It is our pleasure to be highlighting our dear colleague Steve Flowers MBSR Online Program. Steve is the founder and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic at the Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California. Steve provides training in mindfulness-based psychotherapy for mental health professionals in workshops, seminars and retreat settings with his dear friend and partner Bob Stahl, Ph.D. through Mindful Living Programs, and provides fully accredited mindfulness retreats for physicians and other health professionals.
The MBSR online program provides a means for all English speaking people in the world to participate in an MBSR program. This program was created for those people who do not have access to a ‘brick and mortar” resource for MBSR but do have access to high speed internet. The 8-week series is identical to those offered in medical centers around the world but is provided via encrypted video conferencing software that enables teachers and students to see and hear each other and interact together in small groups, or in a large group. The classroom resources also enable us to view posted documents, watch videos or write to one another via white board and chat features. The program is only offered in real time but each class is recorded for participants who may for some reason miss a class and want to catch up.
The MBSR online has served participants from every corner of the world since 1989 bringing together unlikely groups such as Muslim’s from Algiers with Jew’s from Israel, Catholics from Italy, Southern Baptists from Alabama, Buddhists from Viet Nam and Protestant’s from England. Though each participant is in the class at the same time and same place (here and now) and engaged in the same meditation practice, one has joined at 3:00 PM in their time zone while another may be participating from 11:00 PM the previous day.
In addition to our regular MBSR program, over the last year and for the remainder of this year we are providing the intervention for a study investigating the value of MBSR for persons engaged in cancer treatment. These patients are participating in the online program from their homes in or near Alberta Canada and are reporting some extraordinary benefits from their work thus far which will be published late this year or 2013. By coincidence as I am writing this introduction to MBSR online and wondering what I might say about it, I received this note a few minutes ago from a woman who just completed her 8-week program last week: “I’m writing to thank you. I got so much out of [our class] and am amazed at how one small thing can change your life. For me it was “thoughts are just thoughts”. I got really good at telling myself stories and they really do start being real. I am much more aware now and stop, smile to myself and say, there you go again, it’s is not real.”
Perhaps another story can help illustrate some of the benefits online students take. Last year a 40 year old mother of two in our class for cancer patients was informed that her treatment was being suspended and she had but a few months to live. Up to this point Kara (a pseudonym) believed treatment had been successful but learned a few days before that there was nothing more they could do for her. The wisdom she shared that evening is not only a gift for those who learn they are dying but for all of us that face the uncertainties and perils of life every day:
“I’m finding mountain meditation to be very, very helpful. I just imagine I am my own mountain and I’m watching everything swirl around me and not getting bothered by it. You can really find places of choiceless awareness during mountain practice. When I first started hearing about how the idea of attachment and suffering I thought, well, but how can you not be attached to things and people? But as I’m learning more about it I don’t know if it’s about attachment as much, or as you say our expectations for desired outcomes – what we want from this attachment or this thing or this person – rather than just enjoying it right in that moment that it is. I am relating to this ever more so.
How does that apply to your recent diagnosis?
I don’t seem to be as upset about it as other people around me. They are attached to me and my outcomes but I want to go around and spread the word, “What are we doing today – right now in this moment?” That’s where the focus is and you know – it’s a lot easier to live with that. You don’t expend, waste so much energy trying to figure out, “what am I going to do if this happens or if this happens?” You know?
There is a place for hoping even in the present moment – do you have hope?
Not really – no. I just go with the facts that I have in the context that I know them and how am I feeling today. But I do have hope for what I do today. I hope to be alive as I can in this minute and the next minute. (Laughter) I hope for the little things – like, I hope to get my son moved out of the house, things like that. I have small hopes. I don’t hope for miracles, I don’t hope for a cure. I have friends that keep telling me, “Don’t give up hope”. But, I’m not going to waste energy on things that don’t look like they are going to pan out. I hope to get my pain under control, to do what I can on a daily basis to make that happen – like try different positions and manage my pain medications, see how I can use distractions.
I hope to finish more art work, that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned in regards to the story I have going about myself. . . don’t believe what other people are telling you. I grew up thinking that my older sister was the artistic one in the family and I was the logical one. And it’s nice to break through those barriers and explain to the family that we can be whoever we ant to be – and that doesn’t depend on what we have done in our past.
I remember from the beginning of our class that you have had a long term relationship with an internal critic. How is that relationship these days?
She’s still hanging around though she’s becoming quieter. You know, when we were dong loving kindness meditation and sending out kindness to persons we don’t like very much – I could think of a few ex’s – but I realized, we all suffer – I’m seeing where these people have suffered in their lives and how that accounts for their behavior. And it makes it easier to say, “I feel bad that you have suffered and that’s why this behavior has come about and I hope that you can get over that suffering. . . it’s almost like forgiveness, almost, but not quite!” Laughter.
But maybe it’s none the less enough to allow you to reconcile with your side of the relationship – to liberate you from the blame and hatred, and condemnation.
Yes, and also of the critic inside me about me, that says, “Why did you put up with this, why did you let them treat you like this? It helps to silence that when I remind myself that we are all doing the best that we can. That’s what I can remind myself – that we are all just trying to get along in this world and doing the best we can.
I’m appreciating how you are using your loving kindness practice. It is a way of reconciliation.
And a way out of that reactionary mode. I was sitting at a stop light a few weeks ago and waiting in the turn lane, and it’s dual turns, and this motorcyclist comes in between the two cars , going through the red light turning – and my initial response was scared, you know, because, there isn’t supposed to be a motorcycle between the two cars, it startled me and the initial adrenaline got going and I was mad thinking he broke the law and now the rest of us are stuck here at the light – you know it’s just a second it takes to have these thoughts – then I thought, “I have no idea what’s going on in this person life. For all I know his wife is having a baby in the middle of their house or something he could be rushing home! Who knows? So, all I could do is send safety, and good thoughts with him – that he’s safe, the rest of the cars on the road are safe and he gets safely to where he thinks he needs to be going. Then my next thought was, “Hey, I did it!” laughter. I had an initial response and I was able to reframe it. Hey, I’m not upset anymore – this doesn’t bother me. And at the same it makes that whole idea about giving and receiving and the expectation that there’s a balance in the system but you can see there is no system, there is no fairness.
And I’ve had those thoughts with my kids as well, that they need me – that they are not going to be able to grow up to be the people I want them to be. But, as I look at my 19 year old and realize he’s had me around all his life and still he’s growing up to be the person he’s going to be. And it’s the same with my daughter. If she has me for 8 years or 18 years she’s still going to grow up to be the person she’s going to be. And there’s that challenge with wanting – I want to be with her, I want to mother her for as long as I can – it’s the wants, you know, that cause all the suffering. She doesn’t need me, she needs food, she needs shelter she needs clothing. She wants me, but the needs are pretty basic.”
Kara died a couple of months after this conversation and up till now these words and teachings, which seem to me as offered from the very heart of wisdom, have only been for the ears of a few. Now, I guess they may reach many others. May they be as much a gift to you as they have been to me and her classmates.