Mindfulness Matters

Cover_108MetaphorsI am also pleased to announce that my first book–Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness is being re-released under the title 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness: from Wild Chickens to Petty Tyrants. It has the same metaphors that many people have grown to love and trust in their daily mindfulness practice in a new book design (astute obersvers will notice that it is very similar to Mindfulness A to Z. Here is an excerpt from the preface that I wrote for the new edition:

Since the initial publication of 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness in 2009, I’ve come to appreciate further the Buddha’s mastery with metaphors. Indeed, Buddhist scholar Damien Keown said, “The Buddha’s skill in teaching the Dharma, demonstrated in his ability to adapt his message to the context in which it was delivered. Parables, metaphors, and similes formed an important part of his teaching rep- ertoire, skillfully tailored to suit the level of his audi- ence.” The Pali Canon, which is the written record of the Buddha’s teachings, contains over 1000 met- aphorical references addressing over 500 different concepts.

You can pre-order your copy here (official release date is June 14, 2016).

IMG_2714What is the self beyond language concept, and story? Can we find an identity in the unfolding awareness of the moment?

When we let go of stories and release ourselves into the flow of the moment, we start to realize the world that we live within is much bigger than we realized. It’s not only big—it’s vast.

The ocean reminds us of that; the sky reminds us of that. The mountains tell us what is possible. The vastness of the nature is not only a metaphor. Our blood is salty like the sea; our bodies mostly water. Our atoms are the stuff of the universe—bits of the Big Bang inside each one of us.

The vast also exists within our brains. If we spread out all the branches of each one of our neurons, the length is a staggering 50 million miles. That’s over halfway to the sun. This vastness is impossible to see, yet whenever we turn our gaze within with mindfulness, we are getting a glimpse of this stupendous connectivity.

There are also vast spaces within each atom that comprises our bodies and all other material of the world and the universe. What seems solid—even that hardest steel—is hauntingly hollow. If we somehow removed all the space from all the atoms in the universe, we’d have something about the size of a bowling ball leftover.

Despite these magnificent examples of vastness, we tend to live in our stories—the who, what, when, where, and why of identify. We miss the vast in our relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, discomfort, and inconvenience.

Stories are compelling, addicting, and habitual. Perhaps, too, we ignore the Vast because it can be dangerous. Larger than our story. Larger than our small self and doesn’t care about that small self.

The vast reminds us of our vulnerability, precariousness, and aloneness. Just imagine being shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean. On the ocean, we are always on the edge of being or not being amidst the forces of the tide, waves, and depth (not to mention the creatures that dwell in the sea). In other words, impermanence is made plain by the Vast.

We can also take a surfboard into the vastness of the ocean and learn to ride its vicissitudes, making friends with that very impermanence as Jaimal Yogis has done and lovingly reported to us in his books Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea and The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing . . . and Love.

Sati is the Pali language term that has been translated as mindfulness. It literally means “to remember” or to “recollect” oneself. From this perspective of remembering, mindfulness is the antidote to forgetting the Vast. It puts us in touch with the vast that is our bodies breathing in and through time.

Je me souviens is the motto of Quebec. I remember myself. Perhaps this can be the motto for reclaiming our place in the Vast—our small place in the great context that is existence. With mindfulness, this is possible.

I am excited and honored to be teaching a workshop with my dharma brother Jaimal Yogis where will be exploring issues related to the Vast in a workshop: Finding Your True Self Through Mindfulness and Nature at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts (June 10-12). Wherever we make contact with our true self, it is sure to be in the open expanses of the Vast. Join us then and there for that workshop.


Photo credit: Erik O. Cathcart

Photo credit: Erik O. Cathcart

At a recent workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, I coined a new phrase: equanimity equity (EE). EE is the rationale for practice. The more we practice, the more equanimity we have in the bank. When difficulty hits, we can draw on that balance to handle the situation without being overtaken by reactivity.

A lack of reactivity, after all, is the aim of mindfulness practices. Such reactivity colors every aspect of our being and that “noise” keeps us from experiencing the world as it is with an open and loving heart.

For those of us blessed with the natural countenance of a Buddha, equanimity is always at your disposal. For those of us not blessed (which is pretty much everyone, including Siddhartha Guatama before and after he was the Buddha), then practicing is required.

The mind is a powerful force and shaped by a lifetime of conditioning. Intention, will, and commitment are valuable attributes but usually not sufficient to pull off the feat of equanimity in any given moment.

Intellectually, I understand the value of non-reactivity. My familiarity with mindfulness and Buddhism spans decades now. However, despite that understanding, I find that the more I practice, the more I can actually do it.

Depictions of the Buddha portray him as immune to reactivity–absolutely imperturbable. This may be myth. While the Buddha was supremely non-reactive, there are instances of frustration presented in the sutras. He, like all of us, was a human being, subject to the laws of physics and the demands of the moment.

