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This week’s conversation is with Jack Kornfield, a PhD, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

He has trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma, and is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society, and the Spirit Rock Center.

Jack is one of the key teachers to introduce mindfulness practice to the west and has taught meditation internationally since 1974.

His 14 books include A Path with Heart; A Lamp in the Darkness; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry; The Wise Heart; and No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are.

And honestly – I couldn’t think of better conversation to get us rolling in 2021.

We cover all things related to mindfulness — tools for getting better at quieting your mind, managing self-critique, vulnerability and so much else.

“It’s possible wherever, whoever you are, to inhabit, cultivate and discover the power of presence, whether you’re an elite athlete, a preschool teacher or an accountant.”

In This Episode:

How long has he been practicing meditation?

50 years, believe it or not, I just turned 75. I was at Dartmouth College and I was studying to go to medical school, and I took this course after my organic chemistry class in Chinese and Asian Studies. I had this wonderful old master, who came up from Harvard to begin to teach this stuff and sometimes would sit cross legged on the desk. And he’d talked about the Dao and he’d talked about the teachings of Buddhism and especially said, central to Buddhism is the notion that there is suffering in life and there’re causes and that there’s an end to it, there’s a path to freedom.

What was childhood like?

My family experience was really painful. My father was brilliant in many ways as a scientist and he taught in medical schools, and he did work in Space Medicine, all kinds of things, but he’s also paranoid and violent and a wife batterer and a very unpredictable and violent person. So, nothing in my standard education taught me how to deal with my own anger like his, so I just suppressed it all. Taught me how to deal with what it meant to have a healthy relationship, because my parents really didn’t have that. How to work with forgiveness, how to work with my own emotions of all kinds. So, when I heard this old master say, “There’s suffering and there’s a path to the end of it,” I had a lot of trauma and grief, and I was interested in I began to read about Zen and all those things, and wondered, “Are there still Zen masters and great teachers?”

The second half of his education

I had a lot of trauma and grief, and I was interested in I began to read about Zen and all those things, and wondered, “Are there still Zen masters and great teachers?” And then I asked the Peace Corps to send me to a Buddhist country and found a great master after working on medical teams in Thailand in the remote villages, I found this great monastery and master and I got the second half of my education, which was the education that you don’t get in Ivy League or anywhere else, it’s the education of the heart. How do you practice forgiveness? How do you master, in some sense, your own life and how do you deal with that in a conscious, mindful, compassionate way? So, that’s a little bit of background story and I needed it and in a sense, culturally, we need it. But that’s another question we might get to. I forget what you asked me, I just went off on this tangent.

How does he introduce mindfulness to people?

There’s a hundred ways and for me, I’m not a proselytizer, in the sense that mostly, I noticed it as parent. Your kids watch what you do and who you are. You can sell them anything and it doesn’t matter that much because the little ones, they’re just watching you. Okay, well, how are they actually living? And so, for me, it’s more responding in this beautiful, but serendipitous way. When people say, “Yes, I know you trained in these things, can you tell me something about it?” And I’m not interested in people becoming Buddhists. If they want to, that’s fine. I’d much rather they become Buddhists, people who are compassionate and present and awake, spare their friends and family from having some new idea of who they’re supposed to be.So, I listen for an opening and maybe that’s true in everything. There’s a kind of grace to it.

What are some tools for getting better at meditation?

There are a whole set of what are called in Sanskrit “upaya” or beautiful tools and it depends on the circumstance, but there are some core things that everyone needs. A practice of loving kindness for yourself and others, a practice for steadying your body and heart and mind, which is a mindfulness practice where you go to these different dimensions of yourself and hold it with steadiness, remove yourself in the earth, bring a sense of well-being, a breath practice. So, it would depend when someone came. I might give them, offer them a forgiveness practice or practice of deep self-compassion, which is the kind of thing that when you talk about being a young man and learning to be a competitive surfer and all of a sudden, all the mental judgments and anxiety and “How will I look?” and “Will I perform?” and so forth. There are simple practices of first mindful self-compassion where you really see your own humanity and you say, “This is who I am. And I’ll offer my best but it’s not going to be measured by the world, it’s going to be measured by my own heart and whether I’ve given myself to it,” because in the end in life, that’s what matters. “Have I given myself fully? And I’ve learned how to love.” If you do it out of any other motivation, you can do things, but in the end, it doesn’t satisfy the heart.

How do you help people through that ping-ponging or that slip back to revert to an older version of oneself?

There’s a kind of humility, that’s a dimension of wisdom that we only learn from making mistakes. I mean, if you watch a kid learn to walk, they fall on their diaper, in their ass, in their knees with, this little girl or little boy and it doesn’t daunt them, and they do a hundred or a thousand times. So, first of all, we reframe it. Of course, you’re going to make a mistake. We’re just human and so, there’s a certain common humanity and you say anybody who gets good. I mean, Nelson Mandela talked about it. He said, “It’s not that I’ve fallen down 1,000 times, it’s that I’ve fallen down 1,000 times and got up 1,001 and pointed my feet in the direction I want to go.”

