Mindfulness for All

The Wisdom to Transform the World


By Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD

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More than twenty years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn changed the way we thought about awareness in everyday life with his now-classic introduction to mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are. He followed that up with 2005’s Coming to Our Senses, the definitive book for our time on the connection between mindfulness and our well-being on every level, physical, cognitive, emotional, social, planetary, and spiritual.

Now, Coming to Our Senses is being repackaged into 4 smaller books, each focusing on a different aspect of mindfulness, and each with a new foreword written by the author. In the fourth of these books, Mindfulness for All (which was originally published as Part VII and Part VIII of Coming to Our Senses), Kabat-Zinn focuses on how mindfulness really can be a tool to transform the world–explaining how democracy thrives in a mindful context, and why mindfulness is a vital tool for both personal and global understanding and action in these tumultuous times. By “coming to our senses”–both literally and metaphorically–we can become more compassionate, more embodied, more aware human beings, and in the process, contribute to the healing of the body politic as well as our own lives in ways both little and big.





Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.


Everything that we have touched on so far in our explorations of mindfulness on the personal level in the first three books in this series applies equally well to our behavior in the world as a country and as a species. Look at any event going on today. Do we actually know what is really happening? Or are we merely forming opinions based on trusting or mistrusting specific news outlets, based on reflexive preferences that have us aligning ourselves with some narratives and rejecting others out-of-hand, caught up in “us-ing” and “them-ing,” liking and disliking, wanting or fearing certain things, caught in the surface appearance of things, or imagining what is going on beneath the surface but without, when you come right down to it, actually knowing?

Here is the challenge: Can we apply the non-dual lens of mindful awareness to what is going on in the world and to our interface with it as an integral unit (cell) of the body politic that is our society and our country, whichever country you reside in or identify with? For instance, can we bring mindfulness to what presents itself to our senses and mobilize our capacity for discernment and not-knowing when it comes to “the news”? Can we be aware of those events, big and little, that have varying degrees of impact sooner or later on our private and personal lives, but which are often very much removed from our direct experience and what is actually occurring in our daily lives—that is, until they are not? And then, when they are not, can we bring awareness to those moments when, all of a sudden, we find ourselves swept up and powerfully affected directly or indirectly by forces we have not fully understood, whether they be primarily economic, social, political, geopolitical, military, environmental, medical, or some complex combination of these such as global warming, or the changing mores around gender, or the very real challenges of mass migrations of peoples fleeing from the suffering of war or famine or the like? These forces are inevitably much larger than we are. They perturb the comfort of our personal concerns, traditions, and cultures. That can be painful and fear-inducing. Yet those very same forces also have the potential, if we don’t resist them out of that impulse to fall into fear, to catapult us into a larger perspective because far more fundamental human issues are at stake.

So in the end, the challenge is whether or not we can be orthogonal.* Is it possible for us to be more openhearted, more inclusive, without it threatening our own sense of well-being and safety too much? Is it possible for us to embody compassion? Can we embody wisdom in how we respond to change and uncertainty and possible threats to our sense of who we are as individuals and as a country or a species? Can we be wise? These are our challenges today when it comes to the outer world, as they are with the interior world of our own minds and hearts. Outer and inner being reflections of each other affords us infinite opportunities for shaping our relationship with both, and in turn, being shaped by them. Perhaps here too, as a society, there is every possibility to greet ourselves arriving at our own door and to love again the stranger who was ourself, in the words of Derek Walcott’s poem Love After Love that took us to the close of Book 3.

We only need to hark back to the old lady/young lady figure, or the Kanizsa triangle in Book 1 to remind ourselves that we can easily see certain aspects of things and not others, or believe strongly in the reality of something that may be more an illusion than an actuality. And those are simple examples compared to the fluxing complexity of issues and situations we face in our lives every day, to say nothing of those that are faced by our country and the world. All of us, especially if we do not pay sufficient attention to how we see and how we know, wind up all too often mis-perceiving complex situations and getting myopically attached to an incomplete or partial view. When we do, we may be excluding out of hand other dimensions of whatever the issue is that need to be recognized as perhaps having some degree of validity that we simply don’t want to see. This foxholing mentality, this at least partially blind attachment to an interpretation of events that may only be true to a degree, if it is true at all, creates enmity and suffering—for ourselves and for others. Might not our institutions and our politics become healthier and wiser if we all engaged even a little bit in expanding the field of our awareness inwardly and outwardly to entertain the possible validity, at least to a degree, of ways of knowing, seeing, and being that may be profoundly different from our own?

