MBSR — a typical syllabus
This is simply an example of what an eight-week MBSR program looks like. We encourage you to visit the website of UMass Medical Center for details of local MBSR practitioners..
Over the course of an eight-week program, participants learn a number of key skills that allow them to stand back from their emotions and to experience more emotional and mental freedom. This freedom allows us to observe our thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in the internal dramas they produce. A further key component skill is the ability to accept ourselves as we are, without “beating ourselves up” for being imperfect. As a result, we experience less stress.
Each week has a key theme, which is explored in the workshop through experiential exercises. In addition to the class work, participants are expected to spend at least 30 minutes every day working on relaxation and awareness exercises. Most participants of previous courses are still practicing these, or similar, exercises two years after the end of the course.
The following syllabus is the “bare bones” of the course material. The course involves active participation in meditation exercises, discussions, and gentle physical exercise. Every week there are handouts summarizing the key points that have been covered. There are also guided meditation CDs and worksheets.
Week One: “Automatic Pilot.”
We spend much our time on “automatic pilot,” with our thoughts compulsively following habitual patterns that reinforce distressing emotional states. Mindfulness begins when we recognize our tendency to be on automatic pilot, and make a commitment to stepping out of it in order to be aware “in the moment.” As we practice deliberately becoming more aware of our bodies, we notice the strength of our mental and emotional habits, and realize that this simple shift to mindfulness can be very rewarding, but can also be hard to maintain.
Week Two: “Dealing with barriers.”
As we continue to focus our awareness on the body, we see the chatter of the mind more clearly, and begin to notice how our thoughts shape our emotional experience. In the second session we deal with the issues involved in setting up a regular practice of mindfulness meditation, including problems that participants have experienced in their daily practice.
Week Three: “Mindfulness of the Breath.”
As we learn to accept the seemingly endless chatter of the mind, we discover that intentionally bringing our awareness to the breath helps us to become calmer and less scattered. We begin to notice how the breath and emotional states are interrelated, and how an awareness of the breath leads to greater emotional peace.
Week Four: “Staying Present.”
The scattered state of the mind is related to our tendency to want to escape unpleasant experiences and to cling to pleasant experiences — reactions that happen automatically. Mindfulness offers a way of relating to our experience with more deliberate awareness and equanimity. We learn not to become despondent about unpleasant experiences nor to cling to pleasant ones. Instead we find a calmer and more stable place from which to relate to our experiences.
Week Five: “Allowing/Letting Be.”
Relating differently to our experience involves learning to “allow it to be” just as it is, without making harsh judgments about it or trying to make it different. This kind of attitude allows us to be kinder to ourselves, avoiding blame. It also allows us to develop more wisdom, as we learn to see what, if anything, does need to change. We learn to extend the “calmer and more stable place” that we have previously connected with.
Week Six: “Cultivating patience and kindness.”
Condemning ourselves for being less than perfect leads to a great deal of wasted energy and inner stress. It also leads inexorably to conflicts with others, since we condemn in others what we dislike in ourselves. With mindfulness, we can learn to cultivate more accepting, patient, and kind emotional responses to our experience. This helps us to have more appreciation for ourselves and others, and helps us to overcome conflicts with others.
Week Seven: “Thoughts are not facts.”
Negative thoughts induce negative moods, and vice versa. Mindfulness allows us to realize that our thoughts are just thoughts, and that they are not objective descriptions of how the world is. This realization liberates us, allowing us to stop our thoughts from inducing emotions of frustration, anger, despondency, depression, etc.
Week Eight: “Using what has been learned.”
An ongoing mindfulness practice is a valuable support for a balanced life. Appreciating the benefits that we have experienced so far, and formulating plans to maintain the momentum of our practice will help us to develop the motivation to take care of ourselves in future.