What are the techniques that help quiet the mind?

Part of it is just appealing to the heart rather than the judging mind to say, “This is who we are as human beings.” Then quiet yourself and you ask, “What are the techniques?” The most central ones are mindfulness and compassion. So, quiet and center yourself. Let the mind quiet down a little bit. You see all the stories that the mind tells you and you become the mindful witness. The kind attention that says, “Okay, mind, thank you for trying to correct me and protect me. I know that’s what you’ve been doing. You’re so busy. Thank you for all that hard work. I’m okay for now in this moment.” And it’s never too late to start again, then you come and you take a breath and you invite that quality of beginner’s mind and presence and say, “All right, fall down 1000 times, get up 1001 times.”

Master Yourself

What is more important is the emotional mastery. Because you can master your body in certain ways, but you know it as well as I, you can be an Olympic athlete at one level and be an emotional idiot on another and destroy your life for those around or not enjoy, we all have that. And emotional mastery meant to be able to sit still and be present for what Zorba called the whole catastrophe, the depth of your tears, the fear that arises, the self-judgment, the confusion, the anger.

The Art of Mastery

The art of mastery is not to run from things, but to stay steady and invite them to open. And when you invite the tears to open, you might feel the grief for the world. Open tears, tears and then as it opens more and more in your present, then you become the space, the witness that says, “Wow. That was like surfing. That was a really big set. That was a huge wave.” But who you are is so much bigger than the emotions that come and we live in a culture that doesn’t understand emotional mastery, in fact, quite the opposite.

Mastering and mindfulness

There’s a kind of mastery, that’s not just a mastery of body, but it’s the mastery of the whole person. And that mastery means that one brings mindfulness to body, pay attention, and deeply, “What does the body need? What can I learn from it? How can I support it to be its best?” One brings mindfulness to what’s these are the foundations to the heart? What are the unprocessed emotions? What are the fears? What drives us? What’s the trauma? What needs to be seen and held with compassion and released? And getting help to do that because it’s hard to do it on your own, therapy or with teachers or things. Bringing mindfulness to the mind. What are the stories we tell ourselves? The imprints? Are they true? Is there a bigger space? A wiser place? And step-by-step as you breathe and bring that kind of attention, there comes an inner subtleness or mastery, “Now, I can be with my own body, my own emotions and fears and longings and love. I see the thoughts.”

The meaning of the word mindfulness

The word mindfulness is traditionally a compound word that means mindful presence and mindful response. So 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. You steady yourself, you quiet your mind, you tend your body and heart until you feel a kind of presence and courage and compassion, love, and then you get up to the garden of the world and you bring that in.

How can we get better at self-critique and judgment?

One of the first skills that one learns in the art of mindfulness, of mindful presence or mindful kind attention is to name and acknowledge the states of mind without getting lost in them and one of the most helpful acknowledgments is of the judging mind. So there you are doing your art, you’re playing music you’re playing ball, you’re painting your whatever it happens to be.. And then the judging mind comes. You could have done “x” better, you should have started earlier, or you could have done this, you could have learned. All those things, and you could say, “I hate this judging. I want to get rid of, judging is terrible. No more judging. I’m going to, what was your word, eradicate that sucker. Stop judging. I hate judging.” But what’s that? It’s another judgment, right? It just piles on. Instead what you do is you turn almost with a bow and you say, “Judging, judging mind.” And then if you need to or if it’s helpful, you can say, “Thank you for your opinion” to that part of your mind and if you want to take it one-level deeper, you can even reflect, “Now, whose voice does that remind you of?” Because it’s not just your own. It was recorded in there from school, parents, whatever. We won’t to talk about them. “Okay, thank you for your opinion, I’m actually okay for now. You can rest.” Put them on the sideline and go. And it will arise a number of times, but all of a sudden, your relationship to the judging mind becomes one of not living inside it with the belief that it’s true, but seeing it as just conditioned. And this is a small example, a small window or a doorway into the kind of inner freedom that comes as we learn to meditate and learn to practice.

Why are people so concerned about the opinions of others?

Because one of our deepest longings is to love and be loved, to be connected more than anything. I mean, the ones who run away and don’t want to be connected generally do that, because it’s too painful, because they’ve been hurt too much. They can’t trust that connection and often for very good reason. I mean, I again, would not judge that, but underneath, I believe that one of the deepest and most significant longings of human incarnation is not just that you’ve taken this body, that consciousness has come in and giving you this body, but that to be a human being is to be connected. And it’s true from the moment you’re an infant, none of us survived without people, even if they were not very good parents or tenders. We weren’t fed. We weren’t cleaned enough. And there’s something in us that wants to know that we’re a part of something. So in the old villages, the worst punishment of all, there are all kinds of centering and the worst punishment was when you were banished.

