahattan through the winter.
When I types “MBSR” into the Google search box, I learned that it was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The medical school website also listed people around the country who were trained to teach MBSR to others. I found a person in New York City and signed up for eight sessions over eight weeks.
The problem was I still hated the very idea of meditating and sitting still for extended periods of time. I had to made a decision and a commitment. I went with the same commitment I made twenty years ago when I signed up for a program to stop smoking after repeatedly failing to quit smoking on my own: I would do everything I was told to do regardless if it sounded stupid, painful, time consuming, whatever. (I haven’t had a cigarette since.) When I signed up for meditation classes I made the same commitment. For eight weeks, I would do everything the meditation teacher suggested. If in the end it didn’t do anything for me except give me back aches, I would have lost nothing, I told myself. But at least I would have the peace of mind from knowing I had given my all.
At the first session I learned we were expected to meditate every day. “Wait, what? Every day? EVERY SINGLE DAY?” For a minimum of twenty minutes a day, the teacher Dr. Myra Weiss, recommended. “Just shoot me now” I thought. But Dr. Weiss said we could meditate in any position we wanted, even laying down, so that is what I did the entire first month. The second month I started meditating in a sitting position. That was four years ago. I’ve been meditating every day since, although I do miss days from time to time, and sometimes I only meditate for ten minutes. Also, I did, in fact, get back aches at first, and to this day I occasionally get them – I’m just not a naturally relaxed person – but the back aches usually go away in a minute or two, and if they don’t I change my position. I just do it mindfully. What does it mean to do something mindfully? You know how sometimes you’re acting like a complete idiot you know you’re acting like a complete idiot and yet you can’t stop yourself? Mindfulness is like an enhanced, friendlier version of that. The part of yourself that can watch yourself is more thorough, and it watches with dispassion. You are aware that the behavior is idiotic, but your attention is not in critique-mode. Instead, you’re simply observing everything going on in that moment, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling physically and emotionally –- think of it as a hi-definition version of awareness. If you’re being hard on yourself about the behavior you’re observing, i.e., “God, I am such a jerk, why am I always a jerk,” the fact you’re judging yourself in this way is added to the list of things you’re observing. This is such an important point I want to spell it out: when you are being mindful, not being an idiot or changingyouself in any way is not the point. The idea is to be aware of everything that is happening in the moment that you’re observing. You may stop being an idiot in those moments, that sometimes happens, but it turns out that being present for whatever you are going through, good or bad, is just simply better. The act of observing while simultaneously removing the stress of needing to fix or change yourself all the time is a relief and quite soothing. Beside, life often throws you into situations you can’t change or do anything about, and I’ve found it terribly useful to have another way of experiencing them.
For me, the hurdle was getting to that first class. Dr. Weiss once sent us a Goethe poem that I believe is helpful in this respect. “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would lhave come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” I also like this Eleanor Roosevelt quote, because I am often stopped by fear. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I woke up this morning feeling good. The window by my desk was wide open, the air smelled of a recent rain and falling leaves, and the sound of cars going by in the distance was almost lulling. When I sat down at my desk to write this a cat was curled up next to my computer purring, and my coffee was wonderfully strong. I was more there at those moments thanks to MBSR. Now, tomorrow might be a terrible day, the cat might get sick and a storm could blast in my window and destroy my desk. But as someone once said at our monthly MBSR meeting, “good, bad or indifferent, it’s life and I don’t want to miss any of it.” Life is better when you’re more here to live it.
I know how roll-your-eyes all of that sounds, but mindfulness worked for me. It’s been useful for all the things I’d read it would be useful for, and other things I hadn’t, like the recent onset of tinnitus.
Embracing Mindfulness Meditation
I had dabbled with meditation off and on for a while, but it wasn’t until my introduction to Mindfulness Meditation that I began to embrace it as a habit or practice. I found out about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (taught my Dr. Myra Weiss) from my doctor, who referred it to me as a way of coping with my anxiety. At this point, I had read introductory material about the practice, but had not actually participated in sessions – so I enrolled in an 8-week MBSR Course. I am very glad I did.
Upon completion of Myra’s Course, I had so many benefits that I decided to join one of her groups that met on a monthly basis.
Among the most significant improvements I have seen since adopting a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a great reduction in my anxiety, a greater sense of peace of mind, and an improved ability to take on the stresses of life directly.
Before regular meditation practice, I experienced a great deal of mind chatter and internal dialogue on a regular basis. I had been plagued with this for a long time, and negatively impacted several areas of my life. This problem seemed to dissolve as I adopted a daily habit of taking at least 20 minutes to meditate.
Another aspect that meditation helped with my ability to accept the moment, and stop resistance to undesirable situations. This negative habit caused a large degree of stress in my life, and I believe it was chiefly responsible for my anxiety situation. As time went on after the sessions, I saw in myself an ability to recognize situations as they were, and not add any extra “drama” to them. Even though I would still come across challenges in my daily life, the impact would seem to be removed from them, and the suffering would be much less.
