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Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

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.

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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.”

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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.




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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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Mindfulness Matters: The First Month

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

Dear Readers,

It’s been nearly a month since I started writing Mindfulness Matters: Tools for Living Now, and I thought I would take a moment to say thanks to those of you who have discovered the blog and have been following it faithfully. It is my aim to offer something each day that will teach, inspire, and sustain your interest in mindfulness and living an awakened life. 
So far, we’ve touched on a number of topics: forgiveness, interconnection, book reviews on women in Zen, mindfulness and the environment, mindfulness in prison, and the Buddha’s message as a manifesto for a spiritual revolution, and many more. I invite you to explore the archives. 
Mindfulness is available to everyone at every moment offering a taste of being awake–fully alive right now. Mindfulness meditation practice helps us to overcome habits that get in the way of being awake right now, namely what the Buddha called the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Let’s take a further look at these.
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Greed is greed, wanting too much, and it is also any desire that is tinged with attachment and contingency (I need this thing or something to happen in order for me to feel OK about myself and my place in the world). This covers a lot of ground and is a trap we likely fall into all the time. So, greed is greed, desire, attachment, and passion in the sense of being driven by strong emotions that may cloud our judgment. All these states generate dukkha. Hatred is hatred in its obvious and destructive forms and hatred is also aversion, a more subtle version of pushing things away. We can think of greed as a compulsive need to pull things towards us and aversion as a compulsive need to push things away. At any given moment we are pushing or pulling. This gets exhausting. Some simple reflection will reveal these processes active in any given moment–pushing and pulling, our sense of well-being yanked around by forces that seem out of our control. Delusion is not a psychotic delusion, but buying into a set of mistaken beliefs regarding the nature of experience and self. Ignorance is often used as an alternate term. What are we ignorant of? Well, the reasons why we suffer for one. We are ignorant of how pushing and pulling leads to pervasive dissatisfaction. We suffer when we are ignorant of impermanence–the constantly changing nature of things. Mindfulness practice helps us to appreciate this constant sea of change and to ride the swells and waves of changing experience. Mindfulness helps us to develop wisdom that cuts through delusion and ignorance to clear seeing of things as they are. 
If you are local to Burlington, Vermont or are visiting, I invite you to meditate at the Exquisite Mind Meditation Studio. We meet Tuesday evenings at 7 PM, Wednesdays at noon, and Thursdays at 2:00. For everyone else, including those of you in Vermont, I also teach online live every Friday morning from 8:00 to 8:45 in the eMindful classroom. All these programs are offered free of charge. To login into the online meditation you will need broadband. Click here to join the Morning Meditation on eMindful.com
I hope you are enjoying and getting value from my daily posting. Tell your friends about this blog and help to establish an online community devoted to the wisdom of mindfulness. You can subscribe to the blog by entering your email in the upper right hand panel. You’ll get an email whenever I post a new entry. If you haven’t done so already, I also invite you to read my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness. I also invite you to connect to me in social networking venues. Sign up for my monthly newsletter here:

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Forgiveness, Stress, and Living in the Present Moment

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

Some time ago, m good friend and colleague, Dr. Sam Standard, lectured in both my
Health Psychology course and Introduction to Clinical Psychology course
at UVM. We heard about his dissertation research conducted
while obtaining his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Stanford.
Forgiveness has been an underappreciated yet critical variable in
health and self-perception. His research has shown the detrimental
effects of not forgiving, or of being in a state of unforgivingness.

Forgiveness
is not excusing, condoning, or letting the offender or situation off
the hook. As Huston Smith said “it is not letting the past dictate the
present.” This reminds me of the story of 2 Vietnam War POWs (recounted
by Thich Nhat Hanh, I believe). At a reunion many years later, one
veteran who had worked through a forgiveness process asked his POW
companion, “have you forgiven our captors?” The other veteran said
something to the effect of “I’ll never forgive them.” To which the
forgiving veteran said, “then they still have you in prison.”

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This
imprisonment is more than psychological; it has measurable
physiological effects. During one research protocol, subjects were
asked to think about an event for which they had not forgiven. They did
so for 5 minutes. For this mere 5 minutes worth of negative focus, they
experienced an 8 to 12 hour climb in the stress hormone cortisol.
Chronic cortisol activation leads to a host of health problems, as much
research has identified. These effects include increased blood
pressure, cholesterol, atherosclerosis, blood clotting, heart attack,
suppression of the immune system, insulin resistance, loss of bone
minerals, loss of muscle protein, and atrophy of brain cells. When we
are focused on the unforgiveness narrative our heart variability
resembles that of a person with advanced heart disease. However, a
5-minute heart-focused meditation (focusing a warm feeling in the
region of the heart) creates a heart pattern that is markedly different
(smooth as opposed to jagged).

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The Stanford Forgiveness Project
had subjects undergo a forgiveness intervention. The Stanford
Forgiveness Project used a 3-step approach to creating and resolving
grievances, which involved moving away from 1) taking events
personally, 2) blaming others for our feeling overwhelmed (our rules
being broken), and 3) creating the grievance narrative or story. This
group-based mutltiweek intervention helps people to work through the
process of being unforgiving to forgiving, drawing on cognitive
behavioral principles. The steps involved in transforming a grievance
included enhancing the ability to cope, which included working with
physiological activation via relaxation, shifting rule-bound thoughts
to preferences, and rewriting or retelling the grievance narrative.
Measurable changes in stress physiology and negative affect were found
for these subjects. Another forgiveness processs model (Worthington)
involves recalling the original hurt, empathizing with the perspective
of the transgressor, giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness (even if
they don’t deserve it), making a public commitment to forgiveness, and
then working to hold on to forgiveness.

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While the forgiveness
research does not explicitly refer to Buddhist philosophy, there exists
a natural fit between forgiveness and mindfulness. Mindfulness
meditation is a tool for managing physiological reactivity and
automatic forms of narrative thinking, which are the two main
components of the forgiveness intervention. Mindfulness helps us to
become intimate with our thought patterns. This intimacy can help rules
such as”people need to do what I expect … or else!” yield to
preferences, such as “I would prefer if people did what I expected, but
I am not going to get bent out of shape about it if they don’t.” To
move into forgiveness we must let go of our suffering-inducing
narratives of how we were hurt or wronged. One forgiveness researcher
(Enright) defined forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon one’s right
to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one
who unjustly hurt us, while fostering undeserved qualities of
compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.” This sounds
like lovingkindness meditation! Sam notes that “mindfulness is a
skillful means through which we can lay the foundation for cognitive
restructuring. It provides the natural contrast medium so that we can
better see the stridency of our rules for others. Plus, mindfulness of
body allows one to literally feel unfogiveness, and to open to positive
alternatives.”

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