An interview with internationally renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, PhD
What an extraordinary lineup! This November 15, renowned Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman will host a unique event for Insight LA in Santa Monica, “Living with a Joyful Spirit and a Wise Heart.” A special group of influential meditation will participate via video: living legend Ram Dass, author of the seminal book Be Here Now; Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and bestselling author of Full Catastrophe Living; Tara Brach, bestselling author of True Refuge and Radical Acceptance; Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, and Congressman Tim Ryan as well as Golden Globe winning actress Sandra Oh.
Michaela Haas: What makes this event special and why should we participate?
Jack Kornfield: The movement of mindfulness has spread wildly. More than 5,000 scientific studies show its benefits for healing, emotional resiliency, academic attention and more, and it’s been incorporated into business, law, sports - even the Seattle Sea Hawks had a mindfulness coach when they won the Super Bowl. What is remarkable about this event is that this group is the founding generation of the movement to spread mindfulness and compassion training across the West. We were all together in the late 1960s and 70s, studying in places like India, Thailand, and Burma. All of us have matured and integrated our practices in ways that make it relevant and alive in Western culture. This is one of the few times that we ever have a chance to get together – with some joining us on the big screen - and have a heartfelt conversation about our life`s work and what it means.
It`s also a birthday celebration, because both Trudy and you are turning 70. Congratulations!
We`ll spend 30 seconds on Happy Birthday, and then on the questions to these teachers: What are the deepest understandings you want to communicate to others? What do you want to leave as your legacy? What matters most in your teaching now? We are all close friends, we share a deep affection and understanding. Our attention is as much on loving kindness and compassion as it is on mindfulness; you could call it loving awareness. This possibility transforms everything when we really understand what is possible for all of us.
Yes, millions of people, myself included, have benefited from these teachings. What do you remember about the early days?
We were all well-educated, Joseph Goldstein and I had Ivy League education, but we really had no understanding of the heart – how to deal with our suffering, our confusion, our anger and the trauma of our family life? How do you direct yourself with a sense of integrity and vision? So we needed to learn the other half of our education, which wasn’t the intellectual part, but the dimensions of wisdom and love. And we did, and it changed us.
I became a monk in 1969, met my teacher in Thailand when I was in the Peace Corps. Joseph went to India before me and met his teacher there. In India he also met Ram Dass. When we came back from Asia, people were curious, What have you learned? Our teaching all grew spontaneously. Centers developed from there.
Tell us a little bit about how you developed your relationships with some of the featured teachers.
We all feel like family, a very loving, respectful and creative family. Everybody has great gifts that they bring. Sharon Salzberg is like the mother of loving kindness and really brings the practice forth in her teachings and writings. Tara Brach’s teachings have become so tender, she really inspires people with that tenderness. Joseph Goldstein is the carrier of exquisite clarity, and Ram Dass changed an entire generation with Be Here Now. Ram Dass has become the most loving person on the earth I know. He is in a wheelchair after his stroke, speaks somewhat haltingly, and he just loves people. In India we call it the gaze of mercy, when the guru looks at you with so much love and doesn’t judge you in any way. It changes you to be seen that way.
And Jon Kabat-Zinn started in the basement of his medical school and said to the other doctors, “Send me all the chronically ill people you cannot help anymore.” Then he turned to me and said privately, “because we have the BIG medicine, which is MINDFULNESS OF WHAT IS TRUE. We can teach them how to actually be with their bodies and their emotions and their hopes in the most compassionate, healing, wise way, and that changes everything.”
Jon’s and Trudy’s fathers were both celebrated medical researchers in Paris at the Pasteur Institute when Jon was 15 and Trudy was 14. They fell in love. Their first love in Paris! And they are still very close today. Jon, Trudy and I had all studied with Korean master Dae Seung Sahn in Cambridge. They, Ram Dass, Dan Goleman and others came to the first mindfulness retreat Joseph Goldstein and I taught in 1974 in Massachusetts before we had our center in Barre. So we all started the American chapter of our Dharma future together.
From the early hippie days, what are the most remarkable changes you have seen?
