Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Hachi: Dogs, Loyalty, Attachment, and Hope

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

I recently rented and watched “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” starring Richard Gere and an array of Akita’s. The movie is based on the true story of an Akita who waited for his deceased master at the train station everyday for ten years until his own death. The original story took place in 1920s Tokyo and has been updated to the current day in some idyllic suburban town in the Tristate area or New England. The movie takes a long to time to wind up and we are exposed to a life too perfect. A comfortable and stylish old farmhouse in a friendly town where everyone knows each other, where dogs roam round unencumbered by leashes and the threat of cars. An impossibly functional family: loving husband and wife, well-behaved and beautiful daughter who gets married and pregnant in lock-step with the mainstream schema of the ideal family. Meanwhile this lost puppy becomes part of the family and fiercely attached to its owner, following him to the train station every morning, and showing up again at 5:00 PM anticipating his return. On the day his master suddenly dies, Hachi intuiting this, finally fetches a ball, something he would never do before.

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I’d like to say that I transcended the maudlin and maintained a perspective of equanimity as I watched. As my aging Rhodesian Ridgeback lay next to me, his hulking form curled up, I was teary throughout and then let go into a wave of vigorous sobbing as the main action of the movie arrived. Hachi shows up at the train station every morning and waits all day. At night he goes to sleep under an abandoned train. He is fed by the staff of the train station and this is his life — for 10 years. Why was I crying so? A remarkable story about canine loyalty is one reason. What remarkable creatures. The film also reminded me poignantly of my own dog’s aging and impending demise sometime within the next couple of years (likely based on average life expectancies). Any image of an aging dog sends me into paroxysms of grief. There is something special about the grief we experience for a dog and this will be the subject of another blog entry and will be explored in a book at some point.

It’s also interesting to consider his loyal behavior as evidence of hope. His behavior of going to the train station does not extinguish as it should according to operant conditioning principles. A mouse would not continue to show up for a reinforcer that was not there, but Hachi has an attachment system in his brain and sufficient capacity for imagination to override the evidence that his master is not getting off that train. We, too, are creatures of attachment and capable of sustaining this type of evidence-defying and reinforcer deficient hope. We do so at our own peril: We stay in relationships that are unhealthy; we keep repeating the same destructive patterns in our life. All the while, there is hope based on memory that things might be different this time. We show up to the train station each day waiting. I counsel myself and others to Kill Hope in these situations. Unlike Hachi, we have the cerebral capacity to override our limbic/attachment drive to sustain hope (and this is limited to false hope). We need to confront the question: “Do I want to spend the rest of my life at the train station waiting?” That could be a deliberate choice or it may arise out of the unconscious pursuit of this deep but deluded conditioning. It’s a reflection on acceptance: Can we accept what is so?

What is Mindfulness Anyway?

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak
Q: Talk a little bit about mindfulness. What is it? What are it’s benefits? How can it be cultivated?

A:  A New Yorker cartoon shows a beleaguered looking man clutching the arms of a stuffed chair being addressed by his wife. She tells him with a look of pity and concern, “You should never engage in unsupervised introspection.” This is a pretty good definition of the target for mindfulness. Such unsupervised introspection can get us into trouble, causing distressing emotions and reactive behavior. Mindfulness shows us how to supervise our minds.

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The father of American psychology, William James, said 100 years ago that our intellectual life consists almost wholly in our substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which our experience originally lives. He points to our tendency to live in concepts and stories and how we can be out of touch with our actual lived experience that is occurring right now. The definition for mindfulness that I used in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness is, “an intentional and curious directing of attention to our experience as it unfolds in the present moment, one moment following the next — the very happening of our experience as it is happening without commentary, judgment, or storytelling.” Mindfulness is not about suppressing thinking but recognizing that it is occurring and not elaborating it automatically and without choice. Mindfulness is the ability to cultivate awareness and the ability to retrieve attention from the future or past, or commentary about the present to bring it into intimate contact with what is happening right now.

Sounds rather simple, right? Well, it is. While mindfulness may be “simple” in the sense of being uncomplicated, that does not mean it is “easy.” Our minds don’t want to stay in the present and will keep going to the future and past or talking about the present rather than being with the present. This is a long-standing and strong mental habit. To better realize the “simple” nature of mindfulness, most of us need to practice and for that reason we practice mindfulness meditation (see entries on the instructions for Mindfulness of Breathing One, Two, and Three). We practice coming back from the future and past to the being of this moment, training awareness to disengage from telling stories to attend in this experiential way to what is actually happening. The more we practice coming back, the more adept we’ll become at catching ourselves in a place we’d rather not be and coming back to now. With mindfulness practice we learn to supervise our minds in a gentle and skillful way. We learn to undo the exchange of the conceptual for the perceptual and dwell in the magical and ordinary perceptual experience of this moment. 

