Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Everything Essential Buddhism

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

E-Essential Buddhism.inddI am pleased to announce the release of the Everything Essential Buddhism Book. This book is an abridgment of the popular Everything Guide to Buddhism, 2nd Edition.

As the name implies, this book is a leaner, more essential, treatment of the topic and it can serve as an accessible introduction to the teachings, principles, and practices associated with Buddhism.


Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Buddhism traces its roots back to the historical Buddha, a yogi who lived more than 2,500 years ago in northern India. The Buddha discovered a way to live that radically transformed people’s lives, starting with his own. His revolutionary insights have withstood the test of time, and his methods can still transform lives as they did in ancient India. The Buddha taught mindfulness, kindness, and compassion. Buddhism, the family of religions that evolved from the Buddha’s teachings, is one of the great ethical systems that benefit humanity.

While Buddhism may be considered a nontheistic religion, it transcends religious belief into practical experience. You don’t believe in Buddhism; you practice Buddhism. In fact, you don’t even need to be a “Buddhist” to practice “Buddhism.” In one sense, all you have to do is sit down and meditate with openness, curiosity, and dedication.


I am most drawn now to a secular interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. He was not out to found a religion. His goal was to ameliorate the woes of himself and the rest of the world. Because his insights and methods worked, he attracted a large following and the establishment of religions, doctrines, and hagiography were inevitable.

Nevertheless, today looking back we can go to the essential teachings that precede the proliferation of the Buddhist religions. We can find value in the psychology that he taught. All we really need to know about the Buddha’s wisdom are contained in the Four Noble Truths. These are enumerated in the book and are really the essence of this teachings. The irony of this essence is that there is no essence. We are all process, as I recently reminded.


I hope you’ll enjoy this read. It’s a good introduction to the variations of Buddha and Buddhism for beginners and a reminder of the teachings for those of you with experience, with my sometimes irreverent and always practical  take on the subject. Order your copy through your independent bookseller below or get your copy from Amazon here.

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I Forgot to Take a Selfie!

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak


I was at Moss Glen Falls recently. These stunning little falls are on Route 100 in Warren, Vermont. I stopped and took photographs and video footage of them. When I was leaving and getting ready to get back onto my motorcycle, I saw a couple taking a selfie in front of the falls.

I thought to myself for a moment, “Oh that might have been a good marketing shot.” But then I realized that I was more interested in the natural phenomenon itself than promoting myself. I kept walking back to my motorcycle and departed, enjoying that brief moment of anonymity–there would be no record of “me” at the scene.


Really, why would you want to see me in front of those falls? Why would I? Lest I sound holier than thou, I have certainly taken selfies and will continue to do so at times.

I am more interested in my state of mind when I took this photo–in a strong sense of present moment awareness.

Consider the fabulous popularity of selfie sticks. I think this is a material sign–an emblem if you will–for the the Age of Narcissism.

Even politicians are practicing the art of the selfie and voters.


Does all this attention to ourselves lead to happiness. The answer appears to be no.

What about self-sufficiency that does not require “me” in the picture. Taking pictures of ourselves just tends to reinforce the notion of self as something that can “have” experiences (as in the sense of ownership) rather than emerging out of the moment by moment process of being alive.

The Buddha attested that more happiness could be found from a self-in-process over a self-as-thing.

I don’t know if I will ever own a selfie stick. I first encountered them overseas where they were very popular among Asian tourists. I am sure the phenomenon will take over the States, if it hasn’t already. I hope I can somehow get through my life without one.





Happy Birthday to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak
Photo Credit: Arnie Kozak, Bodhgaya 1985

Photo Credit: Arnie Kozak, Bodhgaya 1985

July 6 will be the 80th birthday of His Holiness (HH) the Dalai Lama. I first encountered the Dalai Lama when he would have been 49 (I was considerably younger then too!)

I have had two “close encounters” with him and each event was seminal in my spiritual and professional development.


The first occurred at the Inner Science conference in 1984 at Amherst College. Then about a year later, I sat with him along with 250,000 Tibetans in exile, 10,000 monks, and 1,000 Westerners in Bodhgaya India.

At the Inner Science Conference, I was exposed to Buddhist psychology for the first time and was also inspired a by a cadre of Western philosopher, psychologists, and scientists who gave commentary talks to the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

The time in Bodhgaya focused on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (where I took the bodhisattva vows) and culminated with the Kalachakra Tantra–an ornate and intense 3-day meditation mostly based in visualization.

