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SMDC program teaches people how to focus and meditate to reduce stress and become more aware in their lives

SMDC Health System offers the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program twice a year. Orientation sessions for the next classes will be the weeks of March 5 and 12.

SMDC Health System offers the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program twice a year. Orientation sessions for the next classes will be the weeks of March 5 and 12.

A Monday morning class will meet from March 26 to May 14; a Tuesday evening class from March 27 to May 15; and a Thursday evening class from March 29 to May 17. The fee is $325 and includes all materials.

Facilitators are: Karen Alseth, senior educator, Organizational Learning and Development; Donna Anderson, senior nurse practitioner in the Pain Management Center; Susan Bruns, licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist at Center Therapy; Dr. Steven Kuross, oncologist at the Duluth Clinic; and Elizabeth Zuber, educator in the Pain Management Center.

For more information: Call Karen Alseth at 786-4431 or send an e-mail to kalseth@smdc.org . To be put on the mailing list for a MBSR brochure, call 786-4430.

Books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program, include "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness" (Dell Publishing, $20); "Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life" (Hyperion, $14.95); and "Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness" (Hyperion, $24.95).

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If you feel as if you're barreling through life on autopilot, stop for a moment and take a deep breath.

Then take another and another. Keep going.

Before you know it, you may be on the path to becoming more aware in your day-to-day life.

Something as simple as focusing on breathing is at the heart of meditation and the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program offered through SMDC Health System in Duluth.

"There is a mindless component of life," said Karen Alseth, the program's coordinator. "We don't even realize it could be done a different way."

Meditation was new to Alseth when she took an MBSR class in 1994 from the program's founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn. He started the program in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to teach people to use mindfulness meditation to cope with stress, pain and illness. Kabat-Zinn helped bring meditation to mainstream medicine.

After the class, Alseth made a commitment to herself to continue practicing meditation. Alseth, who does leadership training at SMDC, said she always has been a Type A person who likes to "take charge and take over."

"If I, as a driven personality, can learn to meditate, anyone can do it," she said.

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Alseth wanted to share the program with others by adding it to SMDC's educational offerings. In early 2002, St. Mary's Medical Center Foundation awarded a grant for her and five other SMDC employees be trained as facilitators. SMDC began offering the program that fall and is one of more than 200 medical centers and clinics that offer it.

In the program, people attend a 2½-hour class each week for eight weeks and then go on an all-day meditation retreat. They also are encouraged to meditate daily.

Classes are a mix of group discussions and meditation. Participants learn how breathing slowly and deeply helps bring oxygen into the body and is relaxing. They learn to sit quietly and meditate and do walking meditation and yoga.

Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice now widely used to help people who are seeking wellness. In meditation you calm your mind by focusing on breathing, a set of words known as a mantra or an object. Meditation can lead to being more mindful -- to have a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment.

When you become more mindful, you become more aware of your thoughts and actions and that can reduce stress, Alseth said. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic, you can choose to get mad or let it go, she said.

"It makes a huge difference in the stress in you. That's the mindfulness," she said.

Through meditation, Alseth said she is working to let go of her judgments of people and cultivating serenity. It's a lifelong pursuit, she added.

"I can be just as mindless as the next person, but you learn to recognize when you're being mindless sooner. It enables me to stop and recognize that mindless reaction," she said. "The goal is not perfection, it's progress."

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HEALTH BENEFITS

Exactly what meditation does -- and how it does it -- is an active area of medical research. Studies have shown meditation affects the nervous system and brain function. It can slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation also can have psychological benefits and help people relax or cope with illness. Some studies suggest it might help the body fight disease and enhance healing.

While many people are helped through MBSR, the program makes no guarantees, Alseth said. She also stressed that the program is not a substitute for medical care. "Take your medicines and continue your relationship with your doctor," she said. "It's a supplement and complement to your regime."

People who go through MBSR training often are calmer and less reactive, especially if they continue with daily meditation, Alseth said.

At the end of the eight-week class, when people revisit their goals for the class, sometimes they are amazed, she said. Some achieve more serenity or improve a relationship or realize they can cope better with a situation, she said.

"If you choose to frame something differently, you can experience it differently," she said.

In almost every class, there is someone with chronic pain, Alseth said. "At the end, often they will say, 'I still have pain, but I have a different relationship with my pain. I have a greater ability to cope with my pain,' " she said.

RELIEVING STRESS

Christine Raso-Talley of Duluth recently took the MBSR classes because she was under stress.

"I moved too fast most of the time. Then, when I was home or spent time with my family, I found I cut them a little short," she said. "In the long run, I cut myself short."

Raso-Talley said the class reminded her about the importance of breathing properly. When she faces a stressful situation, she reminds herself to breathe and it calms her. "I learned how much our breathing ties into how we think or feel," she said.

Raso-Talley had never done meditation but had long wanted to. Now she can meditate while sitting at her computer or riding in an airplane.

"You don't need to announce it. You just need to concentrate on yourself and re-center and re-group. That has really been the most positive thing I will take from this class -- learning how to meditate and use that as a positive for myself throughout the day," she said. "... It's a huge plus to my life."

Heather Roy of Duluth took the class 2½ years ago when she felt frazzled and unhappy. On the outside, she seemed fine, but inside she was miserable and didn't know why. Taking the class gave her permission to feel what she was feeling, whether it was crabbiness or sadness, rather than fight her feelings, she said.

"Every day I think about being mindful," Roy said, explaining she also feels less stress.

"I feel like a different person," Roy said. "... Outwardly I don't look different. Somehow I had put on this facade of being cool, calm and collected. Now my heart matches that."

Alseth said she's in awe of the people who share their humanness with others in their MBSR group.

"That time and space is sacred," she said. "I have such respect for the suffering people bring to the program and the efforts they put into it."

Meditation has brought her more appreciation of the strength of the human spirit to persevere, Alseth said.

"It has enabled me to put life in a more balanced perspective and be calmer, less critical and less reactive," Alseth said. "... It's been such a gift for me."

LINDA HANSON covers family issues and religion. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5335 or by e-mail at lhanson@duluthnews.com .

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