Mindfulness Matters

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.




Photo Credit: Erik Odin Cathcart

Photo Credit: Erik Odin Cathcart

I was recently interviewed by Brianna Steinhilber of EverUp for a piece on dealing with rejection. You can read her very thoughtful story here

Here are some additional thoughts I had in addition to those quoted in her article:

Why does it seem that some people are less affected than others by being rejected?

Becoming upset in reaction to rejection requires subscribing to what I call “contingent self-worth.” Contingent Self-Worth is a set of rules about the conditions that we can be okay with. For example, “I can be okay if everyone likes me; I am a good person if I don’t fail” Every rule makes us vulnerable to rejections, disappointments, and losses. We live in a culture where our wellbeing is almost always linked to how much material stuff we have, how much other people like us, and other measures of status. So, when I say subscribing it’s not necessarily a conscious process; the linkages are deeply embedded in our psyches (like asking a fish, what is water?). 

Is it a matter of handling the experience differently or are some people innately less sensitive to rejection?

There is clearly something we can do to break the self-worth contingencies and it is also the case that some people will have to work harder at this than others. The degree of effort points to innate contribution. Some of us are more thick-skinned. Of course, the way we are is always a function of the interaction of genes and environment. 

Does the response to rejection translate across different areas of your life? For example, if you are highly sensitive to rejection at work, would you have the same response if shot down when you ask someone out on a date? 

It’s quite possible to have differential sensitivities but it’s probably more likely that a sensitive person would have similar sensitivities. Of course, and again, it depends on each person’s unique life experience. Someone may be robust in the work arena in a way that they are not with relationships because of certain experiences from earlier in life. It always depends on what the person perceives is on the line. Different domains of life may be seen as more or less threatening to their sense of value, wellbeing, or worth. 

What are some ways that you recommend people who are greatly affected by rejection can work on bouncing back more quickly when it occurs?

Mindfulness is the principle means that I use to break contingencies in my psychotherapy patients and workshop participants (like the workshop that I’ll be teaching soon at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health). The more aware we are of how we react to situations will give us options on how to respond differently. It’s helpful to ask yourself, “what’s really on the line here?” You can then see if your sense of okay-ness is really undermined by the rejection. Often, we worry how we’ll be perceived by others and that is just another contingency. Rejections aren’t the end of the world but sometimes we can react as if they are. Being turned away from one opportunity makes you available for another. Ultimately, I encourage people not to take things so seriously. If that reaction arises, mindfulness practice can help people to back away from it and keep things in perspective. 



Photo credit: John A Hemmingsen

I had an interesting dream image last night. I was observing a fantastic display of the aurora borealis–Northern lights (or it might have been the aurora australis if I had been in the southern hemisphere). I wanted to capture some video of this event so I went to get my phone. When I returned outside various fireworks displays had started and I could no longer see the lights.

There are some rich metaphors from this dream sequence. Think of the difference between a natural phenomenon such as aurora and a human-made one such as fireworks. Fireworks represent control over nature and natural occurrences are not subject to our control, unless we apply technology to them such as photographing them.

This got me thinking about communication. Imagine a time (not that long ago) when there were no telephones and if you wanted to communicate with someone far away, you had to write a letter. It took time and deliberation to write and weeks in between exchanges. Now we can text or message instantaneously and often not with much in the way of poetic deliberation. Communication has become accessible.

In a similar manner, fireworks as a metaphor for our control over nature represents the possibility of having ready access to things that were once precious.

One aspect of contemporary living with the incredible advances of technology is the appropriation of the rare into the common. I wonder if this diminishes or ennobles us? I suppose it could be both.

Going back to my dream and my attempt to capture the lights with a video on my phone. Here, technology and nature clash and my tendency was to take the impermanent image from my memory and give it a material existence. This is the same type of control over that humans have been engaged with since the invention of the wheel, fire, and hunting tools.

A mindful approach to life would encourage being more deliberate with regard to how we consume experiences, trying not to take them for granted. This doesn’t mean not using tools such as fire, wheels, and photographs, but to engage them with more awareness.  Mindfulness would also invite us not to attempt to own every experience by recording it (think of the countless hours of video footage that we can now generate, essentially documenting our lives through this medium). I am not against photography and I engage with it frequently but it’s one thing to do it reflexively and another to do it intentionally.

We cannot trump impermanence by capturing our moments. It’s all still water through our hands, even if there is photographic evidence. Even if we exert perfect control over the environment, we cannot change the nature of things to arise and fade away. Ultimately, the sun will explode and that will probably be it for us (or if we find a way to move to another solar system, the universe itself will eventually end).





IMG_2426 (1)We are well into 2016 and I’ve been taking something of a hiatus from social media and this blog. I’ve been reflecting a lot on my life and resolutions, intentions, and projects for 2016 and beyond.

I’m not a big fan of resolutions. Like wedding vows, New Year’s resolutions just make people into liars. The intentions are in the right place but follow-through is usually flawed.

I think it’s better to focus upon intentions than promises. How do I want to be? What do I want to accomplish? Is my to-do list consistent with my values, interests, and priorities? These are good questions to ask in and around the New Year and one’s that I have been asking myself.

2016 will be a year of transition and change and the status quo. I think this will be the case at both a personal and societal level (see above people cueing up hours before Trump’s rally appearance in Burlington, Vermont).

I can explain that paradox by saying that there will be new things in 2016 and some of the same things.

In this vein, writing will continue. I am working on two major academic projects. The first will be an academic manuscript on mindfulness. The scholarly volume will be a compilation, distillation, and synthesis of everything that I have learned about mindfulness and the Buddha’s teachings over the past 30-some years. I am also pleased to be working on what just might be the first of its kind–a textbook on mindfulness. This book will be used by undergraduate and graduate courses with an exclusive or partial mindfulness focus. Stay tuned.

Upcoming Workshops

Barre Center for Buddhist Studies: Solitary But Not Lonely: Going Within in an Extroverted Culture. This workshop is full but you can sign up on the waiting list here >>

At Kripalu: Mindfulness A to Z: Insights and Practices for Awakening Now: The workshop based on the book! 5 nights at lovely Kripalu in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. 22.5 continuing education credits available. Seats available: Register now >>

I am very excited to be teaching a new joint workshop with my dharma brother, Jaimal Yogis, this summer at Kripalu. Jaimal is the author of the bestselling books, Saltwater Buddha and the Fear Project. Saltwater Buddha, the documentary film, will be released soon!


Awaken to your luminous life in this moment. Mindfulness and meditation practice can provide refuge, sanctuary, and deep inner peace. Reclaim unity and oneness in a program that offers

  • Basic mindfulness skills using formal and informal meditation practices
  • Nondual states of awareness that can be accessed through contemplation and writing
  • Ways to develop and apply a love of solitude to the hectic demands of life
  • A working knowledge of the Buddha’s psychology of awakening.

This life-changing weekend engages you through mindful self-exploration, humor, poetry, heartfelt discussion, and a creative method for leaving your painful and limiting stories behind. It also includes time at Kripalu’s lakefront to explore the transformative power of water.

Registration is now open for June 12-14 2016

Listen to my recent Vibin Higher podcast interview


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