Falling Awake

How to Practice Mindfulness in Everyday Life


By Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD

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Think you have no time for mindfulness? Think again.

“Thoughtful and provocative…. The relevance of this work is unquestionable, as it leaves us inspired and optimistic that true healing really is possible” (Sharon Salzberg). For four decades, Jon Kabat-Zinn has been teaching the tangible benefits of meditation in the mainstream. Today millions of people have taken up a formal mindfulness meditation practice as part of their everyday lives. But how do you actually go about meditating? What does a formal meditation practice look like? And how can we overcome some of the common obstacles to incorporating meditation into daily life in an age of perpetual self-distraction?

Falling Awake directly answers these urgent and timely questions. Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book titled Coming to Our Senses, it has been updated with a new foreword by the author and is even more relevant today. Science shows that the tangible benefits of a mindfulness meditation practice are impossible to ignore. Kabat-Zinn explains how to incorporate them into our hectic, modern lives. Read on for a master class from one of the pioneers of the worldwide mindfulness movement.




Your One Wild and Precious Life

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

MARY OLIVER, “The Summer Day”


Every object, well contemplated, opens a new organ of perception in us.

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, eighteenth-century German polymath

What is capable of seeing, hearing, moving, acting has to be your original mind.

CHINUL, twelfth-century Korean Zen Master

Our senses and what they give rise to are, when well-contemplated, mind-boggling in every respect. We tend to take them sorely for granted and underappreciate their scope and depth, if we appreciate them at all. Our senses undergird our capacity to recruit and develop an astonishing array of intelligences for decoding experience and situating ourselves in the phenomenological world. Being in touch with our senses—considerably more than five, as modern neuroscience is showing—and the worlds they open us to inwardly and outwardly is the essence of mindfulness and meditative awareness. Attending to them provides myriad opportunities for realizing wakefulness, wisdom, and interconnectedness in our everyday lives.

Under special circumstances, our senses can become extraordinarily refined. It is said that aboriginal hunters in Australia, living in the outback, could see the larger moons of Jupiter with the naked eye, so keen was their hunting vision. When one sense is lost at birth or before the age of two, it seems the other senses may take on qualities of acuity far beyond what we usually think possible. This has been shown in various studies, even with sighted people deprived of sight for relatively short periods of time, from days to hours. They show, in Oliver Sachs’s words, “a striking enhancement of tactile-spatial sensitivity.”

By simply being in a room with people, Helen Keller could decipher using her sense of smell “the work they are engaged in. The odors of the wood, iron, paint, and drugs cling to the garments of those who work in them… When a person passes quickly from one place to another, I get a scent impression of where he has been—the kitchen, the garden, or the sickroom.”

The various isolated senses (we tend to think of them as separate and non-intersecting functions) all subtend different aspects of the world for us, and facilitate the construction and knowing of the world from raw sensory impressions and our relationship to them. Each sense has its own unique constellation of properties, out of which we build not only our “picture” of the world “out there” but out of which we build meaning and our moment-to-moment capacity to situate ourselves within it.

We can learn a great deal about ourselves and what we take entirely for granted from the reported experiences of those who do not have one or more of the sense capacities most of us share, whether it was that way from birth or as a result of later loss. And we can ponder what the experience of such profound loss (at least it feels that way to us) would be, and gain insight from those who have found ways to live fully within such constraints. Thus, we might come more to appreciate the gifts of those senses available to us in this moment, and of our virtually limitless potential to put them to use in the service of our own hopefully always-growing awareness of the inner and outer landscapes of our lives. For what we know we know only through the full spectrum of the senses, coupled with that capacity of mind that we might call knowing itself, its own kind of sensory and integrative function.

Helen Keller writes:

I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man… If I could live again I should do much more than I have for the deaf. I have found deafness to be a much greater handicap than blindness.

