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

There is not one person on the planet who does not have his or her own version of the full catastrophe. Catastrophe here does not mean disaster. Rather it means the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crises and disaster but also all the little things that go wrong and that add up. The phrase reminds us that life is always in flux, that everything we think is permanent is actually only temporary and constantly changing. This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything.

As you embark upon your own practice of mindfulness meditation, you will come to know something for yourself about your own not knowing. It is not that mindfulness is the "answer" to all life's problems. Rather it is that all life's problems can be seen more clearly through the lens of a clear mind. Just being aware of the mind that thinks it knows all the time is a major step toward learning how to see through your opinions and perceive things as they actually are.

Seven attitudinal factors constitute the major pillars of mindfulness practice as we teach it in the stress clinic. They are non-judging, patience, a beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. These attitudes are to be cultivated consciously when you practice. They are not independent of each other. Each one relies on and influences the degree to which you are able to cultivate the others. Working on anyone will rapidly lead you to the others.

  1. Non-judging: When practicing mindfulness, it is important to recognize the judging quality of mind when it appears and to intentionally assume the stance of an impartial witness by reminding yourself to just observe it. When you find the mind judging, you don't have to stop it from doing that. All that is required is to be aware of it happening.

  2. Patience: Why rush through some moments to get to other, "better" ones? After all, each one is your life in that moment. Patience can be a particularly helpful quality to invoke when the mind is agitated. It can help us to accept this wandering tendency of the mind while reminding us that we don't have to get caught up in its travels. Practicing patience reminds us that we don't have to fill up our moments with activity and with more thinking in order for them to be rich. In fact it helps us to remember that quite the opposite is true. To be patient is simply to be completely open to each moment, accepting it in its fullness, knowing that, like the butterfly, things can only unfold in their own time.

  3. Beginner's Mind: The next time you see somebody who is familiar to you, ask yourself if you are seeing this person with fresh eyes, as he or she really is, or if you are only seeing the reflection of your own thoughts about this person. Try it with your children, your spouse, your friends and co-workers, with your dog or cat if you have one. Try it with problems when they arise. Try it when you are outdoors in nature.

  4. Trust: In practicing mindfulness, you are practicing taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen to and trust in your own being. The more you cultivate this trust in your own being, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their basic goodness as well.

  5. Non-striving: In the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself.

  6. Acceptance: We cultivate acceptance by taking each moment as it comes and being with it fully, as it is. We try not to impose our ideas about what we should be feeling or thinking or seeing on our experience but just remind ourselves to be receptive and open to whatever we are feeling, thinking, or seeing, and to accept it because it is here right now. If we keep our attention focused on the present, we can be sure of one thing, namely that whatever we are attending to in this moment will change, giving us the opportunity to practice accepting whatever it is that will emerge in the next moment.

  7. Letting Go: In the meditation practice we intentionally put aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and to reject others. Instead we just let our experience be what it is and practice observing it from moment to moment. Letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are. When we observe our own mind grasping and pushing away, we remind ourselves to let go of those impulses on purpose, just to see what will happen if we do. When we find ourselves judging our experience, we let go of those judging thoughts. We recognize them and we just don't pursue them any further. We let them be, and in doing so we let them go. Similarly when thoughts of the past or of the future come up, we let go of them. We just watch.


When we are mindful of our breathing, it helps us to calm the body and the mind. Then we are able to be aware of our thoughts and feelings with a greater degree of calmness and with a more discerning eye. We are able to see things more clearly and with a larger perspective, all because we are a little more awake, a little more aware. And with this awareness comes a feeling of having more room to move, of having more options, of being free to choose effective and appropriate responses in stressful situations rather than losing our equilibrium and sense of self as a result of feeling overwhelmed, thrown off balance by our own knee-jerk reactions.

Mindfulness does not involve pushing thoughts away or walling yourself off from them to quiet your mind. We are not trying to stop our thoughts as they cascade through the mind. We are simply making room for them, observing them as thoughts, and letting them be, using the breath as our anchor or "home base" for observing, for reminding us to stay focused and calm.

Really Doing What You're Doing: Mindfulness in Daily Life

In bringing mindfulness to an activity or an experience, whatever it may be, you flesh it out. It becomes more vivid, more bright, more real for you. In part things become more vivid because the stream of your thinking subsides a little and is less likely to interpose itself between you and what is actually happening.

If you are able to be present while doing routine daily activities, if you are willing to remember that those moments can be moments of calm and alert attention as well as times of doing things that have to be done, you may find that not only do you enjoy the process more but you are also more likely to have insights into yourself and your life while you are doing these routine activities.

