Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Jack Kornfield (@JackKornfield). Jack trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma, shortly thereafter becoming one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job every episode to deconstruct world-class performers; people who are excellent, if not the best, at what they do in many, many, many different fields. And that scratchiness is Tim Ferriss coming off of antibiotics because I had some little gremlins inside me that I brought back from the Amazon. That’s a separate story. In any case, my job, dadada, deconstruct, dadada, many fields.
And this particular episode, we have a wonderful guest, Jack Kornfield. Alice Walker calls Jack “one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our time.” Jack trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma, shortly thereafter becoming one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974. That’s before I was even a glimmer in my papa’s eye.
So, he’s been teaching for a very, very long time. And he has had a profound and direct impact directly on my life. So, I’m thrilled to finally have him on the podcast to share our shared history, his incredible stories, and the practical tactics and very detailed techniques that you can use. And we dig into all of that. And you can also say hi to him on the Internet, @jackkornfield on Twitter. Check it out. Jack’s history – just a little bit. I won’t spend too much time on it. Jack cofounded the Insight Meditation Society in Barr, Massachusetts with fellow meditation teachers Sharon Salzburg, who’s also been on this podcast, and Joseph Goldstein. And later, the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, which is where I did my first silent retreat. And we talk about that. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology, which is important to me and comes into this conversation because he has a very, very diverse toolkit for dealing with many different types of personal challenges, issues, questions, and so on, and is a father, husband, and activist.
His books have been translated into 20 languages and sold more than a million copies. He is prolific. His books include, and I polled some of you for your favorites, A Wise Heart – that’s number one; A Lamp in the Darkness; A Path With Heart; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry – one of my favorite book titles of all time; and his most recent book, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are. He is quite possibly the most purely compassionate human being I have ever interacted with. And compassion isn’t a word that I use very much. But Jack is unique, and I’m thrilled to give you a window into his story and his teachings. Without further ado, please enjoy this wide-ranging conversation with Jack Kornfield.
Jack, welcome to the show.
Jack Kornfield: Oh, thank you, Tim. Pleasure to reconnect.
Tim Ferriss: I have wanted to have you on the show for some time now, and you’ve had certainly a tremendous impact on my life, both through your writing and through firsthand in person interaction, which I think we’ll touch upon.
But first, I wanted to ask you a complete non-sequitur from that, which is something that our mutual friend Adam Gazzaley suggested I ask you about. And Adam, for people who don’t know him, is an incredible PhD/MD neuroscientist based at UCSF. And he suggested that I ask you about hang gliding. And I have no idea why he suggested that, but I’m gonna start there, and if it doesn’t go anywhere, we can change direction. But I figured we would just start with that. And then we’re gonna rewind the clock. But why did he suggest I ask you about hang gliding?
Jack Kornfield: Well, it started many years ago when I went cross-country with a friend who had a hang glider, and we would stop periodically and go off different hills. And it was fantastic. And then I wanted to do paragliding and started to learn it now because everything is developed and paragliding is a lot more official.
You need a license, which I don’t have. But one of my favorite things is to tandem paraglide and go off the top of places like Grindlewold in Switzerland, where you can take the ski lift up 9,000 feet and then jump off and float silently, like you’re a bird among the clouds. The birds actually do come by sometimes and check out, what’s this big bird flying up here? You can catch thermals and go way up above the glaciers. And it’s one of the most thrilling and delicious experiences that I know.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible. So, you first experienced that at what age?
Jack Kornfield: Probably in my late twenties, and did some, and then sort of put it aside. And then I was traveling and teaching in Europe, and I saw a sign for paragliding, and I said, oh gosh, I really want to do it, and started.
And now, each time I go where there’s high mountains and paragliding, that’s one of my things that I love doing. You know, there’s something about – I’ve had – most people have these dreams once in a while, if you’re lucky, a dream of flying. Or maybe in your meditation, you have the sense of not being limited to your body. And this is the closest thing that I know because it’s absolutely silent, and you’re floating there. It’s quite fantastic.
Tim Ferriss: And this is something you still do.
Jack Kornfield: Mm-hmm. And I hope to do it next summer when I’m back in the Alps.
Tim Ferriss: And how old are you now?
Jack Kornfield: 72.
Tim Ferriss: 72. Good man. Well, we’re gonna then go back a bit in chronology and ask about childhood. I would love to hear you describe your childhood. What were you like as a child? What was your upbringing like?
