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Learning mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): first evening of the course

I wrote a blog post a few days ago entitled "Mindfulness: teaching & learning".  I talked about my decision to participate in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, saying "Why participate in a MBSR course? Basically because I think it would be rather interesting! There's a real groundswell of energy for mindfulness based approaches at the moment. Some of it is "faddy" and will ebb away over time. Some of the energy though is helping us understand much more about mindfulness and how it can best be used in helping us live with less suffering and more joy. So what are my "learning objectives" for the MBSR course?
A.) At a personal level, I live life somewhat at 110%. There's lots that's good about this but definitely, at times, I miss the taste of the moment as I reach out for the next goal. I welcome the opportunity to explore "being" and "savouring" more.
B.) I think I'm going to resent some of the time demands of the course - for example the initial request that we do long "body scans" each day. I suspect that during some of these exercises I'll be questioning the course design, whether it is time well spent, and feeling rather bored & irritated. No doubt there will also be other "opportunities" to face "unpleasant emotions/sensations" and this too can be an interesting & helpful personal challenge.
C.) In general I'm a fan of mindfulness approaches, but I also question their limitations. I suspect that "mindfulness" is being over-stretched sometimes just now to cover therapeutic & wellbeing applications where it shouldn't be a first choice intervention. I welcome that the course is likely to help me become clearer where mindfulness best has its place.
D.) In the Life Skills for Stress, Health & Wellbeing courses that I run, I introduce a number of mindfulness ideas & practices - as I do in one-to-one therapeutic work as well. I hope that participating in an MBSR course will throw up a series of ways that I can improve the helpfulness of my own teaching."

And yesterday was the first evening of the course.  There were nine of us taking the training (with the possibility of a tenth joining us later).  Nice room in a "yoga studio".  Hard chairs!  Good to help us stay awake maybe.  Most of us had already been to a group orientation session.  I think this makes lots of sense.  There does seem to be good evidence that time taken orientating group participants is likely to be time well spent, in reducing drop-outs, helping people get their heads straight about what the demands of the course are likely to be, hopefully helping clarify why the course dovetails with participants' personal hopes, and so on.  See the excellent American Group Psychotherapy Association website's section on "Preparation and pre-group training" for more on this.  Personally, I insist that would-be participants to courses I run see me one-to-one before joining a training.  I suspect that this is even more effective than orientation done in a group (although this is certainly arguable).  It gives more chance to discuss what the potential participant personally wants from the course and how realistic this is.  It also, I think importantly, gives participant and teacher a chance to begin to bond.  I suspect this can help a lot, especially when the going gets tough, in further reducing drop-out and half-hearted participation.  However one-to-one orientation demands more therapist/trainer time than group orientation, so it's a research question whether or not this more intensive approach is worthwhile.  I'll be interested to see how the nine of us fare over the weeks.  I remember that a client of mine who went to a MBSR course run at a "centre of excellence" in the South reported a very high drop-out rate.  Admittedly it was a free NHS course, so maybe people who have had to pay directly will be more motivated to try to learn as much as possible from the training?

It's so interesting becoming "one of the infantry" again.  I haven't been to a training like this as a participant for a long time, although I run many courses myself.  Good learning.  I remember a while ago deciding that I wanted to experience counselling/psychotherapy as a client.  I contacted a series of experienced therapists and had two or three sessions with each of them (before choosing one to work with more deeply).  Gosh, there was such a difference in how each of them came across.  How confident, how warm, how friendly, how reassuring.  So much.  It felt a bit like choosing one's parent!  And my feeling of "security/insecurity" with each of them developed very quickly.  It was the same sort of thing yesterday evening.  How the trainer looks, their handshake, voice tone.  These certainly feel important to me, before one even begins to assess what it is they're saying.  Good learning.  And these thoughts about orientation and relationship to the trainer/leader/therapist remind me of the central importance of the three-component working alliance - how much do we agree on the goals/objectives we're aiming for, how much do the methods really make sense & look likely to succeed, and how well do we get on/how well do I feel heard, understood, respected & cared about in an genuine relationship?  I very much valued the trainer's personal experience & commitment, warmth, non-didactic approach and generosity - "If you miss a class, let's make contact by email or phone and I can update you."  The other course participants too feel open, interested and friendly.

So what are some of the points I took away from this first session?  I was interested in the way we started with a brief mindfulness practice.  I was certainly feeling a bit shy coming to the group for this first time and some others seemed to be too.  I think the brief practice helped us to settle.  In a funny way it also felt a bit 'avoidant' of the shyness.  I wonder how it compares with, for example, getting people to pair up to introduce themselves and talk a bit about their hopes for the course (and break the ice) before moving on to some kind of more general sharing about ourselves and what we want from the course.  I'm more tentative about only nudging people to open up slowly & gently in the structured groups that I run - see for example a description of a first evening of the "Life skills" course, although less tentative in the more process orientated groups - see a parallel first evening description for the "Opening up" course.  I felt the way we did the initial brief mindfulness exercise and then went on to quite self-revealing personal introductions worked fine in this group - including the A1 sheet the trainer had put up suggesting areas we might touch on when we spoke.

The evening went fine.  I was gently amused watching what seemed to be a response to the challenge I experience in running this kind of group - how does one create an accepting, warm, group atmosphere that is respectful of each person's preferences/processes while at the same time giving a softened version of the message "You guys better pull your fingers out and put lots of work into learning this stuff."  Maybe that's just a challenge I experience personally when leading skills training groups!?  I'll blog again with more on content later on, but a last observation on the set-up of this evening's group is about a tea break we had half way through.  These evening classes are fairly long at two and a half hours each.  I would have been tempted to cut out the tea break and just run for a briefer two hours.  I suspect that would have been a mistake.  Group cohesion, the links we make with other group members, this is important stuff.  The mid-session tea break may well turn out to be very helpful for nourishing these internal group relationships.  I'll be very interested to keep an eye on how this goes - it could be an immediate and valuable insight for running more helpful groups myself.  

Oh, and I'm reminded too of the classic Zen story and how that could easily apply to me.  The academic professor goes to meet a Zen master and take tea with him.  The Zen master starts to pour the tea into the professor's cup and doesn't stop.  Hot liquid spills out all over the table and onto the floor.  "Stop, stop!" exclaims the professor.  "Why are you doing that?"  The Zen master looks at him and says "How can you learn with me if the container of your mind is already so full of theories and preconceptions?  What I have to teach will just spill out uselessly like this tea."  And on the other hand, psychotherapy research strongly suggests that successful outcome is much more dependent on the client's contribution to therapy than the therapist's contribution.  A good journey to be starting.

See "Learning mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): second evening of the course" for the next instalment!

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