Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been a supplement to medical treatment since 1979 when Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the practice at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Over the years it has been used for a seemingly endless range of medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and psoriasis. It has been applied to the sports world, the workplace, and the battlefield! I have not studied with Dr. Kabat-Zinn, but for the past twenty years, as an intervention for stress reduction, I have been using the original Buddhist meditation technique in my practice with considerable success.
When you are mindful of your feelings and can observe them rather than being caught up in them, their effect on you is minimized and the anxiety associated with them is reduced. Your awareness is focused on what is, rather than what is projected. With the emotional ‘charge’ absent, your reaction to an event – how you feel about it – doesn’t have to be viewed as evidence of what is good or bad, right or wrong, or happy or sad. Observation gives you distance and allows you to disengage; allows you to be in the present moment.
Take the feeling of sadness as an example. In English we say, I am sad, as if our very being is possessed by the feeling. When you are absorbed into your sadness the feeling becomes confused with your very selfhood as if it describes who you are. It’s easier to make this clear by comparing it to the Spanish translation of feeling sad. In Spanish, it is Yo tengo triste, translated literally as, I havesadness. In essence you are holding the feeling rather than possessed by it; it’s no longer necessary to stay “stuck” with your feeling in order to validate it. The point is, you are not your feelings!
“Wait a moment,” clients often protest, “when I’m feeling rage or hopelessness, isn’t that me?” Initially, I probably confuse them further by answering “Yes” and “No”. Yes, to the extent that feelings are “real” in that they are emotions expressed as “energy in motion.” And No to the assumption that feelings are True or False verdicts on the fundamental nature of reality itself.
I guide clients to a state of mindfulness by having them focus on their breath and the sound of my words. By doing so they become witness to their thoughts and feelings, not at the mercy of them. Said in simple terms, when you see it, you’re not it. By just being mindful, holding a feeling at arm’s length, watching it, so to speak, you can choose to change it or not to have it any longer.
It’s this understanding that enables people to learn to live with emotions they might otherwise find intolerable. Seeing emotion as an entity both part of you yet separate from you helps one to realize that painful feelings are not by themselves devastating. By being mindful of the pain, we can see beyond it, see the totality of who we are. Our feelings are put in proper context, our focus shifts to what matters: awareness of our true, inner values, empowered to live a meaningful, committed life.