Facing a tremendous amount of stress after coming out of jail or prison? Not sure how to deal with it?
If this is you, consider enrolling in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class. MBSR, as it’s commonly known, was developed in the late 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. And for many years now, this formal eight-week course has been taught in hospitals, clinics, retreat centers and other places around the world.
It teaches science-based, non-religious meditation and body awareness techniques. These help people deal with stress, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, anger, sleep deprivation and other issues that often affect formerly incarcerated individuals.
Benefits of MBSR
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training encourages those who practice its techniques to focus on the present moment, learn to control their emotions and increase self-awareness and acceptance. Studies have shown that it can reduce blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), among other benefits.
Although the in-person course can be expensive – as much as $500 or $600 – there’s a free online version for those who can’t afford it or don’t have access to an in-person class.
Free online MBSR course
Dave Potter, a Moscow, Ida.-based retired therapist put together this course, which he calls Palouse Mindfulness. It began more than 15 years ago when Potter, who’s been a meditator since his teenage years, took a class in MBSR.
“I discovered MBSR and fell in love with it, because it’s so teachable and not religious or esoteric,” he says. “The mission from the beginning was to make it scientifically based and to put it in medical institutions.”
After completing the MBSR teacher training and certification, he taught it for 11 years. And shortly before his retirement in 2015, Potter created the online version, using materials from the class he taught. He uploaded videos and readings for each week from some of the greatest teachers of mindfulness, including Jon Kabat-Zinn and Tara Brach.
And people started to discover his website. “I had no idea of how successful it would be. About 5,000 people go to the website every day. Over the past five years we’ve had a little over 4,000 people go through the course,” he says. Students participate from around the world, and you can see where they come from on a map of Palouse graduates.
Participants learn through weekly themes
The course is thorough and comprehensive, just as the in-person course is known to be. Each week has a theme, which may be awareness, attention, stress or dealing with difficult emotions. Participants learn about the theme through a series of videos and readings, as well as instructions for the daily mindfulness practices.
There’s a lot of material to cover. And Potter recommends that participants either start the first day of each week by watching all of that week’s videos and complete all of that week’s readings. Or alternatively spread the videos and readings over the next seven days, doing some along with the daily mindfulness practices each day. All in all, it requires a commitment of about an hour a day.
Advantages of online course
If you can afford it and one is available, Potter recommends taking an in-person course. But there are some advantages of doing it online. ”One is that it doesn’t have to be tied to doing a week’s worth of material every week. It might take you a year to go through an eight-week program,” he says. “In some ways it’s better to take it over a longer period of time, since it has more time to sink in. I would guess that the number of people who complete it in eight weeks is only 30% or 40%.” And since Potter’s online course is free, it can be repeated as many times as you like.
Potter considers himself a curator rather than a master teacher, and he has developed the inclusion of videos and readings over the past few years. “If nothing else, the course is a curation of the best teachers and the best content and the ones that are the most true to what mindfulness is about,” he says.
Benefits for those in reentry
And the course can definitely benefit those coming out of prison. “Most people come in with issues they want to solve. Anxiety related or stress related. Jon Kabat-Zinn chose to call it stress reduction because it’s something everyone can relate to and everyone experiences,” Potter says.
“There’s no way to eliminate stress, but you can learn to deal with stress more effectively. It’s not about eliminating stress. But about how to be so relaxed that it won’t bother you so much when you’re stressed out. It’s about being at peace without being peaceful. You’re in the Zone, as they say in sports.” Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Those who want to communicate with others who are taking, or have taken, the course can participate in the Palouse Student Community Facebook group. Actually there are two groups for students – one in English and the other in Spanish – and another group for graduates. According to Potter, there are currently 4,000 members and about 100 active participants at any one time. Roughly one-fifth of the students who finish the course join the Facebook graduate group and continue their involvement in Palouse Mindfulness.