Beloved Buddhist monk and psychologist Jack Kornfield first gained international acclaim with his classic book on meditation and compassionate living “A Path with Heart”. As a teacher, Kornfield has always excelled at helping Westerners integrate meditation insights into their daily lives. He eventually became a cofounder of the widely known Insight Meditation Society.
Amazon.com contributor Gail Hudson interviewed Kornfield at his home base in Spirit Rock, California, and asked him about his most recent release, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”, a book that speaks to the hard chores and oh-so-fulfilling rewards of spiritual growth.
Why did you choose the title “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”?
Many people believe that there will be some great enlightenment that will change everything, and they will live happily ever after. But as it turns out, there is no enlightened retirement. After whatever awakenings have happened to people, then the next task is to integrate and fulfill those experiences in their lives. We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, and after the election comes the hard task of governance, and spiritual life is the same. After the ecstasy, the laundry.
It seems like it’s a struggle to keep up with the laundry in the United States. There are so many distractions–e-mail, phone calls, television, consumerism.
We live in a society that could be characterized as having an absence of the sacred. We’re so busy that we now have 24-hour banking and 24-hour stockbrokers and 24-hour supermarkets. But where is the pause and the time to step back and listen to the heart? In most wise societies there’s one day a week–the Muslims have Friday, and the Buddhists have full and new and quarter moon days. Even the heartbeat that we have–if you tried to use any other muscle as often as the heart beats, it would get exhausted. The reason your heart can beat so long and hard is because between each beat it takes a rest.
I remember reading a book called “Sabbath” by Wayne Muller, which is about reclaiming a sacred day or even a sacred hour when we rest. In our busyness, we’ve lost the Sabbath in our daily lives.
Yes! Let me ask you this: I don’t know anyone who has a computer and e-mail who has more free time than before they got their computer or before they got their e-mail, do you?
No, I don’t. So what advice is there for people who live in this kind of a culture?
The advice is contrary to the words of the culture. It is to take time off. To walk in nature. To create a quiet place for yourself. To learn an inner, contemplative practice–yoga and meditation. To learn mindful eating and mindful speech. To find friends who value the life of the heart. To take time to serve others. To live more simply. To listen to music. To do those things that quiet the mind and open the heart. And we know what they are.
In the introduction there’s this little quote from Pir Vilayat Khan, the 75-year-old head of the Sufi Order in the West, where he says, “Of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to America and get them a house, two cars, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance, and taxes, they would all have a hard time.”
It’s important to acknowledge that it’s not easy, that a spiritual life in modern culture is swimming upstream a little bit. But the beautiful thing is that it’s possible and that it can transform everything that we touch.
So many people spend their adulthood searching for the right religion or spiritual path. Why do you say that it doesn’t really matter what discipline we choose? That it’s the commitment that will bring the change and growth?
Looking to find a path that touches your heart is important, and for some people it may be necessary to visit several teachers and taste several traditions. But once you have, the only way that your heart is transformed is to undertake some practice in an honorable way, whether it is a Native American vision quest or a Buddhist sitting meditation or a Hindu prayer and service and chanting in the holy way or a Christian contemplative prayer. And to do it over and over so that on the days that we feel afraid or small-minded or lost or upset, we actually understand how this spiritual discipline can help us to navigate through that with a compassionate heart.
What are the benefits of committing to a spiritual practice?
The promise of spiritual practice is a shift from the small sense of self or the body of fear, in which we are frightened or needy or angry because we didn’t get what we wanted. We are caught up in gain and loss and praise and blame. And from that perspective, there’s a great deal of conflict and suffering. One can expect an awakening to our true nature, or our Buddha nature, or our true self, which is inherently at ease, connected, compassionate, and forgiving, because we’re not in need of things.
Spiritual life doesn’t make you a good person. You are a good person, you are a holy being, when you are born. What spiritual life does is remind us that this is who we really are.
I was interested in how you characterized commitment as an expression of freedom.
In American popular culture there’s a kind of misunderstanding of freedom. We have the freedom to buy a Plymouth or a Toyota or a Land Rover, or to buy one of 50 different kinds of beer, right? It’s really the freedom of our desires.
But a deeper meaning of freedom is that we are free to not be caught in greed, not be caught in fear, not be caught in hatred. That our heart is free. Instead of being trapped in fear or grasping or hatred, we are free to love. We are free to care for this earth. We are free to express the beauty of our own lives.
There’s a very big difference between attachment and commitment. Commitment is central and essential for spiritual life. If you have no commitment, the first time you sit in meditation and your knees hurt, or you get restless, or your mind wanders, you’ll get up and say, “This isn’t for me.” You need a commitment in order to learn a deeper freedom, which is how to be with all of the joys and sorrows of the world and still keep your heart open.
How would you guide someone who is interested in starting a spiritual practice?
One of the first tasks in a wide spiritual life is to actually learn to be where we are, not to be in our fantasy or imagination or in the past, but to be where we are. That means to take a seat, stabilize the body, quiet the mind, and just pay attention to what’s so now.
The common way to do that is to feel the flow of the breath as it comes in and out, or to say a simple mantra. Some people will have a simple prayer that they repeat or some holy phrase that helps them not to leave this place–something to bring the sense of the sacred to their own breath and body, their feelings and thoughts.
And if someone begins in this way, then next they can start to notice, what is actually here? What feelings are present? What’s the state of my body? Is my mind frightened or agitated or contracted? Or is it open or peaceful or easy? And this leads them to a deeper level of understanding and compassion. You’re really compassionate when you look at your own life honestly. Then you realize everybody else struggles the same way that you do! So the mind quiets and the heart opens.
Thus, “A Path with Heart”, right? How can readers find out more about the Insight Meditation Society?
If they want to get a newsletter and list of 250 sitting groups around the country, and retreats, they can contact Spirit Rock Center on the Web at www.spiritrock.org.