Jack Kornfield: Well, the first thing to say is I remember when I got to Dartmouth College in 1963, and I called my mom from the payphone in the dorm sometime in that fall. I didn’t call very often, but you know how it is. And I said, “Mom,” I said, “guess what? There are a lot of other really fucked up families besides ours.” So, that’s kind of where we start. So, yeah. I had three brothers, and my father was a mixture of a tyrant and a really abusive person, and a brilliant guy. I was born on a Marine base toward the end of World War II, and they didn’t send him overseas. They put him in the medical part of the Marines because he tested so high on their test that they – okay, we’re gonna use him for something.
So, he was brilliant in certain ways. He was a biophysicist who helped design some of the first artificial hearts and lungs, worked on the space program, but also did other kinds of weird stuff, like work for the Army biological weapons people. Not making biological weapons. They were trying to design things that were kind of computer biological interfaces. All kinds of creative stuff. But he was – he had mental problems. And so, we didn’t know when the car pulled in whether we were gonna get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. He would come in, and either he could shout, be abusive, throw my mother down the stairs, rant, chase after us, try to hit us, whatever – or we’d get this interesting creative person. But we hardly ever had people come over when he was around. During the daytime when he was away, we would, because you never knew what you would get.
And so, our family life – my family life in some way was also – there were great parts of it, because I had my brothers, and we were like our own gang. And we moved all the time, but we had each other. And because he was wacky as well as smart, my father either quit or got fired every year or two, and then we would go from one place to another. I went to, I don’t know, eight schools by the time I finished high school. So, my childhood, partly it was – there were the happy things of roughhousing and being a boy with three other boys, and adventures. And then in the basement, my father had all kinds of scientific equipment. He had all this stuff from World War II, this huge radio from a battleship that you could tune into a thousand different shortwave station around the world, and projects that he was trying to design stuff.
And so, we learned from him you could pretty much take or design or do anything in the physical world. And at the same time, I felt like my whole childhood was also – how to say it? – colored with the fear of his violence and his unpredictability. And I became kind of a peacemaker in the family. We all sort of had our roles, and now I do it as a profession, right? Trying to kind of make it a little smoother between my parents so they didn’t kill each other. And each of my brothers had their own strategy. My twin brother, who was a lot bigger and much more outgoing, who played football, which I certainly didn’t – I was skinnier, and I was in the orchestra, and he was the football player.
But anyway, I remember when he first got in a fistfight with my dad, because my father was abusing our mom. And my twin brother had been, as young men sometimes do – he was probably 13, 14, and he grew pretty big, and he was looking the mirror making muscles in the mirror to see how strong he’d become. Anyway, he just got into a fistfight with my father. And I was both thrilled and terrified. And but it worked in some way, because the abuse settled down quite a lot after that. So, that was his – his strategy was just to get angry, and then later kind of to go his own way somewhat more, although we’ve all been very close as brothers. So, there was that. At the same time, there was a lot of interest, intellectual interest. So, we read and learned about all kinds of things. Both my parents were really interested in the world around us.
And so, it was sort of this mixed thing of the gift of being together with my brothers and a mom who was basically pretty nurturing, although she kept trying to leave him and never got it together. I think it was too scary in the ‘50s to have four boys, no job. And so, we were in the middle of those. And the kind of healing that it took, it took a long time to do the inner healing work from the pain of my family. And I remember when I became a Buddhist monk, and I was sitting these first years with my teacher Ajahn Chah, in the forest monasteries of Thailand, on the border of Thailand and Laos. And I’d been sitting quietly.
And then some of these memories or energy would come, or I remember one monk who had a hut near mine in the forest did something that annoyed me, and I just got enraged inside. And I sat, and I went to the teacher, and I said, “I’m really getting angry here.” And he smiled. He said, “Yeah? And where do you think that comes from?” Or something like that. And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “I thought I was a peaceful guy.” I was never gonna be like my father. I won’t – I’m gonna be peaceful. But it turned out I just stuffed all that stuff. And so, when I told my teacher about it, he said, “Good.” He said, “Go back in your hut. It’s the hot season. You’ve got a little tin roof, and close the doors and windows, and put all your robes on. And if you’re gonna be angry, do it right. Sit in the middle of that, and sit in the middle of the fire, and don’t be so afraid of it, because if you’re afraid of it, you’re just gonna keep stuffing it. And on the other hand, or if you’re afraid of it, it’ll just explode. There’s another way to be with it.”
And so, that was the beginning of some healing, just to realize that I could actually tolerate the suffering and the energy that I still carried from trauma in my body and heart.
Tim Ferriss: So, we’re gonna absolutely come back to Ajahn Chah because I have many questions on that chapter in your life. But just so that I can create the proper visual in my own head, so you sat there in your hut in the sweltering heat with all of your robes on.
Jack Kornfield: Mm-hmm.
