Saturday, October 12, 2013

What is Mindfulness? Is it religious? What is MBSR? And how does meditation fit in?

---- a blog by Gena Bean in response to MBSR class discussion on Oct 6 2013 ----

Mindfulness is a human capacity for non-judgemental awareness that can be developed and strengthened. Other human capacities include: compassion, unconditional love, wisdom, knowledge,... etc.  These human capacities do not belong to any religion, yet most religions value them.

MBSR is a nine-session training program that includes meditation practices that are designed to enhance and strengthen the MBSR student’s innate capacity for mindfulness.  

The other human capacities are honored in MBSR class, yet the emphasis in this training program is on developing mindfulness skills specifically.  There is also an intention towards reducing stress.

Traditionally, the altruistic human capacities (that include mindfulness) were taught predominantly in religious settings.  People who wanted personal growth and healing traditionally went to religious centers to learn how to enhance them.  Our culture has now reached a point where secular forms of mindfulness are being developed for personal growth and healing. Many people nowadays are choosing to learn and heal outside of religious centers.   It is interesting to note that throughout time, there have been individuals who developed mindfulness skills on their own without being trained at all.  

The MBSR format for learning is relatively new compared to the religious forms of mindfulness trainings.  MBSR was developed in 1979 at the UMass Medical Center. It was designed from the start to be a secular training. The medical research being done on MBSR is making it stand out in the media and pop culture.

* MBSR students are encouraged to develop their own relationship to the broader realm of mindfulness-developing practices, as well as to mindfulness itself.  Though, within class, there is a specific MBSR format that is non-religious.
* MBSR is usually outside of a traditional religious practice, but many people are now choosing to include MBSR practices in their religious lives.
* Most traditional religions have always included forms of mindfulness practice.  Some resources are:

~Jewish mindfulness in Boston: Nishmat Hayyim, the Temple Beth Zion meditation project

~Christianity: The Method of Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating. For info, contact the national office of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. in Butler NJ.

 ~Buddhist mindfulness in Boston: both the Shambhala Center and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC) offer classes on mindfulness.  

Meditation is a broad term that can mean a number of different things.  
Meditation is not necessarily mindfulness meditation.  

If during a meditation session you choose to use your imagination to create a picture of something, that is usually termed “Creative Visualization” meditation.  Examples: Imagining that you are at a peaceful location, or imagining that healing light is surrounding your body.

If during a meditation session you choose to tense and release your muscles, that is usually termed “Progressive Relaxation” meditation.

If during a yoga-class meditation session you choose to scan through your body in order to deepen the Shavasana Pose, that is usually termed “Yoga Nidra” meditation.

Creative Visualization, Progressive Relaxation, and Yoga Nidra are just three examples of different forms of mediation.  There are many more.  In general, all forms of mediation can be used for healing and wellness. Each individual chooses the form of meditation that they want to practice, and many factors can inform their choice of practice.  Because of media reports on medical research results from MBSR training, many people are choosing to join MBSR programs in order to experience physical health benefits.

In MBSR class, the meditations offered are “Mindfulness Meditations.”
MBSR mindfulness meditations can be distinct from other forms of meditation (or not) because of an emphasis on:
1)The simple direct experience of the present moment of reality as it is.
2)The refraining from imagining past, future, or other states.
3)The refraining from fixing, enhancing, or in other ways changing the present moment experience, even if the present moment experience happens to be painful or otherwise intense.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

So, you want to be an MBSR teacher?

Lately, I've gotten a number of emails from folks who want to know how to become MBSR teachers.  I decided to post my response here for those of you who are interested.  
If you are interested in a career in MBSR, the Center for Mindfulness (CFM) has an info page at 

When you go to that page, you will see that the very first requirement is to engage in "beginner's mind" and take the MBSR program as a normal participant. You are welcome to apply for my program in Cambridge MA that starts on Oct 6th if you would like. The application for my program is at

But, of course, the CFM runs their own MBSR. So if you would prefer to take your first MBSR program there in Worcester MA instead, that would make a lot of sense. 

These days, my classes have included a pretty large number of people like yourself who have a professional interest in MBSR. My last couple of semesters have had about 30% students who are both "beginner's mind" students as well as being "in the biz". This includes people who have current careers in medicine, psychology,  social work, education, and also meditation teachers from other traditions.  So you will not be alone in your interest. 

