An Interview with Arnie Kozak
Long before mindfulness was fashionable, Arnie Kozak was studying, practicing, and teaching mindfulness and Buddhist psychology. His lifelong practice of meditation began with journey to India in the 1980s. In 2002, he created Exquisite Mind in Burlington, Vermont as a vehicle to expand the value of mindfulness to larger audiences in the professional world and among individuals. We talked with Dr. Kozak about the life experience that has made him a contributing voice in the mindfulness revolution.
Do you consider yourself to be an introvert?
Yes, I am an introvert—a strong one.
What does it mean to be a strong introvert?
Strong introverts prefer to be alone most of the time, and prefer socializing in small groups to large ones. Free form social gathering, such as sitting down to a roundtable of eight or 10 for a formal dinner, can be draining.
Strong introverts would rather people watch than talk with strangers, and prefer email over the telephone. Personally, I think Open Table (the online restaurant reservation system) is the greatest thing to happen since sliced bread!
However, despite being introverted and a highly-sensitive person, I enjoy the high stimulation activities of snowboarding (at high speed) and riding my Harley (not necessarily at high speed). These nontypical introvert interests highlight how we are all unique.
How has introversion manifested in your life? What challenges has it posed for you personally in today’s “loud and crazy world”?
I always felt somewhat out of place as a kid and never knew why. It wasn’t all to do with introversion but it was a good part. It’s hard to be someone like me who has high self-expectations to live in a culture where my way of being is not the normative way of being. This led to a lot of negative self-judgment when I was younger.
Over the past few years, I have realized more and more the implications of being an introvert. One manifestation is that I have arranged my life to avoid the types of situations that I find wearing. I have built a great deal of solitude into my life. Most days, I am working from home with a focus on writing. I avoid talking on the telephone wherever possible. I mostly seek to avoid the loud and crazy world and when I do enter it, I usually do so in small doses.
What brought you to meditation and mindfulness?
I started meditating in college and did a more yoga-based practice for the first six years. I started doing mindfulness meditation (vipassana) when I was in graduate school. There were many factors from my childhood that likely contributed to my receptivity to meditation and yoga. I had discovered something akin to meditation on my own when I was a high school athlete. By the time I got to college, I had an interest in the mind and when I was exposed to meditation, it just made sense to me.
What teachers have guided your path?
I have had many wonderful guides along the way. My initial teacher was Gurumayi Chidvilasananda of Siddha Yoga. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama was also an early influence. My first vipassana teacher was Larry Rosenberg of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Mass., and his influence is probably the strongest. We are both Jews from New York, Larry from Brooklyn and me from Queens. Different generations, of course, but we both have that metropolitan earthy, edginess to our teaching style.
How has your life been transformed by meditation and mindfulness?
Meditation has been at the very center of my existence for my entire adult life. It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water—it is the immersive medium where I dwell. The principle benefit of meditation is to reduce reactivity and I pretty much see a direct correlation: the more I practice, the less reactive I am. Meditation over these decades has also contributed to at least a fledgling sense of wisdom—insights into the deeper meaning of existence.
Specifically, my practice gives me the ability to cope with just about any situation, no matter how stressful. For instance, if I’m stuck in a crowded airport with flight delays, I use mindfulness to create a portable sense of solitude. I breathe a space around myself that provides a comforting sanctuary. I become curious about the sights and sounds around me at the same time that I extricate myself from the internal narrative about how “awful” the situation is. The result is that I can be with this, or whatever situation, with some equanimity—peaceful engagement in the midst of chaos.
Do you have a partner, and how has that shaped your contemplative experience in this life?
I am very fortunate to be married to another strong introvert. We resonate at pretty much the same frequency and so we are in harmony when it comes to managing our social, travel, and solitude calendar. To borrow a phrase from Rilke, she is the guardian of my solitude, and I hers.
My wife is not a meditation practitioner herself, yet she has an interest in mindfulness and our relationship has a lot of solitude built into so I have the uninterrupted time for meditation practice (recently, about two hours each day).
What courses do you teach as assistant professor in psychiatry at University of Vermont Larner School of Medicine?
I teach a month-long elective to fourth-year students focused on bringing mindfulness into medicine. It’s based on the novel curriculum developed at the University of Rochester School of Medicine integrated with my own methods and curriculum from years of teaching mindfulness in the community and to undergraduates at UVM.
What is the typical profile of someone attending one of your retreat programs?
My attendees have ranged from teenagers to octogenarians. Mostly, folks are middle-aged and predominately female. Many already have had some exposure to mindfulness and want to deepen their understanding, and others have heard about it and want to get started. With my solitude and introvert programs, obviously introverts are coming. There is a definite positive correlation between introversion and interest in meditation.
What words of wisdom do you have to offer introverts who seek greater peace in their lives? Extroverts?
Introverts and extroverts alike need more solitude in their lives. That is the central teaching and purpose of this program. It’s not just about introverts. Mindfulness is a key in the process of facilitating solitude in our lives.
Any guidance for readers as we embark on a new era of leadership in our country?
Variability is the nature of the universe and, as always, we live in variable, uncertain times. It’s really no different now than ever before but perhaps we are just more aware of it. The process is the same: meditate, breathe, nurture solitude, and work on jettisoning any sense of entitlement that things should always go the way we think they should go. Cultivate a sense of curiosity towards even the things that feel aversive. Out of this curiosity, there is the opportunity for feeling compassion, love, and even gratitude.