1. What’s the difference between MBSR and MBCT?
MBSR stands for Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and was a course structure devised by the originator of secular mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn in the US in 1979. As the name suggests it was a broad-based course aimed at helping people with a wide variety of physical and mental health difficulties and problems cope with the stress associated with this. MBCT stands for Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and it was developed in the UK in collaboration with Jon Kabat-Zinn by Dr Mark Williams and colleagues at Oxford University in 1991. They wanted to develop a programme which could be used more specifically to support people experiencing recurrent depression, but nowadays it is also offered as a more general mindfulness course, as well as having been adapted for other specific mental and physical health issues. Broadly speaking the two courses are very similar in content and structure, however in MBSR there is more of an emphasis on developing body awareness and in MBCT a greater focus on working with thoughts in a CBT style, although both have strong elements of these.
2. How can I tell if a Mindfulness Teacher has the right experience and qualifications?
As yet there is no formal teaching qualification in mindfulness, although this may well change in the future. There is, however, a training pathway which is offered by the main training institutions, which are:
All mindfulness teachers who have participated in the training programmes offered by these organisations also sign up to the UK Mindfulness Trainers’ Network Good Practice Guidance for Teaching Mindfulness-Based Courses. The key points of this are a teacher’s commitment to ongoing training, supervision and very importantly to their own personal practice of mindfulness in daily life and also by going on regular retreats.
So check whether the mindfulness teacher states on their website or other material if they are adhering to the UK guidelines, where they have trained, whether they have supervision with a senior mindfulness teacher and also the length of time of their own personal practice of mindfulness meditation. See also this article for a more independent evaluation of this.
3. I’m quite a restless person so will I be able to meditate?
Perhaps this concern comes from the idea that only very calm, settled people can meditate. Mindfulness practice involves working with our experience whatever that may be, whether restlessness, physical pain, emotions, difficult thoughts or feelings. So we work as best we can with whatever is going on for us at any particular point in time. If necessary, practices can be adapted to allow for restlessness and agitation such as doing shorter sits or more movement based practices. The best idea is to discuss this with the mindfulness teacher to look at ways of dealing with your individual needs.
4. Is mindfulness religious in any way?
Although mindfulness draws on Buddhist teachings and methods of meditation practice, it is really just adopting the tools of mindfulness practice without the Buddhist belief system itself. Therefore it is often called ‘secular mindfulness’ to differentiate it from ‘Buddhist mindfulness’. People of no particular faith as well as people from other faith traditions have all found that mindfulness doesn’t conflict in any way with their beliefs and in fact blends well with them.
5. Do I need to be able to stop my thoughts and have an empty mind?
There is a myth about meditation that it involves stopping thoughts and emptying out your mind, which then leads people to the conclusion that they could never do that. This is not the case at all. Mindfulness practice in particular is very much about being with things as they are, which for everyone means a frequently wandering mind. Becoming aware of how our mind wanders and of the whole thought process itself is an integral part of the training.
6. Will I have to sit cross legged on the floor or in the lotus position?
There is no need to adopt a special position for practising mindfulness. Many people sit in a normal upright chair and some use a meditation stool or cushions because they like being closer to the ground. You can even meditate lying down or standing up! The best position is the one that works for you.
7. What support is available after the course finishes?
I will be offering a monthly mindfulness “top-up” session for past participants of the MBSR courses I run. Other teachers may offer this as well. You will also be able to come along to the All Day Mindfulness practice sessions which are part of the MBSR course whenever they are held, whether with The Mindful Place or with another teacher. Many of the bigger training organisations offer follow-on courses so check their websites (links to these under question 2).
8. I have a mental health problem so will mindfulness be suitable for me?
The answer to this is that it depends. If your mental health problem is fairly mild then the 8 week MBSR or MBCT course would be likely to be both suitable and helpful. If you have a more serious mental health issue and are experiencing your symptoms strongly at present, eg severe depression, anxiety, psychosis or mania, then it won’t be the best time for you to do a full MBSR or MBCT course. You could wait until you are in a recovery phase and then enrol, perhaps first seeking the advice of your mental health support team if you have one, your GP and the mindfulness teacher. Alternatively, your GP or mental health provider may be able to refer you to a specialist course for your particular needs eg MBCT for Depression, Mindfulness for Psychosis etc.
The full 8 week MBSR or MBCT course requires you to be able to turn towards your experience and this means you need to be in a relatively stable place before embarking on it. However, it’s always worth discussing where you’re at with your mental health problem with the mindfulness teacher to help you reach a decision on this.