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Meditation as Medicine: It's Not What You Think

Being present and learning to let go

Wake up. Make breakfast. Drop off the kids. Go to work. Finish that report. Pick up the kids. Make dinner. Pay the bills. Plan for tomorrow. Go to sleep. Rinse and repeat.

Whether it’s the life of a suburban parent of three or a young urban professional, it never really seems to stop. Neither does the stress and, at times, the pain that comes along with living a life of constant errands, jobs, and responsibilities. But what can we do?

To Jon Kabat-Zinn it’s not a matter of doing, it’s a matter of being. The Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School believes that we are losing ourselves amongst the concern and stress of our to-do list. In response to the ever-growing demand for relief from this stress, Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approach.


MBSR is a program that uses Western medicine to develop an awareness of one’s own body and mind. Although rooted in Buddhist techniques, the therapy itself is not spiritually based so as to welcome people with all beliefs and orientations.

As the name implies, MBSR is based on the idea of mindfulness, which is something many North Americans have difficulty understanding. Kabat-Zinn says that we have the inclination to think of mindfulness cerebrally, as some kind of cognitive, discursive, thought process. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mindfulness for Kabat-Zinn is a moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness of your thoughts and bodily sensations.

Versatility and Validity

This form of meditation is not only universal in who can use it, but also in how it is used. MBSR has been shown to help from mental disorders to physical ailments.

Researchers at the University of Rochester, Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan, suggest that MBSR can be effective for those suffering from chronic illness and pain. They have also shown that MBSR can significantly improve positive well-being, and diminish cognitive and emotional disturbances in cancer patients.

MBSR can also assist in treating and mediating mood-disorders. Psychologists Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, combined MBSR with features of cognitive therapy in order to more effectively treat depression. Their approach, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) not only treated depression, but also aided in preventing relapse. Their clinical study showed that when patients with three or more prior episodes of depression included MBCT to their treatment, relapse/recurrence rates over the 60-week follow-up period decreased by half.

There is also evidence that MBSR can help with anxiety disorders. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues John Miller and Ken Fletcher conducted a three-year follow up study to observe the long term effects of MBSR on those suffering from anxiety or panic disorder. They concluded that MBSR, in addition to being cost-effective for patients, “can make substantial and long-lasting positive changes in their lives to reduce anxiety and panic.”


MBSR programs usually last eight to ten weeks and consist of a weekly 2.5-hour class along with a single all-day class, often in the form of a retreat. The four main formal experiential practices of the MBSR program, explained by researchers Zayda Vallejo and Hortensia Amaro, are:

1. The Body Scan

The body scan consists of a systematic mental scanning of the different parts of the body, mentally exploring inner and outer sensations with curiosity and without judgment. This technique is effective for developing concentration, flexibility of attention, and for training the mind to come back to the here-and-now through moment-to-moment awareness.

2. Seated Meditation

Participants are invited to consciously adopt an alert, dignified, and relaxed posture, and to bring the mind to the present moment by selecting an object of focus such as the breath, bodily sensations, sounds, emotions, or thoughts. Once participants are able to sustain their attention on the object for longer periods, they are invited to open their field of awareness to witness anything that arises inwardly. People start to notice that they can witness their own thoughts objectively without having to act on them. Transformation and change occur by learning to anchor awareness in the present moment and to live in a curious interested way, instead of the usual “I like” or “I don’t like” mode.

3. Mindful Hatha Yoga

Yoga means union of body and mind. The exercises are performed in a slow and mindful manner, keeping focus on the parts of the body that are engaged in a particular exercise, and allowing the muscles that are not engaged to rest and relax. The aim of the exercise is to notice the changing sensations, not necessarily to do the exercise perfectly. Awareness of attempts to anesthetize feelings of anxiety and distress by overeating, overworking, drinking, and/or using drugs also increases. Transformation and change occur by learning to be aware of bodily experiences and sensations and to see more clearly the extra “layer” added by feelings and thoughts of likes and dislikes.

4. Walking Meditation

This practice consists of focusing one’s attention on the actual experience of walking. Generally, the person starts very slowly, focusing attention on sensations of the feet, the legs, and finally the entire body. This can be combined with awareness of breathing. Attention is given to the intrusion of any thoughts or emotions and returning attention to the bare sensations of movement. Transformation and change occur by using walking as a connection or bridge between periods of practice and daily life.

Resources and Workshops

If you’re interested in learning more about or participating in a MBSR program, please visit the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society’s website here:

You may also be interested in Kabat-Zinn’s latest book, Mindfulness for Beginners. If you would like to know if there are any MBSR programs currently available near you please visit:

— Contributing Writer: Justin Garzon, The Trauma & Mental Health Report

— Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma & Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

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