Interview: Lawrence Kasanoff on the New Documentary “Mindfulness — Be Happy Now”

Posted on December 19, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Hollywood producer Lawrence Kasanoff makes movies like Mortal Kombat. But his interest in mindfulness and its link to happiness has inspired a documentary called Mindfulness: Be Happy Now. In an interview, he talked about the difference between mindfulness and meditation and what Navy Seals and Buddhist monks have in common.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Meditation, in my opinion, is one of the ways you get to mindfulness. There are lots of ways to get to mindfulness.

At one time I brought Thich Nhat Hanh to Oprah; he was one of the first people she interviewed for her new network. I was sitting with them both. People call Thich Nhat Hanh Thay which means teacher, it’s an affectionate term. And Oprah said to Thay: “How often do you meditate?” And he said: “Everything I do I do mindfully so everything I do is a meditation.” When people think of meditation, they normally think of sitting quietly which is meditation but you can be mindful while taking a walk if you’re just taking a walk. You can be mindful while drinking tea while just drinking tea. You can be mindful while talking to Nell from Beliefnet if I am only talking to Nell from Beliefnet; if I am sending a text at the same time, I am not being mindful. So I think they go hand-in-hand. Mindfulness includes meditation but you can also say every act of mindfulness in itself is a kind of meditation.

Yes, we hear in the film that drinking tea and even washing your hands in the morning can be very mindful.

Yes, they can. When I first met Thay he said: wash dishes mindfully, enjoy the water running on your hands, go slowly, don’t try and finish and it works.

Copyright 2015 Threshhold Entertainment
Copyright 2015 Threshhold Entertainment

It works how? Does it get the dishes cleaner?

You know what? It does get the dishes cleaner because you tend to not be washing the dishes while doing something else, so you focus on the dishes. I think all of this is a way to still your mind. Thay has a great expression and so I had this calligraphy on my wall which says “be still and know.” The analogy is: think of a beautiful mountain lake in Switzerland; if the weather is terrible and cloudy the lake windy, the lake is all choppy and dirty and unclear. If the lake is beautiful and calm on a Sunday spring morning it’s gorgeous and it reflects accurately the sky and the clouds and mountaintops. The first one, the agitated water, does not. So if you can still your mind like that lake, it does reflect and you see clearly. So meditation is not a way of going to sleep. It allows you to wake up and if you wake up you see things clearly, you do do them better. Now in my opinion, meditation is not just the purview of Buddhist monks, anyone can do it. I am doing another movie on the special unit of the special operations of the United States. These guys in my opinion, other than the monks, are the most mindful people I have ever met. They have maybe different philosophies but you’ve got to be pretty mindful standing in a field somewhere with people shooting at you for three days; you’ve got to be calm and still your mind. A boxer is mindful, a golfer is mindful if they are good, a painter is mindful, anyone can be mindful. So I think it’s important to distinguish that even when you are washing dishes mindfully, you do wash your dishes better but more than that, for two minutes you stop your mind, you’ve got nothing else, you’ve cleared your mind and that is a beneficial experience that makes you happier.

How are Special Forces military like Buddhist monks?

I believe the most mindful groups I know, and the two groups I think of the most in common are the Buddhist monks and the special operations soldiers because they both have developed extraordinary mind control to bring their mind to a still level in pursuit of peace. They have completely different tactics on how to find peace but it only diverges there. The Green Berets had a slogan: “slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” which any good athlete understands, too. You just are careful and you move deliberately and you are moving mindfully; It applies to so many many walks of life.

We debated putting Special Forces guys in the movie and putting some supermodel in the movie but we just didn’t want to do anything that would seem a little controversial and take things away from the great message. But the fact that we had an actor and a film director and a doctor and a dog trainer in the movie is just an example of how many walks of life you can apply this to. You can apply it anywhere and that’s what I think is the best thing about it, it works everywhere.

I liked it that throughout the film, the focus is not just going internally but also being mindful as a way of being a better listener or being more aware of what’s going on.

Especially in the world today. Have you been at a dinner or meeting where everyone is talking and texting at the same time? They are not listening. I believe in unitasking; you do one thing at the time. You can do 100 things during the day; just do one thing at a time. If you do that you are being mindful so when you have a meeting, that’s it. When you are walking to the next meeting, you are walking. When you are eating, you’re eating. No one is perfect in all of this, not even the monks but if you take one more deep breath today than you did yesterday that’s great. I think one of the things is this is fun and you don’t have to worry about: did I do it perfectly? Did I do it great every day? I don’t think that’s it. I think whenever you do it’s better than not doing it so that’s great.