Once you have completed your first MBSR program, you can then start your teacher-level training with the CFM. You will be required to attend at least one 5-day silent meditation retreat first, and then you should enroll in their teacher-level training called

"Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Mind-Body Medicine: A 7-Day Professional Training"  Be aware that this training sells out at least six months in advance so apply as soon as you can.  The CFM brochure at has an excellent diagram showing the stages that lead to certification as an MBSR teacher.  Scroll down to the second page. 

Alternatively, some of my students decide to apprentice with me in some way before starting their training at the CFM. During classes #7 or #8 of the MBSR program that I teach I will go over the details of what opportunities there are for further study with me. Also, most of my MBSR semesters include one or two apprentice students so you can ask them yourself during class.  

 I also offer business coaching for MBSR teachers who are interested in setting up their own MBSR programs... but I charge good money for that. I want to make sure folks are seriously invested if I am going to work with them one-on-one to assist them with their business.  

I wish you well in your exploration of what it means to teach MBSR.  There is a great need for dedicated teachers.  Welcome!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Couples in MBSR Class

The couples who have come to my classes together usually do so because they want to learn some skills in stress reduction.  They view MBSR class as a way to learn a skill, like tennis classes can be a way to learn a skill. If the tennis analogy worked, then both partners could learn the skill at the same time and that would be a nice addition to their relationship.  In my experience, this is not a good way to view MBSR training.

A better analogy for MBSR class is a kayak trip. It is a journey where you might learn some good skills, but it’s not really book-style-learning.  In a kayak journey, each kayaker is faced with all kinds of water terrain, and needs to figure out a way to handle it.  For some types of water, it’s best to be in an individual kayak so you can make personal choices and be in control of your own boat.  

If a couple chooses to paddle down a river in a double kayak instead of taking two individual kayaks, both people might have a bumpier ride. When each partner takes their own individual kayak, they can choose to cover different terrain.  One might choose white water, the other might choose calm water. This would be impossible in a double kayak.  Also, if the case arises where one person hits a rough patch, or even capsizes, then in individual kayaks the other partner is in a better position to stay afloat, and perhaps even be of assistance. 

I’ve seen a number of “double kayak” couples who have taken my class with the expectation that their relationship will not affect the individual experiences they have in class.  But, what I observed was that the two people present in the room were carrying along a third invisible personality: the personality of the relationship between the two of them. In 2002, “Bennifer” was a very different media sensation than either Jennifer Lopez or Ben Afflick could have been on their own. And I’ve seen a less sensationalized version of “who we are together is different than who we are on our own” happen for most couples I know, including myself with my own partner. 

Merging together to face life in partnership and with synergy can be one of the most healing things we humans do.  I think it’s a great thing.  And yet, within the context of MBSR class, I do prefer my students to engage in more individualistic trajectories. The third personality can significantly change any journey, including the journey of MBSR class.  Sure, it is possible to strap two (or three!) kayaks together and go down river rapids.  But it will take more energy to keep the whole thing afloat.   

In my MBSR classes that have included a couple, it was harder for me to teach.  In a class of 20, I was leading 18 people in individual “kayaks” and 2 people who were in a bigger more complicated “kayak.”  It took extra energy on my part to keep the whole class afloat.  So, I have made the decision to not accept couples in my future MBSR classes.

When I encounter a couple who wants to take MBSR together, I recommend a number of options. 
  • The first option is for one person to take MBSR this semester, and the other person to take my next semester of classes. 
  • Another good option is for one person to take my class, and the other person to take class with a different local MBSR teacher at the same time.  I know of teachers in Arlington, Stoneham, and Hingham.  Also, the Center for Mindfulness in Worcester can be an excellent option if the commute works. 
  • If the couple really, really, wants to take the class together there is an MBSR teacher in Concord who offers private lessons. 

I have a number of students who have followed my advice and taken separate MBSR classes.  Using the journey of MBSR to strengthen themselves as individual people has strengthened their ability to build deeper relationships. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Achieving Stress Reduction

We modern Bostonians do work hard to achieve our goals. And then once the goals are achieved, there is a sense of satisfaction about the achievements.  This is a great thing.  Miraculous accomplishments that we have in our lives (such as, for example, working plumbing) would not exist without our abilities to have goals and to achieve goals.

