Sunday, October 19, 2008

Impermanence in Action

Fall in Northern Vermont is a spectator sport. People from around the country and the world come to view our spectacular colors. These leaf peepers (or leapers as I like to call them) marvel at the fireworks display of the Green Mountains, now orange, yellow, and red. The leaves are falling now and the last display of colors is waning. This season shows what is present around us at all times. This dramatic show makes it easier to appreciate the nature of impermanence. I find this to be a poignant time. My appreciation of the beauty is tinged with a mixture of awe and sadness. Change is upon us, and winter is close on its heels. There are still leaves on the trees outside my window, but they'll soon be gone. Each day we grow older and one day closer to death. Each hour and each minute too. Each breath. This may sound morbid, but it is not meant to be. If we can appreciate this passing, perhaps we'll be more appreciative of life. Perhaps we can appreciate the gift that life is and be present to it.  

The passing of the season makes my awareness of the suffering of loved ones more poignant too. A beloved friend has been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. My grandmother has been critically ill in the hospital. This, too, is impermanence in action. The difficulty appreciating change, I think, stems from our imposition of agendas onto experience. These agendas are mostly subtle and hidden, yet pervasive. We always want or expect things to be a certain way. I want my experience to be just so; I want my circumstances to be just so. When they are not dissatisfaction arises. A lack of agendas opens the way for interest to arise. If we don't have an agenda, a need for things to be just so, we can take interest in what actually is. If we can be interested we circumvent dissatisfaction. I tried to convey this sensibility to my mindfulness students at UVM last week. We did an hour long meditation and everyone was asked to resist the temptation to move. This instruction creates a crucible to examine our ceaseless agendas. We want entertainment, comfort, and the freedom to move about. How difficult is it to relinquish these agendas for one hour out of life? As we went through the practice, they were encouraged to examine the nature of concepts like restlessness, impatience, and boredom. We had the opportunity to touch the nature of discomfort, and even pain. We could see how "deconstructing" these concepts opens a space of perfection. Perfection is the place where interest makes seamless contact with what is present. There are no agendas to get in the way and no room for suffering or dissatisfaction to arise. 

Things are perfect in their imperfection. This notion of perfection is not meant to encourage passive resignation to "imperfect" conditions. We can certainly work towards making things better. As Shunryu Suzuki said: "Everything is perfect, but there is much room for improvement." When we work towards change we respect the present and try to relinquish agendas that get in the way of realizing what we are trying to achieve. Many of these agendas revolve around impermanence. If we try to resist the changing of nature of things, we are caught being perfectionistic, which is anathema to perfection. The change of the season embodies perfection. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Mind FITness for Golf

Americans spent $4.7 Billion on golf equipment in 2002 according to the National Golf Foundation. Drivers are bigger; balls go further. Despite these facts, scores are NOT going down. Surprisingly, the average handicap has dropped only .5 since 2000. Pro scores have risen .26 strokes over past 10 years. David Feherty writing for Golf Magazine muses, “Maybe we’re all supposed to stink at this. It’s our punishment for playing this insane game.” The best equipment in the world won’t make your game better if you don’t have the fundamentals; if you haven’t received the proper instruction, practiced, and played sufficiently. Even if you have the right equipment, instruction, and experience, if your mind is not your ally, your game will suffer. Our attitude and mental approach are crucial if we are to be successful in this game, whether that success is measured as enjoyment or as going low. We know how to buy equipment, to take lessons, to practice, and to play rounds. How, though, can we train our minds?

We tend to take attention for granted. Because attention is a faculty that originates between the ears, we think we have this mastered. Attention, like chipping and putting, requires training, and lot’s of it. Most of us just take whatever attention we have and spend most of our time engaged in an internal dialogue. When we are playing golf, this dialog may be crucial. What are we telling ourselves? Are we providing ourselves with supportive encouraging messages or are we castigating ourselves and complaining? Can we concentrate on the task at hand sufficiently to execute to the best of our current capacities?

