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Learning to Embrace the Full Catastrophe

How mindfulness can help us heal.

Key points

  • Focusing on the present is a key part of mindfulness.
  • Acceptance of the present and being nonjudgmental about one’s emotions are parts of mindfulness.
  • This can include accepting that something is bad, uncomfortable, or unhappy.

Throughout my training as a psychologist, I’ve learned many useful and interesting facts and skills. How to breathe so I don’t hyperventilate was helpful. The major dimensions of personality were fascinating. But the most beneficial for me personally was from my training in mindfulness. Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique, adapted from Buddhism, that focuses on being in the present moment, non-judgmentally and attending to one thing (no multitasking). A big part of mindfulness is the concept of the full catastrophe.

When mindfulness was first adapted for secular (non-religious) use in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, he included a line from the play Zorba the Greek. Zorba talks about embracing the “full catastrophe” of life and how this includes everything that comes, good or bad. This was so key to Kabat-Zinn’s conceptualization of mindfulness that his book is even named Full Catastrophe Living. The idea is to just be present with whatever comes in life, good or bad, and not be judgmental, just present.

Source: Schäferle/Pixabay
Source: Schäferle/Pixabay

It took me a while to realize what embracing the full catastrophe meant. It meant letting go of expectations about how my life should be, how I should behave, how I should feel, and who I should be. Instead, to be healthy I had to accept and acknowledge how my life was, what I was actually doing, and who I truly was. A big part of embracing the full catastrophe was accepting how I felt.

Many people have expectations about how others should feel. We see this in comments like, “Stop being such a baby,” "You should forgive him and move on," and “Why are you so upset?” Implicit in all these statements is that the recipient should not have the emotions they are having. But those emotions could be perfectly rational, perfectly logical given the situation. Part of mindfulness and embracing the full catastrophe is letting go of those judgments we absorb from others and accepting our emotions whether good or bad, strong or fleeting. Another key part of mindfulness is learning to be present with our emotions and just letting them be without trying to change them.

I want to emphasize that this acceptance does not mean thinking something is good when it is objectively bad. It can include accepting that something is bad, uncomfortable, or unhappy. Being in the present moment does not mean endorsing it but simply being there and allowing everything else to be there. Change can come later, but accepting where one is comes first.

Now, I do not start people out on mindfulness exercises related to emotions. Usually, people start with mindfulness exercises focused on being aware of their breathing, then other techniques such as body scans or walking meditations. This helps them learn the basic principles and techniques of mindfulness. Once someone has the basic mindfulness skills, those skills can transfer to emotions, thoughts, or any other personal experience that causes them pain. Not everyone needs to get to the point of embracing the full catastrophe; learning to be in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, can sometimes be enough. And that’s OK.


Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (2013). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam Books.