The poet David Wright describes the experience of his deafness as seldom being devoid of a sense of sound:

Suppose it is a calm day, absolutely still, not a twig or leaf stirring. To me it will seem quiet as a tomb though hedgerows are full of noisy but invisible birds. Then comes a breath of air, enough to unsettle a leaf; I will see and hear that movement like an exclamation. The illusory soundlessness has been interrupted. I see, as if I heard, a visionary noise of wind in a disturbance of foliage… I have sometimes to make a deliberate effort to remember I am not “hearing” anything, because there is nothing to hear. Such non-sounds include the flight and movement of birds, even fish swimming in clear water or the tank of an aquarium. I take it that the flight of most birds, at least at a distance, must be silent… Yet it appears audible, each species creating a different “eye-music” from the nonchalant melancholy of seagulls to the staccato of flitting tits…

John Hull, who lost his sight completely in his late forties, gradually experienced a loss of all visual imagery and memory and a descent into what he calls “deep blindness.” According to Sachs, writing about the senses in the New Yorker, being a “whole-body seer” (Hull’s term for characterizing his state of deep blindness) involved shifting his attention, his center of gravity, to the other senses, and, Sachs notes, Hull “writes again and again of how these have assumed a new richness and power. Thus he speaks of how the sound of the rain, never before accorded much attention, can now delineate a whole landscape for him, for its sound on the garden path is different from its sound as it drums on the lawn, or on the bushes in his garden, or on the fence dividing it from the road.”

“Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a colored blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience… presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once… gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world with another.”

Sachs’s phrase “never before accorded much attention” is telling here. Necessity fosters and furthers such an according of attention in those who are missing one or more of the senses. But we do not have to experience the loss of our sight or hearing, or any other sensorium, to accord attention to it. It is the invitation of mindfulness to meet our sense impressions at the point of contact (see Meditation Is Not What You Think, “The Origin of Shoes”), and to know and linger in the knowing of these worlds in their fullness, rather than in their diminution through our ignoring or habitually dulling of both the sense gates themselves and the mind that encounters them and accords them and ourselves meaning.

Just as we can learn and be astonished by the capabilities of those who have suffered the loss of one or more sense and made extraordinary accommodations and adjustments in both body and mind to fashion a full life, so we can learn from purposefully according some attention to the natural world, which beckons to us and offers itself to us through all our senses simultaneously, a world in which our very senses were fashioned and honed, and in which we have been seamlessly embedded from the beginning.

Although we tend not to notice it, we perceive across all our senses simultaneously in any and every moment. Even in Wright’s description and Hull’s there are cross-references to the lost sense. Wright has to remind himself that he is not hearing what he is seeing, for it “appears audible” to him, manifests as “eye-music.” And Hull, who has no visual experience, nevertheless speaks of “a colored blanket” thrown “over previously invisible things,” suggesting that they are indeed made “visible” through his careful hearing.

The senses overlap and blend together, and cross-pollinate. This experience is called synesthesia. We are not fragmented at the level of our being. We never were. Our senses, blending together, shape our knowing of the world, and our participation in it from moment to moment. That we do not recognize this is merely a measure of our alienation from our own feeling body and from the natural world.

David Abram, whose book The Spell of the Sensuous looks deeply into the crosscurrents of phenomenology and the natural world as it is sensed and known by all the creatures that inhabit it, including ourselves when we dwell in the wild, shares with us the rich dimensionality of the sensory matrix that gave birth to us and nurtured us for hundreds of thousands of years.

The raven’s loud, guttural cry, as it swerves overhead, is not circumscribed within a strictly audible field—it echoes through the visible, immediately animating the visible landscape with the reckless style or mood proper to that jet black shape. My various senses, diverging as they do from a single, coherent body, coherently converge, as well in the perceived thing, just as the separate perspectives of my two eyes converge upon the raven and convene there into a single focus. My senses connect up with each other in the things I perceive, or rather each perceived thing gathers my senses together in a coherent way, and it is this that enables me to experience the thing itself as a center of forces, as another nexus of experience, as an Other.

Hence, just as we have described perception as a dynamic participation between my body and things, so we now discern, within the act of perception, a participation between the various sensory systems of the body itself. Indeed, these events are not separable, for the intertwining of my body with the things it perceives is effected only through the interweaving of my senses, and vice versa. The relative divergence of my bodily senses (eyes in the front of the head, ears toward the back, etc.) and their curious bifurcation (not one but two eyes, one on each side, and similarly two ears, two nostrils, etc.) indicates that this body is a form destined to the world; it ensures that my body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth.

Immersed and embedded in the natural world, we only know it through our senses, and we are known through the senses of other beings, including beings that are not human but who sense us all the same in their own ways, whether it be a mosquito looking for lunch or birds announcing our arrival in a forest glen. We are part of this landscape, grew up in it, and are still the possessors of all its gifts, although compared to our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors, ours may have atrophied somewhat from lack of use. But the spell of the sensuous, in Abram’s enticing and entrancing phrase, is no further than the sound of the rain taken in, or the feel of the air on the skin, or the warmth of the sun on our backs, or the look in your dog’s eye when you come near. Can we feel it? Can we know it? Can we be embraced by it? And when might that be? When? When? When? When? When?


