An Interview with Linda Lehrhaupt, PhD,
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:
The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality
Mindfulness has become very popular and is popping up everywhere in one form or another. Could you say something about this?
At the bottom the interest in mindfulness, I believe, is a deep longing for peace and harmony. It is the same longing that draws people to practice meditation or meditative arts in general. As the level of stress in modern society reaches epidemic proportions, and as science shows how so many illnesses and other conflicts are caused or directly related to high stress levels, many people are searching for something that will help them.
In medicine, education, and in other related professions, there is a sense that if real learning or change is to take place, people must experience “teaching from within.” Mindfulness, which has at its heart 1) clear seeing, 2) cultivation of responsibility for oneself and others, and 3) a very practical method for self-examination, is very well suited to foster this.
I don´t see it as a problem that mindfulness has become popular. I see is as an aspiration to develop wisdom and compassion in ourselves and others. There have been many skillful and some unskillful developments in this respect, but that is no reason to turn away; Rather, it is an invitation to those of us who work, teach and practice with mindfulness to sincerely and with great care use our talents and our training for the good of others.
Why are people interested in taking part in courses and/or treatment programs that have at their core intensive training in mindfulness?
Many people who enroll in MBSR or other mindfulness-based, courses are suffering in one form or another. They may have an illness such as chronic pain, cancer, MS or heart disease. They may have physical symptoms such as stomach pain headaches, palpitations etc. that are intensified by stress at home or work. They may have experienced a life crisis, including the death of a love one or losing their home in a fire. Others may feel a sense of emptiness, wondering what life is all about in a way that feels very painful. And some may wish to intensively explore what mindfulness can mean for them, who have a sense that they want to be more fully engaged in life but don’t quite know where to begin.
People have an intuitive sense that training their awareness is the key to changing destructive habits or learning to live with and not in spite of their difficult situation.
They often say their lives have been restricted by their difficult situations, and they have come to define themselves by it, e.g. cancer patient. Rather than continuing in a passive role or seeing themselves as victims, they wish to engage life directly. “There is more right with you then wrong with you, even when there is something wrong with you,” Jon Kabat-Zinn has said. People want to learn how to harness their own inner strength
and live as fully as it is possible. Mindfulness-based approaches like MBSR offer such a way, and the increasing numbers of people who take part show that many wish to walk this path.
How mindfulness can help with stress?
We can reduce stress through mindfulness by learning to recognize stressors and the stress reaction. This involves taking a mindful pause during activity so that we can make conscious decisions. When we invite mindfulness into normally automatic processes, that action in itself is wholesome because it helps us widen our perception. In other words, the moment we notice we are not being mindful, we are in fact practicing mindfulness.
We can apply this principle to our experience of stress. When a person says, “I am stressed,” and pauses to become aware of the bodily sensation of breathing, he or she has already ended an automatic reaction and taken the first step toward responding to the situation in a different way.
Once we have learned and practiced mindfulness, we can develop and refine the ability to observe and reflect.. Awareness and nonjudgmental observation help create mental and emotional space around actions, and this can lead to adopting more helpful ways of coping with a situation. That way, decisions do not arise from automatic-pilot mode — subconscious, habitual patterns — and the response is creative rather than automatic.
How does mindfulness support resilience?
I understand resilience to be the capacity to work with difficulty in a life-affirming way. For me this means that though one has experienced an extremely challenging event, the attitude that accompanies it is not frozen into grief, resignation or closing down one’s feelings. Of course, this can happen initially and is seen as a necessary part of coming to terms with something. But with time, the attitude can shift to one that allows for growth and change, to a moving forward and living life in a fuller way, one that includes rather than shuts down one’s participation in life
In mindfulness practice we learn to recognize when we are caught in a particular way of thinking and its effect on us. We also learn to see that this is a kind of storyline that we have come to believe, a repetition of thoughts that is habitual around a theme. We don’t however try to change those thoughts, or substitute others for them. But just becoming aware of a pattern of thoughts is enough to lessen its hold. It brings more space into a situation that felt so closed. And that means that a shift in perspective becomes more possible. It can be a small insight, or it can be monumental. And this is one that helps to form a resilient attitude rather than being frozen in a downward and debilitating mind set.
