The past year-and-change has presented everyone with new challenges. We’ve all had to learn new tasks, rules, and behaviors. Common challenges include being able to remember all of these new things, being able to focus on what we are currently doing, and just “keeping it all together.”
One approach to dealing with all of this could be meditation.
Now, before you scrunch your nose from picturing any stereotypes you envision when you hear that word, know that, just like most things in life, there are lots of different kinds of meditation, with all kinds of different purposes and intents.
One type of meditation that is specifically targeted at helping to tackle today’s challenges is called mindfulness meditation.
The following is an interview with Marianne Pilgrim, OTR/L, CHT and MBSR instructor, who is an expert in this type of activity.
- MIG.com: First of all, welcome Marianne, so glad to have you with us, and thanks for taking the time to meet with us.
- Marianne: Thanks for having me here!
- MIG.com: So, today we are going to talk about meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation. Learning it can help us improve our day-to-day lives by helping to reduce stress, or more accurately, by improving how we respond to stressful situations, right?
- Marianne: Yes. Even in “normal” times, we all deal with some kind of stress, whether it’s work, kids, or just trying to finish all of our daily activities. And some of us have even more stress in our lives, maybe past memories or traumatic incidents that we still carry around with us. And living through a pandemic certainly hasn’t helped anyone. While we can’t completely remove these stressors, we can try to improve how we manage, respond to or relate to them. That’s where mindfulness meditation might help.
- MIG.com: Okay, well that sounds encouraging! And it serves as a really nice segue into my next question, which is: What is mindfulness meditation?
- Marianne: Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program at University of Massachusetts, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
- MIG.com: So it is basically trying to learn how to pay attention to whatever’s happening, right now, in the present moment. But what if we don’t like that moment? What’s so good about being in the present moment?
- Marianne: Many of us are not living in the present moment. We are ruminating about past experiences or worrying about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness meditation allows us to cultivate being in the present moment, even if it might be difficult or not to our liking. It allows us to explore the ever-changing nature of our moment-to-moment experiences, maybe even finding glimmers of joy we otherwise might have missed.
- MIG.com: And how does mindfulness meditation actually help us learn how to better deal with stress?
- Marianne: There is nothing wrong with experiencing stress, actually we need it to survive. But it’s our thoughts and emotions about the stress that often contributes to prolonging it. We all experience stress in our lives and mindfulness practices might allow us to investigate and integrate what we are experiencing in the moment, taking a pause to really check in and notice what’s happening in the body, in the mind. It’s only in the present moment that we are able to make a choice to continue as we typically do, in our habitual or automatic ways, or become aware of other possibilities that align with our deepest values and priorities.
- MIG.com: So, what are some examples of mindfulness meditation? Is there anything you could guide us through right now?
- Marianne: Mindfulness meditation offers a variety of formal and informal practices to include mindful eating, body scan meditation, sitting meditation, mindful movement, and mindful walking. A simple exercise might be to focus our attention on our different senses, bringing our awareness to the present moment through the senses. Noticing the sense of touch as we feel our feet on the floor, contact with the seat, clothing on the skin. Sensing gentle movement or sensations in the body as we naturally breathe. Looking at an object with a soft gaze and a new curiosity of shapes, colors, light. Listening to sounds as they come and go. Sensing smells, or no smells at all. And lastly sensing any lingering taste in the mouth or really tasting that sip of water or piece of food. And there you have it! A simple meditation on the sensations that can only be experienced in the present moment!
- MIG.com: Wow, thank you, that was really enjoyable! Now, another term I’d like to quickly address is MBSR. Can you touch on what MBSR is and how it came to be?
- Marianne: Sure. As I mentioned earlier, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the 8-week MBSR program over 40 years ago at UMASS Medical Center in the Stress Reduction Clinic. It is based on Eastern philosophies but is taught in a secular, or non-religious way. Since 1979, over 25,000 people have completed their program working with their own internal resources and abilities to respond more effectively to chronic and acute stress, pain, and illness. The systematic program teaches mindfulness through formal and informal meditation practices, gentle and simple movement practices, and group discussions. MBSR has been adopted around the world, being taught in many languages, and is the basis of much of the research on meditation as it relates to health and wellbeing. This program is for those who are interested in a systematic way of learning how mindfulness meditation can bring more awareness into their lives and, thus, meeting challenges with a different perspective and learning the innate wisdom of the body. The research in neuroscience suggests changes in the brain, through a concept called neuroplasticity, during this 8-week program on areas of the brain responsible for attention, emotion regulation, perspective training, pain modulation and compassion.
- MIG.com: That all sounds really good, but my week is already pretty full as it is, so how many hours per week are we talking, and how am I supposed to fit this into my already busy schedule?
- Marianne: Well, the formal MBSR program meets weekly for 2-2.5 hours for 8 weeks and participants commit to practicing for 45-60 minutes daily between weekly meetings. However, anyone can practice mindfulness exercises for just a few minutes a day, maybe even during typical daily activities, like folding laundry or mowing the yard. Anything can be considered a mindfulness practice when we are giving our full attention to it: noticing what is felt in the body, noticing the breath, sounds, thoughts, emotions that present themselves moment by moment.
- MIG.com: How did you become interested in mindfulness meditation, and ultimately in MBSR; what made you decide to pursue becoming a certified MBSR instructor?
- Marianne: I’ve known about the power of the mind on the body and overall health throughout my career but found out about mindfulness, and specifically MBSR, in the past 10 years. There is a lot of growing evidence to support mind-body practices like MBSR for better health and wellbeing. As an Occupational Therapist I have used basic concepts of mindfulness to allow patients to recognize when their attention has wandered, which may impact the current task at hand or ways of thinking. I decided to pursue a certification as an MBSR teacher to better understand the concepts of mindfulness in order to share it with others.
- MIG.com: So what’s next? Do people have to go “full bore” and take all the courses you took, go away on silent retreats and all that, or can they sort of do this “whenever they feel like it?”
- Marianne: I think it all depends on the person. Many might be fine with just taking a few moments throughout their day to reset and become aware of what’s happening in the moment as a mental exercise and others may want to dive more deeply by taking courses or going on retreats. No right or wrong.
- MIG.com: Okay. So, really, it’s up to the individual to decide how much they want to do this, how far they want to go with it, but like most things, you get out what you put in, right?
- Marianne: Exactly! The research supports consistency, even if it’s only a few minutes a day. However, a lot of the research is based on the 8-week MBSR program and not just engaging in formal, daily practices, but integrating it into our everyday lives.
- MIG.com: Well, it has been a real pleasure talking with you about this and learning so much more about mindfulness meditation! I can really see how this would benefit people, and it really makes me want to learn more about it! Aside from just searching for “mindfulness meditation” or “MBSR,” do you have any recommendations for anyone who wants to learn a little more?
- Marianne: Sure, here are some resources to start:
- Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Marianne Pilgrim has worked as a licensed Occupational Therapist for more than 20 years, specializing in several areas to include earning a credential as a Certified Hand Therapist and working with patients who have sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury. Recently she became a MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) instructor, maintains the private Mindful in KMC Facebook Group, and can be contacted via her website, MBSR in English (MBSRinEnglish.com).