A Book Review: Full Catastrophe Living

On March 7, 2017

A Book Review: Full Catastrophe Living

By: Madeleine Sharko
(Madeleine is a LAP Blog contributor and a long-time LAP Peer Support Volunteer)

Full-Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn first arrived as a book in or around 1990. The revised 2013 version is expanded, but holds on to the same tenets as the past, ubiquitous manual. The initial book was reviewed extensively by many different people, including lawyers. Now it’s back, and better than ever. Searching for Jon Kabat-Zinn through any online source brings a plethora of meditation materials. However, it’s the Full Catastrophe Living book that has made him most recognizable.
Any attorney approaching meditation for the first time should start here. Peruse the many chapters. Start anywhere.
Here is some foundation for the person who is Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who holds a PhD from M.I.T., founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1979. At the time, it was a result of a new idea called integrative medicine or medicine based on a mind-body connection. The formal MBSR program is a very practical and disciplined program. It involves classes and trainings, but no exams. To this end, it will feel familiar to lawyers.

Although MBSR’s roots can be traced to the Buddhist traditions in Asia, and although Jon Kabat-Zinn is said to have studied under Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn has always shown more interest in the scientific effects of the practice, especially as they relate to good health, healing and prevention of chronic pain. The MBSR practice subscribes neither to a religion nor a philosophy. It has to do with the training of the mind, something else that should attract lawyers.
The mental practice, here, however, is antithetical to the training from law school. That, in itself, should be a relief to some. Instead of evaluation, the MBSR program focuses on observation. Instead of judgment, the MRSR program demands a suspension of judgment. Reduced to a favorite phrase of Kabat-Zinn, the practice is no more than “moment-to-moment awareness.” It sounds simpler than it actually is. Kabat-Zinn goes on to prove how an absence of such awareness, at least some of the time, is detrimental to clear thinking, wise decision-making, and even adequate health.

For those who are interested in the results, Jon Kabat-Zinn cites several academic and medical studies that show a reduction of pain, stress, and anxiety in patients and students of the program. As a result, these same studies proffer greater life satisfaction and productivity. What is surprising and perhaps amazing, in this day and age, is that these results are without pharmaceuticals. More amazing is that they are essentially cost-free, aside from the time set aside for practice.
In his expanded book, Jon Kabat-Zinn delineates common stressors by chapter. Each chapter is a miniature course on how the MBSR system manages a different part of life. These include but are not limited to chapters on time stress, work stress, role stress, sleep stress, and people stress. He encourages the reader to apply the exercises described in previous chapters to any of these areas of daily living. Embedded in his writing are profiles of various MSBR students who have applied one or more of the practices to a troublesome situation in their lives. Look for a profile of a Judge who stated that he did not have enough time to review his cases before hearing. Read how the MBSR approach solved the problem.

What lawyers might find hard to overcome in their mindfulness practice is their expectation of an immediate result. There will be end results that occur over time with the practice. However, the process places the mindfulness student on a wide arc toward change, not an immediate turn. In that way, the mindfulness practice is akin to the practice of law. A law student’s completion of law school is only the beginning of any practice of law. Completing a single practice session of mindfulness meditation does not, in itself, make the lawyer an authentically mindful person. Kabat-Zinn, to further this point, dedicates a section to the informal practice, which is slowly integrated into daily routines.
The book contains some useful illustrations demonstrating mindfulness exercises. Sitting postures and breathing routines are explained.

There are also mild yoga poses to be used alongside the breathing exercises. Again, none of this adheres to a specific religious practice. The appendix of the book includes charts for tracking stressful events. All of these guides can be utilized at the discretion of the reader and made to fit within the lawyer’s time frame. Further information is available in the extensive Resources and Reading List sections at the end of the book.

What is refreshing about the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction movement is that the core message has not changed since its inception. However, even Jon Kabat-Zinn acknowledges the usefulness of technology and the many new ways to access the program. This is great news for all lawyers, including law students dealing with that little catastrophe known as the Bar Exam.

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