Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School—the oldest academic medical center-based stress reduction program in the west. In response to inquiries about the clinic’s eight-week course, Dr. Kabat-Zinn wrote Full Catastrophe Living (1990), a the seminal book on mindfulness practice that has spawned numerous offspring, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT.) Mindfulness practices have made their way into schools, prisons, business, hospitals, and health clubs. Psychologists and researchers have explored combining cognitive therapy and mindfulness to help depression, anxiety, and medical problems. Given the ubiquitousness of the practice, it is important to understand what it is, and what it is not.
I have always considered the title of Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s book unfortunate. The title suggests that life is catastrophic, but the book is really about living well with the ordinary stresses of life. In his introduction, Dr. Kabat-Zinn tells the reader why he choose the title:
I keep coming back to one line from the movie of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel Zorba the Greek. Zorba’s young companion turns to him and inquires, “Zorba, have you ever been married?” to which Zorba replies, “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything…. the full catastrophe!”
But despite Zorba’s responsibilities and multiple roles, he lived his life with gusto, very much in the moment. “’Just now I’m thinking of the chicken and the pilaff sprinkled with cinnamon,’” he tells the narrator. “’Everything in good time. In front of us now is the pilaff; let our minds become pilaff. Tomorrow the lignite will be in front of us; our minds must become lignite! No half-measures, you know.” Whether considering the pleasurable dinner or the difficult work, Zorba gave his mind to what was in front of him, never just being a spectator of his life.
We all have stress. As Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, put it recently:
“Stress doesn’t go away, ever. That’s why we call it stress management rather than stress elimination…in practicing mindfulness you create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.”
Learning to Live With Stress
There are no avoiding daily hassles, relationship conflict, money worries, and health concerns. Yet by living side by side with our stress, we come to know ourselves more deeply. In mindfulness practice we learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings in a non-judgmental way and thereby develop the ability to tolerate the difficulties of life with more equanimity. The practice of observing our thoughts without getting wrapped up in them gives us the ability to bring insight to thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. By bringing our focus back to our breathing each time we notice our minds wandering, we learn to stop ruminating and obsessing, which will eventually help in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.