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Hey Shame and Death, 'Go F@#% Yourself' -- An Interview With Dr. Arnie Kozak

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Dr. Arnie Kozak has an aphorism for you that you probably won't hear from your average psychotherapist: "Freedom from fear is nothing more than telling shame and death to go fuck themselves." A psychologist, author, mindfulness teacher and snowboarder, Dr. Kozak has been a great influence on my work, and I was honored to get a chance to interview him recently about fear, psychology and mindfulness.

You've been a Buddhist practitioner and a psychologist for decades now. Can you talk about how Buddhist practice and psychology overlap in their approach to dealing with fear/anxiety?

Both Buddhist practice and psychology have the same aim -- the relief from suffering. They differ in how they approach this aim. I use a cartoon from The New Yorker in my teaching. It shows a psychoanalyst talking with his patient. He turns to him and says, "Listen, making you happy is out of the question, but I can give you a compelling narrative for your misery."

This captures one distinction between the Buddha's and Freud's approach. Psychology can transform the narrative in a healing direction, yet it stays at the narrative level. This narrative level is still suffused with suffering, so in some sense the analyst in the cartoon is right. To get to happiness we must have the capacity to transcend stories, and this is where the Buddha's teachings come in. He taught a way to recognize how we are caught in stories and how the valence of these stories is irrelevant. Good or bad, they still separate us from the life around us.

To alleviate suffering, misery, and discontent altogether, we must work through the Four Noble Truths. Very briefly, the first truth makes the obvious point that something is off. We are not happy even when we are supposed to be happy -- when we have everything we supposedly want. The second truth is the reason for this profound dissatisfaction: We are constantly engaged in the process of either pushing or pulling against our experience. Most of the time, we are worried that we won't get what we want. When things are finally gong our way, we are afraid that it won't last. It's a no-win situation. To boot, when things aren't going as we had hoped, we somehow imagine these conditions will last forever. These cognitive distortions (to adopt a contemporary psychological term) are amenable to change; that's the third truth. We can stop inflicting these distortions on ourselves and we might experience a profound peace and sense of place in the world if we do. It's not dumb luck, though. We have to work hard in order to make this insight stable and accessible. This is the last installment of the Buddha's teaching -- the fourth truth. We have to put in some effort to gain that awareness, some elbow grease in every moment, to see past our misunderstandings into the way things actually are.

Mindfulness is one of the keys to this transformation. Mindfulness was not explicit in Freud's teaching or any of his followers but has entered the therapeutic lexicon through Jon Kabat-Zinn's work of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and its progeny.

Research suggests meditation can help with PTSD and social anxiety disorder? Why do you think it's helpful, personally, professionally?

PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and every other anxiety disorder and many mood disorders too can be helped through mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is a generic strategy for dealing with distress, so it will be helpful across a variety of afflictions. For trauma, it helps by establishing some space -- a sense of perspective -- between the traumatic event and the aftermath of that trauma that may be experienced in the present. It helps to make the transition from "this is happening to me (and it's awful)" to "this is happening." Without further elaboration of the trauma-related story and the phenomenon that go along with that (flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares) comes a space of relief. When the narrative is not reinforced, some of the energy that went into that conditioning is now free to attend to other things -- relationships, work, and all the wonders of daily life.

With social anxiety, meditation can help you to be an object rather than a subject. I have a mild form of social anxiety. For instance, whenever I give public talks, I sweat under my arms. It's reflexive. Whether the talk is going well or poorly, I still sweat. It's the way I am wired. Through mindfulness, I am able to see this occurrence as an object. I expect it and therefore don't react to it. I attend to the anxiety sensations as energy rather than meaning. Mindfulness takes the subject out of it.

Can you talk about a particularly poignant fear you've encountered in your own life and how you've dealt with it? Or if not you, then a client you've helped?

I will quote from the draft of my forthcoming book, Mindfulness A-Z, 108 Insights for Awakening Now (Wisdom 2013). This is an excerpt from the entry on "Fear."

"What am I afraid of? What am I not afraid of might be a better question. I am afraid that I will be hungry, wet, cold, hot, smelly, rumpled, sleep deprived, unloved, disliked, incompetent, fatuous, shy, hesitant, clumsy, vulgar, foolish, careless, or rejected. You name it, I've felt it."

I've ridden a motorcycle at 130 miles per hour without fear; I've snowboarded down the fall line or through the trees of very steep snow-covered mountains without fear (most of the time), yet what rivets me is saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. My fears are rooted in shame, not bodily harm.

How do you think the Buddha's teachings of impermanence apply to our fears?

It's all about impermanence. If everything is changing all of the time, there is no "me" that doesn't change too (because everything has to change) and therefore there is no "me" to be adversely affected.

Fear, like everything else, arises and eventually will pass away, like everything else. Anxiety has a half-life. I will feel better tomorrow, even if I do nothing -- especially if I do nothing. I just need to let impermanence do its thing and a little meditation wouldn't hurt. However and unfortunately, we don't always allow this to happen. We intervene, thinking that we can somehow fix the situation by ruminating over it. But we can't fix it. The words were said; the action was taken. They are in the past and can't be undone. Fear will dissipate if we get out of the way. It might help to catalog what we've learned from this particular miscue, but mostly I am talking about social anxieties here. If it is a conditioned or primal fear, like exposure to a spider, there may be very little to catalog as learning. Instead, you may say to yourself, "I freaked out, I understand why I freaked out (just exposed to one of my conditioned fears), and this too shall pass."

Fear lurks around every corner. However, if we are willing to uncouple our sense of well-being from what happens to us, we can experience a great freedom. I have an aphorism: Freedom from fear is nothing more than telling shame and death to go fuck themselves. That pretty much covers it.

To get a real taste of Dr. Kozak's wisdom, order his fantastic books. (His new book, Mindfulness A-Z will be out from Wisdom in 2013.) He also blogs at Beliefnet. Dr. Kozak and I will be appearing together this February at the Rubin Museum in Manhattan during my Fear Project tour. Stay tuned for details.

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