Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness with a Capital “M”

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak


4.1.1A recent Telegraph column asked if mindfulness lives up to its hype. The author, Polly Vernon, predicts that “mindfulness” will be the OED’s (Oxford English Dictionary) word of the year. That would not surprise me. She goes on to give a favorable if at first skeptical review of the practice. Having experienced it for herself firsthand, she is a convert.

While she waxes about the benefits of mindfulness, she also raises some concerns about how the practice has impacted her life. Is she losing her edge?

Of course, the concern is that I’ll become a boring a— (indeed, that I may have already become a boring a—) what with all the mindfulness. Being a little messy, a little edgy, a thrill-seeking, tricksy, contradictory, unpredictable sort of an article – isn’t that what makes people appealing? Particularly creative people (which I flatter myself I am)? A bit charming, exciting, sexy? Where’s the fun in being moderate? In being judicious and sensible? I hear other people talk about mindfulness, and about how meditation has changed their lives, and I think, “Oh, do f— off!” I hear myself talk about it and I’m not altogether thrilled.

She goes on to say how losing this edge may actually detract from her professional life:

That’s without considering how uneasily mindfulness co-exists with my life as a media trollop. My professional life depends on my not being mindful. On the raging, combative narcissism of a constantly updated Twitter feed. On New and Next and Cool and Scoop! This is the currency of all journalism to an extent – it’s certainly the dark pulse of lifestyle journalism. Being the first one To Know and to let others Know You Know, being perpetually In The Loop, making everyone else feel anxious about Not Knowing, about missing out, getting it wrong, being the last one languishing at the suddenly outmoded party… This is how my game functions, and never more so than now, when the internet has speeded up the lifecycle of trends to a giddying pace. But mindfulness is not about New. Mindfulness is about Now. Mindfulness stands in direct opposition to speculating over what next.

In the popular embrace of mindfulness, there is a sense that the practice will just make everything easier. Life will be a blissful flow of ease, peace, and calm While this can be true, what gets missed is that mindfulness is a disruptive technology. When taken seriously, it’s not about making your life easier it’s about changing your life at the very core of your being. How you see yourself, others, and the rest of the world can radically alter. This is what is meant by waking up out of the consensus trance that we often, almost always, find ourselves within.

To get anywhere close to awakening, we must first overcome our fear of missing out. Vernon offers a lucid description of FOMO and related phenomenon (for those of you not in the know, FOMO stands for “fear of missing out.”)

So I’ll carry on. It’s not as if I have a choice, really – in the loveliest possible way. I’ll keep meditating, keep choosing Now over Next. Even when mindfulness stops being the sexiest, most-talked-about trend of Ever (which it will, probably within weeks of it being declared Word of the Year). Even if it makes me a non-sceptic, and a bit of a boring a—.

I suspect that mindfulness will continue to grow in popularity at least into next year when I have two related books (The Awakened Introvert and Mindfulness A-Z) coming out! Of course, I think it will last longer than that because there is something real at the core of all the hype. While not everyone is becoming a serious practitioner, there are still benefits to initiating the process.

Andrew Olendzki, a powerful voice in secular Buddhism, cautions in a recent Tricycle article that:

True mindfulness training involves learning to entirely disengage from, disidentify with, and become non-attached to the phenomena under review. Neither favoring nor opposing, neither liking nor disliking, the Great Way is not difficult for one with no preferences (to cite the later Chinese text Trust in Mind). Such disengagement is incompatible with corporate, military, and many other secular applications of mindfulness training, however, since it is the very move that opens the way for wisdom.

Mindfulness can lead us to wisdom but only when its “wedge” is inserted deeply into our minds. Mindfulness is often billed as a means of stress reduction but here, too, there are different considerations of stress. Mindfulness practice can certainly help us to cope better with everyday stressors. However, stress is not just the problems confronting you at this moment.

“Stress” is the preferred translation of the Buddha’s term “dukkha” for Bikkhu Bodhi (who has translated volumes of Buddhist texts). This stress is more than just the big ticket items that we think of as stress. Dukkha permeates every waking and perhaps even dreaming moment of being alive. It is like a background radiation that affects everything we think, experience, and perceive.

With enough practice, mindfulness can lead us to the wisdom that recognizes this radiation and has the chops to do something about it. This is Mindfulness with a capital “M” and as I have opined before engaging mindfulness to address the day-to-day stressors open the door to deeper wisdom.

Not everyone is going to take advantage of this deeper possibility with mindfulness and many people, no doubt, will only turn to mindfulness as a way to fine tune the way they are living now and will be no wiser for the effort. Such is the downside of mass popularity.

