It’s great to read all the threads on this excellent question. Thanks for posing it, Dorlie. It feels rather like an ongoing teachers’ meeting dialogue, and so here are some of the broad considerations that I draw from, to explicate the differences between therapy and what happens in an MBSR classroom.
Therapy, especially in the Western world–and as differentiated from coaching—is problem-focused, often sought out when something feels broken or “wrong,” upon receiving a diagnosis (depression, anxiety), or suffering a trauma. The effort is to uncover something, usually from the past, and to become more aware in the process—to change—and to do that deliberately. The dialogue in therapy is all focused on this effort. The therapist’s keen skill is often guided by an hypothesis based on much study and experience. The question, “Why?” is a guiding question in much of therapy: Why did I do this? Why did this happen? Why did I react this way? It’s not the only question–but it’s present.
In the MBSR classroom, participants also often enter with a sense of something “not right,” a diagnosis, a sudden shift in life status (marriage, divorce, retirement, a new baby)—so all of that is similar to therapy.
But how we approach these topics really shifts the perspective from what is offered in a therapeutic alliance. And it starts right away. In the first class, the go-round: What brings you here? begins to highlight the universality of challenge, the ways that life tumbles all of us—and begins, in those moments, to create some unity, some sense of “Oh, I’m like him,” “I’m like her,” “she’s like me…” And there’s no deep diving into personal history. The story is important—but it is, by no means, the whole deal. We recognize the humanity, the emotion, the fullness of our lives, and then—we do this radical pivot: We turn to the body, right in the first class!, with the body scan. And then, we stay there… we plumb the depths not of our psychology, but of the immediacy of this moment with the body. Right here, we begin to re-orient (Jon’s “orthogonal shift”) to some different landscape. We begin to train our attention to a different data set—not the thoughts and story—but the actual, moment to moment arisings and departings of phenomena (which may also include thoughts and emotions, but we can begin to perceive them differently than through the psychological approach).
We lay aside the question, “Why?” and take up other questions: How is that? What is that? Who am I? What am I? and these questions are really, really different—often opening a space of not knowing that is fresh and, let’s be honest, sometimes terrifying. When meeting the array of participants’ responses to this mining of their own curriculum, their own life territory, we are resting in our own not-knowing—our own willingness to suspend the story, in order to be curious together.
As teachers, our sense of participants’ wholeness is also part of the equation that differs from therapy. From our own depths and practice (as well as our own therapy!), we have been honing skill in getting really curious about what’s happening. This allows us to trust our participants’ capacity and to support a gentle, consistent willingness to see, to look again, to consider, to let be…and also to know when to step back, to take a break, to shift practice in small or large ways.
I do think that the capacity to travel, often quite intimately with participants, takes a great deal of skill in relationality. This speaks volumes to a therapeutic presence that opens, invites, welcomes, and holds a person—and the class—in the thrum of practice and individual and collective investigation. There is less a place to “get to,” in MBSR than therapy, and so this ongoing sense of aliveness, wonder, and presence, in and of itself, is one of the outcomes of what people learn in MBSR. Out of this it’s not unusual for insight into patterns to arise, for a quality of healing to begin to emerge, as well as resilience, inspiration, creativity, freshness… these are also sometimes touched in therapy, but the process feels very different.
Importantly, therapy is often an important adjunct to MBSR… it’s not one or the other, but more, in any given time in one’s life, what’s needed to support what’s emerging?