The importance of men allowing themselves to be vulnerable

I remember being at a men’s retreat, and they said, “When are you mostly with other men? Was it sports or business or something? Well, how much do you really hang out and talk?” And when we started to open up, the men were really afraid of each other. It was okay if we talked about sports or we talked about business, we had some third thing, but to actually look and say, “God, this is what I’ve been going through. This is what’s happening in my marriage, or my business or with my sons or daughters or kids or in business.” We realized that we didn’t know that and that wasn’t taught to us so well in this culture. And when I’ve lived in other parts of the world, many, in the Middle East, in Asia, and Latin America, men say they put their arms around each other, they walk down the street and hold hands. [In the West] we’re so homophobic, we’re afraid of each other. We’re afraid of loving each other and it’s not about that at all.

The Tao Te Ching

There’s this beautiful passage in the Tao Te Ching, “Let your heart be at peace, watch the turmoil of beings and contemplate their return.” If you don’t realize the source in yourself, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize who you are or where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind hearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king, immersed in the wonder of the Dao, you can deal with whatever life brings you and even when death comes, you are ready. It just invites us to come into the present, which is a mystery. Nobody knows what’s going to happen and from this place, then to take up our art, sport, or whatever it is, but not, “I’m going to try and further them all or else, I’ll beat myself,” but to say, “Let me give what I’ve been given out to the world in the best way that I can,” something like that.

What his relationship with spirituality?

It’s a beautiful and deep question and it really goes to who are we really? We’re not our bodies. It’s so clear. You’re not that infant body. You’re not your middle-aged body. Then you get an aged body. That’s just not who you are. It’s always changing. You’re not your emotions, because they’re always changing. You’re not your thoughts, I hope, that would be really tragic for a lot of us in some way where there’s good thoughts, but it’s pretty chaotic in there. Who you are is consciousness itself. It’s this consciousness, this awareness that was born into this body

The mind and the heart opens and closes

I’ve discovered that the mind and the heart and everything, it opens and closes. How the body breathes and the cerebrospinal fluid, and there are the phases of the moon, and the tides come and go, and the stock market goes up and down, and everything kind of is breathing itself in its cycles, and the galaxies are turning, the 250 million years for the wheel of our arm at the galaxy to go around. And the heart opens and closes, and sometimes we think the goal is to have it always open, beauty, connection with everything, like you’re holding your breath, but in fact, sometimes the heart also needs to close and just take rest and be quiet and not be in touch with anything and nothing mystical or magical, just stillness or “Okay, it’s time to cook breakfast,” or whatever it is. And I’ve come to really appreciate and love who we are as beings of expansion and contraction and to know that, and knowing that allows me to give myself to life without hold, without that extra attachment part.

What is our relationship with change?

We’re afraid of change because when you’re in your cave and you know where the berries are and you know when the bear hibernates, and when it’s dangerous or whatever, you’re safer and there’s some part of us that wants that safety. But as you point out or Schaefer said or when he was with Whitman, Schaefer said, “I’m a man of parts,” And Whitman said, “Yes, I am larger, I contain multitudes.” That part of us wants safety and part of us wants the full human experience and so, we tug between those two and it’s natural, because the brainstem wants safety. “Give me what I know.” And then another part says, “Yeah, but there’s this world to explore and experience and both of them are part of being human. And I think our navigation, and it’s different for different people. Some people are more introverted or extroverted or silent or is what nourishes you, what leads you to be the most deeply true to yourself and connected with what your gifts are. And for some, that will be to have a really simple rhythm and not change very much and for others, it will be to challenge themselves and change.
And one of them isn’t more right than another. I think they both are. They both can be an expression of the best of ourselves, of our inner truths.

Why technology can’t solve our problems

It’s becoming more and more clear with the pandemic, the climate change, and so forth, that no amount of tech, outer technology, computers and internet and AI and biotech and space technology and nanotechnology, where you have your cell phone, that has the great library of Alexandria and all the songs of the past generations and 23 million cat videos, whatever you could imagine in that little device or its connection, but that’s not going to stop continuing war. Technology won’t do it and outer development, it won’t stop continuing climate change, continuing racism, continuing tribalism, that can’t be changed from the outer development, no matter how magnificent it is. Because the roots of war, racism, or climate destruction, or all these other things, they’re all in the human heart. And so, what we’re talking about, we can talk about individual mastery, but there’s also a kind of cultural mastery, which is to say that we have this magnificent outer development, but we are as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, past said, “We are a nation of nuclear giants and ethical ancients.” And so, what our human task now, in some very straightforward way, is to match the miracles of outer development with the development of interconnection, of the capacities for caring and forgiveness or compassion of attention to ourselves and the earth from the heart. Our abilities to love in some deep way and to live in a wise relationship. And that’s the task for humanity right now. Yes, the rest will continue and will develop, but without that, we’re stuck, and the suffering, as you can see it’s really great with the racial injustice and the economic injustice and the kind of ways that people are marginalized. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

His purpose

To love

His vision

To bring goodness, blessings, love out from me to the world.

I am

I don’t know what I am. I’m a mystery. I’m loving awareness, I am consciousness, but even to say that reduces the mystery.

It all comes down to?

Being present here and now.

What he understands best?

That I don’t really know everything even in spite of what I think I know.

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