The 8 Week Journey to Now

Alan Green enters the world of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to give us a firsthand account of the world's most well-known meditation program.

Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk

WEEK 01—Raisin D’être

Introduction to mindfulness, along with the basics of the body scan meditation and mindful breathing and eating.

Eighteen adults are seated in a semi-circle, each inspecting two inky-blue raisins as if they hold the keys to the Kabbalah. The dehydrated grapes are individually ogled and caressed, passed before nostrils and pressed across lips, then crushed by molars, lashed by tongues, and finally sent southward.

Shortly thereafter the group divides into pairs, each partner recounting, in succession, their experiences: the tactile sensations and the fruits’ physical attributes, the aromas and the anticipation of eating, the squirting juice and the memories unleashed of breads or bakeries.

This exercise, we were instructed, should be done without judgment; it’s a two-minute monologue with no right or wrong observations, absorbed, in turn, without emotion or interruption. But when my cohort finishes, I sheepishly proclaim her narrative to have been the more compelling, and my rant about the unexpected seed in one raisin mortifying. What I don’t reveal is that despite being forewarned to acknowledge and dismiss distracting thoughts, I’d been fixated on the fear that my raisins, with their shriveled skins and freakish striations, were miniaturized replicas of my withering prostate, which by the way has been so traumatized by my rock-hard chair I’d like to heave it through the window.

Thus begins my class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, not a moment too soon. This eight-week program, which combines mindfulness meditation with yoga, was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In essence, MBSR training provides the tools to inhabit the present moment and, in so doing, unleash one’s innate abilities to better manage stress and illness.

It sounds simple, but achieving a state of relaxed wakefulness proves formidable for some classmates: When we’re taught to perform a toes-to-head “body scan,” focusing in sequence on individual regions, by hip level there’s snoring from the foam mats around the room.

Repeating this 20-minute drill, and applying its whole-body awareness throughout the day, is at the heart of our first week’s assignments. This poses challenges, as I’m now to substitute this practice for Transcendental Meditation, which I’ve faithfully done for more than four decades. So when I start the instructional CD the next morning, it feels like awakening after 16 years as a vegan to an Egg McMuffin. But I do as instructed, because in truth, I really have no choice.

illustration woman eating raisin

WEEK 02—Embrace for Impact

Cultivating a beginner’s mind and other qualities that support mindfulness, such as self-awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.

Those enrolled in this class are hopeful that their investments of two months and $550 will provide the elusive remedy for what ails them: the fallout from disabling medical conditions and the loss of loved ones, the distress of not measuring up to life’s challenges, and minds that loop like Mobius strips.

In my case, it’s the aftermath of a three-year struggle to navigate my wife’s unforeseen bout of psychotic depression—an incessant drip of madness so toxic that our worlds corroded beyond recognition. Fortunately, she finally received the care that returned her to the person who’d gone missing, and by all credible accounts her illness was likely a one-off. But a year on, my memories of the ordeal and my anxiety about her relapsing still seize me like rip currents, causing sleepless nights and days that leave me feeling as if her mental instability were contagious.

So I’ve embraced MBSR in hopes of neutralizing my heebie-jeebies, throttling my insomnia, and exorcising my post-traumatic dread. As instructed, I’ve broadened the raisin-mulling exercise to entire meals of eating mindfully. I’ve waded into Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which feels like navigating a literary corn maze. I’ve scribbled journal entries detailing the practice and aftereffects of my daily body scans. And as the first week gives way to the second, I add to the routine mindful breathing meditation and exercises designed to help see the world in ways more attuned to cultivating mindfulness.

Call it coincidence or wishful thinking, or maybe it’s a glimpse of the insight afforded by embracing the “beginner’s mind” (scrapping preconceived notions and forging ahead nonjudgmentally), but as week two unfolds and my fledgling practice settles into a habit, I feel as if my body current has been dialed down a few amps and layers of brain fog are dissipating.

