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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: Learn online or from an actual human teacher?

Around 40 years ago, I studied with one of the greatest Tai Chi Ch'uan masters of the last century,  Cheng Man-ch'ing. The thing is, I never studied with him in person. I had his book, which was illustrated with photographs of him doing the movements; The Golden Pheasant Stands On One Leg, Grasp The Sparrow's Tail, The Crane Spreads It's Wings, Step Forward to the Seven Stars of the Dipper, Snake Creeps Down, The Fairy Weaving at the Shuttle, etc. By looking in a mirror I thought I was able to string together a series of movements. Wrong!  I was only twisting and hurting my back and other places doing the exercises. Seven years later I met a Tai Chi Ch'uan teacher and the realization that this ancient art can only be learned by being passed down from teacher to student.

That was before the age of the ubiquitous computer. Nowadays I can watch Tai Chi instructional videos on Youtube all day. I can even switch to other physical activities and watch instructional videos about how to improve my tennis forehand. Ultimately though, I need to really practice the actual art or sport in order to derive any benefit. To really improve at all I should practice with a teacher or coach. There comes a time when we do need to meet human instructors in person to really learn. This is especially true for some of the physiotherapy exercises you can watch on Youtube because I think it is be better to have a physiotherapist prescribe the exercises.  I do know a Tai Chi practitioner who learned the Chan form of Tai Chi by watching videos he had borrowed. He was exceptional in that he already knew and practiced many other of the Tai Chi forms. And this brings me to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) learning online.

Before I comment about what it is like to learn MBSR online, let's look at the movie the Matrix. If you have seen the movie, you know that when Neo was hooked-up into the Matrix, he learned and later mastered Kung-fu, in addition to several other martial arts, at the speed of digital data transfer and integration into programming. That would be the epitome of hooked-up online learning. The next computerized training ground, that is not science fiction, maybe be Oculus Rift, a newer virtual reality headset that brings into visual perception an immersion experience of three dimensions.

It wasn't that long ago, virtually since the dawn of the WWW, when educators had to face the dilemma of evaluating whether or not one can learn just as well by studying online as one could in a classroom. We can see now how technology, even in science fiction, has grown exponentially to make online learning as common as the air that we breath. That is why before MOOCs there were online courses where you could even get a BA or a college diploma - a real one - without almost seeing a human in person. These initial studies had to look at usability, user interface and digital literacy. They had to research even cognitive measures, how the mind pays attention to a screen, visual studies on effects on the eyes, even worries about the health effects of Wi-Fi wireless transmissions. Anyway, eLearning has made it's mark, and it is going to stick around for a long time.

I have been practicing meditation for many years so I knew about MBSR and the research that has been developed on meditation in neuroscience and medicine. There have been research studies on the effectiveness of meditation not only from Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR, but also from Herbert Benson, Richard Davidson, and so many others. I knew that the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (in picture here at left) was in Davidson's fMRI and EEG studies on compassion and the meditating brain.  Just yesterday a new article on the benefits of MBSR and Tai Chi exercise for healing those surviving from breast cancer appeared on the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence website.  Cheng Man-ch'ing is smiling and proven right again, as Tai Chi really helped helped him recover from illness.

I have admired the work Jon Kabat-Zinn for many years, though I had never studied his works - until now. I am e-Learning my way through a free online 8 week course based on MBSR, about how it was developed and delivered, as well as the benefits for health that the research has shown.  Before I only knew about the benefits his teachings were having on those in palliative care or who were diagnosed with chronic illness - the meditation as healing medicine model - stress is the silent killer.  I also liked the secular, or one might say, the scientific approach. Now that I have been taking the MBSR course, I really have no qualms about doing so without a human for guidance. This is mostly due to my own experience and learning from meditation teachers, going on retreats, reading, and doing daily practice. I have also studied Buddhism in India, Nepal and Korea. Can't really say that I ever learned meditation before through an online interface. Call me misguided if you will, but I trust my instincts. Well, I did learn Vipassana in a semi-remote sort of way.

Many of the basic techniques in MBSR come from a meditation practice called Vipassana, or insight meditation. The main focus is on watching the breath or mindful awareness of breathing, called Anapanasati in Sanskrit. I did an 11 day Vipassana retreat in Massachusetts taught by S. N. Goenka from Burma. He was not there, but he may as well have been, because they used videos and tapes in the meditation hall to present the instructions. He has many other centres around the world. I thought it was very effective, even though my previous experience with meditation teaching was  learning discipline by sitting at the feet of the masters. This is the main reason why I feel confident in doing an 8 week online MBSR course. Another reason is that the course is exceptionally well designed with guided meditations, readings, video instructions, research articles, teachers with lots of experience- the whole works.  I will provide the link to The MBSR online course that I am following at the end of this post. The online course I am taking is free, but I have looked around and seen some that are not. That 11 day Vipassana course I took in Massachusetts, which including a place to sleep and food, was also free. You give "dana" according to what you think you can.

Generally speaking I would always advise studying with a human presence for a traditional discipline that has been past down for generations, if not millennium. The Tibetan people call the Dali Lama "Kundun", which means "The Presence". Call me a conservative in this respect, but there are just too many subtle things that can go wrong without the guidance of a teacher. On the other hand, I am very, very impressed with the secular or scientific approach of Kabat-Zinn in the design and delivery of the MBSR course.  It would be great however to take the course from him or some of his qualified fellow instructors in person, and I have looked around and there centers and courses locally where it is taught. It is all over the map now.

One criticism I have is learning some basic yoga exercises online, which is one part of the overall MBSR program. Listening or watching videos of yoga postures, and trying to follow along, creates risks of injury, for practitioners of any age. Injury can happen even in a center where a teacher is present, but the presence of the teacher is more reassuring. Learning dynamic movements or mental training is not like reading a book; it is immersive, interactive and interpersonal.  When I was trying to learn Tai Chi Ch'uan from the Cheng Man-ch'ing book by looking in a mirror, I developed aches and pains from unusual twisting of my body. Something similar is happening as I am lying on the floor receiving audio instructions on yoga postures. OK, maybe blame myself for not being careful.  I heard once that physiotherapists are getting a lot of business from people who are just taking up yoga. There are a lot of not so qualified instructors out there. To be fair, there may also be a lot of people who may not have realistic expectations about how to train properly and do not know their limits.

In fact after I took the MBSR online course and kindly received my certificate, Dave Potter changed the yoga links to emphasis watching the videos over listening to the audio. Hopefully this will make remote learning easier for people, who may not have the added benefit of prior experience doing yoga or having an instructor or someone with experience for guidance.

The online MBSR course I am taking is here: