Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, University of Massachusetts Medical Center/Worcester. Stress Reduction Clinic, 1990.

What is the full catastrophe? I’m not going to tell you, but (a) you won’t have to read far; (b) it’s not what I thought it was, though he gets to that (I thought it had to do with the end of humanity; but it’s more, way more–hint: it’s from Zorba the Greek); (c) it includes joy; (d) he explicitly equates it with stress; and (e) stress is a necessary, normal, and unavoidable part of life.

To face world and other problems, we have to be handle stress, and we have to clean up our act. He recommends a kind of meditation called mindfulness, to face our problems, not avoid them.

What is mindfulness? It is attention, not tuning out but tuning in, wholeness. ‘The quest [for mindfulness],’ Joan Borysenko reminds us in the introduction, ‘need not be lengthy. 2500 years ago, when mindfulness began, people the same suffering, including death and change.  Then or now, the song remains the same: people feel a lack of control–an individual’s vulnerability and mortality; humanity’s cruelty and violence.

Kabat-Zinn draws a distinction between living for the moment (hedonism) and living in the moment (awareness). Like driving, unawareness can mean you’re missing out, even can be dangerous. He notes the extraordinariness of ordinariness, and that the present ‘is the only time that any of us ever has.’

But before we stop living in the past or living in the future to be present in the present, we need to adopt seven attitudes: non-judging, patience, a beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Also, our journey requires commitment, self-discipline, intention. we don’t have to like it, (but for eight weeks) just do it.

We start by re-learning how to breathe. All living things pulsate with rhythm, from bacteria to plants to animals to the planet itself–tides, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, water cycles, day and night. The seasons are continually exchanging energy and matter between body and universe. We learn to breathe not with shoulders, but with the belly, which is ‘below’ the agitations of daily life and ‘the turmoil of your thinking mind’.

In so doing we encounter a clue, a paradox, observes Kabat-Zinn: we are initially ambitious, hopeful of external healing, yet meditation requires non-striving and self-acceptance.

In turn, self-acceptance requires wholeness. We remember wholeness because we don’t have far to go for it; it’s always within us (which explains the billions spent on brain-washing, also known as ads).

Change is constant. Kabat-Zinn observes there is a fundamental paradigm shift going on, ‘a movement from one entire worldview to another…. For the most part our day-to-day thinking about physical reality–our tacit assumptions the world, the body, matter and energy–is based on an outmoded view of reality, one that has changed little in the past three hundred years. Science is now searching for more comprehensive models that are truer to our understanding of the interconnectedness of space and time, mass and energy, mind and body, even consciousness and the universe.’

‘While we are whole ourselves,’ he goes on,’ we are part of a larger whole … family … friends …. acquaintances … ultimately to the whole of humanity and life on the planet. Beyond … our senses and … our emotions … there are … the larger patterns and cycles…. One scientific view [is] known as the Gaia hypothesis … also held by all traditional cultures … in which humans were interconnected and interdependent with all beings and with the earth itself…. If we hope to see things more clearly as they actually are … we have to be mindful.’

Kabat-Zinn quotes Einstein: ‘A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’

Like subatomic particles, which can be both waves and particles at the same time, we are ‘ordinary and extraordinary at the same time,’ writes Kabat-Zinn, ‘just part of a larger unfolding, waves on the sea, rising up and falling back in brief moments we call life spans.’

The mind, he notes, has been excluded since the time of Rene Descartes. ‘While these [soma–body, and psyche–mind] are convenient categories … [they] are separate in thought only. This dualistic way of thinking and seeing has so permeated Western culture that it closed off … mind-body interactions.’

To counter this Dr Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School suggests regular relaxation, the opposite of hyperarousal, also known as the fight-or-flight response, achievable via meditation.

Why stop to meditate? Why not carry on without it? We meditate to heal the healer, to give the mind tools for global confrontation–what Kabat-Zinn calls world stress, and for the very human need for integration–to make sense of it all–to get down to what’s really real.

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