Still, I think we have a long way to go.

Time to Wake Up: Reading Your Way to Awakening

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

How to Wake Up CoverWe have been asleep, collectively and individually and there is a growing call to wake up. The Buddha was the first to suggest this change in consciousness 2500 years ago (and as you know the term buddha means one who has awakened). And now there are three books that have come to my attention with waking up in the title.

These are How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow by Toni Bernhard, Three Steps to Awakening: A Guide for Bringing Mindfulness to Life by Larry Rosenberg and Laura Zimmerman, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris.

Today I will review Toni Bernhard’s How to Wake Up. I am looking forward to reading Larry Rosenberg’s latest book. Larry’s books are always lucid, forthright, and beneficial as are his teachings on retreat. I am also looking forward to Sam Harris’s book as I imagine it may inspire my own efforts to write a spiritual memoir.

This is Toni Bernhard’s second book. Her first (also published by Wisdom) was How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I recommended this book to a patient who had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. She at first bristled that she did not want to hear about Toni’s story about becoming ill. However, she opened herself to that story and the wisdom that followed. The result was nothing short of profound. This book helped my patient to cope with a very difficult treatment process and she expressed a deep sense of gratitude for what Toni had shared with her book.

How to Wake Up is a wonderful book about the Buddha’s teachings. There are seemingly now countless books on mindfulness and Buddhism and they all pretty much cover the same basic set of teachings in their own way. The key is not finding a book that speaks the truth but a book that speaks the truth to you. Does the author’s voice reach inside you to touch the places that recognize the truth of these teachings. It’s not rocket science and it’s not even intellectual. The truth of the Buddha’s teaching can be observed and felt in this very moment when you are paying sufficient attention.

Reading How To Wake Up, I feel like I am swimming in a comfortably cool stream that is moving with a firm yet not overwhelming current. I am being carried downstream towards what feels like home.

It’s rare that I learn anything radically new in reading mindfulness and Buddhism books since I’ve read so many of them over the past thirty years and I’ve written a few of my own. I often glaze over when reading many because the content is just so familiar and it is presented in a pedestrian way. However, there are times, like when reading How to Wake Up, that things come into focus in a pleasing way. Her descriptions are lucid, incisive, and accessible. She makes the teachings available and while I’m not learning anything new, I am experiening the material at a deeper level. It is a pleasant re-acquaintance with topics such as impermanence, dissatisfaction, and desire.

After my own heart, she quotes Don Draper (I am an avowed Mad Men junkie) when speaking of the impermanence of satisfaction and how things and situations cannot provide lasting happiness. Don asks “What is happiness?” And then provides the answer: “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” How to Wake Up shows us how to avoid this trap of incessant happiness seeking. There is an alternative. Bernhard says, “There is a profound happiness is that is not dependent on getting what we want or not getting what we don’t want. It’s the contented happiness of awakening, a happiness that arises when we are able to live each moment fully as it is without needing it to be different.”

Reading a book won’t make you awakened. No book can do that. However, a good dharma book can open the door and How to Wake Up is a wonderful dharma book that will make these simple and profound truths feel like common sense. She offers practical guidance as well, including guided meditations.

There are many books to read on mindfulness and Buddhism. How to Wake Up is one of the better ones. It is written from a direct connection to the Buddha’s teaching and avoids intellectualism while remaining elegant. It is well written and a pleasure to read. For the uninitiated t is a complete primer on the topics of mindfulness and the Buddha’s primary teachings of impermanence and its consequences for desire and self. For the initiated, it will be refreshing read to bring the teachings back into focus, breathing life into concepts that may have grown recondite, abstract, and stale. After reading How To Wake Up, you’ll be a little more awake in your life and we could all benefit from that.

Citizen of the Cosmos

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

Mt. AbeI recently heard Ann Druyan interviewed on Radio Lab. She spoke of falling in love with Carl Sagan when they were working together on the Voyager mission in the late 70s, where she was in charge of developing the content that would be sent out into space for alien cultures to discover. It was a touching and romantic story.

Carl Sagan was a shining light of reason, wonder, and science and his untimely early death in 1996 has been a blow to scientific literacy.

As you know, I live in Northern Vermont where there is no shortage of breathtaking natural beauty. On a Saturday, I hiked up Mt. Abe, one of Vermont’s 4000+ peaks. The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular. The following day I took the ferry across the lake. The sun shone brilliantly on the water and the mountains.

