Full Catastrophe Living

by Rosalie Dores on 1st February 2016

Winter is truly upon us, with it’s bright crisp mornings, and it’s drizzly grey days. A couple of days ago, I found myself in the midst of powerful winds, and rain, apparently from across the Atlantic. I put up my umbrella, a good quality, sturdy purchase from Marks & Spencer. The umbrella blew this way, and that, and inside out. I battled bravely, trying to bring the brolly to an upright position, so that it could actually do it’s job and protect me from the rain. In the midst of this I realised how much energy I was using, and the futility of the battle. The wind would inevitably continue to blow, and I was going to lose my umbrella in the process. With this realisation I put my umbrella down and proceeded to get wet. Getting wet wasn’t so pleasant, but I was far more relaxed and had my umbrella safely tucked in my bag.

The parallel between this experience and psychological, emotional and physical winds is clear to me. When I battle forces that are out of my control, conflict with another, a knee injury, a bout of the flu, challenges in work or home life, I become exhausted, and it’s pointless, because it doesn’t change anything. I hurt myself in the process.

How do I let go, and ‘do’ difficult?

As I practice, both on my meditation cushion, or in my daily life, I am continuously, as best I can, cultivating the capacity to notice what my experience is in any moment. This noticing allows me to get a sense of cause and effect, when I am in pain, and struggle, it hurts, when I accept, it hurts, but there isn’t the added psychological and emotional struggle. When we live mindfully, it’s not that all stress and struggle go away, a mature assessment of life faces squarely the fact that life includes some form of suffering, sickness; old-age, loss and death, to name a few. What we can learn, is to cultivate the capacity to meet our difficulties in a different way. In a way that reduces the stress factor.

On the eight-week MBSR course we learn to develop, over time, a kindly curiosity towards ourselves and our experience, bringing awareness to bodily and emotional sensations, and thoughts. We learn that paying attention to our experience affords us the opportunity to learn about ourselves and what makes us tick. If we continuously avoid or move away from those experiences that we find difficult how will we ever find out how we get ourselves into the pickles that we do, and create greater freedom of choice.

This is one of the reasons why the longer formal meditation practices are so invaluable. During a forty minute mindfulness practice, we are more likely to encounter boredom, irritation, restlessness, drowsiness, discomfort, distraction, and many other states of body and mind, than in a shorter practice. The difference between experiencing these in a committed formal meditation practice rather than daily life, is that there is nowhere to go, we have little choice, other than to stop, or, practice being with these experiences. In this way, we can study the nature of own own body/minds. In everyday life, however, we can do something to make these experiences go away, switch on the TV, check the mobile phone, have a glass of wine, a bar of chocolate. And why wouldn’t we? you may ask. The short term benefit of avoidance, can be, and often is,  quite pleasurable, but what about life in the long term? If we are interested in developing a life where we experience greater fulfillment, reduced stress, resilience and greater psychological and mental health, we have to learn to let go of short term palliatives and get curious about our experiences. That said, we may at times need to distract ourselves from overwhelming feelings, and that is ok, but over time, slowly patiently, we can cultivate the capacity to be with even the most difficult experiences, without turning away.

A few words from the German poet Rilke in his poem ‘The Man Watching‘:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights us is so great.

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too…’

Jon Kabat -Zinn, the grandfather of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, titled his book on the eight-week course ‘Full Catastrophe Living’. Jon was honest with us, he didn’t call the book, Beyond The Full Catastrophe, or, The Way Out of The Full Catastrophe, he didn’t want to fool us, but to ask instead, that we learn to live with dignity in the midst of the catastrophe.