Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Translating the Experience of the Moment

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

winter_springWhether we know it or not, we are all amateur translators. Instead of translating a poem from one language to another we put into words what previously existed without words: we translate experience into language. Mostly, we are unaware of this process and mistake our verbal productions for a ironclad truth.

If we cling to the “truth” of our translations, then we are bound to feel stress, dissatisfaction, and even suffering, especially when we don’t account for the enormous gulf that separates experience and language.


Translation is difficult and it is more an art than mechanical process. A good translator tries to inhabit the mind of the subject and represent the words in way that has an emotional as well as literal truth. Different translators make different choices. Take for example the following three translations of Rilke’s poem, The Swan.

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying—to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day –
is like his anxious letting himself fall

into the water, which receives him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.


Translation by Stephen Mitchell from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.


Translation by David Whyte from his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea

This toil and struggle—passing on, ponderous
and as if bound, through what remains undone,
is like the makeshift walking of the swan.

And dying—this letting go
of that ground we stand on every day,
is like his uneasy letting himself down–:

into the water, which receives him gently,
and which, as if happy in its passing,
withdraws, beneath him, wave on wave;
while he, quiet and infinitely assured,
with ever greater majesty and freedom
and serenity is pleased to glide.


Translated by Edward Snow (1984) from New Poems

As you can see, each poem makes different choices about language. The differences are not merely synonyms in every case. Each poem expresses a different mood, a different sense of the swan as he walks down to the water and then moves within it. The each describe the same event, yet with a unique character. No one translation is more right and even if we were to read Rilke’s original german, we as readers are making our interpretations of the meanings conveyed in the poem.

I came across this quote by Proust recently:

Every reader as he reads is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the books says is the proof of the book’s truth.


We are readers and translators of ourselves in every moment of existence. Here are some guidelines for making the most of these translations.

  1. Know that we are engaged in a translation task and make our best effort. We are aiming for the best approximation we can muster in this particular moment.
  2. Seek to improve our craft by getting to know our subject matter. In this case, the subject matter is our moment-to-moment lived experience that resides before and without language in our bodies, senses, and minds. To become experts, we practice. In other words, we improve our craft by cultivating an intimacy with our experience through mindfulness meditation.
  3. Be humble and recognize the limits of what we are doing. We are not producing truths but our best approximations of truth. Translations are always subject to revision. There is no final word, only the living process of breathing and translation.

We are well-served by this humility and commitment to the process. Mindfulness is integral to knowing ourselves well enough to make decent translations. We can also spend more time on the experience side of things and forego the compulsion to translate everything into words. Our goal, as Proust pointed out, is to read ourselves and to find an emotional truth in the moment.


The Three C’s of Self-Forgiveness

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

4.1.1Imagine a situation where you “lose it.” You get angry, your blood boils, you may yell at the person who has occasioned this anger or you may throw something or swear in vain. This feeling is no stranger to me. Sometimes, a situation catches us off guard and we react instead of meeting it with equanimity.

At other times, the situation simply outstrips our ability to cope with whatever is happening. The storyline is too compelling and we react. We may be tired, irritable, or haven’t been spending enough time in meditation lately and this makes us more likely to react.


If you reading this blog, you are interested in mindfulness and interested, if not already committed, to living your life with less reactivity. This is a noble quest, one that most people don’t undertake.

Think back to the last time you got angry in a way that you regretted. How did you receive this behavior? Did you add rancor, recrimination, and revulsion? Chances are you did, since anger sometime gang tackles us. It’s one thing to do something unskillful by erupting in anger, it’s another thing on top of that to get angry at ourselves. The proverbial adding insult to injury.

Instead of beating yourself up, consider the three C’s of self-forgiveness: compassion, clemency, and credit.

Compassion: There is a reason why you reacted the way you did. The conditioning event or events may stretch all the way back into childhood and if you were omniscient you could figure out what all these conditionings were. Sufficient for now, it is important to know that these feelings don’t arise from weakness but from being wounded. They are a vestige of trauma one that has not been fully metabolized and is still active and vulnerable to trigger. If a friend or a child were afflicted like this, you wouldn’t chide them, you’d be compassionate. You can do the same thing for yoruself. It’s not letting yourself off the hook; it’s being realistic about your current capacities.


Clemency: Once a modicum of compassion can be offered to yourself (or at least stop beating yourself up), you can move on to clemency. In the most general sense, we are human beings and thereby fallible. We are not perfect, even though we may insist that we should be. Clemency is a recognition of this imperfection. Even under the best of circumstances when we are giving our best effort towards any goal, we are going to fall short at times. Here, too, clemency is not letting yourself off the hook. Rather, it is putting yourself in a broader context, one that is more based in reason than the idealization of perfection.