A set of techniques and skills called mindfulness, derived from an ancient form of meditation, can help to make your game more consistent, skillful, and enjoyable. Mindfulness is a method for training and managing attention. Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention that focuses attention on what is happening precisely now. To be mindful is to give all of our attention to whatever is happening now. The now of playing consists of feelings in the body as you walk between holes, swing the club, and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of being outside on the course. More specifically, there are the feelings of the club in your hands, the sensations in your arms, torso, and entire body as you conduct a swing. The breath as it is gently forced from the body in the torque of the swing. To train mindful awareness, attention is placed on the physical process of breathing or other sensations in the body. That is, noticing the sensations in the nose, mouth, chest, and abdomen that arise during inhalation and exhalation. When attention wanders, which it will quite readily, attention is picked up and escorted back to the awareness of breathing. This process is repeated as often as necessary. Mindfulness is nothing more complicated than that.

The Exquisite Mind of Golf brings together mind, brain, and body to help you play your best. Doc Arnie’s Mind FIT clinics complement professional swing instruction with a professional instructor. These clinics can help you to get the most out your lessons and skill level while providing more enjoyment to your game. If you get angry, frustrated, or discouraged while playing, or if you want to refine your attention skills and deepen your understanding and appreciation for the psychology of the game, these clinics are for you. My Mind FIT program can help you to accomplish the following goals:

Manage mental factors that can interfere with your game:
• Develop fierce attention to facilitate your performance and enjoyment
• Become skilled at being calm in the face of the unexpected and unwanted
• Increase your enjoyment of the game no matter how you play
• Learn the basics of mindfulness meditation which will facilitate above goals

For more detailed information, please visit:

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and golf consultant. He maintains a private practice, Exquisite Mind, in downtown Burlington and teaches for the psychology department at the University of Vermont. To his recent passion for golf, he brings 25 years of clinical and meditation experience. “Doc” trains individuals from all walks of life to use mindfulness to their benefit. He is the author of the forthcoming book Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications, spring 2009).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Are you a Buddhist? (part four)

Returning now to the topic of of Are You a Buddhist with the fourth installment of this consideration. See posts from March for parts one through three.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, author of What Makes You Not a Buddhist provides four criteria to consider. To be a Buddhist, one must believe in all four of these tenets or seals. These are: 1) all compounded things are impermanent, 2) all emotions are pain, 3) all things have no inherent existence, and 4) nirvana is beyond all concepts.

In this last installment, we'll discuss the proposition that "nirvana is beyond all concepts." Nirvana has been discussed for thousands of years but what does it mean for it to be beyond concepts. Does it mean it is an experience that can't be described in language or is it beyond the conceptual apparatus of the brain. William James in the class Varieties of Religious Experience notes the four qualities of the mystical experience: 1) ineffability, 2) noetic quality, 3) transiency, and 4) passivity.

If we are supposed to regard nirvana as beyond concepts and language it would accord with William James's definition as ineffable and noetic. However, concept suggests something more than language. Without getting into the discussion of whether we can have concepts independent of language, to be beyond concepts is a higher standard to achieve. Can the brain transcend itself in this way? 95% of mental life is conducted unconsciously. This is not a Freudian dynamic unconscious, but a cognitive processing one. For example, the brain reduces information from the eye by a factor of 100: 1 (100 million light sensing cells reduce to 1 million going to the brain). Categories help us to lessen information density via filters that constrain what we actually see. If we attempt to consciously inhibit or override these categories, we can enhance our access to sensory and perceptual information (to the extent that these can be consciously accessed). Lakoff and Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh caution against the hope to overhaul the category system: “A small percentage of our categories have been formed by conscious acts of categorization, but most are formed automatically and unconsciously as a result of functioning in the world. Though we learn new categories regularly, we cannot make massive changes in our category systems through conscious acts of recategorization” (1999, p. 18). However, by deliberately inhibiting the formation of categories to the extent that we can, we avoid making premature judgments about others, increase the opportunity for novelty, and allow the ordinary to become the extraordinary. Mindfulness meditation practice provides a set of tools to facilitate this category inhibition. What’s the big deal, you might ask. Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying, “If you’ve seen one redwood tree you’ve seen them all.” Siegel in his book Mindful Brain depicts the cost of invariance: “In many ways such learning oppresses our raw sensory experience by muddying the waters of clear perceptions with prior expectation. As we grow into adulthood, it is very likely that these accumulated layers of perceptual models and conceptual categories constrict subjective time and deaden our feelings of being alive. Without the intention effort to awaken, life speeds by. We habituate to experience perceiving through the filter of the past and not orienting ourselves to novel distinctions of the present.”

