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Jack Kornfield's Thoughts on Mediating
Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., has trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma, but his wisdom can help you begin meditating without leaving home. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and was one of the first to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. Kornfield’s books include A Path with Heart; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path; The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace; and Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Mediation, which he co-authored with Joseph Goldstein. His new book, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, will be available this spring. He shares his thoughts on how to put your fears to rest and begin meditating today.
What are the implicit benefits of meditation?
You can quiet the mind and open the heart.
Why is meditating becoming more popular?
We’ve come to the end of a kind of delusion that scientific progress alone is going to make us happy. We are nuclear giants and ethical infants. Now, it’s becoming ever more clear that we have to match a shift in consciousness with the shift in technology that we have. So, externally there’s that enormous change. But, when you sit and close your eyes, it’s your humanity that you are in touch with, and the mystery of incarnation. And, that’s always what you encounter.
What are some of the typical challenges a new meditator faces in the first 30 days?
All the unfinished business of your life shows itself. If you have a lot of tension in the body, then that’s what you feel. If you have unwept tears for grief or loss, they will appear. If you have tension in your body, it’s like a tap on the shoulder saying, “Remember me? I need to sleep.” Meditation is a mirror. It shows you who you are.
How do you get people to look in the mirror?
The most important thing I tell people about meditation is that consciousness—your own mind—and compassion are completely trustworthy. You have within you the capacity to hold every experience with the compassionate heart of the Buddha. You can do that. And, you have within you the consciousness that can contain, awaken to and be present for all things. It is all our Buddha nature, and meditation is a reminder of how to do this.
What are some of the typical fears and questions a beginner may face while meditating?
Restlessness, boredom and feeling lonely. In meditation you get to face the things you've run from and learn that they’re just states of mind and that they are all quite workable and that underneath there is a ground of presence and compassion that you have within you that you can awaken and bring to all of your experience.
What’s the most important quality for people to bring to their meditation practice?
Kindness toward yourself. This is not about self-improvement. It’s about compassion. Patience is the wrong word. A better word is constancy, a willingness to show up in a kind way and to be curious. We are so curious about everything in the outer world. We want to find out about our friends. We want to find out about the political situation. And so we want to bring that same spirit of curiosity and interest to what’s going on in this inner life/world, which is kind of directing or regulating the two. If you have the curiosity to notice anger or fear you can say, “oh that’s interesting. I wonder what it would be like to understand it more deeply.”
Instead of being difficult, things then become a source of understanding with a greater sense of freedom. The point of meditation is that you can be free no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. The heart can always be free. When you see Nelson Mandela walk free out of 27 years of prison with such dignity, magnanimity and graciousness you realize that this is our human capacity and everyone has it.
For people new to meditation who are looking for guidance, what’s the best way to find a teacher?
Shop around, find what connects with your heart and try it for a bit to see if it really seems beneficial and trustworthy. I generally go for the name brands—Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga—the various kinds of teaching that have been around for a long time. If people are making it up [for themselves], they may not have the rich understanding that they can get from 3,000 years of yogic Buddhist tradition.
What are some of the typical phases people will go through while meditating?
There are many different states—periods of deep stillness, peacefulness and great joy. Some people are as afraid of joy or rapture as they are of discomfort. They don’t know how to be open to the [Buddhist belief that life is made up of] 10,000 joys as well as the 10,000 sorrows. You can be open to them and learn that they too are part of the ocean of experience that can be held with compassion and mindfulness.
Other feelings could be discouragement and wondering whether anything’s happening. Sometimes it’s not what’s happening on the cushion but what happens after that’s important. People sometimes say, “during meditation I was thinking a lot, restless, my mind didn’t settle down much, but my day seemed so much more centered.” It’s all because you meditated.
Sit still and let yourself sink into presence, mindfulness, and compassion. In an invisible way, it starts to change everything.
What would you say to those who claim to be too busy to meditate?
The question isn’t about the future of humanity, but the presence of eternity. We need to step out of our schedules and the pressure of time. Time and schedule are like idolatry. Come back to the reality of the present. Meditation is now relatively accepted nationwide. It’s not a weird thing. People now understand that we need ways to quiet the mind and open the heart as well as ways to go through our to-do list.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
I go to the ground of emptiness and compassion, which is the source of everything. I go to the Buddha nature that all things are born into and born with. I trust that.
The best thing about change is...
…change. Nothing is lost, everything is born anew.
What is the best change you have ever made?
Letting change happen and not stopping the flow.
For more information on Jack Kornfield, visit www.spiritrock.org.