The Buddha Was an Introvert

Finding peace of mind in a hectic world

Solitary But Not Lonely

Empowering going within in an extroverted culture

I recently taught a weekend workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts called Solitary but Not Lonely: Empowering Going Within in an Extroverted Culture. We explored the relationship between introversion and the dharma--the Buddha's teachings and the truths these teachings point to. We turned to these teachings as a refuge for dealing with the extrovert-dominated culture. Below is a summary of that workshop. 

The conversation between introverts seeking to go within begins with a consideration of the Buddha's basic teachings--The Four Noble Truths. 

The Four Noble Truths (Introvert Version)

  1. Living in the extroverted world leaves introverts feeling off, dissatisfied, stressed, and even anguished (aka dukkha)
  2. The cause of this anguish is the expectation that they conform to extrovert norms. They are overwhelmed by noisy chaotic open-plan offices, exhausted from superficial social contacts, and distracted by constant interruptions.
  3. There is an end to this anguish, when introverts self-empower themselves through dharma-based knowledge, self-care, and setting limits on extrovert demands.
  4. There is an eightfold path to liberation that includes understanding, resolve, mindfulness, concentration, energy, action, speech, and work. These activities are done within a context of understanding that introverts are different from extroverts and are not deficient versions of extroverts. Along with this understanding is a resolve to change things: to be an empowered and enlightened introvert.

The Noble Eight-fold Path for Introverts 

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If you are familiar with the Noble Eightfold path, you will typically see each of the components of the path presented as "right" this or that. In this case, right does not mean "right" versus "wrong" but more right in the sense of being true. And, here again, "true" does not connote true and false as much as precise or pure. Think of a wheel (an image often used to depict the Noble Path). If the wheel is not in true, it will wobble. An out of true wheel is warped. This image of a warped wheel is also what the Buddha meant by dukkha, which litearlly means broken or bad wheel. 

Right View: To have right view, you must understand the Four Noble Truths, the three fires (greed, hatred, and confusion), and the three marks of existence (suffering, impermanence, and not-self). For introverts, right view seeks to understand what it means to be an introvert.

An introvert-specific version of Right View seeks to understand the relationship between personality, self, and not self. It is to appreciate how introverts live in the world differently in terms of how they handle attention, energy, and stimulation.

Right Resolve: Right resolve is a commitment to living skillfully. Skillful introversion is unapologetic and mindful of the values and pitfalls of being introverted. The resolute introvert is committed to self-care by nurturing energy, exploring the interior with discernment, and providing ample opportunities for solitude.

Right Speech: Right speech is speech that does not harm. Introverts seek to say what is true and beneficial. They aim to be intentional with words. Since uttering words takes energy, and is not done just for the sake of making small talk, introverts seek to make their words count. Introverts listen first speak second. Introverts think before they speak; they are less likely to interrupt.

Right Action: Right action aims at being in the world in a way that minimizes harmfulness to self, others, and the world. Introverts are self-conscious about their impact on others, as reflected in their speech tendencies (e.g., listen more than talk). Introverts need to avoid stagnation. Right action keeps the body moving through a balance of contemplation and movement (e.g., walking meditation, qigong, yoga, t’ai chi).

Right Livelihood: Right livelihood has integrity, honesty, and beneficence and, for introverts, also self-care. Introverts seek work that abides with their nature, work that involves solitude and meaningful contact with people. Introverts also seek work that helps people even as it puts them in extroverted roles such as teachers, educators, and actors. Introverts are often stuck in roles that are unrelentingly extroverted with no time for recovery; they may have to work in spaces without privacy, quiet, or time for introspection. This is livelihood that comes with a high price. When possible, introverts will seek to find a more true way to work in the world. 

Right Effort: To move towards awakening, introverts and extroverts alike must be unattached to outcome and focused on a desire for wholesomeness, beautiful mental factors, and skillfulness. It is okay to have desire for the quest for non-attachment. Potential unwholesome qualities include:

  • Availability: Hiding out from the world or being too available
  • Self-Concept: Being too attached to mental contents (i.e., your stories); forgetting that mind and life is a process
  • Energy: Not monitoring and modulating energy (like driving a car without looking at the gas gauge)
  • Stimulation: Setting up resistance to sensory/embodied experiences rather than acceptance. Not skillfully avoiding adverse stimulation where possible.

Right effort seeks to leverage effort in ways that mitigate the adverse effects of availability, self-concept, energy, stimulation, and other factors. Effort aims to move energy in the "right" direction, by being true with our aspirations to be more mindful, effective, and awake. 

Right Mindfulness: Mindfulness is how we pay attention. It requires letting go of the stories of "I, me, and mine." Mindfulness turns to the body as a refuge. It is the skill of staying connected to experience and recovering from getting lost in stories, strong emotions, and interpersonal dramas. Mindfulness is the glue that holds all the other noble truths together.

Right Concentration: True concentration is more than being focused. It is the ability to access profound states of consciousness. Introverts have a predilection towards concentration, preferring to do one thing at a time without interruption. They harness this capacity to practice meditation on a daily basis and in retreat. 

Each of these "rights" or "trues" comprises a spoke on the wheel of life. Each spoke is required to make the wheel role true. Each is essential and indispensible. First, we must understand what we are doing. Nothing can happen without an intellectual grounding. Next, we must have a resolve to act, to change our state and exert efforts to make that happen. Then we must monitor our progress with mindfulness. If we move off course, we can come back and try again. 

We'll explore each of these spokes in more depth in entries to come. 

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine and founder of the Exquisite Mind Psychotherapy and Meditation Studio.

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