Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

I Want my WiFi Now!

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

HarpersCover302x410A recent adventure I had illustrates the limitations of the technology in certain places and how easily our expectations can give rise to a world of frustration.

On Thursday March 12, I listened with great interest to Fresh Air that featured writer Fenton Johnson and his article in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Going it Alone” about the virtues of solitude.


As I was about to travel, I thought it would be great to get hold of that article to read en route. I stopped by my local independent bookstore but they only had the March issue on the newsstand. When I looked it up on line, I was told that I could purchase the entire issue for $6.99 for my iPad or iPhone. Great I thought, I’ll bring my iPad.

What ensured was a series of events worthy of a comedic opera. Issues with WiFi signal strengths and Apple IDs conspired to make the article elusive.

On the train to Hartford to teach at the Copper Beech Institute, the WiFi signal is not robust enough to do much of anything. I figured I would try again on the print version at the Hartford airport. No luck. Still stocked with the March issue. So I persisted with my attempt to secure it electronically at the PHI airport waiting for my connection. I was able to get through to the purchase page but for some reason it was brining up my old Apple ID and my cc info was expired. OK, I’ll input new cc information. Won’t work. I get an error message. OK. Try again. Still no luck. OK. I’ll switch my Apple ID to the current one. Success. It appears that I have purchased it and am no ready to download.


I push download and not much happens. A slow trickle on the status bar. I have to check into my flight in less than 20 minutes. It’s crawling. This is despite the fact that I am in American Airlines “Admiral’s Club.” No luck. The article remains elusive. I get to my vacation destination and there is only the barest trickle of an internet connection. It takes several minutes just to send an email or text. Still elusive. The next day, I hear a rumor that the lobby of the resort has better WiFi, so there I go and finally, after days of trying, I download the article. “It’d better be good,” I mutter to myself. And, indeed, the article is excellent. A poetic, grand homage to the lost art of solitude. My mind percolates.


At the same time, I am reading The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment by Elaine Schaler Bucholz and, along with the sun, I soak in the moments of alone time that I have. I am realizing how solitude is not just important for introverts–it is critical for everyone. That lack of solitude in our culture is a huge problem and one that I’ll be addressing, so stay tuned for more.

The poor quality of Internet access I encountered on this trip was surprising, especially at the airport. Every misstep in my attempt to secure this article was an opportunity to become frustrated and, I admit, some frustration did arise. This emotion reveals hidden assumptions: “I am entitled to seamless, reliable, and robust connectivity at all times.” Apparently, technology is ready to deliver on this promise and no one other than my own mind promised me that.


By recognizing the implicit rule that was being violated, I could step back from the frustration into equanimity. Patience. Breathe. Try again later. The feelings of frustration also revealed garden variety attachment: I was grasping after something that I wanted and, by doing so, making myself vulnerable to suffering. It was as if my sense of okayness somehow depended on having that article–right now! Of course, this is nonsense. By recognizing this, I was able to release into equanimity again.



The Train’s Eye View of the Landscape

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

This is obviously not the locomotive for the train I am riding but an antique at the White River Junction station.

I am sitting on a train riding from Essex Junction, Vermont to Hartford Connecticut where I will be teaching my workshop at the Copper Beech Institute.

I haven’t been on an Amtrak train since I was in graduate school over 20 years ago. We are moving along at a good clip and the tracks run parallel to the 89 Interstate. The hills and mountains are still snow covered and the sun is shining.


It’s a different way to see the landscape. We are higher up than a car would be and I don’t have to pay attention to the road. My attention is free to attend to this landscape or to write, work, or otherwise distract myself.

We roll along through the towns: Montpelier, Randolph, South Royalton …

Riding the train is a metaphor for how we meet the future. I am not in control as I would be driving a car and this lack of control reflects the deeper lack of control that we all have. Our life is propelled forward and we try to influence it and often are successful doing so but ultimate control is a confused illusion.

The ride may or may not go as expected. The train could break down or crash into something. Likely not, but we never know. Again, no ultimate control.


The train has windows on both sides. If we choose to look, we can see life moving around us or, rather, us moving through life. Language implies a duality where none exists.

The ride is a little bumpy. Even under optimal conditions, there is a little tremor as we move forward. This is similar to the Buddha’s notion of dukkha–the broken wheel of existence. When we treat life as a series of products that must be executed with perfection, we are making life’s ride bumpy. If we can let go of outcomes and be the process, then we are, in a sense, in our truth and free from the pain of dukkha.


Some time from now, I will reach my destination. The anticipated future will be the present moment. I’ll have a choice then, dwell in that present moment or project myself into the future again.

Like the train, I can move forward with the present moment staying with it as it becomes the future moment. These sense of movement, saturated by observation, is a frontier between what I conceive myself to be and what I am. If I am mindful, I remain fluid, connected. If I allow my mind to tell stories then I become separate, alienated from the peace of this moment.

Now the train has come to a stand still after crawling around Springfield, Massachusetts for a while. WiFi has been spotty and has dropped off. Like the train, we get stuck in our lives, whether in a moment or a wide swath.

The train crawled into Springfield station. Backed up slowly. Stopped. Now we are rolling forward again. Who knows what’s going on (the conductor, but I don’t want to bother with him and I don’t really need to know).

Eventually, the train arrives. Reasonably on time, as it were. Life continues to the next adventure.


Mindfulness in Corporate America

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

mindful workTwo recent articles in two major publications–The New York Times and The Atlantic–focused on the rising trend of mindfulness in corporate settings and both articles feature the recently published book by David Gelles: Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out.


Mindfulness is becoming more popular in the workplace. Mostly, this is a good thing. It may be a fad or a response to deep seated needs. As a fad, there are risks that it will be oversold, under taught, and misapplied.