As this happens, I become especially aware of sidestepping the trapdoors that have been my undoing. For instance, one morning my wife appears to be uncharacteristically subdued, and I panic over the clearly inevitable prospects of her again careening over the edge. But I recognize this manufactured thought, then let it go and return to the present moment. An hour later we’re at the park with our dog, enjoying a perfect autumn day.

illustration of woman surfing

WEEK 03—Man of La Mantra

Getting more intimate with the body via a mindful yoga practice, as well as noticing the pleasure of being in the present moment.

For the first time since starting this course, I miss my mantra. After all, learning Transcendental Meditation was quick and easy, and for 44 years thereafter my behavior rarely wavered: close both eyes and sit for 20 minutes, morning and evening, performing an effortless technique of unquestionable benefit to mind and body.

By contrast, MBSR instruction and practice demand an escalating number of hours, some dedicated to tasks I’m finding boring, baffling, or, despite that recent triumph with my wife, not apparently useful. Last week, for example, we reflected each day on a pleasant event, while this week our journal entries dissect unpleasant ones in all their wretchedness. We’re now to “capture” moments throughout each day, pondering why our mindfulness knuckled under to the automatic pilot that typifies our muddled thinking. Our expanded readings in Full Catastrophe Living still feel like they’d benefit from a cipher machine. And we’re alternating body scans with hatha yoga, which is intended to let us inhabit our anatomy with full awareness. While I appreciate the benefits of yoga, my limbs and torso are as flexible as rebar, so I perform my series of Sphinx poses with eyes on the clock, unable to practice with the same mindful attitude I’m bringing to body scans and sitting meditation.

But as the week winds down, a succession of Aha! moments effectively squelches my creeping skepticism. First, I impulsively revisit our earliest readings, including passages cataloging the seven attitudinal factors underlying this mindfulness practice. They include nonjudging—rejecting the impulse to get caught up in one’s ideas and opinions, likes, and dislikes; letting go—intentionally putting aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and reject others; and patience—allowing things to unfold in their own time.

These pillars of MBSR speak uncannily to my ambivalence, and they’re followed in the book by musings about commitment and self-discipline that, as a longtime distance runner, crystallize my thinking: An athlete trains daily, despite the conditions or circumstances, whether the goal seems worthy or not.

Finally, I’m reminded that while practicing TM has paid dividends, I’ve chosen this new path because of my pressing need to find something more helpful. So the next morning, I dutifully unroll the mat for my Cat-Cow stretches.

illustration of man doing yoga stretch

WEEK 04—Stressed to the Nines

Becoming more familiar with what causes us stress, and learning how mindfulness can help respond to those stressors as we choose how to respond rather than react automatically.

Since Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, 23,000 people have completed the MBSR program, both in classrooms around the globe and via online sessions. The medical community, in particular, has embraced the idea that developing this skill of mindfulness can be an effective complementary treatment for the likes of panic attacks and depression, cancer and chronic pain. In fact, nearly eight in 10 medical schools offer their students elements of mindfulness training, while the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society—the organization that grew out of Kabat-Zinn’s original clinic—has conducted research to demonstrate the effectiveness of such training for everything from curbing obesity to treating addictions.

Most notable, though, is that this eight-week program has been shown to reduce anxiety and keep it at bay for years, giving meditators the wherewithal to function effectively even when facing undue stress. This week’s course work, which coincidentally focuses on understanding stress and our reactions to it, puts those research claims to an extraordinary test: the ability to survive the gut-wrenching US presidential elections.

Our formal practice in the run-up to that polling increases the amount of time spent doing sitting meditation and yoga or body scans. Furthermore, our informal practice (reading, journaling) explores in detail our physical and psychological responses to stress, along with ways that mindfulness can help short-circuit the cascading damage it can inflict. This stepped-up approach has the feel of graduating from playing scales to making music, as if finally building atop a hardened foundation.

Despite that, I’m still doubtful that four weeks of MBSR can blunt my terror of this election tipping in the wrong direction. But in the days preceding the voting, I manage to turn the incessant election chatter into vaporizing background noise. And to my astonishment, I greet the dreaded outcome with a sense that my life is intact, that whatever I fear is for now, at least, rooted in my imagination.

I attribute this to my newfound sense of mindfulness, although I soon wonder if it’s actually shock. Or denial. Or some combination thereof. In the days that follow, as I’m overcome