We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes… Our looking is perfected every day—but we see less and less. Never has it been more urgent to speak of seeing… we are on-lookers, spectators… “subjects” we are, that look at “objects.” Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once—and for all. By these labels we recognize everything but no longer see anything.


There is a field near my house that, seen from a certain angle, particularly delights my eye. I pass by the bottom of this field several times a day and in all seasons as I walk with our dog. Sometimes I am alone, sometimes with other people, sometimes even without the dog. It doesn’t matter. The field is continually offering a curriculum of light and shadow, form and color to the passerby, evoking the challenge to sense and drink in in any and every way whatever is delivered to eyes, ears, nose, palate, and skin. Every day, every hour, every minute, with every passing cloud, in every weather, with every season, what is here to be seen is different, perpetually changing, morphing with the light and the heat and the season from one aspect to another, like the landscapes of mountains and gorges and the fields of haystacks that enticed Monet to paint from the same spot on multiple easels as the day unfolded, as the seasons turned, capturing the uncapturable light and its mysterious birthing of shape and texture, color, shadow, and form. The challenge for us is to see that such a display offered up by the world that we inhabit is in fact everywhere. Yet this particular field, resting as it does on the slope of a gentle and uneven hill, with two outcroppings of fieldstone adding to its unevenness, has a special catalytic effect on me, especially when seen from below. Gazing upon it, I am somehow changed, recalibrated, more finely tuned to both inner and outer landscapes.

It lies nestled on the hill, sloping up to the east between two other flat fields above and below that are conservation land and so grow wild, mostly with grass. To the north is the back of a faded red barn and beyond that, a cobblestone driveway and an old but well-kept New England farmhouse, white, segmented, obviously elongated over the years, stretching section by skillfully added section toward the oldest, nearest the road. Another conservation field on the same slope lies to the south, separated from the fenced-in one by a double row of tall oaks and chokecherries on either side of and over-arching a low rock wall no doubt dating to colonial times when the land was first cleared for planting and all the ancient dug-up, black-granite stones piled wide and massively along the edges.

The field that so captures my eye has a three-tier wooden fence around it with two hardly visible electric wires set off from each fence post by very visible yellow spacers, set there to contain the two young cows our farmer neighbor keeps there part of each year, his “babies.” The fence describes a markedly irregular pentagon that for a long time I perceived as a rectangle. Then it took on the look of a trapezoid. Only with extended gazing did it finally reveal itself as actually five-sided. The western, lowermost side of the fence parallels the eastern one above it and these two are connected to the south as if they were the long facing sides of a rectangle, the shorter connecting side mounting straight up the hill, paralleling the double line of trees and the rock wall just to its south. Twenty feet or so to the north past the small cow shed built into the bottom western side, the fence cuts diagonally northeast up the hill for a ways. Then there is a gate where this sloping side meets the shortest, fifth side, that joins up with the top edge in a right angle. This configuration gives both field and fence an unstudied and unruly look that hugs the contours of the hill and fits perfectly within the sweep of this landscape. From the bottom right (southwest), my favorite vantage point, the whole of the field is visible except for the interior of the cow shed and what the shed obscures in my line of sight.

I love this particular field. For some mysterious reason, walking below it and unavoidably gazing upon it enlivens my seeing. All is suddenly more vivid in the world.

I sit in this moment in the shade gazing up on the hill from the southwest vantage. The sun hangs fairly high in the mid-morning sky on this 4th of July, soaking the field in intense light and heat. A narrow, continually expanding line of shade advances right to left from the southern edge, courtesy of the row of trees. The field is overgrown, the grass tall, dried to browns and golds, gone completely to seed. Droplets of white hang above it, dabbed there by an abundance of wild daisies the cows haven’t got to cropping yet. White butterflies flutter here and there, and an occasional dragonfly, the large kind, patrolling low and fast over the grass through the languid air like the marvelous, improbable, Carboniferous creature that it is, with its two pairs of delicately laced, transparent, extremely versatile wings, on the wing in search of mosquitoes. Two scrub trees stand in the field by themselves in the southwest corner right in front of me, and a few bigger ones shade the shed from either side. Already there is a hot hazy feel to the day. The sky behind me is blue, mostly cloudless, yet in my field of vision, the sky above the field, fringed by the large, more distant trees beyond the upper field, is entirely white.