Tim Ferriss: Were you angry in silence? Were you yelling? What did –
Jack Kornfield: I was pretty much angry in silence. And that’s an interesting question. Yeah, in a monastery, the culture was not much that you would yell. You could go somewhere out in the forest and yell. But it wasn’t decorous or something. People would be like, what the hell’s wrong with that monk? So, mostly, I was sitting in silence, and then scenes would come, and I would realize, whoa. I thought I was peaceful.
I carry every – in every cell of my body, I also carry both the pain and anger of my childhood and my partner, and just the anger that comes with being a human being, a human incarnation. And I was never gonna have that. But of course, there it was. And it lasted – this was – I had days of – and actually much longer, weeks and months of waves of this coming, and learning how to be present for it and not get overwhelmed by it.
Tim Ferriss: So, I want to backtrack and then connect those dots – so, between childhood and ending up in Thailand. You mentioned Dartmouth earlier, and from what I’ve read, at least, you were initially premed and then ended up Asian studies. Could you describe that experience in Dartmouth, or how you went from premed to Asian studies?
Jack Kornfield: Well, we all get turned in these mysterious ways in our life. We think we’re going one direction, and then something happens unexpectedly and a gateway opens. So, I was coming from an organic chemistry class to a class that I’d signed up for out of interest on Asian studies, or Asian philosophy, or something. And it was an old professor, Dr. [inaudible], who’d come up from Harvard. He was kind of emeritus there. And he even sat cross-legged sometimes in the front of the room, and would talk about Lao Tzu and Daoism, and he’d talked about Buddha’s teachings, and how the Buddha taught suffering, and its causes, and its end. And that really – all of a sudden, I sat up. I said, “There’s an end to suffering? There’s a way to get” – and he said, “Oh, there’s all these teachings and practices where you can transform your heart and mind.”
And I became thrilled about it and realized that whatever impulse I had to go to medical school – probably part of it came from wanting to heal myself. And so, I started to take more and more courses, and then it was the ‘60s, and I became a card-carrying hippie. A card-carrying, LSD-taking hippie, as a matter of fact. And at the end of – yeah, when I was getting ready to graduate, there was still a draft. And I thought, well, I definitely don’t want to go over and kill people in a war that I’d been protesting and protesting against. So, I decided to go into the Peace Corps instead, and asked them to send me to a Buddhist country where maybe I could find one of those old Zen masters that you read about and got assigned to Thailand.
And when I got there, people – you could kind of request where you went. And I said, send me to the most remote place you can. I wanted adventure, but I also wanted to kind of – reading all those old Zen stories, I wanted to see if that still existed. So, and there were little detours, like being in Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of Love and things like that that definitely – they changed my life also in a very deep way, because at least for a time, there was a window when people were just giving things away. There was such a sense that the world could be transformed. Some of it, as we know, very, very naive. But on the other hand, it also felt like a greater sense of brotherhood and sisterhood than I had ever known, except with my own brothers, who I love a lot, and we’ve done a lot of things together.
And I started to feel like there are other ways for me and for the world to be and live. And that was also very wonderful.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a three-letter acronym that we’re probably not gonna spend too too much time on. But you and I have had quite a number of conversations where I’ve wanted to ask you about some of your experiences with psychedelics, including LSD. But we’ve never really gotten into it, so I figure, why not do it in front of a few million people? The LSD at that point, your experiences with that, did that inform your decisions at all to then go into the Peace Corps and end up in a remote area?
Jack Kornfield: It did. It did. And I’ve written a little bit about it in a couple different of my books, chapters in books I’ve written, because most Buddhist teachers and Hindu teachers of my generation also started with psychedelics.
Myself and almost all my colleagues in the spiritual industry that I’m in, that was the beginning. And for me, it showed an incredible possibility that all is created out of consciousness, and the possibilities of inner freedom. And basically, I was able, at the best of it, to see my body, and my personality, and my history, and realize that that’s not who I am. To become much more the conscious witness of it all. To see, yes, birth and death, and to go through those kind of death/rebirth experiences that can happen at times in a deep session with LSD, or death of ego or self of self, or removing, and realizing, wow, there is a freedom and a life force. It’s what we’re made of.
And that profoundly influenced my interest in spirituality, and also interest in what the world can be. Now, just a few days ago, I was on Maui with my beloved wife Trudy, and we were visiting, spending time with Ram Dass, who, for listeners that don’t know, was the author of this bestseller in the ‘60s called Be Here Now. And now he’s 86 and in a wheelchair. But Ram Dass, who had been at Harvard University and was one of the early explorers of LSD before he went to India and became a spiritual teacher, in the living room while we were there two days ago – Rollin Fisher, who is one of the senior professors and psychopharmacologists at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, Roland. Roland Griffiths.