I keep practicing, not to reach some unreachable place beyond reactivity, but for the sake of practice itself and to keep myself engaged in a conversation with equanimity. The longer you live in a home, the more equity you acquire through paying your mortgage. Similarly, my ongoing practice is equity in my mind–to bias the probability of equanimity arising in the next moment and all the moments to come.


Photo Credit: Erik Odin Cathcart

Photo Credit: Erik Odin Cathcart

I was recently interviewed again by Brianna Steinhilber of EverUp. This time on Forgiveness. Read her excellent piece here that quotes me. Read it here now >> 

Here is the our complete conversation

How do you define forgiveness? 

Forgiveness can be defined from an internal or external perspective or both. The internal perspective does not necessarily involve communication with the object of the forgiveness. It’s an internal process of not letting what has happened in the past (the incident or incidents that have given rise to the grudge or feeling of unforgiveness) to dictate the future. In other words, internal forgiveness is letting it go. This letting go is not avoidance or denial. It is not a substitute for working through an issue. This type of letting go is predicated on acceptance. The event happened. That’s a fact. It has had an impact on you and there may be some work to do around that (e.g., therapy, journaling, talking with friends, meditating). You now have a choice to no longer allow that incident and associated feelings to define you. If you can do that, you have forgiven and are moving on.

External forgiveness is a communication to the target. It really won’t lead to good results if internal forgiveness doesn’t occur as well. If you forgive a friend or spouse for something he did but you really haven’t let it go it will come out as resentment.

When it comes to forgiveness of others (either friends or romantic partners) does forgiveness always mean continuing the relationship?

No. Again, I am more interested in the internal form of forgiveness and that may or may not have a bearing on the relationship. Relationship can persist in our minds long after the actual relationship is over. It could be that the incident was a deal breaker but the person who was hurt will continue to be hurt if the incident is not released. Sometimes the object of the forgiveness is dead or no longer available in some way. Sometimes the object of forgiveness can be an institution like the Catholic Church.

Why does it seem that people are capable of different amounts of it? (some are able to forgive quickly while others hold a “grudge”)

I think this has to do with the stickiness of one’s thoughts (that is, the tendency to ruminate) and the meaning of the incident. People who really latch on to the grievance story and won’t let go probably hold on to all sorts of worries, concerns, and complaints. Research has shown that people who hold on to these grudges have elevated markers of stress. A lack of forgiveness might actually be bad for your health. In contrast, going through the internal forgiveness process can be good for your health.

Are there consequences to being too forgiving? What about not forgiving enough?

All actions have consequences! With internal forgiveness, someone might be adept at letting go but not protecting herself from the hurtful situation. The purpose of forgiveness is not to avoid a situation or to gloss it over. You can protect yourself and let things go. With external forgiveness, it can be dangerous if the other person is not committed to changing the pattern that gave rise to the hurtful behavior. Not forgiving enough, as mentioned for the last question elevates stress hormones and other markers of stress leading to chronic stress overload, which is really bad for your health and a risk factor for stress-related diseases (e.g., diabetes, heart disease)

Are there certain circumstances where forgiveness isn’t warranted or necessary (where people basically get a pass to hold a grudge)?

Again, the distinction between what you do inside your own heart and what you say to the person is crucial. You can certainly get a pass for communicating the forgiveness to the other but when it comes to your own experience, if you hold on to that grudge, it can make you chronically stressed. The energy that goes into maintaining the grudge won’t be available for other parts of your life.

Is forgiveness a skill that can be learned? 

Absolutely. There has been a lot of research on forgiveness interventions, such as the one that was developed at Stanford. There has been some research on adding mindfulness to CBT-based interventions and one study conducted by Shauna Shapiro (a leading mindfulness researcher) and Carl Thoresen (a leading forgiveness researcher) and others found that mindfulness may help to enhance forgiveness. Since mindfulness is essentially a skill of letting go of the past and being in the present, it makes sense that it could be helpful.

Oman, D., Shapiro, S. L., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Meditation lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH, 56(5), 569–578.

Do you have suggestions for ways people can practice being more forgiving if they find themselves holding onto a lot of grudges?

It’s important to be clear that forgiveness is not giving the other person a free pass, letting him of the hook, or condoning the behavior. Forgiveness is something that you do within yourself for yourself. As mentioned above, mindfulness can help you to work more skillfully with your mind and be more in the present. There is a powerful anecdote from Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He used to teach Vietnam War POWs how to forgive. One vet who did the training met one of his fellow POWs and he asked him if he was able to also forgive their captors. The other man hadn’t, was still holding a grudge, and his friend said, “Then they still have you in prison.” Forgiveness doesn’t diminish the incident but it is a commitment on your part to not let yourself be owned by it, no longer diminished by it, and ready to move on with your life. Mindfulness practice can be very beneficial for being fluid with forgiveness. Of course, a lack of forgiveness is often directed at oneself and this can be an insidious form of unforgiveness. I have a free guided forgiveness meditation on my website that folks can try:

Arnie Kozak (, author of Mindfulness A to Z and the Awakened Introvert.



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