Vipassana meditation teacher, psychologist, and Spirit Rock cofounder Jack Kornfield’s latest book, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom and Joy Right Where You Are, is a practical guide to living by the Buddha’s teachings. Kornfield presents Buddhist philosophy alongside a mix of personal anecdotes, practice instructions, and excerpts from literature to show how we can find a way to live with meaning amid pain and difficulty.

Tricycle spoke with Kornfield about how the Buddha’s teachings can help us learn from failure, address social injustice, and stay grounded.

In the book’s introduction, you write that after 27 years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela left prison with such “dignity, magnanimity, and forgiveness that his spirit transformed South Africa and inspired the world.” In a world beset by injustice and institutional oppression, what role do the Buddha’s teachings play?
This is a really important question. A couple of years ago, I attended the first White House Buddhist Leadership Conference with more than 100 Buddhist monks, scholars, and teachers from across the country. I gave a talk on the ancient Buddhist teachings of social justice and wise society that encourage treating others with respect, caring for the vulnerable, and tending to the natural environment. These are the wise exhortations from the Buddha to the rulers and leaders of his time.

But, I was happy to add, there are ways to train ourselves to do this. Modern neuroscience has shown that we can increase emotional regulation, steady our attention, and deepen our innate capacities for compassion and empathy. The mindfulness movement, empathy training, and social-emotional learning have spread to education, business, and medicine. These practices are validated by science and can help us regulate ourselves even in difficult situations, promoting both our own personal healing and the well-being of others. The teachings in this book show us how we can develop and embody these capacities right where we are—you don’t have to go to the Himalayas or to another exotic place.

I keep coming across scientific articles that say the more value you place upon happiness, the less happy you feel. I’m curious what you make of this, as in the book you write: “You can’t do much with your life if you’re miserable. You might as well be happy.”  
There’s a wonderful new book from the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu called The Book of Joy. The book asks these leaders, one who has lived through apartheid in South Africa and the other through the occupation of Tibet, how can they still laugh. The Dalai Lama says so much has been taken from him—the freedom to go back to his homeland, the destruction of Tibet’s temples and sacred texts, and his religious and cultural freedom—so why should he also let his happiness be taken away?

There are many understandings of happiness. If you think of happiness only as gaining one pleasurable experience after another—a great dinner, a good bottle of wine, a night of sex followed by a morning where you have a successful jog and a delicious latte, or you hop on a plane to Bali—it’s exhausting! These material things can’t feed the heart. These things are lovely, and they’re a part of the life that people of privilege can have. But I’ve met people in the poorest refugee camps around the world who have an incredibly joyful spirit. You also can have tremendous privilege and wealth and still be miserable.

There are different kinds of happiness, and the deep happiness of well-being comes from caring for yourself and loving the world. It comes from offering what’s good in you to others, giving your gifts to a world that needs it. These kinds of happiness are the important kinds—the happiness of generosity, the happiness of your own integrity, and the happiness of an inner well-being that comes from tending the mind and heart so that what’s beautiful in you can come forth.

In the book you talk about Ajahn Chah’s “the one who knows” or “the original nature of the mind”—a silent witness. The book is filled with practices that can help you access this sense of awareness. However, there are still some days when we are too overwhelmed by or too disappointed in the world around us to be able to access this way of being. What then?
You mean those days when we flunk the course after all? Those days when we practice our yoga and do our meditation and our jogging and our therapy and we’re trying to hold it together and then we lose it anyway? Those days?

The first step when you fail is to step back and laugh a little bit. You’re only human, you know. The point isn’t to perfect your body or your personality. The point is really to perfect your compassion and your love. So when you lose it, you say, oh wow, I lost it today. If you need to apologize or clean up the mess you’ve made, do it. What’s true of our humanity is that we contain everything. Yes, we have beauty in ourselves that matches the unbearable beauty of the world, and we can let ourselves touch it. But we also have fears.

This small, fearful self goes all the way back to our ancestors who simply moved toward food and away from danger. But that’s not who we really are. Who we are is greater than our passing thoughts or emotions or our physical body that changes from childhood to adulthood. There’s something in us that knows this. There’s something deeper that’s true, which is the spirit, the consciousness that was born into this body. This is what Ajahn Chah called “the one who knows”—that pure awareness that is always with us. If you try to stop being aware, you can’t. I’m not going to be aware. I’m not going to be aware. Even in your deep sleep if somebody yells your name, you wake up, don’t you? Some other part is listening.

People often misunderstand spiritual practice and spiritual life. They think that it’s a way to rise above our human dilemmas and difficulties, or to escape them and reach some purer state. There are these beautiful states of bliss that you can create in meditative training, but then you still have to go home to wherever you live—even in the temple—and wash the dishes.

As my dear friend Ram Dass says, you need to remember your buddhanature and your social security number. If you only remember your social security number, the amount in your bank account, the items on your to-do list and so forth, you live as a materialist and you lose the mystery and the glory of life along with all of its suffering. On the other hand, if you do a “spiritual bypass” and try to just be light and love and so forth, you miss your humanity. Our spiritual life depends upon knowing that we are both consciousness itself and wholly flawed and human—our practice is to learn to love both.

[This story was first published in 2017]

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