The essence of mindfulness is paying attention on purpose. So keeping up the informal practice means paying attention, being awake, owning your moments. This can be great fun. You can ask yourself at any point, ''Am I fully awake?" "Do I know what I am doing right now?" ''Am I fully present in the doing of it?" "How does my body feel right now?" "My breathing?" "What is my mind up to?" You can tune in to standing, walking, listening, speaking, eating, and working. You can tune in to your thoughts, your mood states and emotions, your motives for doing things or for feeling a certain way, and, of course, the sensations in your body. You can tune in to other people, children and adults, their body language, their tension, their feelings and speech, their actions and the consequences of those actions. You can tune in to the larger environment, the feel of the air on your skin, sounds of nature, light, color, form, movement.

Responding to Stress Instead of Reacting

The very first and most important step in breaking free from a lifetime of stress reactivity is to be mindful of what is actually happening while it is happening. If you manage to remain centered in that moment of stress and recognize both the stressfulness of the situation and your impulses to react, you have already introduced a new dimension into the situation. Because of this, you don't have to suppress all your thoughts and feelings associated with heightened arousal to prevent yourself from going out of control. You can actually allow yourself to feel threatened or fearful or angry or hurt and to feel the tension in your body in these moments. Being conscious in the present, you can easily recognize these agitations for what they are, namely thoughts and feelings and sensations. This simple momentary shift from mindless reaction to mindful recognition can reduce the power of the stress reaction and its hold over you. In that moment you now have a very real choice. You can still go the route of the stress reaction, but you no longer have to. You no longer have to react automatically in the same old way every time your buttons get pushed. You can respond instead out of your greater awareness of what is happening.

In some situations, your feeling threatened may have more to do with your state of mind than with the triggering event itself. When you bring awareness to stressful moments, you might see more clearly how your own unbalanced view could be contributing to an inappropriate overreaction on your part, one that is out of proportion to what the actual circumstances warrant. Then you might remind yourself to try letting go of your own self-limited view, right in that moment, just to see what would happen. You might try trusting that things will become more harmonious if you make the effort to meet the situation with calmness and clarity. When you experiment in this way, you may be surprised at how many things that used to "push your buttons" no longer get you aroused. They may no longer even seem stressful to you, not because you have given up and have become helpless and defeated or resigned but because you have become more relaxed and trusting of yourself. Responding in this way under pressure is an empowering experience. You are maintaining your own balance of mind and of body, what is sometimes called maintaining your center.

How do we consciously cultivate the stress response in daily life? The same way we cultivate mindfulness in the formal meditation practice: moment by moment, grounding ourselves in our body and in our breathing. When your buttons are pushed or you find yourself feeling stressed, when feelings of fight or flight come up, you might try bringing your awareness to your face and shoulders as they tense up, to your heart beginning to pound, to your stomach beginning to feel funny, to whatever you might notice about how your body feels at that moment. See if you can be aware of your feelings of anger or fear or hurt as you feel them rising inside of you. You might even try saying to yourself, "This is it" or "Here is a stressful situation" or "Now is a time to tune in to my breathing and center myself." Mindfulness sets the stage for you to respond appropriately right here in the moment. If you are quick enough, you can sometimes catch the stress reaction before it develops completely and turn it into a response instead.

The place to start, of course, is with your breathing. If you can manage to bring your attention to your breathing for even the briefest moment, it will set the stage for facing that moment and the next one mindfully. The breath itself is calming, especially when we can tune in to it at the belly. It's like an old friend; it anchors us, gives us stability, like the bridge piling anchored in bedrock as the river flows around it. Or, alternatively, it can remind us that ten or twenty feet below the agitated surface of the ocean there is calmness. The breath reconnects you with calmness and awareness when you lose touch momentarily. It brings you to an awareness of your body in that moment, including any increase in muscle tension. It can also remind you to check your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you will see how reactive they are, Perhaps you will question their accuracy. In maintaining your own center in the face of stress, it is much more likely that, right in that moment, you will have an awareness of the full context of the situation, whatever it is. Your impulses to run or fight, to struggle or protect yourself or perhaps to fall apart will be seen within this larger picture along with all other relevant factors in that moment. Perceiving things in this way allows you to remain more calm from the start or to recover your inner balance more quickly if it is thrown off initially by your reaction.

When you are grounded in calmness and moment-to-moment awareness, you are more likely to be creative and to see new options, new solutions to problems, You are more likely to be aware of your emotions and less likely to be carried away by them. It will be easier for you to maintain your balance and sense of perspective in trying circumstances. If the original cause of your stress has already passed, you will be more likely to see that, at that moment, whatever has happened has already happened. It is already in the past. This perception frees you to put your energies into facing the present and dealing with whatever problems require your immediate attention.