Moving further in this direction, as I began to get away from the duress of daily challenges, I found myself able to communicate better, and be less moody. In my dealings with others, I found myself less angry and more patient. I was now finding that I was able to get to the root of a feeling, to find the pure emotion of a situation. In other words, instead of just a vague or crude reactionary emotion such as anger, frustration, or despair, I was becoming able to dig deeper and address the underlying reasons for those emotions. Instead of instantly reacting, I’d be able to trace the root of my anger to hurt, for instance. At that point, I could face the situation without judgment and address the real “problem” beneath all of the residual emotion. I felt much more calm this way, and my social dynamics seemed to improve.
I am very grateful for my experiences so far with meditation, and I intend to continue. I’m glad to have it as a part of my daily life.
Mindfulness Mediation: A Journey To Patience
My meditating journey began about 6 or 7 years ago, when my therapist suggested I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living.” I suffered for years with fears, phobias, anxieties, and he thought I might find this book helpful. I was intrigued by the book but thought I could never learn to meditate on my own. My therapist then recommended seeing Dr. Myra Weiss and taking her Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course.
This changed my life. I am a very skeptical person by nature and not particularly spiritual. I’ve no background in Buddhism, am not Zen-like, never thought I could “clear” my mind enough to meditate and never did well with group settings. Meeting Myra encouraged me to try meditating; she is warm, kind, non-judgmental and supportive. Her group workshops are fun the same way.
Still apprehensive, I was still excited. I did find it difficult to meditate at first. I told myself to keep at it and if nothing else, just close my eyes and try to keep still. A bit help to me was using Myra’s meditation CDs (I still use them periodically). Over time, I was able to focus more on my breathing (my anchor) and began understanding the differences in the types of meditation practices. MBSR wasn’t about clearing my mind, but about letting thoughts come into my head and just not engaging with them; no judgment, no emotional attachments – just being mindful and noticing, always noticing and labeling thoughts.
When I experienced my first small changes in behavior, I was impressed. I started handling stressful situations at work better, related to my husband and family better. I could distance myself from strong emotional attachments and be calmer instead of confrontational. Nothing else had changed in my life, except adding meditation time into my schedule so I could only believe that meditating brought about these changes.
I began to embrace the group sessions, and found that I really could now begin to understand concepts of mindfulness, impermanence, light and silence. As I expand my meditation practice, my experiences vary, so the meditations are never boring and it is interesting to see how my meditations are affected by what is going on in my life. I do try to meditate every day and have been successful meditating on public transportation, while walking, and even doing just some deep breathing throughout the day.
I do believe that anyone/everyone can benefit from meditating. The key to successfully meditate is consistency. There are actual medical studies that show that meditating alters our brain chemistry. Practice every day and the changes will come.
Approximately eight years ago, I lost my job while my wife was pregnant. I became very anxious and depressed.. I had a tremendous amount of trouble sleeping. I would lay in bed, stare at the ceiling, and constantly worry about how I would take care of my family. The lack of sleep made the days miserable. The anxiety became absolutely disabling to the point that I felt as though I had no future. I felt worthless. The lack of sleep and constant worry impeded my job search. I could no longer function. I even had two severe panic attacks which required medical attention. I was literally paralyzed by my destroyed confidence.
Thank goodness somebody told me about Dr. Myra Weiss and her Mindfulnes-Based Sgtress Reduction (MBSR) Class. I studied mindfulness-based meditation with Myra, completing her 8-week group Course. To this day, I still practice MBSR on a daily basis. It has changed my life. The act of meditating has been scientifically proved to “quiet” the mind. Through Myra’s guidance, I have been able to move past the anxiety that once completely engulfed my life.
Myra’s guided meditation CDs are a large part of my meditation program. I still use them on a weekly basis. They help keep my practice grounded and focused. I truly believe that MBSR can help anybody lead a healthier, more productive life.
The Calmness At The Center
I had been practicing a form of meditation for some years, in an on-and-off sort of way, when I became ill. I was in my middle 60’s, and to my distress felt that I did not have the resources to cope with being ill. At that time, I heard from a friend that her husband had taken classes, following surgery for cancer, with Myra Weiss, in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and I called for an appointment and began her classes. That was three years ago, and I continue in a monthly group with Myra for people who have completed a meditation Course.
The first thing that was striking to me about going to a class in meditation was that I knew so little. As I say, I had been doing a form of mindfulness, I thought, for some years. But in class, it was good to be instructed; good to sit with other people; and good to have an opportunity to talk about our experiences. I used Myra’s CD on mindfulness for a long time at home (and on buses and even ferries!) until I didn’t need the support of a voice and guidance so much and was able to meditate on my own.
