Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Giving Thanks 2014: Still a Lot to be Grateful For

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

IMG_4078There is not now, nor ever, a shortage of tragic, unjust, and violent events occurring around the world. The news media exploits these events and brings them into our brains 24/7 with an unrelenting insistence.

Our nervous systems are vulnerable to these kinds of information. They signal danger and set anxiety on edge. Could ebola come to my town? Will someone I know get beheaded by ISIS? Watching the news can make it seem like the world is coming to an end.

Still what we miss could be more important than what we get fed from the news.

There are countless non-events that don’t get registered by attention. All the acts of kindness, cooperation, and love that go unnoticed. While there is rioting in Ferguson, our cities don’t burn on a daily basis. While there is crime, corruption, and cruelty, there is a greater abundance of the absence of these actions.

Spend a day trying to notice all the things that are going right (or not going wrong) just under your nose both in your personal life and your community. This shift in perspective is akin to switching the figure and ground. It’s not that unwanted things don’t occur, we choose to highlight the hidden occurrence of the mundane.

For me personally, I am grateful for many things in my life: family, people, dogs, travel, experiences, and opportunities. It’s been a rich year. Thank you!

I am also grateful that the world hasn’t blown itself up. When I was in college during the 1980s nuclear disarmament was the most pressing issue. We seemed convinced that MAD would be realized (if you recall, MAD is the acronym for “mutually assured destruction”). That never happened.

I am grateful that I get to write more and more. I will have two books coming out in 2015 (The Awakened Introvert and Mindfulness A-Z) and some other exciting writing projects.

I am grateful for my readers who have persisted in reading this blog despite my frequent absences.

I am grateful for the teachings of the Buddha and the practice of mindfulness that he recommended. Without these, I’d be lost. I am grateful that I live in a time and culture that is receptive to these teachings.

I trust that you have much to be grateful for as well. It is my wish that you don’t have to look to hard to find these.

Peace to everyone on this snowy day of Thanksgiving!

Buddhist Icon–Thich Nhat Hanh Recovering in Hospital

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

thayBeloved Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) has experienced a severe cerebral hemorrhage and remains in critical condition. He recently had his 88th Birthday. I surmise that he is, along with the Dalai, Lama, one of the two most readily recognized Buddhist figures in the world today. Affectionately known as “Thay” TNH has written seemingly countless books on mindfulness including the classic The Miracle of Mindfulness.

A eulogy seems premature. He had been in a coma and expected to die but it appears he is not ready to go just yet and he has emerged from his coma.

Like so many others, I have appreciated his teachings–especially his earlier writings that were straightforward and heartfelt. I especially appreciated his work with Vietnam veterans and forgiveness. I often relate a story that I heard him tell about one of these veterans. Without forgiveness, he remained in prison. This time, a prison of his own design.

I also love his phrase “no mud, no flower” pointing to the necessity of messiness for growth.

His more recent work on power and work, I found less compelling and often too moralistic. This can be an issue with Asian teachers and I have also found this, at times, with the Dalai Lama.

Thay is the embodiment of the gentle mindfulness practitioner so much so that he is ready caricature. As mindfulness burgeons in popularity, we will need to expand the image of mindfulness from the peaceful, soft-spoken monk to an image that suits the way most of us live–as ordinary human beings finding our way through the world.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be able to channel that peaceful monk once in a while.

Buddhists around the world are sending their well-wishes and prayers to TNH. Here is an excerpt from the Interdependence Project:

Thay is still in the hospital. He is OK thanks to the patriarchs. If someone want to send healing energy to Thay please ask them to keep one day per week avoiding eating beef, pork, chicken and fish (vegetarian) per week and send the merit to offer life to Thay.

With my secular approach to the Buddha’s teachings, I am not sure what to make of this prayer recommendation. I don’t know if it will help TNH, but it may make you feel better if you do this.

Better yet, the legacy of any teacher is embodied in their teachings. Grab one of his books off of your bookshelf or go and get one like Peace is Every Step and celebrate the life of this great yogi by trying to embody the wisdom he has generously offered through his words and life example.


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.

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