Mindfulness has now become really wedded to compassion and loving kindness. For us in the West especially, where there is so much self-judgment, ambition and confusion. To have compassion and loving kindness be the basis for wise attention changes everything. So that’s a big change. When we studied Buddhism in Asia, the teachings were much more monastic and patriarchal. Now we have many more female teachers, and we’ve integrated the teachings into everyday lay life. How do you fix your dinner, build a loving relationship, and how do you treat your colleagues with kindness? This is where it`s at.
You have been teaching meditation worldwide since 1974 and are one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. When I visited the US Army’s resilience training in Philadelphia for my book Bouncing Forward, I was surprised to see the sergeants meditate every day. The Army has recognized the benefits of mindfulness meditation for dealing with stressful situations and healing trauma. Where do you see the benefits and risks of practicing mindfulness meditation in the Army?
I`ve been a formal advisor to some of the programs that teach mindfulness to the Marines and in the military. Some people say, you`re teaching people to be better snipers, and this is not ethical. My response is this: if you actually meet these 18 year old men and women who are sent to these battle areas in far parts of the world, with heavy weapons in their hands, to an unfamiliar culture, not understanding the language and not even knowing who the enemy is, because anybody could wear a suicide vest, and you want these young people NOT to have mindfulness? They need this more than anyone. They can regulate themselves and minimize their reactivity, which means minimizing harm to themselves and to others. And as the research is showing, by having these kind of trainings they come back with less trauma, because they have ways to integrate their emotions and pain. Millions of vets return with trauma and clearly there are not enough resources to help them. I just hope it goes up the chain of command!
And if we could add loving kindness, it would be even better!
Then it could reach the Defense department and spread over to Congress and the rest of DC. Tim Ryan gave his book The Mindful Nation to all 435 members of congress. Whether they read it and practice is a whole other question…let us all hope so.
You are a clinical psychologist. When I researched the science of posttraumatic growth for Bouncing Forward, I was surprised how similar the strategies are in Buddhist mind-training and trauma therapy, for instance in employing mindfulness meditation, self-compassion, acceptance, flexibility, and an open heart. Maybe most surprisingly was to discover studies that showed that Tibetan refugees and other Buddhist trauma survivors had extremely low PTSD rates (0,1 percent) even though they had survived extreme hardship, loss, even torture. Where do you think Western psychology, especially trauma therapy, can benefit from the Buddhist wisdom?
There have been wonderful innovations in trauma therapy over the last decades. Trauma therapists like Peter Levine who developed Somatic Experience, and Bessel van Kolk are very aware of the benefits of mindfulness. What people find is that trauma has many levels. Trauma is stored in the body, it has an emotional component, there are stories that need to be told and experiences that need to be witnessed by others in a loving way. The suffering of many veterans is an example. I have heard them say, “I can’t tell you what I saw, but much more painfully, I can’t tell you what I had to do.” There is a weight on their soul that needs to be witnessed and released from their body and heart in a profound way so that as a returning warrior they are welcomed back to life. Practices that combine mindfulness and compassion with the best Western trauma approaches bring great benefit.
I recommend loving kindness and mindfulness meditation in my workshops. Often people come to me and tell me that they are interested in meditation, but that they can’t meditate. This always sparks deep conversations about what meditation actually is and I`m curious as to what you tell people who think you can’t meditate?
When someone asks me this question, I get curious, because usually behind this question is a certain idea of what meditation is, maybe the desire to reach a certain stage of peace or blissfulness, and not to meet the unfinished business of the heart. They think it should all be peaceful and blissful…. Awareness of the body means to allow the actual experience of your body, whether it is calm or restless or painful and tight. Then you become aware of the emotions, and it might again be that you feel ease or rest, or it might be anger, fear or sadness. As you acknowledge them with spacious attention, your reactions and problems ease, and the heart becomes more free.
Meditation isn’t to get to a particular state but to learn to bring loving awareness and wisdom, and balance to your actual experience. Then of course you can always meditate, because it includes whatever is happening at this moment.