Top 5 Metaphors for Mindfulness: Interview with Arnie Kozak Ph.D.

When it comes to trying to understand almost anything, I have found metaphors to be extremely useful. In mindfulness we use them all the time, we say, “Paying attention to your thoughts is like lying down on a field of grass looking at the clouds go on by or like lying down by a riverbed see the variety of debris come and go.”

I am very pleased to bring you Arnie Kozak, PhD, who is a master at using metaphors to help us understand mindfulness. Dr. Kozak is a licensed Psychologist and founder of Exquisite Mind, a place where people can come to learn more about mindfulness and psychotherapy. He is author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, The Everything Buddhism Book, and the blog Mindfulness Matters.

If you want to catch him live, Arnie is teaching Metaphors, Meaning, and Change: Finding Our Way to Mindfulness at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 25-27 February 2011.

Today Arnie talks with us about mindfulness, metaphors and how we can find relief from our own minds.

Without further ado:

Elisha: In your book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants, you mention that even mindfulness is itself metaphorical. Can you unpack that for us a bit?

Arnie: Well what we call mind is an abstract thing. You can’t touch the mind or even point to it, unless we’re just talking about the brain. So, we have to turn to metaphorical images to get a sense of what it might be and what it does. When we use the term mindfulness that suggests the mind can be full – or empty – of something we consider to be mind. Therefore we understand mind by analogy to a container – something that can hold something. Or we tend to think of the mind as a thing but it’s really a dynamic, unfolding, and ever-changing process.

Elisha: What are your Top 5 Metaphors that you have found most helpful for mindfulness?

Arnie: To pick only five out of the 108 in the book is hard! And there are many more that I’ve developed since the publication of the book. My favorite metaphors are probably the ones I use the most, and they are the most practical.

Storytelling Mind & DVD Commentary: (OK, I’ve cheated here by combining two closely related metaphors). The first is the Storytelling Mind. Our minds generate stories; it’s the minds chief export. We tell (and believe) stories about the future, the past, or the present, and these stories determine how we feel. And let’s face it, we are constantly telling stories.

It’s like the Director’s Commentary on your DVD. The director and some of the actors “talk over” the movie. That’s what we are doing all the time – we talk over the movie of our life by adding commentary, opinions, judgments. When we are mindful we stop the commentary and give our full attention to what is actually happening and get to experience the fullness and richness of that moment.

Agenda Metaphor: In any given moment we have a primary agenda. This is whatever we are doing in the moment, including meditation if that’s what we are doing. However, our mind doesn’t usually allow us to just have this primary agenda (if it did we would be perfectly mindful).

Instead, we add things – expectations, rules, conditions, and so forth that interfere with our satisfaction in the moment. If we can relinquish the secondary agendas we can be less stressed and happier in each moment. Mindfulness practice helps us to recognize the activity of these secondary agendas and to dwell in the primary agenda of the moment instead.

Bad Wheel: This is the Buddha’s metaphor and the foundation of his teachings. It’s the translation of the Pali term dukkha. It attempts to describe the ongoing dissatisfaction that characterizes life. Dukkha is often translated as suffering but this is a generalization.

The image the Buddha used was a bad or broken wheel on an oxcart. If the wheel is warped then it will influence your ride on the cart in a pervasive way – there’s no escaping it. Dukkha is also translated as anguish and that gets a little closer; so, too, does dukkha as pervasive dissatisfaction. Without mindfulness in our lives we are beholden to the bad wheel. With mindfulness we can enjoy a smoother ride.

Wild Chickens: The title metaphor from my book is all about acceptance. Wild chickens are all the things and situations in our lives that are unexpected and unwanted.

It would be great if life always went swimmingly but we know that’s rarely the case. This metaphor comes from the meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg and his experience meditating in the forests of Thailand that were strewn with screeching wild chickens. Not what one would expect for a meditation retreat!

Initially, his secondary agenda was not open to wild chickens; and that’s our basic challenge—to accept what is happening or to resist it (and thereby generate suffering). Fortunately he chose to accept the wild chickens, that is, let go of his secondary agendas. And we are challenged to accept the wild chickens in our life in the same way. Can we relax our secondary agendas? Can we include the wild chickens in the landscape of what is happening now? If we can do this, we’ll find peace and equanimity in the moment. If not, well, then we’ll be miserable. It’s as simple as that (simple, but not necessarily easy to pull off!).

Office Hours: I work with a lot people who have anxiety and worry a lot. I use this metaphor quite a bit. Professors hold office hours once or twice a week. They don’t give students 24-7 access because if they did they couldn’t get their other work done. Likewise, if we give worry 24-7 access to attention it will be highly disruptive.

I therefore encourage people to set up office hours for their worrying, setting aside a brief time period every day to do some focused worrying and problem solving. When worrisome thoughts arise outside of “office hours” they can remind the worry that it was dealt with earlier and there will be a chance to deal with it again tomorrow. This tends to quiet the urgency of the worry and helps people to be more productive and to suffer less. Mindfulness practice gets us in the habit of setting aside worry to come back to the present and support our efforts to keep office hours.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now and they were open to using metaphor as a source of healing. What might you tell them?

Arnie: We construct our suffering. It’s not just what happens to us but our perception of what happens to us that determines our experience. This is perennial wisdom. That is we build suffering out of ideas, stories, expectations, judgments, etc. The fearless Indian social innovator Kiran Bedi suggests that suffering is 90% constructed; only 10% given by circumstances.

I’d share the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths that point directly to how we construct our misery. The Buddha offered the Four Noble Truths in the form of a medical metaphor. (The Buddha, by the way, was a master of metaphors and used them in his teachings as a tool to reach people at many different levels and circumstances.).

The first truth is the diagnosis of the illness – we suffer a lot in life or we feel the effects of that bad wheel discussed earlier (dukkha). This includes the inevitable factors of life – sickness, old age, and death but it’s more inclusive than this. Life is permeated by dissatisfaction—even when things are going well.

The second truth seeks the cause (etiology) of the illness. We suffer because we construct our perceptions of the world and ourselves in an inaccurate and painful way. We try to hold onto things that are constantly changing (not recognizing the fundamental truth of impermanence) and we put a lot of energy into pushing away things we don’t like (not accepting what is happening). All this pushing and pulling takes up energy and generates stories of lack, want, and frustration.

The third truth is the prognosis. Good news here! Since we construct most of our suffering we can deconstruct it – there is a way out of this mess. There exists the distinct possibility that we can blow out this suffering, like blowing out a candle flame. This blowing out is actually the translation of the term nirvana – the blowing out or cessation of suffering, anguish, misery, and dissatisfaction.

The fourth truth is the treatment and the prescription – the Noble Eight Fold path that provides practical guidance on how to view the world, how to conduct ourselves in a way that will maximize our opportunities for joy, and, of course, includes ample doses of mindfulness and meditation. We can grasp this set of truths each time we sit down to do mindfulness meditation. We can see how we construct misery out of stories and how we can relieve this anguish by coming back to this moment.

Thank you so much Arnie!

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

Comments are closed.