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.