Selah Marley

Professor Bradley Lewis

Mindfulness and Mysticism



Mindfulness and Mysticism

Full Catastrophe Living is a guidebook on how to tackle the world—our own personal worlds and remain sane. In this book, Kabat-Zinn guides us with description, example, explanation, and encouragement on meditation practice, and the cultivation of mindfulness. Ultimately, Kabat-Zinn claims that mindfulness can bring the entire world to a state of peace and compassion; but we must first work on ourselves. In his explanation of mindfulness, though, Kabat-Zinn discusses it in a very scientific manner, to reel his audience in—America, because he is aware that if he refers to mindfulness in a more religious, mystical context, it will quickly scare people away. However, Kabat-Zinn does not deny mysticism, rather than avoids it. Ultimately, Kabat-Zinn’s phrase “mystical hocus-pocus” obscures an opening in MBSR to mystical experience.

“Until very recently, the very word meditation tended to evoke raised eyebrows and thoughts about mysticism and hocus-pocus in many people” (7, Full Catastrophe Living). In the aforementioned quote, Kabat-Zinn does not necessarily deny the existence of mysticism in his practice; he simply avoids it. He understands that the practice of meditation is usually linked to Buddhist religion, so he makes an effort to separate the practice of meditation from religion. Actually, Kabat-Zinn never says that the MBSR program was unrelated to mysticism; he just makes a point to separate the practice of meditation from mysticism. Considering the fact that his audience is Western society—a society that prides itself on religious freedom and secularism, it is almost necessary for Kabat-Zinn to separate mysticism and meditation. This is noted in Mindful America where Wilson states that there is an effort being made “to hoist mindfulness out of a religious context and re-embed it specifically in a secular, scientific, Western biomedical framework,” so it can be well-received by American citizens.

Although Kabat-Zinn does a spectacular job at framing mindfulness in a secular manner, it is necessary to understand that he does not separate mindfulness from mysticism; but more specifically, meditation. However, as a method of making his audience feel comfortable with this foreign concept of mindfulness and everything it entails, he gives tons of scientific background and understanding. For example, he makes constant references to renowned scientists like David Bohm, Carl Jung, and Albert Einstein to support and explain mindfulness. “Poets and scientists alike are aware that our organism pulsates with the rhythms of its ancestry. Rhythm and pulsation are intrinsic to all life, from the beating of bacterial cilia to alternating cycles of photosynthesis and respiration in plants, to the circadian rhythms of our body and its biochemistry” (38, Full Catastrophe Living). This quote not only gives scientific background to this idea of a universal pulsation between all matter, but also explains Kabat-Zinn’s idea of interconnectedness.

However, what Kabat-Zinn is doing is not separating science and mysticism, but using them to explain each other. He quotes Einstein to give scientific explanation (and credo), to this theory of wholeness, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness” (190, Full Catastrophe Living). In relation, Stace says, “There are not two Ones, but only one, which in the mystic’s interpretation, is God or the Universal Self of the whole universe” (133, Mysticism and Philosophy). Both Stace and Einstein are saying the same thing, in regard to wholeness and connectedness; they are just speaking different languages to different audiences. Kabat-Zinn relies more heavily on people like Einstein to back his theory up because he knows it’ll be widely accepted by Western society given Einstein’s credibility; but if you look outside of Full Catastrophe Living, many connections can be found in regard to mysticism and science—like Stace’s Mysticism and Philosophy.

Kabat-Zinn can separate meditation from mysticism because it is not necessarily the physical act of meditation that brings about mystical experiences, but the attunement to the “continual rhythmic exchange as matter and energy flow back and forth between our bodies and what we call ‘the environment,’” (39) or what Stace refers to as, “The Unifying Vision” (131). Nevertheless, this state of being that James refers to as transient can also be obtained through the usage of psychedelic drugs where Norra Mac Ready points out that some patients who were regulated the psycholobin returned feeling “interconnected to other forms of energy” and “as if their consciousness is a part of a greater consciousness […] connected to transcendental forces and a sense of sacredness” (Opening the Doors of Perception). Kabat-Zinn refers to this feeling as “interconnectedness—which empathizes the intrinsic reciprocity of all relationships” (271); while Stace confirms these feelings of “sacredness” (Lewis, Mindfulness, Mysticism, and Narrative Medicine) as belonging to that of mystical experiences.