Jack Kornfield: Roland Griffiths, rather. Roland – excuse me, Roland Griffiths. And Roland laid out all the research that’s happening now on psilocybin that he’s been doing, and its success for people, terminal cancer patients, all losing a great deal of the fears that they had. Working with people with severe depression. And it was a beautiful session, because you could hear how these sacred substances and these mind-altering substances, when they’re used in the right context, can really transform human beings. And NYU, Johns Hopkins – there’s a whole series of studies that are happening now that are finally bringing it back into the mainstream.
Tim Ferriss: So, I’d love to underscore just a few things that you mentioned. Number one, Ram Dass, for those people who want to do additional reading, formerly known as Richard Alpert, if I’m getting that right?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Also has a fascinating story coming full circle with psychedelic research beginning, I guess, at Harvard in some respects. So, it makes sense to me why Roland’s research would be so meaningful to him. And another other – just quick comments for people. Number one is if you’re interested in looking into psilocybin, which is considered the active psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, I’ve actually been involved with crowd funding and funding myself some of the research related to treatment-resistant depression at Johns Hopkins, with Roland Griffiths as the senior investigator. And I’ll be posting some updates to that. But fascinating work, looking at everything from – and this is also, as you mentioned, NYU and at other very well-regarded universities – alcohol addiction, nicotine/tobacco addiction. As you mentioned, end of life anxiety in cancer patients.
The implications are really profound, and the data very, very promising. And I wanted to also mention to folks who are perhaps saying to themselves, well, I’m not interested in taking psychedelics myself, that there are people I know, good friends of mine, who do not currently use psychedelics, but had the ego dissolving experience of a non-ordinary reality through psychedelics that then lead them to become or contributed to them becoming very, very diligent meditators. And Sam Harris, who has a PhD in neuroscience, and thought of or very well known as an atheist, or one of the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse –
Jack Kornfield: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Along with Richard Dawkins and others, is a very close friend and extremely diligent meditator. And he’s written about how his psychedelic experiences, which were in some respects, very – some of them – uncontrolled, and you really have a coin flip there in terms of which direction you can go.
But showed him possibilities within his own mind that then led to a very, very – I’m not gonna call it devout, although maybe I should, just to bother him, maybe – diligent practice. So, I don’t want to take us too far off the rails. But you go to Southeast Asia.
Jack Kornfield: Well, I went – I might just want to say one more thing –
Tim Ferriss: Oh, sure.
Jack Kornfield: Before we move on, because we are talking about this. It turns out, for those who are listening, that set and setting an intention are extremely important, if one uses these psychedelics like psilocybin or something, to set the intention to learn to open, to have a quiet – it’s not as a party experience.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely.
Jack Kornfield: Makes – brings your attention inward, and then all the kind of discoveries become right in front of you.
But the other thing is that whether it’s right for somebody to use psychedelics or to use meditation, these are all invitations to step back and see the mystery of your life. Because we tend to live in the daily minutiae and checking off our list of tasks that we have to do, and completing the end of our work, or eating, or all the kind of things that make up a day. And we go on automatic. And whether it’s meditation or a different sort – other spiritual disciplines, where for some people, it also can just be that they have what in Greek is called a katabas, a blow. Somebody close to them gets cancer, or is dying, or they have some accident or something, and all of a sudden, you step back and you realize, whoa, life is uncertain.
The way I’ve been taking it, it’s not just checking off a list. This is a mystery of an incarnation. And what am I gonna do with it? And wow, look at this. How did I get in this body? Look at plants and trees and language, the air coming out of your mouth that you shape in different ways, and it vibrates a little drum in the ear of someone else, and I can say Golden Gate Bridge, and they can envision it. And you start to realize that all of it is alive and made of consciousness. And then the whole sense of who you are and what matters begins to shift. And you start to realize that life is not just getting through the hoops, but it actually also can be a celebration of the heart, of something that you have to bring to the world, that you come out of life. And my friend Malidoma Somé, who’s a West African shaman and medicine man, also two PhDs – kind of remarkable guy – he stays with the Dagara people in West Africa where he’s from, that they say that every child comes into the world with a certain cargo, is their metaphor, like the cargo ships that ply the rivers of West Africa, and that they’re given gifts to bring into the world.
And that we have gifts to bring to this mystery, which includes opening to it. And as we do, love grows, connection grows, and a whole different way of being in the world happens that we need so much at this time. So, that’s a little interlude there before we move on to your next question.
Tim Ferriss: I welcome as many interludes as you would like to interject. And I want to just ask you to say one more time that, it was, I believe, Greek word for –
Jack Kornfield: Katabas, which means a blow. It’s like something come sand it just sets your life spinning in an entirely different direction.
Tim Ferriss: Right, like a catalyzing event.
Jack Kornfield: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: And I’ve had a few of those recently that I’d like to selfishly ask you about later. But so, I can bookmark – just so I can bookmark this name, Stanislav Grof, if I’m saying that correctly?
