Review: 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.

christmas / new year’s

you may have already read a version of this. i keep re-working it…

the season is upon us. actually, i heard it called ‘gift-mas’ and that the state religion is consumerism. but like jesus, who may have been of the essenes, i won’t be buying anything. good, i’m glad that’s cleared up. some would call it saintliness, others humbuggery. take your pick.

this was a very moving year. i moved from a group home in welland, with a lot of love and support, to back home. some think it was premature; however. others, including my psychologist, thought it was time. so here i am. as one friend said, now i’m dealing with real issues. many, many thanks to you for helping. squeak!

meanwhile scott and nicole, freeman and fisher and new kid on the block kingsley and cats and dogs and a chicken moved from their farm somewhere near london (location undisclosed for reasons of national security) back to the land of mid–scott with his probat, and nic with her to-die-for baking. they opened grounded coffee company, purveyors of fine fair trade coffees and teas and did i mention the to-die-for baking? oh, and a comfy couch and great music.

freedom! and community support expressed in a recumbent trike. i’ll be training indoors all winter.

but i’m dealing with the changes brought on by this brain thingy–some of it pretty emotional–i need to be up and about more.  (this brain injury has only made things worse, if you consider crying easily or angering unexpectedly a bad thing. maybe it’s not. maybe it’s a reality check, a sort-of stop-and-smell-the-roses check. maybe the gulf between my head and my heart needs shortening. or maybe it’s purely physical: emotions are faster and more primitive than thought, and there’s nothing i can do. or maybe there’s lots i can do  and that way lies wisdom. nevertheless, it’s the new me.)

i’ve been staring into the maw of our future. and it’s not pretty. yet neither has been the past. but there’s hope. just when the days are shortest and darkest, things get longer and the light stronger.

there’s a paradigm shift going on, ‘a movement from one entire worldview to another,’ writes buddhist monk, father, phd, and author jon kabat-zinn in full catastrophe living (1990). ‘there is little doubt that not only medicine but all of science is going through such a shift as the implications of the revolutionary changes … our understanding…. 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.’

best news i heard in a long time. no, seriously. confirmation bias–it’s a wonderful thing. since i like to see clearly, in spite of my double vision, astigmatism, nystygmus, and myopia, i’ll look into this more closely and keep you posted.

the kids are doing great. wes, 22, lives in st. catharines and studies interactive arts and science at brock. cady, 21, studies history at queens. chloe, 16, will go to europe on exchange for 10 weeks

‘Celebration as Nourishment’

‘Celebration is nourishment and resource. It makes present the goals of the community in symbolic form, and so brings hope and new strength to take up again everyday life with more love.’

– Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.315

‘It is good and important to rejoice and give thanks and to mark the feast with good meals and gifts. But how to keep our hearts open? What can we do so that Christmas can be truly a celebration of love and sharing, so that those who are more fragile and alone are honoured and have a place?’

– Jean Vanier, Our Life Together, pp. 515-516

‘As I grow older I am discovering more the gift of my own poverty and weakness. When we are strong we can often do it alone. When we feel weaker, when we live loss and anguish, we are more aware of our need for God, for others, for community. I realize more and more that the only thing that is really important is the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” May each one of us, and each one of our communities, grow in this love.’

– Jean Vanier, Our Life Together, p. 517

thoughts and emotions

‘if you meet god on the road, kill it!’

i didn’t meet god, but last night i killed the dalai lama.

and paul ekman, too.

both are authors of emotional awareness, a book i got last year for christmas 2010; very powerful; i learned lots, like, emotions are more primal and faster than thoughts.

but last night i learned something new, from an OT who’s worked 20 years in psychosocial rehab, that thoughts influence behaviours which influence action which influence thoughts and round and round

but i know it doesn’t have to be an endless circle; it, like our planet, like life itself, can move in a helix.

i know i didn’t kill the dalai lama, just my own illusion about what he thinks about thoughts and emotions. i still cling to laughing is his favourite thing to do. that’ll do me for the year.