It is easy to idealize nature and vilify the human-made landscape. We are spoiled here in Vermont with such an abundance of unspoiled natural settings.

However, looking at this world from the view of the cosmos, might open up another perspective. An alien culture may be impressed with our landscapes but they are sure to be interested in what we have built ourselves.

Imagine an alien beholding a mountain range and a city skyline. I think they may be more impressed with the constructed landscape. We can appreciate both. As citizens of the cosmos, what we build says as much about us as what we conserve or simply what we find in our world.

If we look at our landscapes from this citizen-of-the-cosmos perspective, we may grow to have a greater appreciation for what we have and what we create. We may be more mindful of what we create. Architecture becomes a way of communicating humanity to potential other audiences. Urban planners could imagine aliens looking over their shoulders to marvel or disdain what they plan.

When we alter a landscape, we can also invite these alien perspectives to wonder about our choices. Perhaps we would be less likely to despoil that landscape if we had to explain it to an outside party, even if this party had no particular agenda of their own.

Considering our place in the cosmos, regardless of alien intelligences, can put our actions in a larger context–an unfathomably large context–the entire universe. This vastness can be an invitation to awe and humility. Whether or not we are the only life forms in the Universe, it is remarkable that we are here.

Can we appreciate this, not just when we happen to look up at the stars but in every moment we inhabit this body on this earth in the cosmos? Mindfulness can help us to do that.

The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

The-Present-Heart-Rodale-book-Art-682x1024Polly Young-Eisendrath has a new book out, her fourteenth. This is a book like no other that I’ve ever read. It is a memoir and it recounts events that I lived through as dharma friends of Polly and the love of her life, Ed Epstein.

The Present Heart is a statement on the nature of love. It defines love, perhaps in a way that you’ve never seen before–or even considered. Along with this definition it provides a story of how she came to this understanding of love. This story is compelling, heart wrenching, and transparent.

It took courage for Polly to live through the events she recounts and perhaps even more courage to tell this story to the reading public. Because I know Polly and Ed, it is hard for me to view these revelations objectively. I’ve heard most of the stories, yet to read about them is, at times, shocking, soothing, and inspiring.

Ed developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He started to show signs of demise while in his fifties and his decline was rapid and tragic. Polly reveals the challenges of taking care of Ed, managing this disastrous situation, and taking care of herself all the while remaining open and committed to love.

Given her experience of losing Ed as her mutual loving partner (his cognitive deficits prohibit mutuality but still allow affection), she has an experiential perspective on what is true love. She also talks with experts on love, loss, and relationship and includes their perspectives. As well, as a long term practitioner of Buddhist traditions she weaves in these perspectives, including the role for mindfulness.

While love may include passion, cherishment, and devotion, true love is not reached by these. True love requires mutual knowledge and interest of the other. Like mindfulness, the interest and knowledge accrue from a non-judgmental attention to the present moment or as her title suggests, the present heart. Love must be particular. Being in love is not a recipe for unremitting harmony. True love requires vulnerability (again mutual) and being vulnerable makes us, well, vulnerable to hurt, disappointment, and misunderstanding.

The Present Heart is a confession as well as a manifesto on love. Polly’s behavior chafed against the expectations of some people close in her circle of friends. Again, it took courage for her to make the choices she mades and she provides her rationale for these in the book. These reasons are not offered as apologia but rather contextualized in the circumstances of her life. She chooses to be self-preserving yet fully devoted to Ed. This takes guts.

As a witness to these events, reading the Present Heart makes me more appreciative of Polly’s compassion. It also breaks my heart again to read the details of Ed’s demise. As Polly explains in loving detail, Ed was an exceptionally warm human being. A big bear of a man who loved to hug, Ed embraces Buddhanature and did so more and more as he lost his cognitive capacities and along with them the capacity to experience anxiety and self-doubt. Dementia released Ed in this way as it imprisoned him in many others.

I recommend The Present Heart to anyone interested in exploring the true nature of love, who is challenged in a care-taking situation, or wants to read an memoir about two exceptional human beings. Polly’s view of love challenges the cultural myth of idealized love. The violins, fireworks, and sense of union must give way to a real conversation, based in vulnerability, where each person is committed to knowing the other in their particularity. This commitment cannot take place without a concurrent commitment to knowing oneself and using the relationship as the fulcrum to that self-knowledge. Mindfulness practice can facilitate this intimacy but does not guarantee it. The Present Heart is raw, bold, and compelling like jumping in a cold body of water. It braces and wakes you up to the present moment.

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