The Awakened Introvert by Dr. Arnie Kozak (licensed psychologist, Clinical Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine and a Lecturer in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences where he teaches mindfulness courses) is the book I should have read a long, long time ago.
I think ever since I was small child, I always considered myself more of an introvert than an extrovert. I didn’t care much for large gatherings of people; I preferred a smaller group of people to surround myself with, and have done so throughout my life. In my youth, I preferred more “inward” activities such as reading, writing and playing music (piano), although I did play competitively (and enjoyed) on the volleyball teams in junior high and high school and did martial arts for many years as a young boy.
But, I haven’t always been able to tap into the potential of my introverted tendencies. In fact, in my adult life, I’ve largely had to assume the role of the extroverted advocate, where living in the “noise” of my work environment was the norm. It was, to a great extent, the expectation that I placed on myself to thrive in this environment.
It was only in the last few months that I stumbled across Dr. Arnie’s Kozak’s intriguing research and manuscript entitled the “Awakened Introvert” – a practical guide for introverts like myself who have come – or become – to mindfulness.
Dr. Kozak writes with great clarity that introverts – and extroverts alike – would benefit from the practice of mindfulness in their day to day lives, particularly the introvert who finds herself lost in the “noise” of the extroverted world. How is this so?
In his work, Dr. Kozak draws a connection between the practice of mindfulness as bringing an acute awareness to the present moment as a practical tool for introverts to free themselves from the negativity of self-rumination that arises from the expectation of others. Introverts are more prone than extroverts to this tendency of external expectation. Dr. Kozak calls upon the practice of mindful meditation – whether in the shower, over a morning coffee, or on a busy subway – as an important tool for introverts to carry in their arsenal of day-to-day living. Dr. Kozak’s recommendation of mindful meditation is, of course, not a novel one. Nor his suggestion that introverts would benefit from focusing their attention on their inhalation and exhalation in situations of stress and adversity a novel one, either. But, Dr. Kozak is suggesting that these practices of mindfulness should resonate loudly with the awakened introvert – that individual who yearns for solitude admist a world of chaos and noise, and who should not apologize for being this way.
Indeed, Dr. Kozak suggests there is nothing wrong with the mindful introvert desiring to be alone in solitude at times, even frequently (p. 101):
- The yearning for solitude doesn’t make you a misanthrope or even a loner
- Solitude is fundamental human need
- Solitude doesn’t mean disconnection from others
- Solitude is necessary for you to replenish your energy
- You have a right to request solitude
That brings me to the other fascinating aspect of Dr. Kozak’s book.
Dr. Kozak recognizes that within the awakened introvert lies the potential – and power – of “Buddha” which itself means “awakened one”.
The Buddha was an awakened introvert
Dr. Kozak starts by providing the reader with a short summary of the Buddha’s (an introvert) life:
Going back to the Buddha’s story: On the verge of collapse from starvation, Siddhartha abandoned both his path of deprivation and his few ascetic colleagues and accepted a meal from a young cowherd girl. Fortified by this simple meal of rice wrapped in a banana leaf, he sat down under a tree and resolved to not get up until he had found a way beyond the pervasive stress he felt in his life – a stress that appeared to be universal for others as well. When the Buddha sat under a papal or fig tree (no known as a bodhi tree), in what is now Bodhgaya, India, he went into a period of intensive meditation. He practiced what we would now call mindfulness meditation. He focused on his breathing and bodily sensations. He saw his thoughts, memories, and emotions come and go. In the midst of these observations, he noticed something profound: everything was constantly changing, including his sense of self. He discovered that this sense of self arises out of all the other mental processes of the mind and does not have an independent existence. However, for the preceding thirty-five years, he had been living his life as if this self did have an independent existence, and this mistaken was the root cause of all suffering. These insights brought about an awakening. The now Buddha (which simply means “awakened one”) realized that the self, while embedded in a personality, is not a solid entity. The self is fluid, impermanent, and malleable. Many yogis had achieved profound states of meditation long before the Buddha, but he was the first yogi to bring a radical cognitive and self-empowering view to the problem of existence.” (p. 187)
Dr. Kozak is quick to point out that the Buddha likely never thought in terms of introversion or extroversion, but his teachings have equal applicability to the lives of introverts and extroverts as we conceive of those terms today:
The Buddha probably did not think in terms of introversion and extroversion because those terms were not in fashion, but he likely did observe that some people were externally focused while other were more interior. Introverts and extroverts will come to the internal work of mindfulness from different starting points but will ultimately wind up in the same place – that is, all will need to transcend the labels of “introvert” and “extrovert”. The extrovert must slow down long enough to look within. The introvert must disentangle the mind from self-generated stories long enough to bring attention to what is happening now. It’s an over/under problem. The introvert is over-interested in the interior while the extrovert is under-interested. The introvert gets bogged down in stories and can spend a lot of energy lost in thinking. Life is overshadowed by imagination. Mindfulness helps introverts to reorient to the reality of the present moment. (p. 188)
The Four Noble Truths and the Mindful Introvert
Dr. Kozak further offers the mindful introvert some cogent observations as to how the Buddha’s original teachings of the Four Noble Truths has particular resonance for the mindful and awakened introvert:
- As an introvert, living in the extroverted world leaves you feeling off, dissatisfied, stressed, and even anguished. Being part of this culture, you face an extra challenge, much like trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole. The introvert-specific version of dukkha exists both at a conscious level and, more importantly, at deeper, unconscious levels. You may not even be aware of all the ways that your introvert qualities are being overlooked, devalued, or denied. You may have been vaguely familiar with this offness, even though it was occurring out of awareness. (p.191)
