Dr. Greg Sazima is a board-certified psychiatrist, educator, and author based in North California. He is an experienced practitioner and teacher of mindfulness meditation and has written on mental health issues for a variety of newspapers and periodicals. His first Mango book, Practical Mindfulness, is a no-nonsense introductory guide to meditation that is palatable to even the most skeptical of readers.
As a cancer survivor, Dr. Sazima has experienced firsthand the benefits of cultivating mindful awareness in his life throughout his medical crises, and that experience translates onto the page as he guides readers towards a practical understanding and basic mastery of meditation.
He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Capital Public Radio, Northern California’s NPR network, and Snowline Hospice, a non-profit palliative care provider in the Sacramento/Sierra Foothills region.
In the preface of your book, Practical Mindfulness, you mention that your scientific background led you to some skepticism regarding the benefits of meditation. What was it that changed your mind and took you from skeptic to “chakra agnostic” and experienced meditator?
I first learned a bit about mindfulness in the midst of my traditional, allopathic medical school training. It was framed as a simple stress management tactic, providing some easing of suffering, but not the kind of whiz-bang cure that “Western” medical training emphasizes, even glorifies, really. Think a “side dish,” not an essential ingredient.
That training approach can reinforce an orthodoxy—the treater acting on rather than collaborating with the sufferer. It can overemphasize stamping out pathology (or trying to), but underplay a careful understanding and acceptance of the ebbs and flows of our human experience. While both have value, the collaborative approach better reinforces individual efforts to staying healthier and manage suffering.
I was also not terribly evolved personally in terms of a spiritual path in that tender (!) age, so I was not especially open to mystical/New Age approaches that didn’t square well with the “prove it!” mindset of science.
When I got out of training into real-world psychiatric practice, a need for balance was obvious, especially in the mostly gray areas of treating psychological suffering. I incorporated my informal “translations” of some mindfulness practices in my own clinical work, and then into a research project for folks with chronic medical problems in our training clinic at the Stanford program. We showed measurable benefit in patients’ rating of their health and reduced suffering, as well as better self-care, treatment compliance, and reduced crisis visits. So that “prove it” part moved me. Ironically, my own interest in meditation flowered around the same time as an aspect of my developing spiritual path—opening me to a more unconditional, less judgy way of approaching experience. I dove pretty deeply into vipassana meditation as I became more familiar with Buddhism and Buddhist psychology, which is a wonderful complement to Western modes of understanding human behavior. Weird, huh? But not an unusual introduction/immersion from the “bounded” to the boundless, I suppose.
Meditation is a practice surrounded with all kinds of mystic language. You take what many would see as “cosmic spinach,” as you describe it, and translate that into much more accessible language. Were there any particular challenges to writing on meditation and mindfulness with such a no-nonsense approach?
I’d say the whole project could be considered a, or maybe “the,” challenge. My pet peeve (he’s paper-trained) in prescriptive non-fiction is that accessibility issue—fussy writing that yells, “bet you can’t guess what I’m thinking (and it’s brilliant)!” It occurs in a lot of science writing, in philosophy writing, and especially in psychological and psychoanalytic stuff. So, the mystical/New Age approach has not cornered that trope. And in terms of an understanding of and training for deeper, non-dual states, trying to describe those naturally can lean toward a more abstract, even lyrical style in the best New Age and other spiritual writing. I can love those texts but also recognize they don’t necessarily lower the “bar for entry” for some.
In the Preface of Practical Mindfulness, I point out that I identify most as a teacher, both in the office and the classroom. Clarity and practicality in getting ideas across, in having practices understood and actually used, that’s always been my M.O. It became obvious to me that training up our capacity of mindfulness via meditation could transform lives and should be as essential a part of preventive health recommendations as exercise, sleep and, hell, bathing. But some important audiences can get hives at approaches that even hint at encroaching on belief systems, and others are turned off by the psychobabble. This book aims to turn those folks around, while being a satisfying resource for the more mystically-inclined reader.
Before I completely disprove my approach by warbling on too long on this topic, I’d say that one particular dilemma to solve was to be practical, but not condescending or dumbing-down. (Editors… good!) The other was to use some lighthearted humor to take the occasional mystical “graveness” out of a topic that can get pretty weighty, without seeming too irreverent or disrespectful of the reader and the subject matter. (More editors… really good!)