Jack Kornfield: Yes. That’s correct.
Tim Ferriss: Just, when did you meet him? Roughly what age or what date, just so I can come back to it? Because this is another thing I’ve been meaning to ask you about for a long time and get into, but I haven’t had the chance.
Jack Kornfield: So, I had – there’s two things to say. When I came back from the monastery, and now it’s – you know, I guess the year that I connected with Stan was maybe 1973, I made two really important connections. I came back and started to study psychology in graduate school. I was in Boston. And first really important connection happened when I went to a meeting of the Massachusetts Psychological Association. And there was this guy who looked like he didn’t look just like the straight psychologist, and it turned out he’d just come back from India not long before, named Dan Goldman, who was a graduate student at Harvard.
And he projected on the screen this Tibetan wheel of birth and death that you see in the Tibetan thangka that normally would be taken as some kind of primitive icon, iconic symbol. And he said, “No, no, this is a psychological diagram. The Buddha was actually – more than anything else, he was a scientist of the mind and a profound psychologist. And here is how craving turns into contentment, and here’s how aggression can be transformed into powerful energy to heal yourself and others. And we’re going through this diagram, and I went and I talked to him, and he said, “Oh, you? You come back from the monastery? You’ve got to come over.” And so, he took me to David McClellan, who had been the chairman of the Social Science and Psychology Department at Harvard at that time, the one who hired Tim Leary and Ram Dass, and then later had to fire them for their LSD work.
And his house – he and his wife Mary were Quakers – his home was a kind of soiree where Ram Dass and Tibetan lamas like [Jampa Thaye], and I think Krishna Murthy, and various spiritual figures would come. People were going to India and coming back. And I connected with this whole group of folks who have now been friends for 45 years. Richie Davidson was another that I met there who’s now one of the preeminent neuroscientists in the world on studying contemplative neuroscience and affective emotional neuroscience. It was a whole collective of people. And Dan Goldman, who wrote Emotional Intelligence, that sold ten million copies. Many others. And then I got a job working for an SLN-like growth center in Boston at that time, because I was excited at all the new gestalt, bioenergetics, what are the things that are transformative here?
And they asked me to help set up programs. And I thought, well, who do I want to meet? So, I set up a program with John Lilly, and I set up a program with Stan Grof, who was still at Johns Hopkins, and married at that time, just married to Joan Halifax, Joan Grof. And we became friends. And so, we, Stan and I, have now worked together for 45 years. I went up to join him at SLN for many, many years, spending many months together helping during his development of the holotropic breath work that’s this powerful breath transformation. And he has been a partner and a heart friend for exploration. And we’ve traveled, we’ve taught in Russia and places in Europe, and various places around the world.
Tim Ferriss: So, this is definitely a path that we’re gonna come down and dig further into. But I’m gonna steer us to Ajahn Chah because I want to know, how do you land with the Peace Corps in a remote – well, what most people would consider remote – corner of the world, and end up finding a living master? How does that actually happen? I don’t know, but I assume you didn’t speak Thai at the time.
Jack Kornfield: I did, actually –
Tim Ferriss: You did!
Jack Kornfield: Because the Peace Corps, and I had to learn Lao. I did because the Peace Corps at that time – it was very early in the Peace Corps – had really good language training. They borrowed it from the Monterey Language Institute. So, initially, I didn’t speak that well, but because I’d also studied Chinese at Dartmouth, it came more easily.
And I was there working in the rural health department on tropical medicine teams, mostly malaria, but also typhoid, and teams going out to different villages, and drawing blood, and giving out medicine, and things like that. And then somebody said, “There’s a Western monk in this province we heard about. Do you want to meet him?” I said, “Of course I do.” So, I went to this little mountain and walked up 2,000 steps to the old Cambodian temple ruin at the top, and there was this very interesting guy who had just finished a couple years before the first Peace Corps, I think, in Borneo, and then got interested in Buddhism and got ordained as a monk. And I talk with him. Now he’s named – Ajahn Sumedho is his monk’s name because he’s still a monk.
And he became quite famous in Thailand, and then became the abbot of a temple in England. And I became friends with him. And he said, “Oh, I found a really fine teacher.” He said, “A lot of them, they kind of take you, you’re a Westerner and they treat you special.” He said, “This guy doesn’t treat you any differently than anyone else. He just wants you to do the work and learn the deepest way you can. And he’s in this forest jungle.” And I said, “I’m going there.” So, having heard that, I went and I visited Ajahn Chah. And he was a little bit like the Dalai Lama. He was funny, and wise, and very warmhearted, but also very strict and very demanding. But he did it in this loving way. And I thought, okay, this is the real deal. This guy looks like what I was reading about in all those Zen stories.