But these consideration fall short of the consideration of nirvana. Lakoff and Johnson are not sanguine about our neurological chances for achieving nirvana as a place beyond all categories. "We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” If this argument is valid, I may have to depart company with Rinpoche on meeting this Buddhist criteria. In review, I can endorse at least 3 out of 4 of the criteria and I'm still trying to understand the fourth. Now, when people ask me, "Are you a Buddhist," I say "yes." Was that so hard?!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

April Moon

To say it is orange is not right. Red-orange, perhaps. Blood-orange. The sun moved out of sight in the west just beyond the shoulder of the 18th tee box. As I turned my back to the burning star, I beheld the view from 18. The Green Mountains in their purple-mountain majesty. Still himals in April, snow covered and littered with people earlier in the day carving lines through its snowy depths. I love the view from 18. Classic Vermont. Yet tonight there was something else. The moon in its full flower was rising just to the north of Bolton Mountain. This was certainly worth the walk around the course; certainly worth working through the fatigue and the soreness to continue playing. As I hit my approach shot, it soared into the sky towards that fat moon. The moon blessed it and the shot rolled inside the edge of the green. We were able to finish in the waning light of the day. A summer day in spring and the close to a long winter, six months long.

Why do people (the uninformed) think that golf is not athletic? I can barely stand after walking 18 short holes and I'm in pretty good shape. This game involves walking with a heavy bag, bending, swinging, and concentrating. The swing is a full body movement. My shoulders are strained and tender. I'm ready to collapse. I don't think I could do what Tiger Woods and Trevor Immelman do -- play four rounds in four days. Admittedly, they don't have to carry their own bag, but golf is a sport, and a fitness requiring and fitness promoting one at that (provided you walk and don't drink too much beer along the way).

Click here to see my home course, the Links at Lang Farm.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Integrating Mindfulness-Based Interventions into Medicine, Health Care, and the Larger Society 6 th Annual Conference for Clinicians, Researchers,

I presented a paper at the annual mindfulness conference in Worcester, Massachusetts. This conference has grown to more than 475 participants from 15 countries. I conducted a presentation-dialog entitled: "Challenges and Triumphs of Teaching Mindfulness in the Undergraduate Psychology Curriculum." I presented the format of semester-long mindfulness meditation course that I teach at the University of Vermont. This year, I met a researcher from Australia and mindfulness and yoga instructor from New Brunswick Canada and many others. I attended sessions on treating chronic pain, teaching mindfulness in the workplace and in the medical school, and the relationship between meditation and spirituality (the topic of a course that I teach: The Psychology of Transcendence). See the conference brochure here. Next year I will propose to do two presentations. First will be a 3-hour workshop on mindfulness for sports, in particular golf; the other will be another presentation dialog on my book, which should be just about to come out at that time. Mindfulness is a hot topic with a burgeoning of research, books, and programs. One interesting encounter was Dr. Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute and mindfulness-based TV network. She has taken mindfulness mainstream: Oprah, Cosmo, and more. Her approach is provocative. Does it dilute the message of mindfulness to take it mainstream and to deconstruct it into sound bites that have mass market appeal? Is the traditional approach too inaccessible to the average person, and by extension arrogant and presumptuous? What is lost and gained in this approach. I'm sure the debate will continue.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Mud Season