Credit: We are all subject to a negativity bias. This tendency to emphasize the negative and ignore the positive, may have been adaptive in the evolution of the species, but it can have a detrimental effect on our well being. If you are committed to a path of change, there are, no doubt, many examples that you can find where you have been successful containing your anger. These may go unnoticed. You may not be giving yourself credit for all the small victories on the path to change but very willing to demolish  yourself for one meltdown. Reflect on all of your successes. Write them down and keep a log handy. You may have to go out of your way to emphasize the positive. This has its own benefits beyond granting self-forgiveness.


The Three C’s of self-forgiveness work together to move us towards a softer treatment of our imperfections. It may not be enough to just emphasize compassion, because we may not feel worthy of that compassion. But when put in the context of our history, it may be easier to grant it. We are fallible both in general and specific ways. We each have our own collection of stories with countless conditionings, beliefs, and rules. It takes a long time and a lot of work to extricate ourselves from these and there will be “failures” along the way. When we can give ourselves credit for the successes, it is easier to see our progress along the path and also easier to generate compassion and clemency.

The next time you do something unskillful, see if you can limit the damage by not beating yourself up. Then, see if you can apply the Three C’s of Self-Forgiveness. By doing so, you can begin anew in the next moment with equanimity and even a modicum of love. You can, in the words of poet Sam Hamill in his poem “What the Water Knows”, realize, “There’s nothing I couldn’t forgive.”





Oliver Sacks Writes his Pre-Obituary

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

oliversacksThe neurologist and author Oliver Sacks recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about his impending death and the light this news casts on his life. His reflections are the epitome of equanimity. What we hear from him is not anxiety, rancor, or regret but rather gratitude, love, and resolve.

 It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.


Of course, we don’t have to wait until we have a terminal diagnosis to embrace life richly, deeply, and productively. Of course again, we already have a terminal diagnosis–it was given to us the moment we were conceived. We are always in the process of dying. Each breath we take is one closer to our eventual demise. Still, an actual medical diagnosis can put a fine point on it.

 I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming

While there are always some things that we must do in our lives, we have vastly more discretionary power than we ever exercise. If we never examine the patterns of our lives, we can’t know what we are really committed to. Without asking questions, we can’t hope to change. Then, we must be willing to make the choices to set our lives in accordance with what is actually most important to us.


It’s a work in progress. It’s hard to know what our actual wanting is since there are many sources of interference–most notably the sense of what we should want or should do. We inherit and adhere to these senses of want from the culture, from growing up, and from the people close around us.

It often takes an act of courage and faith in ourselves to say no to a popular thing. With so little time left to live, Sacks is able to give himself permission to be self-full in this regard. His choice not to watch the news is a gift to himself.

Imagine that you had a year to live. What would you do differently? Imagine that year is now a month, what then? How do you want to spend that time? Only a week left; what now? Just a day?

The closer we get the less we want to collect things and experiences and the more we just want to experience being. Sacks puts it eloquently, when he concludes:

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.


Getting Out of Our Own Way: Finding Liberation in the Moment

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

If you are like me, you spend more time than you would like caught up in imagined stories that don’t feel good and keep you stuck. How can you get out of your own way and stop beating yourself up with regrets. My mind can sometimes get stuck and I’d be in big trouble if I didn’t have a mindfulness practice that gives me the skills and wisdom to deal with it.

To free ourselves, it helps to have tools such as my Story Art method, perspectives like those provided by Buddhist psychology, and practices such as meditation and good self-care.


I’ve done a lot of work with perfectionism. I’ve come to the realization that perfection has appeal to us because it is a cheat against impermanence. If we can exert the control required to be perfect, perhaps we’ll be protected from the difficulties of life.

Due to my own struggles to find peace, I’ve come in deep contact with the teachings of the Buddha and have tasted the liberation from anguish that they offer when we embrace them.

My calling has been to write and teach about these discoveries and to convey what I’ve learned to others through my books and workshops.

The program I offer at Kripalu is focused on delivering the tools and perspectives that can help you to get unstuck and out of your own way, be more self-compassionate and forgiving of your imperfections, and let go of stories that keep you


If you have the time available, come join me at Kripalu for this five-day journey called Mindfulness A to Z: Liberating Regret, Stuckness, and Perfection. Kripalu is a wonderful place that I am happy to have as one of my spiritual homes. It’s beautiful, spacious, and friendly. The energy is buoyant. The food is healthful and delicious. Just being there is good for your heart, spirit, and body.

For more information and to register, click here >>


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