Jon Kabat-Zinn – Full Catastrophe Living

Jon Kabat-Zinn is not, as my MBSR trainer said, the best author ever. His book is a bit rambling, the structure is unclear and he seems to find it necessary to touch on every possible topic that just might be related to mindfulness. 

That said: the reason this book was recommended for the course I am taking is also clear: this is the Bible of Mindfulness. Like a Bible, it is not particularly suitable for reading cover-to-cover. 

I think it is mostly the inspiring case studies that have made this book a classic. People with all kinds of medical problems passed through Kabat-Zinn’s  Stress Reduction Clinic and the changes they are enabled to make in their lives are amazing. Don’t expect the lame to walk, but do expect anger management, improved mobility, pain reduction, stress reduction, heart problems under control etc. 

In fact, this is a more medical book than I expected. Jon Kabat-Zinn is, aside from a long time practitioner, first and foremost a doctor medical scientist (Ph.D. in molecular biology). He touches on the psychological effects of mindfulness, but mostly the book is about how training the mind can help the body, because the two are intimately connected. He summarizes the research on the various effects and uses of mindfulness, which is useful for a future trainer like me. 

Letting Go and Mindfulness

I have been observing the mindfulness movement from the media, and am a bit wary of the tendency to tell people in trouble to ‘just let go’. So I read this book in part to see whether this goes back to Kabat-Zinn or is a later development. 

I was pleased to find that the phrase hardly figures in the book at all. Sure, in the chapter on stress-reduction it is mentioned. However, it is very clear from the context that the main aim of mindfulness meditation is to let go of the attachment (and aversion) to pain and stress. It isn’t that we should push the negative away from our awareness at all – in fact, that is what most people are already doing, so they hardly need a course on it. 

The miracle of mindfulness is in the fact that when we befriend our pain and stress, it tends to relax and soften. This isn’t an easy process and Kabat-Zinn even calls for the bravery of acceptance. Simplified: the problem is that fighting the pain makes it worse. It takes practice and patience (lots of patience) to change that pattern. The rewards are tremendous. Again: don’t expect to never experience stress anymore. Instead mindfulness can help in dealing with the challenges of life. 


All in all this book is precisely what people had already been telling me it was: suitable for people already versed in Mindfulness who want to deepen their practice and know about the background. A friend of mine got confused when trying to use it as an introduction to the system. That just isn’t what it’s best for. I recommend Mindfulness for Dummies instead. 

A final note: this is not the kind of book to read digitally, I tried. I have the English version on Kindle and the Dutch in print (shown above). I read the print. Get a real book, so you can easily skip the parts where he rambles and find your way to the parts that are useful and inspiring. 

Oh, and if you want to learn to meditate – if you can’t get to a trainer, do buy a book with the meditation-cds included.