I am mesmerised by the robust evidence for the neurological, biochemical and behavioural benefits of mindfulness. I am working hard to figure out the philosophy behind it, that seems very foreign to me with its “acceptance” and “emptiness”.
For this I interviewed Bob Stahl, PhD. He is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher with over 25 years of experience. His PhD is in philosophy and religion. How exciting is that?! Bob sheds light on some of the philosophical conundrums of mindfulness that have preoccupied me here. He knows what he’s talking about, having founded 7 mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in medical centres in California and having written a number of books on mindfulness. In addition, Bob runs insight meditation and convergence retreats too. Clearly, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to him. [If, for whatever reason, you’re wondering, this is not a sponsored post.]
You are an expert at mindfulness-based stress reduction. How has it evolved since its inception by Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn?
I began teaching in 1991, a bit before the big wave of interest in mindfulness that predominantly sparked by Bill Moyer’s series Healing and the Mind
and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. The mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme hasn’t really changed much over the years. The core principles remain. The training of the mindfulness teachers has grown and advanced tremendously, however.
MBSR is secular. Do you think this is more of a benefit or a hindrance to most people starting it?
MBSR is sacred rather than secular. The sole purpose of MBSR is to alleviate suffering.
MBSR is not religious, but it is spiritual.
Secular implies a cold kind of separation. Having said that, MBSR can be delivered in a hospital, which is obviously non-sectarian and open to people of different religious traditions and views. It is indeed not associated with any one organised religion, but it has many underpinnings that MBSR. There are the teachings in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. There are also the underpinnings of the wisdom traditions of non-duality, stress physiology, neuroscience and group experiential education. The underpinnings come from the wisdom found cross-culturally.
MBSR was designed to help with specific issues. What are the most common problems that people come to you with?
There are 3 main interrelated categories: stress, physical pain and illness. This can be related to a chronic or terminal disease, stress at work, or a desire to improve one’s wellbeing.
You teach mindfulness to physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. What are some of the main challenges and lessons in mindfulness for this group?
First of all, they are not immune to the human condition that includes ageing, illness, death and separation.
Compassion fatigue, processing the pain of those whom they serve, burnout, anxiety, addiction, depression and insomnia are the most specific problem that affect the people belonging to healthcare professions.
There is strong culture of success in our world. We spend our lives striving for accomplishment in a goal-directed manner. It is quite counterintuitive, if not scary, for a person conditioned like this to engage in a practice of non-striving, non-reactivity, non-attachment and non-judgment. “If I stop striving, will I still be able to accomplish?” Could you comment on this apparent contradiction?
Mindfulness often gets confused with non-striving, non-attachment and non-judgment. People think they are not supposed to feel or have those feelings – and this is actually a misnomer that causes confusion.
Mindfulness is about being present and aware of what’s actually happening and acknowledging it. It is best to leave out words like “without attachment or striving” because many people actually discover how filled they are those feelings.
Could this confusion be arising from our interpretation of Buddhism?
I’ve been a student of Buddhism for many years and lived in a Buddhist monastery for over 8 years. The word for mindfulness is sati
There’s nothing in the definition that talks about being non-judgmental or non-striving. It’s all about being present, being aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Perhaps, we could say though that non-striving and non-attachment are attitudes that can be brought into mindfulness practice that serve to help us to see more clearly where we are stuck with either grasping or aversion. Let us remember that the sole goal of the mindfulness practice is freedom.
What is the most common misconception about MBSR?
I am very excited about the exponential growth of mindfulness. As with all things that are popular, there are some fads. There is some commercialisation of mindfulness.
There’s also confusion between mindfulness and positive thinking
: “You’re saying negative things, you’re not being mindful.” We should be mindful of rage, sadness, anger and fear. That’s just part of the practice. Mindfulness does not mean being positive. It means being aware, present and acknowledge it.
There’s also another apparent contradiction.
Mindfulness is both very personal and completely impersonal.
On one level, mindfulness is incredibly personal. We are really getting into our loves, joys, fears, hates, etc.
We cannot psychologically or spiritually bypass our personality.
Our personality is what we need to work with to grow. We need to understand where it is that we get caught and cannot see clearly, what stories do we tell ourselves, etc. It is incredibly personal. On the other hand, mindfulness is incredibly impersonal. The body is doing its thing, it doesn’t ask us. Mind states come and go out. Whose mind is it anyway?
In Buddhist psychology, there are 6 sense organs: the mind is the sixth.
What does it do? It experiences thoughts and emotions. Just like the nose experiences smells and the ears experience sounds, the mind experiences thoughts and feelings.
In your experience, are there any therapies that MBSR is most synergistic with?
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy was developed out of MBSR. It has been shown to be very effective, especially in treating relapses of depression. Furthermore, a variety of programmes, such as mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting, were developed based on mindfulness.
What stops most people from practicing mindfulness every day, given that it can time as little as a few minutes a day?
This is something that comes up a lot. We encourage people to sit with the resistance: what’s there? It could be a number of things. We have such a longing to feel good, but doing preventative things requires a deep commitment.
If you’re really committed to knowing the truth about where you’re stuck, practice becomes a way of life.
Your whole orientation turns towards freedom. It helps people to get inspired.
Sitting and meditating isn’t as important as whether you’re aware of what’s going on inside you, is it coming from some old conditioning, etc.
Could you explain what is involved in a mindfulness retreat?
Retreats are very important.
How can we be with others if we haven’t been with ourselves?
A silent retreat is the time to dive deep into our own life, our own story, where we’re holding on and where we’re pushing away. Retreats can be in the insight meditation tradition, Zen tradition or Tibetan tradition. In the insight tradition, we teach the four foundations of mindfulness, the three marks of existence, the four noble truths.
MBSR stemmed from a retreat. Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea while on an insight meditation retreat. He left the meditation centre, applied to start a programme – and the rest is history.
I do a lot of retreats on how Dharma informs mindfulness-based approaches. Many people entering into mindfulness don’t have a lot of experience with meditation. We help people to have the experience of the practice and to understand what informs mindfulness approaches.
You sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes, sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes… It starts at 6 in the morning and stops at 9 at night. Instruction is given once a day to clarify the teaching. There’s usually a talk in the evening to help guide the meditations. It’s a progression through the four foundation of mindfulness. We also offer group and individual practice discussions to check in with the students.
Bob suggested that I go on a retreat. I am very tempted. He travels all over the world, though he is usually found in sunny California. You can find out more about his centre here