These two experiences opened me to the path that would occupy me over the last 30+ years and will continue to occupy me for the next thirty. The Tibetan Buddhist practices, however, would become my path. I think the major reason for this is that I am not inclined towards visualization and that was such a big component of the practice.


Still, I have always held HH with great esteem and love. While he is not without controversy (what public figure isn’t?), he has made a great contribution to the world. He has helped to promote the teachings of the Buddha and mindfulness in the West, supported and encouraged the scientific investigation of meditation, and campaigned tirelessly for the plight of Tibet.

In his inimitable style, he has done all of the above with jocularity, humor, and most all, wisdom.

His teachings inspired me to work towards my own awakening as the best means and foundation for serving humanity. I am still committed to that work and will be for the rest of my life. For me, the bodhisattva is a metaphor for selfless service, humility, and an eye towards the long view. It’s not a grandiose vision of self-aggrandizement, which might suggest itself on the surface (I vow to work towards the enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings). Rather, it is a commitment to work towards self-betterment, which paradoxically comes from less self-identification.


The summer issue of Tricycle Magazine has a series of tributes to HH from a number of well-known people such as Martin Scorsese (who directed Kundun, one of my personal favorite films). In that spirit, I will write my own tribute to HH on his birthday.

Dear HH. I imagine you find all this attention to your birthday rather silly. After all, 80 is just a number and the marking of birthdays seems to betray the sense of impermanence that underlies everything. To say, “I am 80″ is to overlook the fact that we are actually more than that number if we are counting days and hours. It doesn’t grasp the sense that in every moment we are in the process of becoming. So 80 is no different than 79 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds nor 80 years and one second. At the same time, each moment of becoming is unique.


You taught me early lessons on this process of becoming and for this I will also be grateful. I always smile when I see your picture, when I hear your name, or when I remember the times I have had the privilege to be in your presence or to hear or read your wisdom.

Most of all, I love your smile and laughter. I need to do these more.

If nothing else, the occasion of your birthday has turned the eye of the world towards you with reverence, affection, and love. Happy Birthday!



Introverts and Extroverts at the Neuronal Level

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

9780262028981_0Those of you who are familiar with my work know that I have a thing for metaphors. Those of you who have been to my workshops know that I have a thing for the brain. I have been delighted to read Giorgio Ascoli’s book, Trees of the Brain, Roots of the Mind (MIT Press). In this illustrated book, Ascoli presents the primary metaphor of the brain: Trees. Neurons branch like trees. The photographs of trees and the colorful plates of actual neurons provide a compelling way for understanding the structure of the brain.


Like trees, neurons have a trunk, roots. and branches. Unlike real forests, the forests of the brain are densely packed with neurons–unimaginably dense. Also, neurons are so fine that if they were trees, they would reach miles into the sky.

There are two basic types of neurons in the brain: principle neurons and interneurons. These neuron types lend themselves to a metaphor on the differences between introverts and extroverts.

The fact that pyramidal cells (principle neurons) communicate with other brain regions to stimulate activity, whereas interneurons only talk to neighbors to keep them quiet, suggests a division of labor between protagonists and supporters. In this view excitatory neurons would be the protagonists of cortical computation, representing, processing, and transmitting the content of information. Inhibitory neurons would provide a supporting role, maintain the proper tempo of activity and fine-tuning network dynamics.


While admittedly oversimplified, this distinction is a metaphor for the differences between extroverts and introverts and why both aspects are necessary for function. There are exceptions to the rule that interneurons are always inhibitory, but mostly they are.

Introverts have always provided a heedful, inhibitory function in groups. Within an individual, introverted qualities provide the quiet tendency to pause and reflect and not to act (when action would not be appropriate).

The extroverted neurons are the stars of the show–flashy, active, and brash. The introverted interneurons quietly go about their business making the show run behind the scene.

While a metaphor, it is interesting to speculate how the basic personality difference between introverts and extroverts is mirrored in the basic building blocks of mental life (indeed all of life).


This is also an equalizing metaphor. Neither type of neuron is better than the other. They are both required and we can’t function without both the noisy and quiet aspects. Within ourselves, too, we can see both action and reserve as necessary parts of life. Extreme imbalance in either direction will result in the extroverted circus on the one hand or immobilization on the other.

As with all metaphors, not every aspect fits perfectly. Introverts can and do provide supportive roles, working behind the scenes. However, we can also take the lead role, like the principal neurons, engaging in quiet leadership, thoughtful action, and wise resolve.

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