Over the last 40 years, Jack Kornfield has been a significant force in bringing Buddhist practices to the United States. In 1967, he graduated from Dartmouth College, joined the Peace Corps, and was assigned to service in Thailand. Kornfield then trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma, studying under many influential teachers. After returning to the United States, Kornfield earned a PhD in clinical psychology and, in 1975, cofounded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. In 1987, he became a founding teacher of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, where he currently lives.
Kornfield is the best-selling author of many books, including The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, and After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path.
Over the years you’ve written a lot about bringing spiritual work together with psychological work. What is the relationship between spiritual practice and emotional development?
What’s most simple to say is that, for our hearts to be wise and free, we have to attend to the mandala of our being—which includes body, emotions, mental states, and thought structure—and their relations with one another.
Certain meditation can bring tremendous benefits to us. But it’s also possible to use meditation as a spiritual bypass, so that we can escape our difficulties by finding some peace and calm. But later on—at work, with family, or in relationships—old patterns and ways that we get caught up in begin to show themselves.
I’m an “all of the above” kind of person. I have used meditative practices, psychotherapy, sacred medicine, and the arts, all as dimensions of being more fully alive and being freer in body, heart, and mind.
Part of the reason I’m asking this is to better understand the meaning of “spiritual work,” because it’s interesting that it’s possible for people to be spiritually brilliant and yet lacking in their emotional maturity.
Human development is a mandala, and so we can develop certain aspects, and others don’t come along; thus, you have Olympic-level athletes who are brilliant in awareness of their body, but might be emotional idiots. Or you have Nobel-prize-winning physics professors who can’t find their shoes or their body. So it turns out that to live a fully realized life—or a life of wisdom and compassion—those qualities need to be directed to each of the major dimensions of our humanity—our body, our feelings, our mental states, our relationships and history, and our connection with the world around us. Spiritual teachers can be one-sided just the way an athlete or a physics professor can.
Fortunately, what we’ve learned in the West over many decades now is that it’s possible for us to heal deeply traumas of the past. It’s possible for us to embody and bring into our relationships and our actions the same beautiful spirit that we might find in a deep, silent meditation, that those become integrated.
But let me go to a related topic. We can look at the current global situation and see that no amount of science and technology is going to save us. No amount of computers and worldwide Internet and nanotechnology and biotechnology, and all these amazingly great, new capacities is going to stop continuing warfare, racism, tribalism, environmental destruction. Those spring from the human heart. And the outer technologies now have to be married to inner development that is both a development of mind and a development of heart and a development of the connection of our body to the body of the earth. We need to have a transformation of human consciousness, inwardly, that’s the balance to or the support for the amazing outer transformations.
You’ve been teaching meditation since the mid-1970s. What has changed in the last 40 years?
Thirty or 40 years ago, there was a great resistance to using the tools of Western psychotherapy and Western psychology. People at various ashrams or Zen centers or Buddhist centers and so forth would say, “All you need to do is chant, or do the mantra, or sit in Zen meditation, and it will take care of everything.” And other tools were considered to be unnecessary or even kind of lower-level practices.
Now, I could tell you the names of the therapists of half of the main Zen teachers and lamas around the country, because they realized that in our modern, Western time, we need all the help we can get. We need to marry these powerful spiritual disciplines with the wisdom and the understanding of this particular culture. That wisdom and understanding includes tools for healing, tools for trauma work, tools for emotional intelligence. And in the last 40 years, these have become integrated much more actively across the spiritual teachings.
In addition, we found that in Western culture there’s a common experience of self-judgment and self-hatred that will arise for people when they’re doing spiritual practice—an unworthiness that will arise. Often, a spiritual practice can be turned against ourselves, and we use it to judge ourselves further or feel inadequate or not good enough. “I’m not doing it right. I’m not enlightened enough.” When we asked the Dalai Lama about this in the 1980s, he was shocked. He’d never heard the word self-hatred. That word doesn’t exist in the Tibetan language. And after some pondering, he said, “This is a mistake.”
What we have done is to incorporate a tremendous amount of compassion and loving-kindness as the basis for the other dimensions of spiritual discipline. Training in mindfulness and concentration have to be married to compassion and loving-kindness. And with that field of love, which it turns out is a form of mindfulness or awakening, people begin to discover that they are loving-awareness itself, and that spiritual practice isn’t to change or perfect oneself. Spiritual practice is about perfecting their love.
Otherwise, spiritual practice can become just another grim duty that you have to perform. You go on a diet and you go to the gym and you go to therapy, and you do all these kinds of self-help trainings, trying to make yourself a better person. But in the deepest way, spiritual practice is more mysterious. It opens us up to the mystery of human incarnation and to our fundamental dignity and goodness and capacity for freedom and love that’s born in every human being. It touches that. It rests on that realization. And this is a very different vision of spiritual practice than one that is focused on some great future attainment of enlightenment in some more idealistic way.
What do you think about self-improvement as an idea? Doesn’t it get in the way of accepting ourselves just as we are?
There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement. Kids want to learn how to read. Adults want to learn how to speak another language or keep their body in shape or develop their capacities to listen and connect more deeply. All of those are beautiful. They can be done in a positive and loving way, to enhance the life that we have, to enhance our human incarnation. Or they can be done in a striving way, with judgment and self-criticism, thinking, I’m not good enough, and I have to make myself better and more enlightened and more spiritual and more—whatever it is. And that undermines the very essence of them.
We’re always growing as an organism, and it’s a beautiful thing. We can grow out of love. We can grow out of care. We can grow out of wanting to flower. And then the self-improvement becomes really an expression of our fundamental dignity and goodness, not trying to become something that we’re not, but to express our beauty and our courage in this very life.