Whatever opinions you hold or don’t hold, whether they be political, religious, economic, cultural, historical, social, or just positions you take within your family about the various issues that come up daily, you might want to consider for a moment those who hold a diametrically opposite opinion. Are they all completely deluded? Are they all “bad people”? Might there not be a tendency in yourself to dehumanize them, to stereotype them, even to demonize them? Do you find yourself generalizing about a certain “them” and making sweeping statements about them and “their” character or intelligence or even their humanity? If we start paying attention in this way to the activity of our own minds, recognizing our thoughts as just thoughts, our opinions as just opinions, and our emotions as emotions, we may rapidly discover that this generalizing and lumping into fixed categories can happen even with the people we live with and love the most. That is why family is usually such a wonderful, as well as sometimes maddening, laboratory for honing greater awareness, compassion, and wisdom, and for actually implementing and embodying them moment by moment in our everyday lives. For when we find ourselves clinging strongly to the certainty that we are right and others are wrong, even if it is true to a large degree and the stakes are very very high (or at least we think they are and are sorely attached to our view of it), then our very lenses of perception can become distorted, and we risk falling into delusion and doing some degree of violence to the actuality of the situation and to the relationships we are in, far beyond the “objective” validity and merit of one position or another. When I examine my own mind, I have to recognize that I am subject to all those tendencies every day and have to watch out for them so as to not become majorly deluded. I imagine I am not unique in that regard.

If there is even a bit of that going on—and the same is, in all likelihood, going on for those who hold opinions opposite to your own, when they think about you and those who see things “your way”—is this situation even remotely likely to capture what is really going on, and the potential for the recognition of at least some common ground and shared interests and a greater truth? Or has the way we are seeing and thinking so polarized the situation or topic or issue, whatever issue it is, and so blinded us that it is no longer really possible to see and know things as they actually are? Or even to remember that we really don’t know, and that there is huge creative and potentially healing power in that not knowing. It is not ignorance nor is it ignorant. It is compassionate. It is wise. That knowing that we don’t know is more powerful, and more healing than building walls out of fear, or pointing fingers, or going to war on pretext, or us-ing and them-ing endlessly.

Knowing that we don’t know, or that we usually only know something to a degree, can provide huge openings and orthogonal emergences to arise in our minds and hearts that would not be otherwise possible. Remember what the Korean Zen Master, Soen Sa Nim (Books 1 and 3), would do with anyone who was clinging to any position. “If you say this is a stick, or a watch, or a table, a good situation, or a bad situation, or the truth, I will hit you thirty times [metaphorically—he didn’t really hit anybody]. And if you say this is not a stick, or a watch, or a table, a good situation, or a bad situation, or the truth, I will hit you thirty times. What can you do?”

Remember, he was actually reminding us to wake up from this-or-that, black-or-white, good-or-bad, us-or-them thinking. It was an act of compassion to put us in this quandary, or to point out that we actually get there all the time on our very own.

Yes, what can you do? What can we do? And in the end, what about calling a spade a spade? What about genocide, murder, exploitation, corporate crimes, political corruption, institutionalized patterns of deceit (online and off), structural racism, and injustice? Yes, of course we can, and sometimes, morally, we must stand up and call a spade a spade when you or I actually know it is a spade. But if you know it, and you are really seeing it clearly and not merely clinging to your idea of “spade,” then you will see instantly that calling it a spade may not be the only or the most important thing, especially if that is all you do. There may be something more appropriate to the situation than putting forth a concept or a label, however important standing up and accurately naming what is happening is, and it is extremely important. There may also be a compelling necessity to act, and act wisely, to find an embodied way through which you can be in relationship with what is unfolding with integrity and dignity, something you can actually do that goes beyond merely naming or calling names, or agreeing with others who are doing the same.

If it were literally a spade, then maybe picking it up and beginning to dig and getting others to work alongside you might be appropriate. Acting to embody our understanding of what is going on in any moment may be the best we can do in any moment, and would approach wisdom incrementally if we were willing to learn from the consequences of our actions. Everything else may devolve rapidly into empty talk. The politician running for office says it is a spade, and something has to be done about it. Once in office, why is it that his or her view of its reality and importance can alter so radically and so rapidly? Metaphorically speaking, is it still a spade, or was it just a spade for convenience in that moment, as a stepping-stone to something else?

Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, human beings have learned to fly in the air and descend underneath the sea. But we haven’t yet learned to live on the land. The last frontier for us is not the oceans, nor outer space, as interesting and enticing as they may be. The last and most important and most urgent frontier for us is the human mind and the human heart. It is knowing ourselves, and most importantly, from the inside! The last frontier is really consciousness itself. It is the coming together of everything we know, of all the wisdom traditions of all the peoples of this planet, including all our different ways of knowing, through science, through the arts, through native traditions, through meditative inquiry, through embodied mindfulness practices. This is the challenge of our era and of our species, now that we are so networked together throughout the world in so many ways, so that what happens in Helsinki, or Moscow, or in tweets from the White House, what happens in Brussels or Baghdad or Kuala Lumpur, or in Mexico City or New York or Washington, or Kabul, or Beijing or anywhere else can wind up deeply affecting people’s lives the next day or the next month virtually anywhere and even everywhere else in the world. And that is to say nothing of the dissipative pressures continually threatening democracy itself, real inclusivity, and equal justice under the law, so that all the “cells” of the body politic can benefit from an equal “blood supply.” It is the exact opposite of burying our heads in the sand and preoccupying ourselves with our own narrowly defined self-interest and with maximizing our own safety or happiness or gain. Rather, our entire exploration of mindfulness and the possibilities of healing our lives and the world is offering us a way to look around at the forest from time to time and know it directly in its fullness rather than being so caught up in minute preoccupations with individual trees and branches, as important as that level of understanding may be. It is reminding us that without the distorting lenses of narrowly conceived and unexamined thoughts and opinions, usually driven by varying degrees of fear, greed, hatred, and delusion, and of course, by an endemic tribalism, the age-old instinct to fall into us-ing and them-ing, incubated and inflamed in this era by talk radio and social networks, including malevolent internet entities which may be bots, and pervasive tendencies on all sides to disregard realistic evidence—is a huge and blinding trap, preventing us from seeing new openings and possibilities.

Not to say that there is not a place for opinions and strongly held views. Only that the more those views take into account the inter-embeddedness of things on the micro and macro levels, the better our ability to interface with the world and with our work and with our longing and our calling in ways that will contribute to greater wisdom and harmony, as opposed to greater strife and misery and insecurity.

Now, more than ever before, on virtually all fronts, we have a priceless opportunity and the wherewithal, both individually and collectively, not to get caught up and blinded by our destructive emotions and our unexamined self-centeredness, but rather to come to our senses, both literally and metaphorically. In doing so, perhaps we will wake up to and recognize the dis-ease that has become increasingly a chronic condition of our world and species over the past ten thousand years of human history, and take practical steps to envision and nurture new possibilities for balance and harmony in how we conduct our lives as individuals and our interactions as nations, ways that recognize and strive to minimize our own destructive tendencies and sheer nastiness at times, mind states that only feed dis-ease and alienation, inwardly and outwardly, and instead maximize our capacity for mobilizing and embodying wisdom and compassion in the choices we make from moment to moment about how we need to be living, and what we might be doing with our creative energies to heal the body politic.


Throughout these four volumes, we have been exploring the metaphors of disease and dis-ease in attempting to define and understand, from many different angles, the deep nature of our disquietude as human beings, and why so much of the time we feel so out of joint, so much in need of something we sense is missing in order to feel complete, even though, materially and in terms of education and many other factors, we are far better off in developed countries and for that matter, in the majority of what used to be called “developing” countries, than the vast majority of human beings ever were in any generations preceding ours.* If a relatively high standard of living, material wealth and abundance, and even better health and health care than ever before in history are not sufficient for us to be happy, contented, and inwardly at peace, what might still be missing? And what would it take for us to appreciate who we are and what we already have? And what is our discontent telling us about ourselves as a country, as a world, and as a species that we might benefit from knowing? How might we cease being strangers to ourselves and come home to who we actually are in our fullness? How might we know and embody our true nature and our true potential as human beings?

Looking inwardly for a moment, we might ask ourselves, what would it take for us as individuals within the body politic to feel whole and happy right now, given that in actuality, as we have seen over and over again through our cultivation of mindfulness, we are already undeniably whole and complete in this very moment. One thing that it might take is to expand out beyond living so much of the time in our heads and caught up in our thoughts and desires and the turbulence of our reactive emotions and addictions, whether it be to food (the obesity epidemic) or to numbing our pain (the opioid epidemic), or to something else. In the end, we seem to be imprisoned by our own endless and often desperate attempts to arrange external circumstances, causes, and conditions so that—we always hope—they will bring about a better situation in which we will finally be able to extinguish the pain and be happy and at peace.

Underneath even that, we might recognize our habitual, seductive, but ultimately misplaced preoccupation with a remarkably persistent but at the same time amazingly ungraspable sense of a solid, enduring, unchanging personal self. That elusive solid-self feeling, when examined through the lens of mindfulness, is easily seen to be something of an illusion. I think we all know this deep down in our hearts. Yet that sense of a permanent solid self and the self-centeredness that accompanies it seems to continually mesmerize us and drive us here and there in pursuit of its seemingly endless needs and wants. When we wake up for even brief moments to the mystery of who we are, that self-construct is seen to be so much smaller than the full extent of our being. This is as true for the country and for the world as it is for us as individuals.