Tim Ferriss: So, I read that he said to you, and I’d love for you to tell us when he said this to you, “I hope you’re not afraid to suffer.” If that’s true, when did he say that and why did he say that?
Jack Kornfield: So, I visited him a number of times and told him I was gonna become a monk. And then I ordained in the village where I was living in the Peace Corps, and people wanted me to do that. It was a beautiful ritual. And then after some days, I made my way down to his temple. And he said – that was his opening gambit. I’m walking into the gates, and I see him, and I bow, and I say, “I’m here.” And he looks at me, you know, and kind of leans back a little, a little skeptical, and he said, “All right. I hope you’re not afraid to suffer. Welcome.” And it was like, you know, you didn’t come here just to kind of do some interesting, cool anthropological experiment or something like that.
If you’re gonna do it, we’re gonna put you through the training. And he did. But there was like this little smile as he said it, like okay, are you up for it? All right, dude, come on in.
Tim Ferriss: And what did the training consist of? What were some of the first things that you had to do, and then what was the suffering that he alluded to? What were some examples? Give me some examples.
Jack Kornfield: Well, okay. So, of course, the first training was just how to walk around and not have my robe fall on the ground and embarrass me and everyone else. So, they all loved it. Oh yeah, all right, look at the Westerner. He can’t even chew gum and wear his robes right or whatever. So, part of it was just the unfamiliarity of it, culturally and otherwise.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Jack Kornfield: There were the two kinds of suffering. The big suffering, of course, was being alone with my own mind. I mean, there you go. Having to do hours of meditation when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
And then, as I talked about, with anger, or fear, or confusion, or all those kind of states, learning to deal in a very conscious and mindful way, and then more importantly, in a compassionate way, in a kind and loving way, with all the energies that make up my humanity and our humanity. And that means that when you sit and you get quiet, anything unfinished in your heart will also come up, all the unfinished business. So, you know, relationships that I’d had that ended badly in college, or certainly stuff from my childhood and family. Dreams that I carried, things fulfilled and not – all that comes up. Yeah, my friend Anne Lamott, humorist and writer, says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.”
And there’s some way in which, in communities sitting together with others in meditation and then sitting in my hut, it was really facing myself and my full humanity. That was probably the most difficult thing. Because then you get insanely bored or insanely restless, and then how do you deal with all those energies? Normally when we’re restless or bored, what do we do? Open the refrigerator, or go online or something, because we can’t be with our own loneliness or our own fear. So, that was the inner. And then there’s the outer one.
Tim Ferriss: What are the – yeah, the outer suffering.
Jack Kornfield: The outer ones were things like, mm, getting up. The bell would ring at 3:30 in the morning, and I’m not an early riser by nature. I’d go, oh god, here we go. And we’d walk through – it was actually very beautiful. And we’d walk through the forest at night, either by moonlight, or sometimes you’d have a tiny little flashlight.
And in one of the forest monasteries where there were a lot of cobras, we’d have a little stick, and you’d tap the path so that the snakes would know you were – feel you coming and move out of the way. You wouldn’t step on them. And then we would sit silently for a couple of hours and then do an hour of chanting, on a hard stone floor, mind you, where everybody else seemed comfortable, and my body was killing me. And at least once a week, we would sit up all night with the teacher, and he would sit there comfortably meditating, maybe talking with another colleague that would come. And we’d just be sitting and meditating, and he would kind of peek over at us, like how are you doing? I’d go, god, it’s been four hours. When is he gonna let us go back to sleep? And he didn’t. So, sitting up all night, it got very cold in the cold season, and it got insanely hot in the hot season.
And somehow, learning to live extremely simply with a set of sandals and a set of robes and an alms bowl. And then you would eat what you got offered in the village, and we would share it in that monastery with others around us. And sometimes you’d get nice food, and a lot of times, in the dry season, you’d get really, really skimpy food, and there wasn’t that much to eat. And so, picture a day where you get up at 3:30 in the morning. You sit for a couple of hours in meditation and do a long – then an hour-long chanting on a stone floor. Then it’s getting dawn, and you walk barefoot, three miles, five miles, ten miles with an alms bowl and a handful of other monks, and get your food and come back, whatever you’ve been offered, and that’s the food for the day. And then you go back to your meditation or to the work of the monastery, of sewing robes or drawing water from the well.
And it’s muggy and 105 degrees, hot season. And then you go back and you join in the community for more meditation. And the teacher smiles and says, how are you doing? And then other kinds of practices. For example, we had a charnel ground there. And so –
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry, a what ground?
Jack Kornfield: A charnel ground, which is where – a cremation ground, where people – bodies would be burned, and so, on occasion, we would go to a cremation and then sit up all night and contemplate death.
