Balancing Act: A Conversation with Jack Kornfield
Jack Kornfield, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, author, and one of the most well-known teachers of Buddhism in the West. He’s a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock Center in California. Here, he talks about meditation, his signature loving-kindness practice, and why he loves to teach.
What’s at the core of the trainings you teach?
The trainings are centered in equanimity and balance—it’s the training of the heart and mind to stay balanced. I teach a series of steps for equanimity, beginning with reflections on the vastness of time and changing circumstances, ever-changing winds of gain and loss, praise and loss, pleasure and pain. Training has to do with reflecting on the value of keeping a peaceful heart and envisioning others with compassion. We realize that people can love enormously, and that you can’t love on behalf of someone else; we try to understand the limits of love. It’s also using a series of deep intentions: May I live with peace in the joys and sorrows of the world. May you find peace.
What transformations can people have when they practice meditation?
There’s a glow people have, a “meditation facelift” that leaves people profoundly refreshed, their eyes open and skin clear. You don’t have to become a card-carrying Buddhist. You can tend to the beauty that’s awakened in yourself from meditation practice in moments, by skillful use of intention, and the practice of loving-kindness. You can do this anywhere—in the airport, supermarket, or workplace. In any circumstance, even tending young children, having the skills of wise intention is invaluable and makes that circumstance more alive.
Body-based practices, such as being aware of the breath, can help you embody the power of mindfulness and live fully in the present, whether you’re jogging or cooking. The result is the ability to live your life in the reality of the present, rather than in the worries of the future and regrets of the past. And you have the flexibility and ability to respond to your circumstances with a tremendous sense of inner power.
How can someone use mindfulness and loving-kindness every day?
You can sit on a subway in New York City and begin, without looking weird at all, to direct the force of loving-kindness to those around you. See a person as he was as a child in his original beauty. In a minute, your relationship to him becomes transformed and he’s connected with your heart. Another training, mindfulness of intention, is learning to take a few breaths before speaking to someone you’re in conflict with. Ask yourself, “What is my highest, or best, intention?” Your intention isn’t to be right or one-up the person, or defend yourself. Look into your heart, and it will show you that you’re looking for ways to connect and create bridges.
How do these practices connect us with others?
Mindful awareness practices are found in many ancient traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and mystical Christianity. As humans, we’ve always known about this capacity to live with a gracious, wise heart, and we’ve needed practices to help us do so, even in the ancient days. When we practice, we’re entering a stream of literally millions of humans before us who also awakened to the inner freedom, compassion, and dignity of their own true nature using the same disciplines passed down from warm hand to warm hand.
What is your current view and understanding of meditation and its effects?
My meditations used to be more directed, but they’ve become much simpler. I rest my attention in loving-kindness, an image or thought, or a part of the world or the body. I am very present in the world of unbearable beauty and an ocean of tears, and respond to it with what I can. Thich Nhat Hanh once said that on crowded refugee boats, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. If just one person remained calm, it showed a way for everyone to survive. I hope that my own meditation path lets me be one of those people on the beautiful boat of the world where we can share the love and centeredness so that everyone can survive.
There’s a remarkable new field, the science of inner transformation. Within this field, there are already thousands of studies on mindfulness showing the capacity for transforming the brain and nervous system. Even a little bit of training can start to reorganize the nervous system, and that transformation is possible for everyone. Some choose to emphasize hatha yoga or martial arts while, for others, it’s walking in mountains. All of them become vehicles for awakening a sense of the sacred.
What mantras do you like to use, if any?
I use a loving-kindness meditation at times, for inner recitation. When I encounter people, I use, “May you be well, may you be safe.” Sometimes, I use one from the Beatles: “Let it be.” I really take it to heart in a deep way when I recite that. There’s a way I’m letting the world be as it is, I know how to respond, and I don’t have to be worried or rushed. I feel what response comes from silence.
What inspires you to teach?
I love life. This earth. I feel more and more connected with everyone I meet. Teaching is a privilege. When we come together, we’re exchanging notes. It’s as if we’re all holding hands together as we all share what we know.
What question do students ask you the most?
Over 35 years, I’ve heard every kind of question, from “How do I work with mindfulness and my dog?” to “How do I deal with bringing a cancer I’m trying to heal from to a spiritual practice?” I’ve been asked, “How can I support my son, who’s been deployed to Afghanistan?” and “How do I deal with the overwhelm I feel when I watch the news because of all the concerns I have for the world?”
Each question is a person, and if I listen—and if we listen together with respect, tenderness, and interest to each person—kind of wisdom shows itself. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the trainings I teach and can transform every part of your life. Other practices are important, too, like joy. It becomes important to understand not to put off happiness amid other pursuits and live in the reality of the present with a joyful heart.
What advice do you give people struggling with meditation?
Meditation presents challenges. Like other spiritual practices, it can be a grim duty that you impose on yourself. Or, in the course of healing, it can make you aware that you’re actually loyal to your suffering and are scared by the idea of how you’d be if you were to really live with joy. But living with joy is possible and, I believe, a birthright.
It can be a challenge to sit down to meditate. What arises is the unfinished business of life, tensions, grief or trauma, unspoken longing, unwept tears, and, without a deep understanding, you don’t know how to turn difficulties into a path of practice. With training, the fears, confusion, and agitation, we encounter become workable. We learn to liberate our energy and compassion.
If someone is having a challenging time, I have them close their eyes while we talk and have them feel what there is in that moment. I say, “Let’s ask what makes it so difficult to be present.” Often, it’s fear that they have to feel the grief of a relationship, or fear about what to do with anxiety about the future if they stop and listen to what they are actually feeling. When they do it with compassion, they realize they can live in the present. Become curious: what’s here that’s hard to experience? When you become curious, you discover all kinds of things. If anything, the world becomes more and more mysterious.
Are you finding more and more diversity among your students these days?
I’m so happy that people with diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds are exploring meditation. It’s what the world needs. We are a marvelously, wildly diverse species—but at the core, we’re all humans with the same fundamental nature. Every child has a secret beauty and spirit that gets covered over as they age, but it can always shine underneath. All it takes are the right circumstances to reawaken their true selves. That sense of inner dignity and nobility is a basis for all the spiritual practice we do.
What are your goals as a teacher?
My goal is for people to awaken to their fundamental dignity, nobility, and freedom of the heart regardless of their circumstances. My goal is for them to remember how to love and bring compassion to all parts of their lives. Also, to give people ancient practices and tools in a modern form that they can use when they return to their everyday lives so they can quiet the mind, open the heart, and develop a spirit of compassion no matter where they are. So they can heal and transform themselves and learn to be their own enlightened master. My goal is for them to trust their innate wisdom.
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