Right at the beginning of the film we hear a word that I was not expecting: tenderness. Thay tells us we need to be tender toward our feelings of sorrow or pain.

The monks have this wonderful expression that Thay talks about in the film called the second arrow. So let’s say you stub your toe, now your toe hurts, so that’s one arrow and if you are mindful and you embrace it and you calm down, it won’t hurt as much and it will probably heal faster. But if you say:“Oh my goodness, I am an idiot for stubbing my toe,” boom then you’ve got a second arrow right in the same toe and it hurts more. Now if you say, “Oh my God, I am worried I stubbed my toe, I am going to collapse and die for my stubbed toe,” you’ve got a third arrow.

So if you have a piece of cake and maybe you didn’t want to have piece of cake, okay, then mindfully say: I had a piece of cake, I enjoyed the cake, I did it today. Okay, do I want to do this tomorrow? Let’s think about this; maybe I don’t and then you don’t. But if you then get mad at yourself for having your cake, now two things can happen, you have more calories than you want and you’ve added stress and the opposite of stillness, a kind of disturbance to your mind, you just made it worse. So no one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes and if you see it carefully and mindfully embrace it as they say you can calm it down.

Think about your boss coming to work and saying, “Listen, you should not have sent that memo but don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean it, it’s okay, we will fix it; maybe we should read our memos a little more carefully next time.” You feel much better that if someone comes in screaming to you that you sent off the wrong thing. I think it works with everything. But it doesn’t mean you have to become a wimp and a hippie and hug everybody all the time, you just have to be mindful of what you are doing so you do it with a clarity and a purpose.

Can you be an activist and have the kind of passion that you need to push for change and yet maintain a sense of acceptance?

I was worried about that too. A monk once said to me, “We do not lose sight of our goal. It is just that the anger doesn’t help us.”

I make a lot of martial arts movies. The true fighting Zen master is so incredibly focused that they don’t get angry. It is so hard not to get angry but my goal is my goal and if I get too angry then everyone will start up with their own egos and we will drift from the goal. So being mindful doesn’t mean you have to become a certain way. You can be a mindful Republican or a mindful Democrat or a mindful soldier. You can go to a strip club mindfully. You can play poker mindfully, you can do a lot of things mindfully. Mindfulness is not wimpy, it means doing it with presence and doing it with a clarity of mind. There is no scenario in which being mindful doesn’t help. I make so many fight movies; I own a fight channel. You will win so many more fights if you are not angry.

I think most of this is about eliminating anger, fear and anxiety from your life and if you eliminate anger, fear and anxiety from your life mostly, most people are still left with happiness. It is not antithetical to your goals. It is in fact completely the opposite, it accentuates your goals, it enables you to achieve your goals better. That’s why we love James Bond or old Clint Eastwood movies; we love people who walk in and are calm and present, clear and know exactly what they want and get it.

How did you get involved with mindfulness?

I produced these these big action sci-fi martial arts movies. I read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh about 10, 12 years ago and I thought it was great, I mean I am always interested in new things and I thought, “Hey, maybe we could use him as an inspiration for this character we have in Mortal Kombat.” He is kind of an Obi-Wan Kenobi character in Mortal Kombat called Rayden.

So I called him up and went to meet him really just for inspiration for a “Mortal Kombat” movie. But after spending two hours with him I felt like I had been on vacation for a week. And I said: “What’s your secret?” And he said:“No secret, practice.” And I said: “Wait, I could learn this?” We became good friends and I did start practicing and I did start learning and I got into other mindful things and met some other wonderful people, most of whom are in the film and then eventually he just asked me to make a documentary. Thay’s basic message is peace in yourself, peace in the world. If you find peace in yourself through mindfulness you will be happier. If you are happier, maybe the person you are with will be happier, maybe the guy you get coffee with in the morning will be happier and if everyone does it everyone will be happier.

That is the most simple nondenominational, nonpolitical but helpful message and my hope is that in some small way that the movie promotes that philosophy. So when Thay asked me to do it I just decided to fund the whole thing myself, put it out there and the goal is just to get it into the hands of anyone whom it might benefit.

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