Tim Ferriss: Mm.
Jack Kornfield: And look at the body and then watch as it burned, and then do these meditations where you would reflect on, well, this is gonna happen to the body that you’re inhabiting as well. Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re this physical body made of hamburgers or lettuce, or whatever you happen to eat?
Is that your argument, hamburgers and lettuce? Or are you your feelings, or are you your thoughts? Who are you really, born into this body? Like koans. So, anyway.
Tim Ferriss: And the alms bowl, so you would be – did you eat whatever you gathered in one meal? Was it spread throughout the day?
Jack Kornfield: One meal. You eat one meal a day, which makes you very easy to – makes your life easy. And at the same time – at that monastery, things were shared. There were other monasteries that I stayed in where you would just eat what was put in your own bowl. And you didn’t have to eat everything that was given to you. There were some things that were in the dry poor season, there would be curries that would be too hot for me to eat because they use the chilis to kind of –
Tim Ferriss: Preserve the food.
Jack Kornfield: Preserve the food. But when it was a really poor village or something, they would have to make curries out of field mice, or field rats, or bats, or – I remember eating, there was a curry that was made out of basically grasshoppers that had come, swept through, and there was this whole big insect wave of insects that were kind of eating the crops, and they then collected them all and made a curry out of them. So, okay, this is what you get for your food today, dude. There you are.
Tim Ferriss: I think I might take the grasshoppers over the bats. That’s –
Jack Kornfield: Well, yeah. But when it’s really highly spiced, you can’t tell what it is. A mystery.
Tim Ferriss: That’s true.
Jack Kornfield: We all had mystery meat in middle school anyway. This was like mystery meat on steroids.
Tim Ferriss: Exotic mystery meat. What was the longest period of time that you spent in silence during that time in Thailand?
Jack Kornfield: Well, then I went to a Burmese monastery, because I wanted to do this very intense meditative training, and I spent about 500 days. So, less than a year-and-a-half in silence, with the exception that I would talk to the teacher. Every couple days, I’d have a little ten-minute conversation about what was happening in my meditation. And the rest, I was just sitting and walking 18 hours a day, when I could, or so, sleeping a little bit. And I remember at one point, it was relatively early on. I’d been sitting and walking and pushing, as young men do. I’m gonna get enlightened and all of that, and not moving, sitting with a lot of pain, which is also part of what happened at the forest monastery, sitting on a stone floor for hours and without moving.
You really had to learn how to deal with your own physical pain. And I was exhausted from sitting and walking in my little hut that I had for that long retreat. And after a couple months, I thought, I’m really tired. I gotta lie down. But then I thought, well, but I’m not gonna nap for very long, because I’m on my way to enlightenment, whatever. I’m gonna do this right. So, I said, all right, I’ll die down on the wooden floor rather than on the little mat that I had, and that way, I won’t sleep so long. And I’m lying there, and then I wake up, and I get up, and I walk very slowly, doing this mindful slow walking, to the end of the hut, and look out the window toward where some of the other monks and the teachers lived, some way down through the trees. And then I turned around and I start walking in the other direction in this meditation hut that I had.
And I think I walked, probably it was maybe 15, 18 feet long. It was long and narrow, and I see this body lying on the floor. And all of a sudden, I go, oh. That’s me. And I realized that I’m having an out of body experience. And what had happened was that I was so intent, I’m not gonna sleep long, I’ll get up very soon. That intention was really strong, but my body didn’t want to get up. So, I got up. But it wasn’t in my body. And I walked very slowly, and I peered down at my body, and I turned around and walked the other way, walked back. And then the second time I walked back, I got closer, and then I fell into my body, and I woke up. I said, oh, wow, that’s interesting. But what I saw at the window wasn’t just like a dream because I was watching my teacher talking to these other monks. And then I got up again, and that’s exactly what was happening.
And that was the first of a series of all kinds of very interesting experiences that happened.
Tim Ferriss: And those – what would other examples of those types of unusual experiences be, and was it your time in Burma that found you experiencing these for the first time?
Jack Kornfield: Well, first of all, the first experiences, even though I had experimented with meditation back in college and so forth, were experiences, again, that came through psychedelics. And so, I was familiar with all kinds of weird and powerful and mysterious or mystical kind of experiences. But there’s something about learning how to navigate it without taking a substance and learning that your own consciousness is the field that you can learn to navigate.
First of all, the personality and emotions and history and so forth, but then you start to realize that you’re bigger than that, that who you are is not just your thoughts and feelings in your mind. And so, whether it’s an out of body experience or the experience of vastness and becoming the sky within which, everything arises and passes, or the experience of profound silence or of the void where you enter a stillness before experience even arises, or the experience of luminosity, where my body would dissolve into light. There are times sitting as you get concentrated in [inaudible], your concentration builds, that your whole body and mind open up, and first you get the elements. Your body can feel heavy, like a stone, the earth element, or it can feel so light that you have to peek or open your eyes and make sure you’re not floating because it feels like you’re floating in the air.
