The central element of MBSR is the intensive training in mindfulness practice. An MBSR course is taught mainly in the form of an eight-week course that participants attend once a week for a 2.5 to 3 hour class. There is also a full day of practice in the form of a silent retreat between the sixth and seventh weeks of class. Students learn formal mindfulness meditation exercises such as the Body Scan, Mindful Yoga, Sitting and Walking meditation. These exercises are systematically introduced during the eight weeks, and then students practice at least one of these exercises every day with the assistance of audio recordings.
The informal practice, in which students complete exercises that are meant to help them integrate mindfulness practice into everyday life and situations, plays a vital role in allowing the transfer of mindfulness from the meditation cushion (or chair) to life. These exercises include learning to observe oneself in situations involving difficult communication, the play of emotions, as well as observing how one treats one’s own body.
There are key aspects of an MBSR course that support participants to observe their own behavior and become aware how it contributes to increasing their personal stress. As participants learn to become aware of their stress triggers and how they react to them, they also become aware that there is a great deal of their own unfilled expectations, for example, embedded in their reactions. This can be a powerful insight as well as a seed for nurturing a willingness to take responsibility for one’s own expectations in a mindful way.
The gift of mindfulness practice is that it gives us the tools and practice to train ourselves to be aware, and that, in itself, is a kind of taking responsibility. I emphasize however that is not about blaming ourselves or being harshly self-critical, but that we can skillfully make a choice about how we wish to relate to our attitudes. This is personally empowering and not always easy. But time and time again I have seen how people have grown in their sense of self-worth as they skillfully own in a gentle and clear way their own role in difficult communication situations.
There are several skills cultivated in the week devoted to mindful communication in an MBSR course. The first skill is mindful listening. One exercise on mindful communication involves participants listening to one another for about five minutes without speaking or interrupting in any way. When a person finishes speaking, the partner relates what he/she understood the person to say (a kind of mirroring). Then the person who has spoken says whether or not they felt truly heard. (continued)
In the discussion about the exercise, participants often mention two things: 1) the gift of presence they experience when listened to mindfully, and 2) How difficult it is to just listen without one’s own thoughts or judgments popping up.
Difficult communication is often cited by MBSR class participants as a key factor to their stress. It’s interesting to look at why. The fact is that most of the time we are in fact not communicating but reacting. It can be in the form of reacting to a perceived threat, or projecting one’s demands onto another, or relating through the filter of unfilled expectations or emotional confusion. Until we are in touch with this and practice, more skillful methods of communication, a cycle of blame, disappointment, anger and retaliation will continue to take place.
Mindful communication in MBSR provides a learning field for exploring this process in a compassionate way. Learning to recognize the cause of suffering and seeing how it causes pain for oneself and others is empowering. It is a path that teaches one to be skillful in communication, which can lead to deep insight for both parties.
Mindful communication enhances five attitudes that go a long way to defusing a challenging communication situation: These five attitudes include:
1. Being attuned to one’s own physical, emotional and cognitive process.
2. A willingness to listen with attention and presence.
3. Attending to understanding someone else on their own terms.
4. Practicing being as honest as one can be with oneself and what is getting in the way.
5. Committing to holding an attitude of mutual regard and willingness to respectfully disagree.
I have found a regular mindfulness practice to be one of the biggest helps in engaging in skillful communication. Although there are very helpful communication skills that one can learn, without mindfulness practice they tend to stay on a theoretical rather than practical level. Mindfulness helps people to be aware of their own internal states. As a result, there is less of the driving energy to retaliate out of fear or being wounded. Mindfulness encourages the cultivation of a stable inner presence that supports us to act responsibly rather than acting out.
Based on the book Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality. Copyright © 2017 by Linda Lehrhaupt and Petra Meibert. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
Linda Lehrhaupt, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindfulness-Based Approaches and one of Europe’s most senior MBSR teachers. Petra Meibert, Dipl. Psych., is a psychologist and one of Germany’s leading experts on MBSR, MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), and the applications of mindfulness in medicine and psychotherapy.