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How Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Can Ease Unrest During COVID-19

April 27, 2020

"Learning to attend to our experience in an open, curious and friendly manner allows us to see our habitual patterns and reactions. This can lead to profound transformation into more ease, joy and calm as well as more deliberate actions with ourselves and with the world around us. COVID-19 offers us a powerful opportunity for inquiry."

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn once mused, “We can’t control life’s waves, but we can learn how to surf them.” In that respect, it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has become one of the most curious “surf” lessons humanity has faced in some time.

Esalen faculty and physician turned MBSR teacher Christiane Wolf realizes this all too well. Long before COVID-19, she designed her Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Tools workshop, August 28-30 at Esalen, to specifically offer tools to help seminarians surf through stressful situations with grace. “One of the key MBSR tools we all can practice right now for stress or any struggle is self-compassion,” Christiane shares. “It might be challenging for some us to self-isolate and we may feel all sorts of things now—anger, grief, a need for more love. It’s helpful to say to ourselves, ‘It’s really hard to have this experience.’ One of the best things to do is to pause for a moment, acknowledge what is happening and let that sink in; witness it instead of immediately jumping in, trying to get rid of whatever we’re feeling or experiencing.”

And therein lies the jewel of MBSR—observing what is occurring within ourselves and bringing mindfulness to our thoughts and feelings.

After Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded MBSR in 1979, it spread from University of Massachusetts Medical School into hospitals, schools, businesses, government organizations and into people’s lives. Meticulously and widely researched, MBSR has inspired countless other mindfulness programs.

Christiane’s journey with MBSR draws from her experience as a meditator and student of more than 25 years of the Insight Meditation teachings. She combines that with her immense curiosity about science and research, which stemmed from her training and practice of being a physician.

“One of the things I found valuable about being a physician and doing a lot of research was that if we started something that could be very helpful for all walks of life, it had to be translated in a way so people understood it. And if it was going to make an impact, it had to be backed up by research. This is why I believe mindfulness is so respectable because people now trust science. It brings credibility to something.”

Christiane’s work often takes individuals through core MBSR practices with guided meditations, gentle guided movement practice, periods of silence and writing down our reflections. Each of these things can be useful now, she says, as many of us continue to shelter-in-place and look for new ways to connect with ourselves and others. “Learning to attend to our experience in an open, curious and friendly manner allows us to see our habitual patterns and reactions,” Christiane adds. “This can lead to profound transformation into more ease, joy and calm as well as more deliberate actions with ourselves and with the world around us. COVID-19 offers us a powerful opportunity for inquiry. We can ask ourselves, ‘What is this time teaching us? To slow down? To pause?' We can really look closely and ask, ‘What is really going on? Do I want to live my life the way I have?’”

One of the things Christiane has observed during COVID-19 is that our bodies may be on autopilot and that the mind may either be busy in the past or busy in the future.

“We call this rehashing or rehearsing,” Christiane shares. “We may be more focused on the future right now because there is so much uncertainty. We have no idea what it will be like when we can go back out. We know it won’t be like it was before. The virus is not going away and there is no vaccine on the horizon, so we don’t know. It might be very different for quite a while to come. But anxiety over the future takes us out of the peacefulness and the restfulness of ‘this moment,’ so in this practice, we ask ourselves to imagine for a moment that we have no access to the concept of a future or a past. To play with that idea—poof! Gone. What would it be like if you could not actually worry about the future?”

Life Beyond Stay-at-Home

Still, even Christiane is aware of the proverbial elephant standing in the living room of many minds: Returning to society. What ideal actions can we take to reacclimate when shelter-in-place measures are lifted?

“MBSR practices were made for crisis,” Christiane observes. “The thing I would say about going back out in the world is that at the end of long silent retreats, we really have to prepare to go back out there. We’re not just saying, ‘The silence is over and you haven’t been speaking for a week or two and there’s the door, bye-bye.’ Because that will rattle people completely. We have a transition time. In this case, small steps where things may not open all at once and there’s a little bit more freedom here and there.”

One concern is at the forefront of her mind.

“I am hoping that we are not so excited about getting back to our old ways and seeing our friends again that we forget what we have learned during this time,” she says. “Things like, ‘What does slowing down look like for you?’ Many people have been home with their kids during COVID-19 and before this pandemic, the kids may have been playing sports or involved in school activities. During our shelters-in-place, we may have discovered that it’s really nice to move at a slower pace and connect with one another; to not have so much on our plates and feel as if there’s so much to do all the time.”

Above all, Christiane reminds us that if we can be open-minded, curious and not have to already know what the outcomes will be, we allow ourselves to move forward with greater ease.

“In this practice we ask, ‘What is this moment like?’” she adds. “We can ask ourselves right now: ‘Are you okay right now?’ Most of the time, the answer is yes. ‘Right now’ is actually fine, so even if we feel overwhelmed at the moment, if we weren’t able to loop back into our ‘story’ around why we’re anxious, then the anxiety would fizzle out. It wouldn’t have anything that would retrigger it. We can play with this idea and ask ourselves at any given time, ‘Where is my mind? Is it in the future?’ There’s something very freeing in doing that.”

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