My own full catastrophe

Full Catastrophe Living
Jon Kabat-Zinn

[Note to my readers: this post is a bit more personal than most of my book reviews.]

Nearly twenty years ago I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition; almost ten years ago I sought treatment. For the most part I’ve dealt with it by alternately ignoring it, plowing through, or spitting in its face–whatever my response I would not give in and put a label on myself. I browsed some books on living with pain holistically over the years and did take a peek at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s primer Full Catastrophe Living. Almost just as quickly, I crammed it back into the store’s bookshelf: “My life is not a catastrophe, damn-it.” How much better had I known the back story, that Nikos Kanzantazaks’s character Zorba the Greek was the book’s inspiration. At one point in the novel, Zorba was asked whether or not he was married, to which he replied (roughly) “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything … the full catastrophe!” Life as full and joyous catastrophe.

And as I practiced yoga over the years, I also read my fair share of books on mindfulness and meditation. More that one teacher would begin the class with “meditation”, at which point I’d sit quietly and … what? Sit with my eyes closed. Sit still. I had read that meditation was supposed to help chronic pain, but this sitting business did nothing for me. Fast forward to a Facebook post by a local mindfulness center offering a meditation class that was also taught by my very first yoga teacher. And in the still, small center of my heart I knew it was time.

Kabat-Zinn is the founder and former director of the University of Massechuset’s Stress Reduction Clinic. Centered on breath work and disciplined practice, MBSR (as it is known) is now the gold standard for meditation programs. Full Catastrophe Living Part I explains the course in detail; Part II introduces the idea of mindfulness and describes the paradigm shift needed to deal with stress, pain, and dis-ease.  Throughout, the book is rich with testimonials from individuals for whom meditation was transformative. (There are two chapters on pain, both of which I’ve read twice–so far!)

I read the book in tandem with taking a course based on Kabat-Zinn’s program, taught by MBSR teachers, and while the concepts in the book are easy-to-understand, they are not as easy to practice. Guided mindfulness meditation CDs must be purchased separately–but it’s the “guided” part that is so critical to success, I think. While Kabat-Zinn explains the beginning practice of the body scan, there is no substitution for actually experiencing the sometimes grueling practice and being held accountable to your homework: 45 minutes of MBSR practice each and every day for 8 weeks.

Read the book. Maybe start with Part II to understand the philosophy behind the practice better. If you’re moved to begin mindfulness meditation, seek out a MBSR program to begin your journey with guidance and support.

As I read Full Catastrophe and began to practice sitting, I felt as though I was stepping into a flowing stream–the energy of mindfulness meditation swirled and eddied around and against every aspect of my own full catastrophe. And the pain? Suddenly, it’s not the point at all–the meditation seeps into your very center.

And it changed my life.

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