Walking back along the path below the field and farmhouse after sitting in the grass gazing at the field for some time, the expanses of red fescue to my left are somehow redder than when I came. Now I am seeing large splotches of purple here and there in the grass, what may be flowering wild peas, which I had barely noticed before. The yellow lilies abundantly populating cut-out circles at the edges of the large lawn are more yellow, their micro-motion—almost a bouncing in the light breeze—more apparent to my eye. I see far more dragonflies nearby than I had earlier, and notice how the swallows, which before I barely saw at all, are flitting and swooping in low over the tall grass, back and forth across the lawn to the ample dabbles and streaks of oranges and pinks, reds, blues, purples, and golds (the farmer loves his flowers), all defined by an overflowing magnificence of brilliant yellow cedum with its succulent greenery spilling along the expansive horizontal lines of a two-tiered rock wall garden that rises from the far edge of the huge lawn below the house.

When I come to the road I turn right, uphill, for veritably it is all the same hill, toward my house, knowing that later this afternoon, the field and the walk I will take along the same trajectory will be entirely different, and that difference will make me different, will require me to be different, meaning present afresh for what will be offered up to the senses in whatever moment I arrive. And it is always so, summer or winter, spring or fall, yesterday or today, in rain and gloom and snow, at night under the stars… I am always arriving. It is always already here, just as it is, always the same field, but never the same.

In walking these paths, there is less and less separation between me and the view when I give myself over to attending, when I allow myself to come to and live within my senses. Subject (seer) and object (what is seen) unite in the moment of seeing. Otherwise it is not seeing. One moment I am separate from a conventional scene as described to myself in my head. The next moment, there is no scene, no description, only being here, only seeing, only drinking in through eyes and other senses so pure they already know how to drink in whatever is presented, without any direction at all, without any narrative at all, without any thought. In such moments, there is only walking, only standing, only sitting, or for that matter, only lying in the field, only feeling the air.

Of all the senses, it is vision, the domain of the eyes, that dominates in language and metaphor. We speak of our “view” of the world, and of ourselves; of gaining “insight” and “perspective.” We exhort each other to “look” and then to “see,” which is as different from looking as hearing is from listening, or smelling is from sniffing. Seeing is apprehending, taking hold, drinking in, cognizing relationships, including their emotional texture, perceiving what is actually here. Carl Jung observed that “We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect; we apprehend it just as much through feeling.” Marcel Proust put it this way:

The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having fresh eyes.

We see what we want to see, not what is actually before our eyes. We look but we may not apprehend or comprehend. We all have our blind spots and our blindnesses. Yet we can, if motivated, tune our seeing just as we can tune an instrument, thereby increasing its sensitivity, its range, its clarity, its empathy. The goal would be to see things more as they actually are rather than how we would like them to be or fear them to be, or only registering what we are socially conditioned to see or feel. If Jung was correct, we apprehend with our feelings, yes, but then we had best be intimate with them and know them for what they are or they will provide only distorted lenses for any real seeing or real knowing.

One way or another, as it does with the other senses, our own mind often obscures our capacity to see clearly. For this reason, if we wish to experience life fully, and take hold of it fully, we will need to train ourselves to see through or behind the appearances of things. We will need to cultivate intimacy with the stream of our own thinking, which colors everything in the sensory domain, if we are to perceive the interior and exterior landscapes, including events and occurrences, to the degree that they can be known, in their actuality, as they truly are.

Starting here, what do you want to remember?


On Sale
Aug 7, 2018
Page Count
208 pages
Hachette Books

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD

About the Author

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founding director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in various venues around the world. He received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT in 1971 in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate, Salvador Luria.

His work in the Stress Reduction Clinic was featured in Bill Moyers' PBS Special, Healing and the Mind and in the book of the same title, as well as on Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and Oprah's Super Soul Sunday, as well as NPR. he has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions such as medicine, and psychology, health care and hospitals, schools, corporations, the legal profession, prisons, and professional sports.

He is the author of numerous bestselling books about mindfulness and meditation: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness; Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life; Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness; and Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness. He is also co-author, with his wife Myla, of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting; and with Williams, Teasdale, and Segal, of The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness Overall, his books have been translated into over thirty languages. He lives in Massachusetts.

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