My initial interest in the class was because I was left after that illness with a lot of fear/anxiety which I thought meditation could help me with. And so it did! Within the first month, the fear had lessened considerably, for which I was very grateful. But I also came to see that Mindfulness was not about seeking results, and if the fear had remained at that level for any longer, I would have been fine. I had already felt some of the benefits of sitting still with my anxiety, and the assurance that I could handle fear and physical pain without medication, which was extremely important to me. And, in the course of practicing, I became more and more comfortable with the realization that mindfulness is its own reward, so to speak, and is not about expectations. This means, for me, that over time I became easier within myself, not only less anxious, but more anchored and more willing to let things be, whether external or internal. I cannot say this strongly enough. This has been a transition time in my life, entering older age, retirement and some aging issues, including physical pain, as well as experiencing some significant losses. Meditation has helped keep me focused and steadier and has opened up a lot of joy and anticipation going forward. I can’t quite say how this has happened/is happening. But I think the ongoing practice of observing without judgment, of accepting things as they are and not pushing for them to be different, of not being tortured by my own thoughts, has a cumulative effect. And although I knew with my head that it’s good not to judge and not to hang on to negative thoughts, it has seeped deeper into me through mindfulness meditation. And, really, this is just to scratch the surface of its effect. I don’t always want to meditate and do not always feel great while meditating or afterwards, nor do I expect to. But, the discipline of meeting my negative and persistent thoughts with awareness and stillness has changed the landscape. I don’t try to avoid things or ideas which used to cause me fear; and thus by sitting still with fear and sorrow, I can let go of the drive to run away. I can look fear in the face! I can experience loss and sadness rather than avoid or deny them.
Thus, it’s more comfortable to live each day, and more comfortable living in my own skin. This includes the experience of having a good deal of physical pain, with arthritis, which I do not want to medicate. We talked a good deal in Myra’s group, as she was putting together a CD on pain, about sitting with pain. I learned to observe it; to imagine space around it; to observe changes in degree. Instead of fighting it and dreading it, I began to sit with it. It was particularly bad in one foot, which made walking difficult. I love to walk and have a dog in New York City, so I have to walk! As I began to practice mindfulness in regard to pain, I saw that I could stop avoiding/denying/hating/feeling self-pity. All the thoughts stood out: my fear of becoming crippled, my fears of economic insecurity, my fears for my dog’s health. I began to experience some distance from the thoughts and from the pain itself, and to imagine space around my foot. This really helped me; it seemed to put the pain in perspective, so that it didn’t take up my whole life. Then, an unexpected thing happened: I realized I could seek out better help for my foot (and hands as well), and I became open to suggestions of the kind of doctor I might go to, instead of just my family doctor. Soon, I was better informed about what was going on, got some good physical therapy, exercises, better supports in my shoes, even some dietary changes. This might seem obvious, but I was so mired in my despondency about my foot that I couldn’t look for solutions, until the focus of bring mindfulness to bear on the pain opened up avenues of help. These ideas did NOT come during meditation, but as an effect of meditating. By gaining some sense of distance from the pain and its accompanying distress, I could seek out solutions.
There is another aspect of mindfulness I would like to mention, as it was important to me. I had avoided until I heard of Myra’s class through a friend, any formal meditation, as I had thought it was strictly Buddhist, which I am not. I must have imagined you had to be Buddhist, or that you would become one if you did mindfulness meditation! I have found that mindfulness is in actuality no different from the kind of contemplative (or centering) prayer I had been practicing for years, that it enriched my spiritual/religious life, and that the practice cuts across all lines of faith and is certainly available to people who have no particular religious affiliation. This may be an obvious thing to say, but it mattered to me a great deal.
As I write this, it’s a cold December day. I walked for a long time with my new dog Rosie in the park, enjoying the beauty of the winter landscape and the company of a canine companion. My foot doesn’t bother me much! I felt that wonderful fullness of joy, just to be alive. This would have been true for me – and often was – before I began to practice mindfulness meditation. But something is different. There is more calmness at the center, and a broader plain. The old mind games have lost their hold and so it’s even nicer to be in the world. It is very, very nice to be in the world!
The dogs were biting, flags flapping The flood came and caught me napping And the blame rested with me well it stayed up all night And stuck me with knives to my demon’s delight My doubts had children that bounced on the bed And ran round and round in the shell of my head They whispered “give up, give in to endless sleep” And I closed my eyes and fell into the deep I reached out my hand and it came to rest Between 97th St. and Central Park West
There I found a precious stone And gave myself a little rope And I found I’m not the only one To rest my head on stubborn slopes And we pulled and slipped and climbed and tripped And chased the silence that’s so easily missed And sometimes I thought I’m doing well And sometimes it hurt like hell But every time a little less Between 97th St. and Central Park West
The east winds are blowing And times bright in memory glow Teasing impossibly, they promise and cheat Yesterday’s remedy for tomorrow’s grief And I hold on to thoughts and I grasp at plans And I twist the streets into promised lands And when the promised lands don’t show I’ll just be left with what I know And what I know the best Is between 97th St. and Central Park West