- The introvert-specific version of dukkha arises from your own expectations and those of others about how to conform to the larger norms of the culture. There is an underlying pressure to buy into the extrovert version of happiness: loud, social, and exciting. The cause of this misery is a lack of acceptance. When you want things to be other than they are in the moment, anguish follows. This can take the form of self-judgment: I should be like the extroverts around me. This expectation will give rise to a pressure to conform and a mismatch between the reality of what the situation demands and what you have to offer. Accepting your limitations and seeking to take care of yourself in these situations is the alternative to self-condemnation. (p.192)
- There is an end to introvert-related anguish when you can self-empower through insights, self-care, and setting limits on extrovert demands. When you can embrace the teachings of the Buddha and set limits on your expectations and the expectations of the extroverts around you, you put yourself in a better position to live more freely and fully. The introvert’s version of nirvana is a comfort within your own skin. It is a feeling of spaciousness that you can bring into any situation. You are present to whatever arises and you don’t feel burdened by the situation. You feel at home. (p. 194)
- The activities of the eightfold path are done within a context of understanding that you are different from the extroverts around you and are not deficient in comparison to them. Along with this comprehension is a resolve to change things: to be an empowered and awakened introvert. Mindfulness is at the heart of this transformation process. (p. 195)
- The awakened introvert should aspire to an “eightfold path” of commitments: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration (pp. 191-203)
I was summoned by my inner-introvert in 2008 to leave everything and move to Montreal
As I reflected on Dr. Kozak’s writings, I was drawn back to my own journey to time when I did not know what mindfulness was. It was 2007, in my first year of private practice. I was practising corporate law under the tutelage of the senior partner of a mid-size firm in downtown Edmonton. I wanted to impress and please my bosses, and so absorbed as much knowledge as I could day in, day out. But, as much as part of me was “present” – in the sense that I completed the tasks asked of me and asked for additional work when the well dried up – I was not really “present” in the way that I now know mindfulness teaches me. When I made the decision that year to embark upon a new journey to pursue my graduate degree in law at McGill University in Montreal, I felt a renewed passion for the law that had been missing for so long. I now recognize this yearning to pursue further education as the “awakened introvert” in my summoning me to Montreal where I knew I would thrive in an environment filled with other like-minded introverts. I was not wrong. The time I spent in Montreal was the single, most enriching and precious journey I have experienced thus far in my adult life.
I was summoned again by my inner-introvert last year to leave private practice for public practice
When I returned to Edmonton in 2009 to start afresh a new position as an associate in a small private law firm, I was eager to jump into the arena of litigation. I was invited to participate in a lengthy civil trial before the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in what is reported as Edmonton’s first civil “e-trial”. This experience exposed me to the roller-coaster of high-stakes litigation and trial strategy. I am grateful for the many practical lessons I learned from my mentor through this trial (as many lawyers have never stepped foot into a courtroom). I had the same experience at the most recent law firm where I served four years as a senior litigation associate. There, I had the opportunity to grow as a senior litigation associate through all facets of the litigation process – from discovery, to settlement, to trial. In assuming the role of zealous advocate, I was truly immersed in an extroverted environment on a daily basis, and this is how the legal world has always been.
And yet when I transitioned from this role to my new role as a government lawyer with the Alberta Courts, I felt a calling towards this new journey. Of course, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt it was my calling – but with the benefit of mindfulness, I now know that the reason has to do with me tapping into the mindful and awakened introvert inside of me.
How does being a mindful introvert figure into my yoga practice?
Dr. Kozak’s work has also caused me to reflect on my practice of mindful meditation and yoga necessarily as an awakened introvert. When I undertake my yoga practice, I am in solitude. This, I have come to learn through Dr. Kozak’s writing, is one way I am able to replenish my energy as an introvert. In fact, I now yearn for this solitude each time I arrive on my yoga mat.
This past week, I took three different classes of hot flow yoga with three different teachers at Edmonton’s Yogalife studios (I am now a card-carrying member). I was on a trial membership for one month, to test out whether I wanted to stay with it or not. At this juncture, I simply cannot see myself going back to a life without yoga. It is, in my view, the perfect expression of an introvert’s journey in mindfulness. With each instructor, there are naturally differences in each of their pedagogical approaches to their classes – but, there are many common themes: setting an intention for one’s practice, coming to your yoga mat leaving behind all your thoughts of the past and future, and focusing at all times on the movement and flow of the in-breath and out-breath as you conduct your practice. These are all aspects of mindful living which are inherent to the yogic lifestyle.
We should all strive toward our “inner Buddha” in our own way
There is something very reassuring and calming in the knowledge that the Buddha himself was an introvert. Indeed, Dr. Kozak encourages us to approach our mindfulness practice as a means to touch our “inner Buddha”, to move a bit closer to awakening:
The Buddha embodied the extroverted teacher, giving thousands of lectures during his long teaching career of forty-five years. He balanced these extroverted forays in teaching with dedicated time in silent meditation that served his introvert needs. This formula can work well for introverts today just as it did twenty-five centuries ago. Each time you practice mindfulness, you are touching your inner Buddha, your Buddha-nature, and moving just a little bit closer to awakening. Be like the Buddha and sit alone with others. Nurture the interior connection – this is the introvert way. Be the guardian of your own solitude by committing to daily mindfulness practice to thrive in your life. (p. 207)
I commit myself to aspiring towards a life lived as the Buddha did –mindfully, and inwardly, with compassion for oneself and others.
I thank Dr. Kozak for his thoughtful analysis and practical guide for introverts like myself to fully harness the potential of mindfulness in our daily lives. The Awakened Introvert is a must read for all who look inwardly – indeed yearn for it – and who seek to nurture this most precious gift of introversion.
For additional reading, please visit Dr. Kozak’s comprehensive website, Exquisite Mind: Tools for Living Now!
I wish you all love, happiness and hope, always.