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Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Visit With an Old Friend: Three Steps to Awakening By Larry Rosenberg

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

threestepsawakeningLarry Rosenberg’s latest book came out in 2013 and I am just getting to it. I’ve been holding offer, like saving something precious that you know will likely not be replaceable. Larry is now in his 80s, and while he certainly may publish another book, this may be his last. It’s been a delicious pleasure to visit with my first mindfulness teacher.

Larry comes from a skeptical, educated, and intelligent perspective. He is a no nonsense guy from Brooklyn who cuts through hype to get to the heart of the teachings.

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Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life is largely based on Larry’s talks at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, some of which I’ve likely attended over the years. The book has his warm, direct, conversational tone that I so appreciate in his teachings. Larry is very funny and his humor is upaya–skillful means–that makes the Buddha’s teachings more available to people. I laughed out loud when I read this passage:

Interested in religion? What kind? Buddhism? What flavor? Vipassana? Oh, you’ve tried that? A little too dry, perhaps to much talk about suffering and impermanence? You might prefer Dzogchen, the innate perfection of the mind. Besides, most vipassana teachers are not even monks; they just wear sweatpants …

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As the title suggests, Larry’s approach is practical–meaning practice based. He presents methodology grounded in the Buddha’s original teachings that are just as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago (mostly because we still have bodies that breathe).

In this book, he condenses the 16-part Buddha’s teaching of the anapanna sati to 2-parts. It’s not meant as an economical short-cut for busy yogis. Rather, it is a distillation of the practice in a way that makes it more available and less likely to distract (after all, think of all the perfectionism you might bring to bear on a method with 16 steps!).

Let’s look briefly at the first part. The Buddha said, “Being sensitive to the whole body, the yogi breathes in. Being sensitive to the whole body, the yogi breathes out.” When you focus on your breathing, you don’t lock it down tight on any one or more features of the breathing apparatus. Instead, you place the breath in the context of the wider, where it actually resides.

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Investigate this the next time you do some breathing meditation. The breath is obvious at the nose, the mouth, throat, chest, and abdomen. But where exactly do the sensations linked to these anatomical parts end and the rest of the body begin. As you pay attention, you may notice a feeling of spread, as if the breath expands into your entire head, neck, and torso.

If you pay very careful attention for prolonged periods of time, you may also notice that the whole body participates in the process of breathing as the blood flows carrying oxygen. We are breathing bodies. The Buddha knew this and he took this awareness all the way to awakening.

We can do the same.

Three Steps to Awakening is a valuable read that can deepen and further your practice as it has done for my practice. It also contains questions and answers from students and I find this is the best way to teach and learn the dharma–the lessons of the Buddha and the truths these lessons point towards.

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The Anatomy of Grasping and Craving: Lessons from the Super Bowl

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

4.1.1Two forces motivate much, if not all, of human behavior–grasping and craving, or crasping for an economical combination of the two. I should say that it’s not just human behavior, all animal behavior falls under this rubric. Humans have our own particular virulent, materialistic, and imagination-driven versions of it.

Despite my intentions to remain equanimous throughout the Super Bowl, I found myself having an intensity of feeling. My outward behavior was contained: no shouting, cheering, or gesticulating but by the 4th quarter as the Patriots rallied from a 10-point deficit, I found my heart pounding out of my chest as I sat quietly and watched.

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Feelings convey information. At their most basic, pleasure signals good things that we should approach and unpleasant marks the potential for threats and motivate us to be heedful of that possibility.

The feeling I was having during the game was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. It was more compelling than pleasant or unpleasant, but falling more towards the unpleasant side of things. Whenever we feel distressing, unpleasant, or painful feelings, we can ask: “What’s on the line?” The feeling signals threat, so we can seek to understand what that threat is and whether it is valid.

What were the consequences for me? I didn’t have a bet on the game. I don’t have a stake in the team but I was responding as if I had a stake in something. Since I’ve been in this emotional place before (particularly in 2007 and 2010 when the Patriots lost to the Giants) I had a good idea of what was happening.

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I wanted something. I wanted the Patriots to win and, more importantly, I wanted Tom Brady to win his 4th Super Bowl ring so he could be among the three quarterbacks ever to have done so (Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana are the others for those of you not versed in football history).

I wanted a hero. I wanted to be able to say that I witnessed this greatness and I could own it as my home team. I was crasping; therefore I had feelings. It’s as simple as that. My desire to valorize Brady and the sport spectacle made me vulnerable to feelings. I could not be fully equanimous because I had a vested interest.

This scenario replicates itself countless times each day. We are almost ceaselessly engaged in such crasping. We want things to go a certain way; we don’t want other things to happen.

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Whenever you are feeling some distress, you can pause and ask yourself: “What’s on the line?” It’s possible that all that is at stake is an idea; you’ve got no real skin in the game as was the situation for me and the Super Bowl. Sometimes, the idea is accurate and other times it is based in imagination. It’s a predication, fantasy, or distortion that may have no or little grounding in reality.

A little inquiry can go a long way in untangling these knots that drive our feelings and our behavior. I was able to contain my behavior last Sunday night but this was because I had made an intention to do so (see my post from last Sunday). Usually, feelings lead to action and when we are in the grips of crasping, the results are usually not beneficial to ourselves and others.