For potential readers who might be interested in picking up a copy of your book, could you briefly share about the significance of meditation in your own life?
I’d frame that in “landscape” and “telephoto” modes. My embrace of meditation as doorway to self-understanding, and then to a deeper experience of myself-in-the-soup of the moment, that’s just been foundational in a “landscape” way… in how I see reality, the dual, separate-self compassionate me in the mix of a deeper bond of non-dual belonging. (More on this in Part III of the book!)
The telephoto aspect has been how the basic “recipe” of breath and body meditation has been an indispensable tool in my interesting last decade. I was diagnosed in 2010 with an aggressive kind of bone cancer in my neck vertebrae with three recurrences, multiple surgeries, and the odds of it quickly ending my life escalating with each recurrence. It was pretty traumatic stuff in terms of my own suffering, besides having three boys to raise, a lot of patients to be responsible for, feeling a burden for my amazing wife. So I leaned on meditation a lot through all that, and still do. Radical radiation treatment in 2015 stopped the tumor from growing, which is kind of miraculous. It also sautéed my spinal cord a bit, which has left me with some disability to manage. Meditation helped me center and focus to get the book done, and helps every day with my bumpy but precious current life.
Do you find yourself incorporating meditative practices into your writing routine?
I do. Being better able to step back and watch the scatter of mental phenomena rather than get lost in the blizzard is really helpful in focusing on writing despite other commitments pinging in my cranium. “Road-testing” some variations on practices has sometimes made sitting like an interior laboratory. Mostly, my regular work with the aspirational, positive states—equanimity, gratitude, and compassion for the benefit I hope to provide by the work—are a daily attitude “vitamin” that sets me up in a decent space to write.
In your day-to-day meditations, do you have a favorite position or environment?
It’s nothing fancy… a zafu (cushion) pulled out from behind a chair in my clinical office, early in the AM when it’s quiet. An errant stain on the rug to lazily entrain my eyeballs on. No “Gumby” positions for me—just cross-legged, all at rest.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to meditation for this generation?
Great question! (everyone says that at conferences, right?… “um, where’s the rest room?” “well, that’s a great question!…” I digress….)
The biggest obstacle is also meditation’s biggest selling point. Meditation is a training in gaining control of our attention, our directed awareness. There are so many wonders of today’s technology, so much information at our immediate disposal. But there’s little to no incentive for control of the “itch and scratch,” the stimulus/response twitch of social media that learns our interests and then feeds them back, even exploits them. Even five minutes of quiet sitting with our own conscious “intranet” can entrain at least some tolerance for being bored, being idle, at rest. They might even like it.
Is there any one most important thing you’d like readers to take away from Practical Mindfulness?
I can do this, and it really helps. I guess that’s two things.
On a personal note, how has practicing mindfulness benefited you during this chaotic time? Is there anything in particular you have done to nourish your soul?
At the risk of being flip, the whole “you got cancer again (and again)” ride of the last decade oddly prepared me for managing personal deprivations, fears and limitations. Intentional sitting with the grief of witnessing so much loss and suffering in the world has kept me to some extent from either feeling overwhelmed, or tuned out and walled off from it (two big risks in the moment, I think.) Compassion practice, then having the privilege of helping others through their “OMG” moments, has been nourishing in a way, a counter to our shared helplessness.
Other nourishments… jigsaw puzzles with my sweetie, hikes with my pup, Irene, attempting to convert bad 70’s and 80’s pop tunes into blues stomps on the piano (“Wiiild-fiiire” works, “Feelings,” not much), and regular calls to a wonderful circle of friends near and far.
Rapid fire questions:
Last book you read?
Always got a couple going: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley (an oldie!)
Morning person or night owl?
Sweet or savory?
A person who inspires you?
Greta Thunberg—she kicks ass. Can you imagine the bravery at that age (or any)? So inspiring.
A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners
Training exercises that work. Practical Mindfulness approaches mindfulness and meditation from a hands-on, how-to, irreverent perspective–appealing directly to smart readers curious about meditation. By applying Dr. Sazima’s training routines, learn to spend more time in real engagement with the world. Cultivate a deeper appreciation of experiences, from the everyday to the extraordinary, and live your life more fully, wisely, and joyfully.