Talk to Dr. Feliciano Yu Jr., about the new mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences he’s leading this year and the professor of pediatrics, biomedical informatics and public health lights up. He’s been an active practitioner since medical school when the techniques helped him deal with the demands of his studies and residency.
“The idea of MBSR is that you are cultivating the ability to look inside and say, ‘OK, this is what [a situation] is and this is what you and I can control.’ You can only do that with awareness,” he said. “When you’re doing this mindful movement, you’re just being in the moment, meaning that you’re experiencing your body as you’re experiencing it at that particular time.
“Between the stimulus and the response, there’s this space. The way that I see it, you’re trying to expand that space a little bit. It gives you options in your response and that response is, hopefully, something that’s conducive to your health, to your relationships and more conducive to harmony.”
Mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhism, but on the timeline of meditation techniques, some of which go back thousands of years, mindfulness-based stress reduction is a relative toddler, having been developed around 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s Stress Reduction Clinic. A molecular biologist by training, Kabat-Zinn devoted his career to focusing on mind-body interactions for healing, stress reduction and to boost the immune system, according to a bio on his website for Guided Mindfulness Meditation. (mindfulnesscds.com)
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom,” Kabat-Zinn said in a video interview with Mindful.org. “We all take ourselves too seriously. … We become the star of our own movie and then we forget that it’s a fabrication.
“Who are you? The question is much more important than the dime store answers that we come up with.”
For the uninitiated, the benefit of meditation and mindfulness can be hard to grasp, especially in the U.S. where constant industriousness and achievement are prized highly. American culture is hungry for the move upward; to achieve, to accumulate and to constantly push forward to what’s next. Moreover, Americans rarely unpack one thing in taking on another and as the pressure mounts through deadlines and setbacks, falling on our stress sword becomes the new badge of honor.
In this go-go-go mindset, it’s tough to appreciate something that not only demands you step out of that routine but that works its magic subtly and over time.
Even Yu’s enthusiasm for the technique took some doing after first being introduced to MBSR.
‘A SIMPLE CONCEPT’
“As a scientist, I’m very skeptical with stuff like that, you know?” he said. “Things like ‘in the present,’ ‘being in the now,’ ‘awareness’; what the heck do you mean by that? But, as I was digging into it, it really just means that. It’s the simple concept that awareness is just pure awareness and you and I have that. Each of us has this capacity to be aware.
“When I was a medical student, meditation was something that I knew, but I don’t really know how. I got into yoga and I learned mindfulness of the body. Then, I started reading about [MBSR] and learning about it and then, trying it out. I found that it’s very, very similar to yoga.”
Through the UAMS mindfulness program, resident and guest teachers lead classes for UAMS students, faculty and staff in beginning and advanced Koru mindfulness as well as a silent Koru retreat. Yu’s eight-week MBSR course is the first to be offered to the general public, and all classes are being taught online for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus. For information, contact Meshelle Helms at (501) 686-8408 or email: email@example.com.
While being open to all, Yu’s MBSR course has proven particularly attractive to a familiar audience: students dealing with the unrelenting pressure of medical school as he himself once was.
“You’re constantly thinking about how competitive you are compared to your peers because the reality is, everyone in medical school was the best student at whatever high school or college they came from,” said Sam Ivanovsky, MBSR practitioner and third-year medical student. “When you put a lot of those people together, it creates this kind of feedback of competitiveness. This is something that accumulates over time because you start realizing intensely whether you’re at the head of the pack or at the bottom of the pack.
“My relationship with [MBSR] is about having the skills available when I need them. People call it meditative practice, meaning something that you do repetitively. I see it like a skill that you learn and that you can employ whenever you need it.”
Yu said it doesn’t take a high-stress environment like medical school to knock people off their center. Merely having a human brain, left unchecked, can deliver stomach-churning stress and worry all on its own.
“We have this ability to plan ahead with abstract thinking,” he said. “That type of survivability is sometimes misapplied because some of the dangers that we feel may not be real. Worrying about lunch tomorrow or worrying about the meeting that’s going to come or something financial, the threat is potentially real, but we’ve overblown it.
“Some of the ‘threats’ may not be that substantial and some of it is our own creation, so there’s unnecessary stress that we’re feeling that should be addressed. But that first requires you to be aware of it.”
Yu said one of the benefits of developing MBSR as a technique, as the name implies, is lowering stress as a component of overall health and well-being. It seeks to slow down and focus the thought process to just what’s in front of the person at the time, instead of spiraling off to prepare for the future or chew on the missteps of the past.
“When your thoughts or your attention is not in the present moment—perhaps your attention is forecasted in the future thinking about what’s going to happen for dinner or what’s going to happen with the elections or with a surge in covid — you’re recreating that story into some big disaster thing,” he said.
“Or, you’re time-traveling in the past where you bring up old grudges and talking about conversations that you’ve had with your significant other or your boss or someone cut you off in the street. Or, you woke up on the wrong side of the bed and you forgot to tie your shoelace and you tripped.”
‘LIKE GOING TO THE GYM’
Robert Kiss of Fort Smith, a first-year medical student at UAMS, said not unlike regular physical exercise, MBSR provides more tangible results the more one practices.
“A lot of people think of mindfulness as a kind of medication that relieves stress,” he said. “That’s not really how it works. It’s a long game process and you have to practice it to get good at it. I essentially treat it like going to the gym every day. I sit down for 10-20 minutes and I just train my mind to focus on the present moment and to focus on how I feel.
“It’s definitely something that will help you stay in the moment whenever you’re stressed. And it will help you manage stress better. It’s not like medication you can take and you will instantaneously feel better. You have to practice it and that’s the hard part about it. It’s just like getting into anything you train for; the first part of training is to get out and do it.”
Kiss said finding a partner or a group, such as UAMS’s program, is also very helpful, particularly for beginners who might not recognize how gradually they’re improving without direction and peer reinforcement.
“It definitely can get overwhelming. There’s a lot of different techniques,” he said. “For someone who is very new to mindfulness, it’s difficult to practice focusing on breathing and allowing thoughts in their mind to come to consciousness, recognizing them and then going back to breathing without being judgmental of those thoughts. That’s very difficult for me, not being judgmental when thoughts come in my mind. But it’s something that you will learn over time.”