In the end, these insights and the openings that can accompany them stem from cultivating greater moment-to-moment intimacy and familiarity with our own minds and bodies, and from realizing the interconnectedness of things beyond our perceptions of them being separate and disconnected, and beyond our delusion-generating attachment to their being under our tight control and for our own narrow benefit.

Our wholeness and interdependence can actually be verified here and now, in any and every moment through waking up and realizing that, in the deepest of ways, we and the world we inhabit are not two. As we have seen, there are any number of ways to cultivate and nurture this wakefulness through the systematic practice of mindfulness. All apply equally well in taking on a more universal awareness of and responsibility for the health of the body politic in any and every sense of it.


Through the practice of mindfulness, of looking deeply into ourselves, we have been cultivating greater familiarity and intimacy with what might possibly be the ultimate, root causes of our disquietude and our suffering, the dynamics of greed, hatred, and unawareness as mind states, and how many different ways they have of manifesting in the world. Perhaps we have come to see or sense to some extent how we might, each one of us in our own way, more effectively contribute to reducing suffering, mitigating suffering, and transcending suffering—our own and that of others—and to extinguishing the human causes of that suffering at their root, inwardly and outwardly, wherever possible.

Perhaps it may have also dawned on us that we cannot be completely healthy or at peace in our own private lives inhabiting a world that itself is diseased and so much not at peace, in which so much of the suffering is inflicted by human beings upon one another, directly and indirectly, and upon the Earth, primarily as a consequence of our lack of understanding of interconnectedness and often, it seems, a lack of caring even when we “know better.” Of course, this is endemically human behavior, but it too can be worked with if we are willing to do a certain kind of inner work as individuals and as a society. Even endemic small-mindedness is amenable to change if we come to see the potential value in learning to live and act differently, with a greater awareness of the interdependency and inter-embeddedness of self and of other and of the true needs and true nature of both self and other, in other words, if we can learn to recognize the distorting lenses of our own greed, fear, hatred, and unawareness when they arise, and not let them obscure deeper and healthier elements of who and what we are. All this comes from being willing to visit and hold our own pain and suffering, as individuals, as a nation, and as a species, with awareness, compassion, and some degree of non-reactivity, letting them speak to us and reveal new dimensions of interconnectedness that increase our understanding of those root causes of suffering and compel us to extend our empathy out beyond only those people we are closest to. It means that people everywhere have to have their basic needs met and be free from exploitation, injustice, and degradation at the hands of others. In other words, it means that all people everywhere have to have their basic human rights protected. As we know, this is sadly not the case for vast numbers of human beings on the planet at this time, in our own country and throughout the world.

It is not inappropriate to use the metaphor of an autoimmune disease to describe the effect of our species on the planet, and even on our own health and well-being as a species. Another way to put it is that we humans somehow keep getting in our own way. We keep tripping over obstacles we unwittingly throw in our own path, in spite of all our cleverness. Throughout these four volumes, I have been suggesting that what we have learned in medicine in the past forty years about the mind/body connection and the potential healing power of mindfulness/heartfulness can have profound applications in the way we understand and deal with the overwhelming dis-ease from which the greater body of our nation and the greater body of this one world are suffering. The symptoms of this dis-ease are writ large in our newspapers, cable news, talk radio, and newsfeeds every single day in breathtaking ways that defy imagination and even at times call our basic sanity into question.

As with every other aspect of this exploration we have undertaken—of mindfulness as a meditation practice and as a way of being—the aim in examining the domain of the body politic in relationship to mindfulness is not to change opinions, our own or others’, nor to confirm them. Cultivating greater mindfulness in our lives does not imply that we would fall into one set of ideological views and opinions or another, however appealing that might be at times. Rather, it offers us the opportunity to see things freshly, for ourselves, with eyes of wholeness, moment by moment. What mindfulness can do for us is to reveal our opinions, and all opinions, as opinions. With that kind of recognition, we will know them for what they are and perhaps not be so caught by them and blinded by them, whatever their content, even when we sometimes adopt particular positions quite consciously and hold them strongly and with conviction, and act on them. The invitation of mindfulness in this regard is to look into the mirror of your own mind, apprehend your own strong attachments, and explore unrecognized possibilities for healing and inquiry and perhaps for an expansion of the way we see things, rather than merely falling into some kind of reflexive partisan agreement or disagreement on specific issues. This way of being in relationship with experience, with reality as it is, is thus an invitation to change lenses altogether, to experiment with a rotation in consciousness that may be as large as the world itself, or, often at the very same time, as close as this moment and this breath, in this body, within this mind and this heart that you and I and all of us bring to the nowscape (Book 2, Part 1). This is the essence and the gift of mindfulness as a formal meditation practice and as a way of being, a way of living.


On Sale
Feb 5, 2019
Page Count
192 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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