Updated: March 11, 2019
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center for patients suffering from pain. MBSR teaches individuals the principles of mindfulness and how to apply them to deal more effectively with stress, pain, illness, psychological distress and the demands of daily life. It teaches participants to respond to stressful situations “mindfully.” MBSR has been extensively researched and found to be a helpful adjunct to conventional treatments for a variety of medical and psychological conditions, particularly anxiety, stress, depression, pain, and weight management.
MBSR training program
An 8 to 9 week program, MBSR training teaches mindfulness through breathing, body awareness exercises, sitting and walking meditation as well as gentle yoga. The MBSR program is being offered in many hospitals and by private practitioners and practice groups. Mindful eating is one of the latest additions to MBSR training, offering a non-diet way to lose weight.
Mindfulness-focusing and awareness
Mindfulness incorporates both focusing and awareness. Focusing is an excellent place to start training your mind. In order to make changes, however, you’ll want to shift from focusing to becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings. At any time you may go back to simply focusing.
- “Eyes on the road”
- Anchor on an object (e.g. breath) to keep the mind centred
- Outward—seeing the thoughts and feelings from the outside. You see yourself and your mental dynamics in more detail from this perspective. You start to notice things you’ve never seen before.
- “Seeing the scenery”: watching the mental traffic as if it belongs to someone else.
- Imagine the mind as a stream of consciousness.
- When there is a deluge of thoughts and sensations and you’re at risk of being drowned in the stream, that’s when focusing comes in.
Shifting emphasis from focusing to awareness
a) watch the stream of consciousness, dispassionately
b) pluck something from the stream and deliberately focus on it (e.g. a dream imagine, a memory, a pain)
Start by taking your mind inwards for a moment by focusing on the breath. Take a few gentle deep breaths, from the belly. In and out. Re—lax… Let go…Continue to breathe for as long as you wish.
Now take your mind outwards. See your thoughts, feelings, moods, and sensations as objects floating down a stream, coming into view and vanishing from sight. Simply watch without judgment or analysis. Just watch them pass.
Now pluck an object from the stream and focus on it. Let the other sensations and thoughts go by in the background. Note any new thoughts or feelings that arise from observing this object. Sit with these thoughts and feelings for a moment.
Whenever you’re ready to leave this object behind, simply deposit it on a leaf and let it float downstream.
Practice focusing every day. It’ll help you learn to stay in the moment in your everyday life.
1. The breath. See “Awareness exercise” above.
2. Body scan: Lie down with your eyes closed. Slowly scan up and down your body for tightness and soreness. If you find a tight spot, stop and breathe into it until it relaxes. You might also imagine healing, white light radiating into the spot.
3. Object meditation: Choose a favourite or interesting object, such as a stone or flower. Spend several minutes observing every aspect of it: shape, hues, textures, smells, tastes. Use all your senses. Go for details.
4. Mindful eating: eating slowly, mindfully. Be aware of all the sensations of the food: taste, texture, sounds, weight. See “Mindful Eating: A Raisin” below.
5. Walking Meditation: While you walk, focus on sensations of the body moving. Soften the eyes and look at the ground a few paces ahead of you. Pay attention to how you walk. Aim to walk with no tension: relax into it, letting your hips and shoulders swing easily. Breathe with your footsteps. It can help to scan your body as you walk, allowing the movement to free up tensions. You may also consider saying a mantra or affirmation in time with the steps. See “Mindful Walking.”
6. Mindful stretching: Slow, gentle Hatha yoga.
1. Simply Watching
A particularly useful activity when your mind is very busy and you’re finding focusing difficult.
Watch the passing thoughts without judging them. Just watch them like the clouds passing by. Identify (or say out loud) each mood, thought, feeling, and sensation that comes up, such as sore neck, pizza, best friend, anger, tingling, empty stomach, pizza again, grandma, I miss her…
2. Worry or Urge “Surfing” for fears, worries, urges, cravings, etc.
- Be aware of the warning signs—the worry, fear, anxiety urge is approaching.
- Imagine the wave as a fear, worry or urge— it crests then falls.