Cutting Through the Three Poisons to See Reality More Clearly

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

The Buddha noted three obstacles to seeing reality more clearly: delusion, greed, and hatred (or sometimes translated ignorance, desire, and aversion). These forces bias our perception and the distorted experience does not map onto reality. The results of pursuing such biased perceptions is usual destructive. Take the recent collapse in the financial system. Greed led to the pursuit of financial instruments that were not only risky, they were virtually imaginary. The build-up to the financial crisis of 2008 was born of both greed and delusion. Some individuals could see the handwriting on the wall and knew that the bonds backing the subprime loans were vulnerable. They bet against them and made a fortune selling short during the collapse. While still motivated by greed these individuals were able to cut through the delusion to see reality clearly. These individuals are the subject of the bestselling new book by Michael Lewis: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. One of the characters in this book, Michael Barry convinced investment banks to create products that would allow him to bet against mortgage backed securities (the notorious credit-defalut-swaps we’ve heard about). He did this with Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile Goldman Sachs is doing the same thing with AIG. This is the beginning of the financial crisis.

The interesting feature of this story relative to delusion, greed, and aversion is that the characters who profited off the crisis tried to warn the system that something was wrong. Two of them, Charlie Ledley and Jaime Mai, went to the FCC, “They go to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They start screaming at the top of their lungs that, my God, there’s fraud in the system. But they make their bet, and they turn $15 million into $120 million with their bet.” Clear perception (cutting through the exuberant delusion affecting everyone else) allowed these individuals to make huge profits by betting against not only subprime loans but the financial institutions involved, such as Bear Stearns. As just mentioned while they are making these huge profits they are also trying to warn the system. Michael Lewis explains during his interview on Fresh Air: “They were all extremely noisy. They had various ways of being noisy. But Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley went to the SEC and tried to get the SEC to investigate the ratings agencies and the Wall Street firms that were creating subprime mortgage bonds and so on and so forth, and the SEC didnt want to have anything to do with them. Michael Berry was writing very persuasive letters that were widely circulated in the investment community about the madness of subprime mortgage lending well before he started shorting subprime mortgage bonds. Steve Eisman, the third main character in the book, ran around Wall Street being rude to as many people as possible who were involved in the business, telling them that they were going to blow up their firms and nobody would listen to him. So they ended up being ineffective messengers but they tried.”

So how do we escape the perils of delusion an greed? If we think about mindfulness as the ability to pay attention to what is happening in the moment, then mindfulness can help us to cut through the poisons. Delusion, greed, and aversion are sustained by desires born of stories. The subprime mortgage scandal had a compelling narrative that affected perception, even in the face of warnings to the contrary. This demonstrates the power of denial and its destructive potential as a psychological defense mechanism. The story was more compelling than reality and the aftermath of the financial crisis has rocked the world. When we practice paying attention to what is so in the midst of meditation practice it can help us to cultivate the habit of paying this quality of attention during the challenges of daily life. Being able to know the difference between a story (that is, the representation of reality) and reality (things as they actually are) is the antidote to delusion. This takes practice, of course. What might have happened if executives at AIG, Goldman Sachs, and Bear Stearns had been practicing mindfulness. Would the financial crisis have happened? It’s easy to predict the future in such retrospective fashion, but I think the world would be a different place if people in positions of power could appreciate this simple distinction between story and reality.




Bob Thurman on happiness and becoming Buddha — on TED.com

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

The first time I heard of Bob Thurman it was 1984. I was in the small audience of the Amherst College Chapel for the first Inner Science Meeting. The Inner Science Meeting was the predecessor to the Mind and Life Meetings that have taken place since 1987 where His Holiness the Dalai Lama confers with Western scientists, philosophers, and practitioners. At the first Inner Science Meeting, the Dalai Lama lectured on Buddhist Psychology and his talks were interspersed by commentary from Western thinkers that included Robert Thurman, Richard Davidson, Frances Vaughan, Roger
Walsh, David Bohm, Daniel Brown, Jack Engler, Seymour Boorstein, Kenneth
Pelletier, Charles Tart, Bonnie Strickland, Renee Weber, Joshop Loizzo, Seymour
Epstein, and G. Perry. In 1984, His Holiness did not have the command of English that he has now and even now translating the intricacies and subtleties of Tibetan Buddhist Psychology of Mind are challenging. His regular interpreter had taken ill and Bob Thurman stepped into this gap. At this time, he was relatively new to Tibetan Buddhism and not yet ordained as a monk. There were many moments in the translation process where Thurman could not quite get what the Dalai Lama was getting at. His Holiness’s reaction? Anger? Frustration? Not at all. It was laughter, pure laughter. In a way this encapsulates Buddhism. While there is a rich and complex intellectual tradition and highly conceptual aspects (the Abhidharma, the Mind Only School, etc.) when it comes right down to the heart, concepts give way to laughter. Everyone was laughing and this laughter was a transmission of dharma. As a wide-eyed junior at Tufts University, this was an important transmission for me and my formal introduction to Buddhism. The fondness that burgeoned in me those two days planted to seeds that would later take root and flower in my finding the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya India and culminate in my taking the bodhisattva vows, but that is a story for another day. In the meantime, enjoy this brief talk by Robert Thurman. He picks up on the theme of interconnectedness that I discussed in the entry, “Her belly may be fully, but her spirit will be empty”

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