Mud season in Northern Vermont makes impermanence comprehensible. It shows us impermanence in action. Today the sun is shining and the mercury has climbed over 50. The trails through the woods and up the hill are alternatively snow, ice, frozen ground, mud, dry, and deep puddles. The earth changes with every step. Water is in all of its forms: frozen, water, and spring vapor that fills my running lungs. Everything is in flux. The earth reveals itself bashfully like a reluctant stripper; showing the brown decay and the perennial green of moss and lichen. And then covering herself over again with deep corn snow and submerging in cool puddles filled with the past like the streams starting to roar. These changes remind me of the changes within myself. From moment-to-moment the body changes. It is hungry, thirsty, and moving in and out of comfort and pain. This, too, is impermanence in action. The sense of the permanence is sustained by the repetition of stories of identity. Such stories are a favorite activity of the Storytelling Mind. I've reflected recently on the nature of identity and the multiplicity of stories that I am engaged with. At any given time, I can identify with being an author (currently writing 5 books), clinical health psychologist and psychotherapist, professor, academic (currently writing 6 articles), athlete (runner, golfer), yogi, consultant and motivational speaker (not to mention homeowner, friend and family member). Not enough time to do them all and choices have to be made. How many different identities do you have? How we relate to these identities is crucial. If they are seen as fixed we can become stuck. If they are seen as fluid and flexible we can engage in a dialog that knows possibilities. Can we allow self-identity to be like mud season? A collection of contradictions and different states of being. Can we make room for everything that is happening without judgment; allowing it all to be there? If so, then we can taste impermanence in action.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Heart of a Dog

This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of Tanner.

Tanner lived intensely and loved intensely. In four and a half years he summited all of the mountains within an hours drive of Burlington and was known to go on epic mountain bike rides 5+ hours with Caleb and his friends. Tanner always ran behind the lead biker's back tire and Sweety our other little dog was the caboose. His speed was phenomenal and he loved to chase squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. We are almost certain that he left this world in hot pursuit of a great scent. We miss him dearly. Our friends and family knew what a special dog he was and we will cherish the love he shared with us during his all too brief time on earth -- Caroline.

Maurice is my neighbor's black dog. A mix of black lab and some other big dog. He spent a recent weekend with us, showing the purity of his heart. When left alone he was quiet and slept sprawled out on the floor wherever he lay. When approached, he wriggled with excitement. On one of our walks around Colchester Pond, we encountered some people who had two grown German Shepard puppies. They quickly established dominance over Maurice and had him quivering on his back, receiving their playful nips. With much growling and action, a casual onlooker might have seen this as an aggressive scene. Yet on closer inspection, I could see the attacks were just nips, and that the scene was one of play. The play helps the dogs to establish their social hierarchy. Maurice in his good nature submits to the more dominant energy of the other dogs. A social contract is formed with no blood spilled and no egos bruised. Maurice will not be going to his psychotherapist complaining of how two other dogs "beat him up" and the trauma of it all. Animals have play to, among others things, avoid violence. Humans sometimes confuse the two such as in the recent soccer violence in Italy. Perhaps we'd be better off if we were playing instead of just watching. The dog also lacks ego (self-importance), probably because they don't have enough of a frontal lobe in their brains to support it. This helps them to avoid the painful self-reflections that we are prone to. Dogs seem to be mostly limbic -- that is, ruled by the emotional center of the brain. They live on instinct and affection. My Rhodesian Ridgeback often appears to be pensive, even lugubrious, but dangle a milk bone in front of him or announce that there are squirrels in the vicinity and he becomes pure emotion -- attention ready for action. He goes from middle-age to puppyhood in a flash. I believe the dog's heart is pure, which is to say unentangled by abstract desires. If dogs can think about the future or the past, they certainly don't hold onto it. They return to the present with an ease that we should take note of, and to ask if we could live the same way.

I always get annoyed when I hear something on the news about innocent victims. What human is innocent? And what does this mean exactly? Whatever innocence is dogs embody it. Dogs can show some of the afflictions that we are prone to: desire and aversion in particular. Yet they seem to touch these briefly and return to the present. It's the rare dog that displays afflictive or negative emotions such as jealousy and aggression. They are innocent because they lack painful self-reflection and are oriented to attach. They are unabashedly hungry for both food and love. They retain a youthful view of the world even when they are aging. We can learn from their way of being in the world. For instance: never let an opportunity for a nap pass. As Wislawa Symborska, the Polish Nobel Laureate, says in her poem "In Praise of Feeling Bad for Yourself" the animals heart is light and conscience clear. There are no vexing thoughts or stories to get in the way of this moment; nothing to obstruct the bliss of sleep. We could learn something from this.