- Ride the wave without giving into the fear, worry or urge.
- Let the urge pass. Celebrate your effort to ride through the urge.
- Accept that new worries, fears and urges will appear.
Riding out your emotions: Worry surfing
Imagine for a moment an ocean wave as it approaches the shore. It’s steep and tall and hasn’t crested yet into a breaker. Now imagine the wave nearing a group of gulls floating on the water. The birds don’t fly away. They simply ride up the facing slope, round the top and drift down the long back of the wave.
That’s what you can learn to do with your worries, anxieties, and fears (WAFs). All emotions are wave-like and time-limited. They ebb and flow. Life’s a wave: emotions build up, eventually reach a peak, and drift away. WAFs come and go in a similar way. They don’t last forever, even if it feels like they will.
In this exercise we invite you to ride the wave of one of your WAFs.
Now think of a recent event where you felt afraid, panicky, nervous, worried or upset. Visualize the scene and remember how you felt. Notice the worrying and disconcerting thoughts. Perhaps you’ll notice images of disaster, too. Keep focusing on the upsetting scene as well as on the judgments you make about it and what’s happening inside you.
Let your anxiety rise until it’s at least a 4 or 5 on a scale of 10.
Observe what your body might be doing. Notice the sensations and how your mind evaluates them. Simply label them all with “I am noticing…” Notice the sensations of warmth and tightness. If there’s a thought that it’s dangerous, that you’re losing control, just let your body and mind do their thing.
As you do this, notice the emotional wave in the room with you. At this point, the wave is tall and scary. You may feel that it’ll go on forever; that you may drown. Just allow the wave to run its course without controlling or blocking it. If you refuse to ride out the wave and try to fight it, you’ll never get over the top. You’ll stay stuck on the wave’s leading edge.
Notice the emotional wave with you. Be aware of the point where it stops climbing. Feel it levelling off and starting to diminish. Experience the slow ride down the back of the wave. Accept wherever you are on the wave. Don’t hasten to get past it. It moves at its own speed—all you can do is let go and let it carry you. Keep watching this until it completely passes.
Meditation is about being present. It’s all about slowing up, about being fully present to your life, as it is right now, without trying to change it in any way. You’ll be glad to know that mindfulness is not all about closing your eyes and focusing on your breath all day long.
Just remember… there are no expectations. This exercise is mindful and that means that you remain detached and non-judgmental of whatever comes to mind. If you find this hard, be mindful of your (perceived lack of) mindfulness. Doing a mindfulness exercise means you’re doing it right—so you can’t go wrong.
Some people use walking meditation instead of breathing meditation. All you do in walking meditation is walk and focus on the sensation of walking. That is your focus as opposed to your breath. In walking meditation, you’re not trying to get anywhere. To reinforce this, you walk in circles around a room or up and down a hall. This gives your mind the message that there’s no use hurrying since you’re not going anywhere anyway. Walking is generally a pleasant and relaxing experience for both mind and body, and an excellent way to release stress or restless energy.
You can begin by focusing on your legs, feet or your whole body. It isn’t the walking speed that matters so much as focusing fully on the activity. Some people find it helpful to slow their walking and pay attention to each part of each step while others wobble when slow and need to speed things up. Just go with whatever feels right to you.
If your mind wanders from the focus, notice where it has gone, then respectfully escort it back to the walking. People who are agitated may find walking meditation a good meditation to do (there’s a reason we pace when we’re agitated). Preferably do your mindfulness activities in a private spot, either in your home or in your yard.
Now let’s start…
Stand straight, head up, feet about shoulder width. You’re forming a solid stance, firm base.
Feel your balance, how you’re shifting slightly back and forth, from side to side. Normally this happens automatically. Become aware of these minor movements.
Feel the soles of your feet, roll gently back and forth to emphasize the sensation of your feet against the ground.
Focus on a point in front of you. It’s time for your first step…
Rolling forward, push off with your right foot and s-l-o-w-l-y take a step.
For a couple of seconds, feel how your leg moves through the air. The sensation of impact as your heel touches the ground.
