Mindfulness vs. MBSR


Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and mindfulness. What's the difference? There might be no difference, which is part of the problem. MBSR is always mindfulness, but mindfulness isn't always MBSR.


Mindfulness is Many Things, MBSR is not

Sort of. Mindfulness means many things to many people. It can mean a particular state of mind (“mindful”); a practice of some sort (e.g., body scan, lovingkindness); a particular type of awareness; and/or a multifaceted personal practice used as a way of coming to know the nature of one’s mind, emotions, body, and habit patterns.


Most people would define mindfulness meditation as a training of the attention that can result in increased concentration and focus, and less reactivity. There is so much more to it than moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. However, if everyone increased their mindfulness according to that definition, assuming their intentions were sincere, the world would be a better place.


Mindfulness Cures Cancer!

Um. No.


There are all kinds of claims being made about the benefits of mindfulness, and you should always look into the sources behind the claims to determine whether you feel comfortable with the sources and the claims. The messenger and the message are both important, as nothing is free of context.


Mindfulness can inform and improve parenting, teaching, learning, leading, and even meetings. Yes, there is hope for meetings! 


People who teach mindfulness get to that point in a variety of ways. Some are formally trained to teach, and others teach from their experience. Which brings me to . . .


MBSR is One of Two Things

MBSR either refers to the 8-week course developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or to the style or tradition of your meditation practice (which includes all of the elements of the MBSR course).


Decades of research in MBSR has found, among other things:

  • increased focus and concentration

  • increased self-awareness

  • improved emotional regulation

  • reduction in symptoms for various physical and behavioral health conditions including anxiety, depression and chronic pain

  • positive changes in risk factors that may lead to more serious chronic ailments


If MBSR didn't do any of the above (and not all of the research is clearly positive), however, I would still do it because of the benefits I experience that include:

  • increased clarity

  • an appreciation for the full range of my human experience

  • less reactivity

  • improved listening and communication

But that's me.


Who Can Teach MBSR?

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course is an 8-week, evidence-based, experiential program designed to intensively and systematically train attention and cultivate greater awareness of the nature of moment-to-moment experience. It includes a daylong silent retreat between weeks 6 and 7 (on a weekend). It is traditionally taught to a group of 8-20 people, live or online. This is not usually a one-on-one program, as group learning and interaction is an important component of the experience. It is the foundation of what can be a lifelong personal practice, and a prerequisite for many multi-day, mindfulness and "insight" retreats.


MBSR is a serious commitment and its format is standardized, therefore it is not a program that teachers customize in significant ways. If someone is offering MBSR, (I hope) that means they have been trained to teach it. I am qualified to teach MBSR by the Brown University Mindfulness Center, and I am required to be in mentorship or other supervision and my skills are evaluated periodically.


I hope that helps! If you are interested in a free Introduction to MBSR the first week of March, go here.

© 2020 by Mary Martin, Ph.D. 

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