Sunday, June 11, 2017

Living The Full Catastrophe

In a talk on mindfulness and psychotherapy, Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the most respected researchers in the field of mind~body medicine, makes the following statement. “We are dealing with the full catastrophe of the human condition, from intense beauty to intense madness.” 

While he is speaking to psychotherapists who witness daily human qualities both amazing and agonizing, Kabat-Zinn's words fit for us all. Life is, indeed, a mixed bag. Joy and sorrow, delight and hopelessness, our highest aspirations and moments of wretched selfishness…all coexist, woven into the braid that is our experience of living.

In the late 70s, as Professor of Medicine at UMass Medical School, Kabat-Zinn began studying the effects of mindfulness practice on chronically ill patients, folks for whom traditional medicine could do nothing more. Having studied meditation himself, he was curious to see if these practices would be of benefit to such patients. 

After nearly four decades of study, consistently replicated by others, the answer has been an emphatic yes. Mindfulness has also proven effective for conditions such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and eating disorders.

The practice consists of activities that bring us to the present moment, simply as it is and without judgment. When we engage life in this way, even the most debilitating conditions and situations soften and become more manageable. 

The sense of well~being that results, though, is not merely subjective. Research has demonstrated changes in brain structure and response, such as increased activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions, improved focus and memory, and an increase in the size of areas associated with emotional regulation. 

Moreover, the benefits of even a few weeks of daily mindfulness practice have been proven comparable to those received from psychiatric medications and psychotherapy. And it soothes, too, the familiar stresses of a modern life. 

So, wanna try it? Of course you do! Read my words slowly... you now become aware of your body. Tune into how it feels in this moment, hungry or full, tight or relaxed, agitated or calm. (Pause)
Let your awareness come now to your breath. Note the sensation as your chest rises and falls, as your lungs fill and release. Feel each breath fully from start to finish. (Pause)
Become aware now of the sounds that surround you, offering your attention to whatever rises out of the background stillness. Settle even more deeply into this moment. Without judgment, know it simply as it is. (Pause)

You’ve just had a taste of mindfulness, which is truly so much more than the term implies. Open awareness might be a more apt description of the experience. With practice, we become better able to lay down our many and varied preoccupations and concerns to attune simply to what is.

In this way, as we live “the full catastrophe of the human condition” in our own lives, we are able to more easily access the beauty. Hidden though that beauty may be, it is always there, waiting patiently for us to arrive.

May we each find that patient beauty, the underground river that flows softly through our lives.



P.S. The full catastrophe quote above is a play on a line from Zorba the Greek, which you can see here~~