It is also clear from media articles, medical reports and our own experiences that there is a side effect to having and achieving so many of the modern goals that we have: stress.

During my meetings with MBSR applicants, I have been hearing them say, "I have a goal to reduce my stress."  And I have been hearing the ways in which these folks have been addressing this goal.  Because it works well for achieving their other life goals, they have been approaching stress reduction in the same way that they might approach the goal to fix their own sink.  They read about it. They take classes. They consult with experts. They google it. They do things in order to make their goal happen.

In this approach, there is a sense of forcing.  And, as with anything that one forces, there is a side-effect of stress.

My experiences with mindfulness are not doing/forcing kind of experiences.  Doing (in the above way) creates a side-effect of stress. The side-effect then creates a new cycle of stress.  This loop of: feeling stress, trying to force a reduction of stress by doing stuff, resulting in a side-effect of stress, continues endlessly.  The stress cycle is perpetuated by the very doing-activities that were supposed to end the cycle of stress.  In order to short-circuit this endless cycle of doing, a new mode of non-doing needs to be introduced to the cycle.  In MBSR language, we sometimes use the term "being" to describe the mode of non-doing/non-forcing.  Albert Einstein once said, "no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."  And that quote speaks to the way in which we address this kind of cycle of stress in MBSR classes.  

Last night at my Orientation Meeting, I expressed this concept.  My student then asked me, "How do I do being-mode?"  Then he stopped and smiled at himself.  He had immediately seen the paradox in that question.  We modern Bostonians understand how to do things.  But in general, simply being with things, especially things that feel "broken" in some way (as being stressed can feel)- without fixing, without changing, without enhancing, without doing something, is not easy for us to grasp.  How do we do what is the opposite of doing?  How do we sit calmly with that which makes us feel the opposite of calm? 

My short answer to my student involved the concepts of self-care and self-kindness.  But a short answer is only enough for a coffee shop discussion.  It is not enough for a full life. During the 9 weeks of our class we will address these very paradoxical questions over and over again in deeper and more unexpected ways each time in order to bring them more fully into our lives.  These kind of questions can be frustrating to work on.  In class, we will work on them together in order to make them more accessible.  We will approach them the way in which one might approach a rich meal.  We will need to chew on each part.  We will need time to digest.  

A Fall Series of Blogs

MBSR class will be starting in two weeks.  Before class starts there are a number of things that the students need to understand about the format and structure of class.  And, there are a number of things I need to understand about where each student is coming from.  So, there needs to be an orientation process before the start date.  In MBSR, there is some leeway about class structure.  Each teacher can decide how they want to run the orientation process for their class.  Some teachers do group meetings or skype calls.  My preferred method is to hang out in a coffee shop for an hour with each student.  

There are some drawbacks to this method.  Primarily, if I am going to have 30 students in my class, I will need to budget my time to include about 40 hours of sitting in a coffee shop.  When I reflect upon the concept of 40 hours in a coffee shop, I do laugh out loud at myself for this decision.  But, we all weigh our options in life and I find the benefits of this method worthwhile.  
Here's a partial list of benefits I have found so far:

  • Starting a new class can feel intimidating for the student.  A coffee shop setting for an informal meeting with me sets the stage for the type of comradery that I intend to include in my classes. This setting takes some pressure off of the heaviness that can be present when starting such important work. 
  • The student gets a sense of who I am as both a person and a teacher.  I get a sense of who the student is and why they are engaging in this work.  These kind of meetings "put us on the same page" for the beginning of class. 
  • Having an "on the same page" feeling with each students creates an excellent foundation for starting off class #1 smoothly.  
  • In a coffee shop, students usually feel more comfortable asking questions that they might have considered too personal for a group setting or a formal classroom setting. I usually have the opportunity to assuage some fears during our conversations.  I also sometimes discuss how mindfulness can blend into an individual's religious beliefs.  During MBSR class itself, focusing on any individual religion is not usually included. 
  • And... (drum roll), I get a personal benefit in these coffee shop meetings for my own practice.  I learn about mindfulness in a different way than I learn during classes. 
Since so many people these days are blogging in coffee shops, I had the idea to write some blogs in the next two weeks that describe what it is I am learning.  The first one is called Achieving Stress Reduction.  Enjoy!

I have an intention to make this a series of blogs for the fall.  We'll see how my real life fits in with that intention.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

"Where will you be when the world begins anew?"