I remember as a young teacher meeting a man who wanted to learn Tai Chi. As a result of a birth defect caused by the drug Thalidomide, he was born without arms. He told me that he wanted to learn to improve his balance, and he felt that the body movements of Tai Chi would help him. He finished the whole form, and a week after his final class I received a postcard showing him skiing down a mountain trail in the Alps. “Thank you- and Tai Chi- for helping to make this possible.” This is one example of how mindfulness practice can support resilience. (continued)
Mindfulness teaches to get in close with one’s problems. But what if I don’t want to be mindful of difficult things?
It is completely human not to want to feel bad or be reminded of difficulty. But when we speak about practicing mindfulness of difficult emotions, we are not talking about being overtaken by difficult feelings, or even reminding ourselves about painful things. Rather we are relating to our emotions in a very different way to what we are used to.. We practice during mindfulness meditation to observe thoughts and emotions as they are taking place, doing our best not to get caught up in them. On way we do this is by becoming aware of the sensations in the body as we experience an emotion.
For example, let’s take sadness. In practicing mindfulness, we would tune into any body sensations we might notice , for example, a heaviness in the chest area, a tightness in the jaw, tears brimming in the eyes, By staying with the physical sensations as best we can, it helps to ground us and support us to be with what is. In turn, this aids us to feel much more space in the situation rather than feeling closed in.
When people practice mindfulness of emotions in this way, they say they notice how an emotion can move through them like a wave . There is no suppression, or identification, there is just experiencing without getting so caught up.
Mindfulness practice asks for commitment and to practice every day. Do people really do it?
Participation in an MBSR course asks that we practice at home each day for up to one hour with audio recordings of the formal exercises, such as yoga, the body scan, or the sitting meditation, as well as engaging in informal exercises or sometimes in completing a journal entry about a particular theme.
A question that many prospective participants ask is: “But what if something happens at work, or whatever, and I can’t practice that day?” This is a reasonable thing to ask, but often in asking such a question, we are already looking for the exit before we have entered the room. We've checked out before we have checked in.”
No one can know the future. No one can say what will come up during the week that might prevent us from practicing at home. At the same time, mindfulness practice encourages us to reflect and be in touch with the various emotions and/or thoughts that come up, and to be in contact as best we can with our motivations. But rather than assign blame, we reflect kindly and also clearly on what may be arising and work with it as openly as we can. In class we talk about how to keep the practice going even if we can’t do it formally, and we are encouraged to examine as best we can how we may either sabotage or discourage our own practice through reacting with harshness if we “slip.”
Lively and sometimes difficult exchanges can happen in an MBSR class in response to the theme of practice. At the same time, the climate is one of reflection and commitment to working with what comes up. We also emphasize that in situations where formal practice is not possible, informal practice, which is also vital, helps us continue to practice mindfulness with integrity. (continued)
How can mindfulness help me to live a fuller life?
This question, which is often expressed by people interested in mindfulness meditation, reminds me of a teaching story I worked on recently with a student. It concerns a young woman who asks Manseong Sunim, a Korean Zen Buddhist nun and teacher, “How do I cultivate the way.? Her teacher answers sternly, “No cultivation!” The student is shocked into silence, recovers, and asks further, “ But how do I free myself?.”
Her teacher asks : “What binds you?”
What does Manseong Sunim mean by “No cultivation?” Another way to express this might be to ask: “What do you think is missing? What do you think you need that you don’t already have.”
The teacher’s question contains within it the answer itself. As we go searching for what is missing, we often find we are surrounded by abundance. And this abundance is made up of small things that we have come to take for granted until we look again and see how they fill our lives with joy: the first flowers shoots after a harsh winter, the sight of a huge bright moon on a cloudless night, a cat and dog rubbing noses as they smooze on the couch.
Our life is full of life. We only need to take off the dark shades we routinely wear, clean our everyday glasses, put them back on… and then stop looking. Life unbound will find us. The richness we may seek, which is complicated and very simple at the same time, surrounds us. Stop looking, and you will see it!
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality
By Linda Lehrhaupt, PhD, and Petra Meibert, Dipl. Psych.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-479-3, New World Library, 2017