Therefore, Kabat-Zinn continues to make an effort, to shy away from this idea of mysticism, so his readers and patients can find it for themselves. After meditation, one of his patients reported back to him claiming that she felt “nothingness and an everything at the same time” (196, Full Catastrophe Living); proving that Kabat-Zinn was not denying the existence of mysticism, rather wanted his patients and readers to discover it on its own. In Mysticism and Philosophy, Stace refers to one of the common characteristics of mystical experience as “paradoxicality” (131), which is very similar to the experience of Kabat-Zinn’s patient. Similarly, the patient also referred to it as “God” (196), while James notes it as a characteristic of mystical experience, “when the characteristics sort of consciousness has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power” (291, The Varieties of Religious Experience).

James and Kabat-Zinn intersect once more, in regard to the description, or feeling that is invoked with mystical experience by meditation. Both Kabat-Zinn and James note that “many times [the patients] don’t even recognize such experiences at the time they are happening as being particularly important” (194), while James agrees, saying that “there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it may have no significance for the subject’s inner life” (292). However, they both agree on the fact that “such shifts in perspective are signs of seeing with the eyes of wholeness” (194, Full Catastrophe Living), as it has “a profound sense of importance” (292, The Varieties of Religious Experience).

This proves that Kabat-Zinn was not denying the existence of mysticism, rather putting it away, so that his audience could discover it for themselves, instead of rejecting it from the beginning. He gives his audience the freedom to see mysticism in its own light rather than telling them what it is.

Ultimately, Kabat-Zinn makes an effort to hide mysticism, almost initially reject it, as a means of capturing his audience. He is fully aware of the secular state of the Western world and knows that in order to fully grab his audience; he must express mindfulness and meditation in a secular, scientific manner. Stuart Hall refers to this method of “translation” in his article on ‘culture,’ in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices as working language through representation. Understanding this, Kabat-Zinn tries to “successfully appropriate religious practices into American culture” (Wilson, 3), so that it can be assimilated into places where “secular culture” (Wilson, 3) dominates. He also understands that science and mysticism are intrinsically linked, which is why Wilson refers to “Buddhism’s interaction with psychology” (6, Medicalizing Mindfulness), and even goes as far to say, “the Buddha was a type of psychologist” (8, Medicalizing Mindfulness). Kabat-Zinn understands this and decides to focus more on psychological aspect of things rather than the Buddhist aspect, knowing that his audience will eventually reach and understand this transcendental element of mindfulness if they believe; and as a means of making them believe, he frames it in a way that they will understand and be comfortable with.

With this new information, America can evolve from this state of fear, mindlessness, and anxiety which Kabat-Zinn refers to as “only being half-awake” (8) into a “way of being” (197)—a transition we see in The Death of Ivan Ilych, where the protagonist moves through life aimlessly, missing blessed opportunities, doing what he’s “supposed” to, but never truly happy. It is not until he reaches his deathbed that he realizes that he has only lived for “falsehood and deception” (Tolstoy, 56). However, at the last moments of his life, he accepts his destiny, “coming to terms with things as they are” (17, Full Catastrophe Living) and surrenders himself to his circumstances—death; but actually experiences a painless death… because he has “freed himself from his sufferings” (58). It can then be discerned that mindfulness and mysticism is not some creepy, elusive idea; but is something that is within everything. Not only can it be understood in a religious context, but also a scientific one. It is this idea of intrinsic wholeness that can now be seen and understood, given tangibility, allowing us to come back full circle. When we understand and have incorporated “the art of living” (33) into our daily lives, we are able to release “the stress of daily living” (13) and remain calm and grounded at all times. When we are connected to the Source, we are able to move freely—without bounds, “as quickly passing gatherings of highly structured energy” (191).







Hall, Stuart. “Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices.” (1997): n. pag. Sage Publications. Web.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1092. Print.

Lewis, Bradley. “Mindfulness, Mysticism, and Narrative Medicine.” J Med Humanit (2016): n. pag. Springer, 10 Mar. 2016. Web.

MacReady, Norra. “Opening the Doors of Perception.” Oxford Journals 104.21 (2012): n. pag. Print.

Stace, W. T. Mysticism and Philosophy. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1960. Print.

Tolstoy, Lev N., Louise Maude, and Aylmer Maude. Hazelton: Electronic Classic Series Publication, 1998. Electronic Classic Series Publication. Web.

Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2014. Print.


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