The Atlantic Article states: “Decades of research suggest that setting aside time for mindfulness can improve concentration and reduce stress.” I placed emphasis on “suggest” but this often gets overlooked. This claim may be true but there really isn’t enough evidence to support this with rigorous conviction. Many of the studies included in that claim have not been sufficiently controlled. The NY Times articles cites Willoughby Britton, whom I quoted in an earlier post.


We believe mindfulness is helpful. I know this from my own practice and from the people I have trained and taught over the years but we really can’t say for certain that other factors, non-specific to the meditation itself, give rise to the positive benefits.

I do believe the data will catch up the claims eventually and that we’ll know it as more than a suggestion. Meanwhile, we will all continue to oversell it. As mindfulness becomes trendier, those claims will become more grand and critical scrutiny will lessen.

The pioneering Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini says:

More than one-quarter of the company’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Demand for the programs continues to rise; every class is overbooked.


I was involved in the early implementation of a 12-week online program that Aetna was piloting. A very solid and straightforward curriculum that taught participants how to meditate, work with their thoughts, emotions, and bodily energies and to be less reactive in communication. All good stuff.

It might be useful to distinguish between “mindfulness” and “Mindfulness.” Mindfulness typically refers to our ability to attend to the present moment without reactivity or judgment. In this way, mindfulness with a small “m” is ethically neutral. If you are doing something in the workplace that is destructive, you can become a more relaxed and proficient producer of that destructiveness.

The Buddha had a more nuanced and expansive view of mindfulness. Mindfulness with a capital “M” is ethically grounded attention. To be mindful is to give something our full attention with the absence of clinging desire or aversion. The attention also includes a sense of what is beneficial for one’s self and the people around them. If you were doing something destructive, you couldn’t be mindful, even if you gave it your full attention.


While there is no guarantee that practicing mindfulness will make people or the companies they work for more ethical (a point made by David Gelles in the Atlantic Article) there is nothing to prevent that either. I see mindfulness in corporate America as a Trojan horse. The deeper teaches may be lost on some or even most of the participants, yet others will open to the wisdom of the practice. Simply by meditating, we can see all these forces in action. If you pay close enough attention to your process, you will move towards a more ethical way of being in the world.

There was also a recent and critical article by David Brendel in the Harvard Business Review. He cautions:


At times, it appears that we are witnessing the development of a “cult of mindfulness” that, if not appropriately recognized and moderated, may result in an unfortunate backlash against it.

He goes on to site the positive and necessary benefits of stress and how mindfulness could be recruited, by some people, to avoid difficult situations. The case he cites seems to represent a misappropriation of the practice. What we want to do is to avert unnecessary stress–stress that is compounded by our own minds. There is nothing inherent in mindfulness practice about being passive, avoidant, or nice when the situation calls for candor, forthrightness, and firmness. Mindfulness can be fierce, as well as gentle.


The other caution is not to impose mindfulness practice on people. This should be self-evident but probably a good reminder for corporate leaders considering bringing the practice into the workplace.

Corporate mindfulness is in its ascendency. I look forward to contributing more to its dissemination in the future. While there are always downsides to a fad, mindfulness has real value that will persist once the sheen has worn off. If 2014 was the Year of Mindfulness, I look forward to seeing what 2015 has in store for us. Will it be continued growth or backlash? Stay tuned to the present moment to find out.


The Other Kind of PDF: Public Displays of Frustration

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

RoryThe world’s number one ranked golfer, Rory McIlroy made a spectacle of himself yesterday during the World Golf Championship tournament at Doral. After pulling his long approach shot into the water on hole number 8, he then launched his 3-iron into the lake. It sailed 60 or 70 yards before splashing into its watery grave.

This incident captures my attention in a couple of ways. First, I sometimes coach golfers to approach the game with more equanimity and less frustration. I can certainly understand his frustration and the urge to act it out in the way that he did. When amateur golfers get frustrated like this, it is always because they have unrealistic expectations of how they should perform. But when you are the number one player in the world, those same expectations are reasonable.


Still, Rory has been struggling. He missed the cut in his season debut last week at the Honda Classic. He wants to be competitive. It also appears that throwing the club jump started his round and he finished the day tied for 11th at 1 under par.

Second, this incident piques my interest from the perspective of buddhadharma. What might the Buddha say about this?

Was there another way? Perhaps, but we can become purist in our admonitions. I am reminded of the Buddha saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” We can become attached to being “moderate” just as we can become attached to anything else. Rory is human, therefore fallible. At 25-years-old, he’s barely got a fully matured brain. I think we can grant him this behavior without condemnation.


He recognized that while it felt good to release his emotion in this way, it was not a skillful act. I doubt it will become a pattern for him. He said,

I think every golfer feels it because I don’t hit shots like the one I hit on 8 on the range. So that’s what really bothers me, the fact that I get out on the course and I hit shots that I’m not seeing when I’m in a more relaxed environment. So it’s a little bit of mental, a little bit of physical. It’s just everything is not quite matching up.

What Rory forgot is, while he is currently the best golfer in the world, impermanence still prevails. Golfers are not machines and performance will vary week by week. Performance is also tied to energy and trance-like states. Throwing the club jarred him from that trance state. Of course, there are other ways to accomplish this–mindfulness being one of them.


He could have breathed, let out a deep guttural vocalized exhale, like a lions roar and moved on. He could have just laughed or smiled and moved on. Still, for the rest of us who have felt this frustration, it helps to put things in context. We don’t need to berate ourselves for getting frustration on the golf course or anywhere else.

This is not to condone or encourage such acting out but to appreciate that life is difficult and sometimes we fall down. The Buddha would encourage us to pick ourselves up, strengthen our resolve to awaken, and start again in the next moment.


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