I am aware that I have not blogged in a while.  So, I'll start off slow with a quote.  The following is from one of my yoga teachers, Ken Nelson.  He is writing his newsletter from Belize where it makes sense to reflect on who the Maya were and how the "Maya Prophecy" can be viewed with sanity and wholeness.
What is the Maya Prophecy?
More than 5,000 years ago, Mayan astronomers calculated a cycle that began on the summer solstice of 3114 BC and will end on the winter solstice of 2012. Theories abound as to what the cycle means. Doomsayers call it the end of the world.

What does the Mayan calendar mean? The director of the Belize Institute of Archeology, James Awe, says that the end of this cycle in 2012 is like the end of one year and the beginning of another, only on a very long scale. He says it's not the end days, but a time for reflection, for considering future direction.

Making meaning of experience
As transformational teachers our craft is practicing how to engage our hidden wholeness, and to inquire into the true meaning of our times and our lives. Our task is to foster consciousness and to effect positive change in our individual and collective beliefs, attitudes and responses to situations.

As we explore ways to serve that inspire self-discovery, we practice rituals of faith and spirit to renew our determination to make the world a better place for those who come.

"Where will you be when the world begins anew?"
 A new era, like a new day, starts a new cycle. Each morning the stars begin to fade as the brightness of the sun makes the stars invisible to our eyes. The stars are still there as the earth rotates. Transformation of consciousness is to know that the stars are still there, hidden from plain sight, overshadowed by the powerful nearby presence of the sun dominating the daytime sky. Yet the longer cycles of the night sky embrace each day.

What are we not seeing that is in plain sight?

The Mayan calendar has spawned a slogan in Belize:
"Where will you be when the world begins anew?"
 Many thanks to Ken for his perspective on the 2012 phenomenon. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Economic Stress

At this time of budget cuts, layoffs and other manifestations of economic crisis, it is not uncommon to react with feelings of fear, horror, etc.

As a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher, I am not able to change these outside stressors for you.  I can't do anything about your bills.  I can't find you a new job. If you have health concerns, I can't cure your body.  I am deeply sorry.

What I can do is help you with an "inside job."  I can assist you in addressing your own feelings of fear and horror.  I can show you strategies for transforming knee-jerk emotional reactions into measured responses. In mindfulness, we work towards creating sane responses that give us more control over our inner experience of happiness regardless of the outside circumstances, even when circumstances are dire. 

In MBSR class, we work on our inner perceptions of reality. We work on seeing a feeling of horror as a feeling instead of perceiving the feeling as a reality. Reality itself is much bigger than a single feeling.  A feeling is a feeling. And, sure, it does have it's own validity, it is valid to feel it.  I actually encourage you to feel it.  But here's the trick: feel it for what it is without adding additional projections on to it.  Without our awareness, a single feeling can easily snowball into a projection into the future, or an overwhelming belief that will cause us additional stress.  Addressing that snowball effect itself is one powerful way to  put things into a proper perspective.

When a person feels a feeling of horror, the body stiffens, the breath stops, and a belief can arise.  Sometimes the belief is a belief in immanent death.  Sometimes the belief is a belief in personal homelessness.  In MBSR class, we work towards seeing a belief in a future of homelessness as a belief that is projected into the future instead of a reality about right now.

The present moment is workable.  A projection into the future is not workable. Wherever you are right now, you can make choices and move forward. In a hazy fear-projection into the future, there isn't a way to move forward because you are not actually there. For you, as you are right now, the projection itself is an additional stressor that you don't need.

The experience of homelessness has many different levels. Very few of them are pleasant. It is valid to be unhappy about most aspects of homelessness. But for an individual who is now living a homeless life, there are basic choices and empowering decisions to be made in the present moment.  MBSR classes are currently being taught to homeless populations in order to offer strategies to homeless individuals for making empowering choices for themselves. 

For those of you who are not living a homeless life right now, the projection of a future of homelessness gives you no choices, and dis-empowers you.  Addressing the projections and the fears themselves is what will allow you to make empowering choices.

One reason to join the MBSR classes that I offer (see is to learn strategies for seeing projections about an uncertain future as simply projections.  When you can create a little breathing room between any negative projections and the truth of the moment, you can better navigate around any paralysis of fear. You have the space to use whatever resources are actually available to you to their greatest benefit.