Slow, fluid movements…
Now push off with your left leg. Feel how your right leg muscles are balancing your body as your left leg travels through the air and touches the ground.
Take five slow, fluid steps like this. Then halt and turn around. Now walk back to your starting point, close to normal speed this time. Did you feel the difference? This time you relied more on sight and less on feeling your balance and your senses didn’t you?
Slowing down the pace, we tend to become aware of other, lesser-used senses.
Now repeat the slow walk and return.
Let’s have some fun.
Pretend to be running in slow-motion. You’re now the hero of a movie chasing down the bad guy. OR
Pretend you’re a model walking in slow-motion down the catwalk. Walk, look… and turn!
After you’re done stand still for a minute and feel your mind and body.
Simply observe any sensations or feelings. Whenever you become aware of any thoughts or sensations, remain mindful and detached and let the sensations go. When a new thought or sensation comes, let that one go.
Become aware of the gentle, fluid movements within your mind.
Thoughts and sensations are replaced by other thoughts and sensations—a perpetual, impermanent cycle. This is natural, just as the moving, changing sensations in your body, coming and going as you walk.
Hopefully your mind enjoyed the break from habitual patterns and thinking about what-to-do-next. You didn’t walk, you were just moving. Mindfulness is more about living than exercising. If you can learn to establish awareness during walking meditation—when you are physically moving with your eyes open—then it won’t be difficult to arouse that same wakeful quality during other activities, such as eating, washing dishes or driving. It’ll be easier for you to arouse mindfulness when you walk to your car or during any other time. Your mindfulness will become a habit that will begin to permeate your entire life.
1. When the dish or bag comes to you take one raisin and keep it in your hand.
2. Hold the raisin in the palm of your hand. Feel the weight of it.
3. Look at this raisin. Notice any unique features of your raisin. Let your eyes explore every part; examine the highlights where light shines, its darker crevasses, its folds and ridges.
4. Hold the raisin between your fingers and turn it. Notice its texture and its “topography.”
5. Hold the raisin to your ear. Squish it a bit. Does it make a sound? Take note of any sensations you feel.
6. Hold the raisin beneath your nose, and with each inhalation drink in any smell, aroma or fragrance that may arise, noticing as you do this if there’s anything interesting happening in your mouth or stomach.
7. Simply notice any thoughts that you may have, such as likes or dislikes, without trying to push them away.
8. With awareness, slowly bring the raisin to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly where to position it, perhaps noticing that saliva starts to get secreted as you bring the raisin towards your mouth.
9. Gently place the raisin in your mouth, without chewing notice how it gets into the mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.
10. Notice to which side your tongue pushes the raisin.
11. When you’re ready, prepare to chew the raisin.
12. Then very consciously, take one or two bites into the raisin and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanates from it as you continue chewing.
13. Resist the urge to swallow the raisin. Notice the sensation of taste—the juice of the raisin and its texture in your mouth and how these change over time, as well as any changes in the raisin itself.
14. See if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that you experience this sensation consciously before you actually swallow the raisin.
15. Finally, swallow the raisin—see if you can feel the raisin going down towards your stomach and even entering your stomach. Perhaps noticing what it feels like to be one raisin heavier.
16. Sense how the body as a whole feels after completing this mindful eating exercise. Notice your thoughts.
Reflect on your experiences with the group.
What did you notice, what did you like/dislike about the activity?
What do you do (or might you do) at mealtime to notice the food you’re eating? How could you invite intimacy with the present moment while eating and how do you think it would change mealtimes?
How about at other times of the day?
Note that there is nothing magical about mindfulness. Often when we do one task, we’re already thinking of the next task. Most of us do a lot of different things while we eat—read, talk or watch television. Notice how slowing down and tasting your food helps bring you into the present moment and can change the nature of your experience.
Though it sounds simple, mindfulness takes practice, and the longer you practice the easier the process becomes.
To gain a full understanding of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction read Jon Kabat Zinn’s landmark book on the topic, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness»
Learning Strategies Development, Queen’s University www.queensu.ca/learningstrategies. For a scientist research paper on the positive effects of MBSR: Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S. & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.