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When we hit upon something solid–that thing we want–we can ask another question: “Can I let this go?” “Is it really that important?” “Is it worth this strife?”

My pounding heart revealed to me that I am not yet fully awakened and I can laugh at myself for that. For me, the feelings were worthwhile, in part, as an homage to my late father who missed yet another Super Bowl. In many other instances in my life, I am just blindly reaching out and pushing away experiences in some contrived effort to be comfortable, certain, or distracted. These craspings could bear greater scrutiny.

What are you upset about? As you sit with your feelings, see what’s on the line. See if the feelings match the situation. If you let go of self-importance, how would that affect the situation? The process of examining desire through this meditative inquiry can help to free you from unnecessary anguish.

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Super Sunday

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

NFLIt’s Super Bowl Sunday. Much of the world will be watching the game, the commercials, and the half-time entertainment. Many of these watchers won’t be all that interested in the game itself.

I will be. Having lived in Vermont for 20 years and in Boston area for seven additional years, I am an New Englander and the Patriots are the adoptive home team.

There are many reasons to not watch the game too. The NFL has issues both on and off the field. The status, power, and morality of the NFL create ethical dilemmas for any thoughtful person that watches. For example, you can view Frontline’s powerful expose, League of Denial to explore just one of these ethical issues.

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Despite the ethics, I watch for emotional reasons. Watching football, and to a lesser extent playing football, was one of the principle ways that I connected with my late father. The television was always tuned to games on Sunday through the season and from an early age we had rivalries. He was a Cowboy’s fan; I was a Dolphins and Steelers fan.

We did see eye-to-eye on the Jets, my ancestral team (I was practically born in the shadow of Shea Stadium) and he often took me to games. These are some of my fondest memories growing up. I was too young to remember the Jets glory from 1969 and there hasn’t been much to be exited for over the decades since. I am sure my father got a lot of exercise turning over in his grave after the abysmal showing the Jets made this season.

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What would the Buddha say about football? Lot’s I’m sure, including some comments about right action and right livelihood. He would also caution about what the spectacle can provide its hopeful viewers. This game, like everything, is empty. It has no substantial existence and therefore cannot provide us with lasting happiness.

People will certainly feel a lot of emotions tonight and that is a big part of why we watch–to feel something, to feel like we are part of something, as well as the pageantry itself. Whatever else happens, we will see impeccable athletes performing amazing feats of movement.

To the extent that we identify with the game or the results is to the extent that we will get caught in anguish. Both elation and let down stem from attachment to outcome. If you want to approach the game mindfully, try to see it as an event unfolding in the now and as you cling to the results of each play, recognize the feelings that gives rise to in your body and bring you attention to these. Repeat as necessary.

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The way we are invested in the results of this game replicate the manner in which we invest ourselves with all sorts of outcomes. Therefore, the game is an opportunity to work on our spiritual development. If you can watch dispassionately, without a sense of ownership and without projecting a sense of your self on to the process, then you are growing spiritually.

It would be ironic to pull of this mindfulness coup during the biggest commercial event in history.

Whatever happens enjoy yourself.

 

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Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

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My dharma friend and mindfulness colleague, Elisha Goldstein has a fascinating new book out. It describes the ways that we can harness our own healing power to create natural antidepressants. These five include mindfulness, of course, self-compassion, living in accordance with purpose, play, and a sense of mastery.

His book contains practical guidance that can be helpful for just about anyone who ever struggles with depression or self-loathing, which pretty much covers most of us.

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Here is the promise of the book:

Mindfulness works by interrupting the conditioned cycle of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behavior that mire people in a downward spiral of depression. Using mindfulness allows us to transform our harsh internal critics to voices of support by increasing the capacity for self-compassion that nurtures self-worth and resiliency.

This is a very appealing invitation for bringing mindfulness into your life. Mindfulness would also interrupt any downward spiral such as anxiety.

The book is organized into three sections, the first focuses on depression, the second focuses on the five natural antidepressants mentioned above, and the final section is a practical, hands-on resource for making lasting change in your life.

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Elisha is not only a pioneer in mindfulness treatment methods, he is a practitioner himself. Without shame, he shares the story of how he came to mindfulness from a very vulnerable position in his life. Mindfulness is not some intellectual curiosity to him, then, it is a living and breathing and life-saving practice.

Mindfulness and self-compassion are part of living an awakened life and dictate, encourage, and support behaviors, attitudes, and insights that can harness our natural healing capacities.

Depression is on the rise in this culture and so is the reliance on anti-depressant medication. He makes an eloquent case that depression is not your fault; however you must take responsibility for it if you want to change.

It might be the case that our culture is increasingly depressed precisely because of the lack of the five natural antidepressants in our lives. We go through our days harried, mindless, and stressed. We beat ourselves up relentlessly. We’ve lost touch with purpose and play. Mastery is not in short supply but it is often done in a task-driven way that squeezes out the joy.

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This is a book that I will recommend to my depressed patients and those who are not clinically depressed but are simply too hard on themselves. I have enjoyed reading it myself as a reminder of the things that I know about these practices and I value seeing the novel ways that he packages the practices. It’s safe to say that Dr. Goldstein is the mindfulness therapist’s, mindful therapist. 

Pre-order your copy now. 

 

 

 

 

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