So it has more to do with the spirit that you have while engaging with activities in your life, rather than what the activities are themselves.
Yes. That’s critical.
Mindfulness is having a moment these days. Part of the reason for this is that it’s promising to make people more productive and happy as individuals. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with enlightenment or ethics. Can you comment on that?
I celebrate the spreading of mindfulness, just as I celebrate the spreading of yoga or the spreading of all kinds of very good spiritual tools and disciplines. When I was a boy in the 1950s, if you mentioned yoga, the only images were of Indian fakirs with a loincloth on and their legs wrapped around their neck. Culturally, it was very strange. Now there’s a yoga studio next to a Starbucks on every block.
Sometimes it’s just done to have a beautiful body or to meet an attractive partner. But it still helps. It still begins to give people tools of attention and care for their bodies and brings a spiritual dimension into their lives. This is also true for mindfulness. Mindfulness is being taught in law schools, and I know a judge who’s using it as part of the instructions to the jury so that they listen in a respectful and mindful way to all of the evidence before making their decisions. It’s also being used successfully in thousands of school systems for social and emotional learning.
Out of this broad understanding of the value of attention to one’s inner states starts to grow a more humane approach to medicine and a more humane approach to law. Or there starts to grow in an individual an understanding that the mind and the heart can be awakened and developed. And then certain people will take it much further.
But what if mindfulness is used to do the sort of bypassing that you were talking about earlier, by allowing us to focus on our inner selves rather than on underlying, systemic issues?
Another way to ask this question is: Can you focus on personal development in a way that ignores the need for justice and well-being of human beings? Anybody who is wise recognizes that they go hand in hand. I’ve trained large numbers of activists, many of whom have been burned out because they’ve been so angry, fighting, bitter, and frightened that they haven’t been able to actually engage over the long term, because they let the troubles and the suffering outside come into their own body and heart.
In fact, when you learn how to regulate yourself and develop a deep compassion for yourself and for the world, you realize that they can’t be separated; they’re really the same thing—then it becomes possible, and even necessary, to engage in the world because you’re a part of it, and you feel that. But you engage in a different way. It gives you the power to sustain that love and that work for the benefit of all beings.
Understanding the relationship between contemplation and social action is central to the work that we do at the Garrison Institute. Can you say more about how looking inside leads to social action out in the world?
In Zen, they say there are only two things: you sit and you sweep the garden. And it doesn’t matter how big the garden is. That is, you learn to quiet the mind and open the heart and to remember in that stillness what really matters. Those are the values of the heart and who you are. You discover that who you are is loving-awareness itself, incarnated into this mystery. And as you do, the sense of connection to life shows itself. You don’t even have to cultivate it. As you get quiet, you feel it and you know it. And then you get up from your cushion and you sweep the garden. If people are hungry, you feed them. If people are sick and you have medicine, you offer it, because they’re part of you.
When you hurt your hand, if you’re slicing tomatoes in the kitchen and you accidentally cut yourself, you don’t go, “Oh, that poor hand. I wonder if I should help it. Should I do something about it?” It’s you. It’s part of you. It’s so deeply obvious that you wash it and you put a Band-Aid on it or whatever. And as you quiet the mind and open the heart, you begin to realize that the world is yours, that you are the world. And so it becomes a spontaneous and beautiful expression of your fundamental Buddha-nature, your fundamental goodness, that you tend the world.
Without mindfulness or compassion training, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and think, Well, all the problems of the world are too great, and I just have to get through the day and try as best I can. Mindfulness makes it easier to step out of the sense of being overwhelmed. You see with clarity. And you realize, I can respond in a wise way. I have some agency and capacity. And I can add my piece. And by adding your drop into the river—the river of justice or the river of mutual care or the river of caring for the environment—it nurtures you, and it nurtures the world.
You’ve mentioned “the mystery” a couple of times during this conversation. What do you mean?
One of the great gifts of a contemplative moment or practice is that as we quiet the mind and soften the heart and look around, we see the mystery all around us, whether it’s of trees or rainfall or the forms of the earth or our own human body. How did we get in here, this strange, bipedal form with a hole at one end, into which we regularly stuff dead plants and animals and grind them up with bones that hang down, and glug them down through the tube for energy, and poop them out the other end? We ambulate by falling in one direction and catching ourselves, and falling in the other direction and catching ourselves. Where we have the capacity to make sounds by pushing air by our vocal cords and shaping our mouths, and I can say “Golden Gate Bridge,” and you can picture that. No one really knows exactly how that happens. They know how the sodium-potassium balance changes in the auditory nerve and goes to the auditory centers of the brain. But beyond that, that interdependence, the web in which we live is so mysterious. And it’s the same web that spins the galaxies and turns our seasons.
So, to meditate, in some way, is to be able to stop and listen to the dance or the music of life with a sense of reverence and connectedness and awe. And from that, then tend your life and tend this world beautifully.
And yet, some not-so-positive stuff also comes up when we meditate, such as grief and despair. Is it important to focus on the positive stuff on a spiritual journey?
No. A spiritual path opens you to the 10,000 joys and to the 10,000 sorrows. It cracks the heart open to weep at the loss of species. It allows you to honorably feel the tears that you carry from your own personal trauma or from the death and loss or tragedy around you personally and more broadly. But we can also become loyal to our suffering. And suffering, while it’s vast and can be tended with great compassion, is not the end of the story. The end of the story is love and freedom. And this is possible for you. We don’t do it by ignoring the suffering around us, but by knowing that who we are and what this life is, is greater than that.
Jack Kornfield will be leading a retreat at the Garrison Institute on September 1-4 entitled “Loving Awareness, Wisdom and Compassion in Tough Times.”
Sam Mowe is the Garrison Institute’s editor in chief. This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine.