By Arnie Kozak
These days, there’s a growing consciousness about the value of introversion. Introverts are awakening to their style of being and at the same time can pursue awakening with mindfulness as a way to embrace the introverted life fully.
Many introverts, myself among them, have felt devalued in the face of extrovert culture. Even though I studied introversion/extroversion in college and graduate school, and even though I readily self-identified as an introvert, it was not until recently that I discovered how I compared myself negatively to the extrovert ideal. I felt deficient when I was not as bubbly, energetic, and “out there” as the successful extroverts in my field. This sense of deficit was reinforced by some of the people closest to me, like my ex-wife, who admonished me to try harder to be more outgoing. There was no recognition on my part or those around me that there was nothing wrong with my style.
Today, the energy that previously went into apologizing for the way I was now goes into taking better care of myself and pursuing my path in the world, introvert style. This “awakening” is a shift in consciousness away from an inferiority model to one of equality. We awaken out of the “trance of unworthiness” (to borrow Tara Brach’s phrase) to embrace our unique values, including a preference for solitude and peacefulness, and a slower, more deliberate style of thinking. Now I can harness my mindfulness practice and align with this newfound value in being an introvert.
What introverts need
Introverts not only value solitude and quiet, they need it in order to be balanced and whole. Yet it can be hard to find solitude in the hustle and bustle of daily life, especially if your workplace doesn’t provide privacy. Quiet can be elusive, too. Without sufficient time for solitude and quiet, introverts will be lost—exhausted, cranky, and their attention diffused. Mindfulness meditation practice can be helpful, as it provides a context for going within and nurturing quiet.
While mindfulness meditation provides a welcome respite from the constant busyness of life, the busyness of the mind is another story. Introverts can be so accustomed to being in their heads that they find it hard to disengage from the internal dialogues. Introspection is a double-edged sword. On the one edge, it provides rich access to thinking, creativity, and imagery. On the other edge, it can get us bogged down in rumination, obsession, and distorted thinking. Introverts need a tool to help them navigate this internal territory, and mindfulness is a powerful means for tempering the negative edge of that sword.
Extroverts are like people who can eat whatever they want without fear of gaining weight. They have a “high metabolism” for social gatherings, stimulation, and moving quickly through the world. Introverts are calorie-conscious, needing to monitor, protect, and restore their energy because the same activities that energize extroverts tend to drain introverts. It’s easy to be envious of extroverts who can run like Energizer bunnies. However, with a bit of strategy, introverts can learn to nurture their energies and thrive in the world. They still have to “watch what they eat,” so to speak,but they don’t have to feel deprived. This requires a proactive and informed approach, grounded in mindfulness.
Awakening to mindfulness
The way to navigate the interior without getting stuck in painful introspection is through mindfulness. Mindful attention, cultivated through mindfulness meditation techniques, both formal and informal, is a way of being that transcends our individual stories. Without the stories, there’s nothing for those sticky thoughts to stick to, and we can dwell in the moment with a peaceful abiding (even when that moment is not, itself, peaceful).
Mindfulness is the skill of self-monitoring and application of attention. We track attention with an eye toward keeping it trained to the activity and sense of this moment. For instance, you might start by placing your attention on the breath. When your attention departs to thoughts about the future or past—whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—you endeavor to bring your focus back to the breath. Mindfulness involves both skills: staying and returning.
Self as verb vs. noun
You might notice that everything is changing, all the time; even what you think of as “me” is changing. If there is no fixed self, what then are introverts and extroverts? From the deeper perspective of the Buddha’s teachings, there is no such thing as an introvert or extrovert, but rather particular patterns that coalesce in any given moment. The recent emphasis on empowering introverts has the tendency to substantiate this fixed sense of self. There is the identification—“I am an introvert”—and with that label comes a solidity that all manner of vexations can adhere to. A solid sense of self—a noun, if you will—can create a sense of separation, as opposed to a fluid, process-oriented, verb-likesense of self. The self-as-verb dwells in the present moment, awake, engaged, and natural, with a skillful awareness based on openness rather than fear.
As introverts, we are best served to be stewards of this flowing self. I can take care of my introvert tendencies without getting fixated on them. For example, I know that when I teach, I’m putting out a lot of energy, and I will need to restore that energy. I can do this in a fluid or a static way. The static way feels onerous, burdensome, and oppressive. It’s me against the world, I need to defend my energy, I need to withdraw into my protective shell. The fluid way is dynamic, responsive, and spontaneous. Mindfulness practice is a staple strategy for me before, during, and after such exertions. The “story” of how exhausted I am doesn’t persist because my mind’s attention is on the moment-by-moment changing landscape of now. When I am mindful during teaching, I can actually transform the energy demands so they don’t feel as draining. All the meditation in the world won’t change the basic matrix of my personality tendencies, but it will help me to be more nimble in navigating the world.
Arnie Kozak, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, a part-time faculty member at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, The Everything Buddhism Book, The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge, and the forthcoming Mindfulness A–Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now. Join Arnie at Kripalu.