Friday, September 23, 2011

Revisiting the Mindfulness and Stress Reduction Connection

While preparing a training for professional caregivers, I was  looking for a simple explanation of the connection between mindfulness practice and stress reduction. What happens during the intimate process of practice that makes it possible to reduce one's stress level? Also, what do we mean by stress?

Floating in my mind were memories of explanations I had read about dukkha - sometimes translated as stress - in the Buddhist teachings, lectures from Jon Kabat-Zinn on MBSR, and scientific interpretations from neuroscientists like Philippe Goldin or Richard Davidson. Nothing that quite captured what I was after, though.

True to the spirit of mindfulness practice, I turned inside and this is what I found:

Stress happens when there is tensing against the flow of life - against the ending of what felt good, against the arising of unpleasant experiences, or in anticipation of their imagined occurrence. It manifests as tensions in the body, and tightness in the mind.

Mindfulness is an iterative process, about becoming aware of these tensions, and relaxing them slowly. Going back and forth between seeing, and relaxing, seeing and relaxing. Insight, or wise understanding facilitates the process of relaxing. Also important is bringing an attitude of relaxed alertness to the practice, so as to not further compound the stress, the tension. 

This is my experience of how mindfulness practice leads to stress reduction.

What is your take, in plain English?


  1. Practicing has helped me recognize that much anxiety and stress stem from my tendency to fast forward or rewind. Weaving a web of whys and what ifs; my mind gets caught in it, my body tenses and the emotions proceed to finish the job.
    When I sit and breathe and turn my attention to what is, in this very moment, the tension, anxiety, and sadness, slip away.
    Thank you Marguerite.

  2. This is just what I need to hear this morning, "the going back and forth", this is the important part to me today because somehow I want to eradicate that stress, just another attachment. It is so easy to forget that it's a continual refocusing of the compass!

    Thanks for this!

  3. Wow, Yota, you make it sound so easy! Hardest for me, both metaphorically and literally also, are the deepest layers of accumulated tensions from the many previously unattended moments.

  4. Carole, yes, the attachment, the wishing for stress-free, relaxed blissfulness. And what it does, creating even more tension!

    Why patience, and warm determination are such great qualities to bring into each moment.

  5. Oh, Marguerite I don't know about easy. I'm coming to accept, though, that there's no ending to the work. I go through my peaks and my valleys. Up and down, round and round, deeper into the layers, learning, as you say, to be patient and accepting this whole catastrophe . . . and that's not an easy task. My ideas of right and wrong, good or bad are challenged daily. Every time I think I got it, something new pops up and off I go to the starting line. What can I say? Developing a good sense of humor comes handy:-)
    Thank you for your reply.

  6. Thank you for the depth of your sharing, and for your wisdom. I feel the same way.

  7. I like your phrase 'Stress happens when there is tensing against the flow of life' It makes me think that the flow of life is what is happening now and as we try not to accept it - by either dwelling on the past or what iffing the future - we create a tension between our bodies and what life really is. What is going on right now. A meaningful phrase..I've written it out and stuck it on my desk :) thank you

  8. Yes, 'Be', that was the image that came to me. We are deluded as long as we persist in resisting this inevitable flow . . .

  9. wonderful post. i am a professional caregiver, and i find it most helpful for my stress level, and that of the person being cared for, if i stay in the moment as much as i can. a trick for a caregiver, because i am always thinking ahead about tasks that need to be done, and looking back at what was done (do I need to go back and clean the toilet now?) and if i've covered all my bases for the day. i do find those 'in the moment' experiences to be peaceful and energizing.

  10. Yes, it is counterintuitive, isn't it? When emotions feel too strong, or there is much unpleasantness, one habitual coping mechanism is to try to escape the present moment and escape into our thoughts. And yet, that not being present is what drains us of precious energy . . .

  11. Marguerite-

    Thanks for this concise and elegant post. It has really helped me. I especially liked the last few words about "relaxed attention".... I go through cycles of trying and straining to be mindful, and it actually increases my stress... it's a delicate dance between making an effort to be aware, and yet relaxing into things exactly as they are. Thanks again

  12. I am glad, Tim! Yes, a balancing act, about knowing where one stands along the relaxed-effortful continuum and taking appropriate correction. Ajahn Chah's got some wonderful teachings about this, and so do U Pandita and U Tejaniya, each in their own way.