Emotional Pain

Mindfulness allows us to see more clearly into the nature of our pain. Sometimes it helps us to cut through confusion, hurt feelings, and emotional turmoil caused perhaps by misperceptions or exaggerations and our desire that things be a certain way. When you next find yourself in a period of suffering, try listening for a calm inner voice that might be saying, "Isn't this interesting, isn't it amazing what a human being can go through, amazing how much pain and anguish I can feel or create for myself or get bogged down in?" In listening for a calm voice within your own heart, within your own pain, you will be reminding yourself to observe the unfolding of your emotions with wise attention, with a degree of non-attachment. You may find yourself wondering how things will finally be resolved, and knowing that you don't know, that you will just have to wait and see. Yet you can be certain that a resolution will come, that what you are experiencing is like the crest of a wave-it can't keep itself up indefinitely-it has to release. And you will know as well that how you handle what is going on at the crest of this wave can influence what the resolution will be. For instance, if, in a fit of anger, you say or do something that deeply harms another person, you have compounded the suffering of the moment even further and ensured that the resolution will be even further away, and perhaps much less to your liking. So in moments of great emotional pain, perhaps you will come to accept not knowing how things will resolve in the present moment, and in that acceptance, begin the process of healing.

When you find yourself in times of emotional turmoil and pain, it can be very therapeutic to proceed simultaneously on parallel tracks. One track involves awareness of your thoughts and feelings (the emotion-focused perspective). The other involves working with the situation itself (the problem-focused perspective). Both are essential for responding effectively in stressful and threatening situations.

A "What Is My Own Way?" Meditation

One of the major sources of suffering in our lives is that we usually want to have things our own way. Thus when things happen that we like, we feel that everything is going our way and we feel happy. And when things "go against us," when they do not happen the way we want or the way we expected or planned for, then we tend to feel thwarted, frustrated, angry, wounded, unhappy, and we suffer; The irony is that often we really don't know what our way is, even though we want to have it all the time. If we get what we want, we usually want something else in addition. The mind keeps finding new things that it needs in order to feel happy or fulfilled. In this regard, it is rarely satisfied with things as they are for very long, even if things are relatively peaceful and satisfying.

To break out of this trap of always being driven by our own desires, it is not a bad exercise to ask yourself from time to time, "What is my own way?" "What do I really want?" "Would I know it if I got it?" "Does everything have to be 'perfect' right now, or under my total control right now, for me to be happy?"

Work Stress

We can easily fall into ruts in our roles, especially if we have held the same job for a long time. If we do not guard against it, we may stop seeing each moment as new, each day as an adventure. Instead, we may become susceptible to feeling drowned in the repetitiveness and predictability of each day. We may find ourselves resisting innovation and change and becoming overly protective of what we have built because we feel threatened by new ideas or requirements or by new people. It is not uncommon for us to operate at work the same way we do at other times in our lives, namely on automatic pilot. Why should we expect to be fully awake and living in the moment at work if mindfulness is not something we value in our lives as a whole? As we have seen, the automatic-pilot mode may get us through our days but it won't help with feeling worn down by the pressure, the routine, the, sameness of what we are doing. Work stress can be greatly reduced in many cases simply by an intentional commitment to cultivate calmness and awareness in the domain of work and by letting mindfulness guide our actions and responses.

Sometimes simply deciding, as an experiment, to make your work part of your meditation practice, part of your work on yourself, can shift the balance from a sense of being done in by the job to a sense of knowing what you are doing and choosing to do it. This change in perspective can lead directly to a change in what your job means to you. Work can become a vehicle that you are purposefully using to learn and to grow. Obstacles then become challenges and opportunities, frustrations occasions to practice patience, what other people are doing or not doing occasions to be assertive and communicate effectively, and power struggles occasions to watch the play of greed, aversion, and unawareness in other people and in yourself.

  • When you wake up, take a few quiet moments to affirm that you are choosing to go to work today. If you can, briefly review what you think you will be doing and remind yourself that it mayor may not happen that way. Bring awareness to the whole process of preparing to go to work. This might include showering, dressing, eating, and relating to the people you live with. Tune in to your breathing and your body from time to time.

  • At work, take a moment from time to time to monitor your bodily sensations. Is there tension in your shoulders, face, hands, or back? How are you sitting or standing in this moment? What is your body language saying? Consciously let go of any tension as best you can as you exhale and shift your posture to one that expresses balance, dignity, and alertness.

  • Use any breaks you take to truly relax. Try going outside the building for three minutes and walking or standing and breathing. Or do neck and shoulder rolls at your desk. Or sit quietly for five minutes or so, following your breathing.

  • Try to stop for one minute every hour and become aware of your breathing. We waste far more time than this daydreaming at work. Use these mini-meditations to tune in to the present and just be. Use them as moments in which to regroup and recoup. All it takes is remembering to do it. This one is not easy, since we so easily get carried away by the momentum of all the doing. Use everyday cues in your environment as reminders to center yourself and relax-the telephone ringing, down time at the computer terminal, waiting for someone else to finish something before you can start. Instead of relaxing by "spacing out," relax by tuning in.

  • At the end of the day, review what you have accomplished and make a list of what needs to be done tomorrow. Prioritize the items on your list so that you know what is most important. As you are leaving, bring your awareness to walking and breathing again. Be aware of the transition we call "leaving work." Monitor your body. Are you exhausted? Are you standing erect or bent over? What expression is on your face?