Full Catastrophe Living

Author : Jon Kabat Zinn
Genre : Meditation, Mindfulness, Self-Help

Isn’t it ironic? All the things that give meaning and beauty to life – work, relationships, family, health, ambition – also probably give us the most stress. Stress, Pain, Illness, what the author calls the Full Catastrophe, are an inescapable reality of living. Dr. Kabat-Zinn uses this book to make a manual of all the learning he pioneered at the famous Stress Reduction Clinic at University of Massachusetts Medical Centre.

What amazed me were the real scientifically proven results. People showed remarkable improvement in illnesses as varied as blood sugar, cholesterol, pain, blood pressure, insomnia in the 8 weeks programme, without taking any medicine. And in follow-up studies after 4 months, the results stayed. Even more dramatically, fMRI showed significant thickening (or improvement) in a number of regions in the brain associated with learning and memory, emotion regulation and perspective taking. On the other hand, there was a significant thinning in amygdala, the region associated with emotional and reactive responses. Over time, his technique, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (or MBSR) becomes a Way of Life.

At the heart of the book is what Buddha replied when asked whether he was God, “No, I am Awake”. Dr Zinn teaches us to pay attention and live in the current moment, without passing any judgement. It is about simply being, instead of the mad rush to keep doing or thinking. Human mind seems to be wandering 50% of the time, away from the Here & Now to either the past or the future. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, so we need to ask: What am I going to do with my mind today? Simple behaviour – meditating, exercising, getting enough sleep, practising altruism, nurturing relationships – is proven to significantly improve happiness and well-being. The small stuff matters!

He keeps quoting from studies after studies that along with external factors (like microbes), our internal stress also decides our health. A study proved that those with Stress Hardiness lived significantly healthier life despite being in the same amount of external stress – they exhibited a sense of Control (belief that they can change their situation), Commitment (fully engaged in day to day activities) and Challenge (took change as integral part of life that will benefit them). Hence his advice that along with medicine, which undoubtedly has had spectacular successes in improving our well-being, we also need to be thinking of mindfulness. And even our way of living. This triage is Integrative Medicine: Mind, Body, Beahviour and their wholeness and interconnectedness.

He quotes the work done in University of California that by changing our lifestyle, we can slow down and even reverse not just heart disease and diabetes but even early stage prostrate cancer! Eating a whole-foods, high-fiber, mostly vegetarian diet low in fat and refined carb, and high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy product, fish or flaxseed oil. In addition, moderate exercise like brisk walking as well as yoga and meditation. Finally, Cultivation of love and intimacy in one’s relationships.

Unfortunately, our schools do not teach enough of being, or giving attention to the current moment, to come into harmony with all things and all moments. Instead, the dominant currency of education is still doing. Dr. Zinn shows how breath can be an ally, leading to calmness just by watching and feeling it. He details step-by-step how to do yoga, meditation and even right eating.

I loved the mountain of scientific evidence presented in the book, and the simple warm style of writing, and also the many inspiring stories. That said, the book is long, I mean really long with more than 600 pages! At times, it gets repetitive and I wish more editing was done to make it crisper.

Why Should You Read The Book: To learn how to significantly improve the quality of your life by practising meditation and yoga. 45 minutes a day can significantly improve our long term well being and show immediate improvement in calmness (many of his students said their colleagues mentioned they look like they have just come back from a very relaxing vacation!).

Goodreads Link: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn | Goodreads