Or it can be filled with fire, and you feel like you’re in the middle of a raging fire. Or it can get icy cold, or all kinds of vibrations and kundalini energies and chakras start to open. And sometimes, it’s pleasant, and sometimes, it’s not. As deep energies start to move through your body, they also kind of push open the places that are held closed, so that when your heart starts to open in deep meditation, sometimes it feels like you’re having a heart attack. It’s physically painful, because all the things that you’ve held around your heart to protect yourself start to loosen; or when the energy hits your throat and it starts to open, weird sounds come out. And then you get the visions that come and the brow chakra, and you start to see all sorts of colors and visions and hear things that – all possibilities of the play of consciousness can start to open after both a period of silence, but also really deeply training attention and concentration.
Tim Ferriss: So, these experiences, just to put them in – or at least part of what you said, in context for people listening, there are a number of things you mentioned, but one in particular, that opening in the chest, that I experienced in the ten-day retreat done at Spirit Rock, for which you were one of the instructors, or the lead instructor. And it was an incredibly powerful experience. And listening to your description of some of the feelings, it makes me want to go to the jungle and spend time doing this type of training. However, the ten-day retreat, as you know from firsthand observation and interacting with me, was incredibly difficult for me and terrifying at a number of points, right? I felt like I had crossed a boundary into maybe even madness, where I was fearful I wouldn’t be able to return from.
And so, I’m curious to know, during that period of time in Thailand, in Burma – it could be afterwards as well. But when you were in the jungle and doing this very intense work, were there any particular points where you wanted to quit, to go home?
Jack Kornfield: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and I remember I got what I think was malaria. I had a really high fever, and I was sick as a dog. And I’m lying in the bottom of my little hut there, high fever and shivering, and Ajahn Chah came to visit me. And in the Lao language – and he was also, I mean, quite blunt. And the Lao languages are very straightforward. The sentence structures are fairly simple. So, he looked at me and he said, “Sick, huh?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Hurts all over, huh?” I said, “It sure does.” He said, “Hot and cold?” “Yeah.” He said, “Makes you afraid.” I nodded. He said, “Makes you want to go home and see your mother, doesn’t it?” And I nodded there.
Then he looked at me and he said, “You know, this is jungle fever. This is malaria. We’ve all had it. But now there’s some good medicine. I’ll send the medicine monk over, and in a couple days, you’ll be fine.” And then he looked at me and he said, “You can do this, you know. You can do this.” So, I mean, that was an example of wanting to go home to my mother. What am I doing here?
Tim Ferriss: What kept you going? I mean, I won’t interrupt, but it’s like, what kept you going? I’m imagining 500 days of silence. I can barely handle ten days.
Jack Kornfield: You know, Tim, what’s kept you going? What keeps any of us going about things that we care about? I had, somehow, I don’t know, kind of a wacky, but I think also important kind of passion to say, I want to understand; or I’ve started on this road, and I want to see where it goes. And I think all of us find at a certain point in their life that they’re – or if we’re lucky, that something really matters. And you’ve done it in your work and your travel. You want to explore what your human capacity is.
And I read these old Zen stories, and I said, I want to see if this is true. I want to find out. And then as I started, things started to happen, like that out of the body experience, and rapture, and changes, and openings. And I realized, there is really something to learn here. But there are a couple other things that I want to add to this. One of them that’s the most important is that it turns out that it wasn’t and it isn’t so much about the actual experiences. So, Ajahn Chah, my teacher, talked about how, in his own training for the first eight years in the jungle, he had been a very ardent meditator and had all kinds of insights, and dissolving, and samadhi, and [inaudible] experiences, all kinds of –
Tim Ferriss: Samadhi is awakenings?
Jack Kornfield: Samadhi is – yeah, or –
Tim Ferriss: Nirvana? How would you translate that?
Jack Kornfield: It’s profound – samadhi has a lot of meanings, as it were.
But it can mean profound states of concentration in which the mind dissolves into light, or into joy, or bliss, or becomes absorbed with any one of all kinds of states. So, we went to the most famous teacher of that time, another Ajahn Chah monk, and told him about all these experiences. And the master back at home and said, “Cha, you’ve missed the point. These are just experiences. It’s like going to the movies, and you have a romantic comedy, and you have a war movie, and you have a documentary, and you have a Disney movie.” He said, “They’re just movies on the screen, some pleasant, some unpleasant. The only question is, to whom do they happen? Turn your attention back and ask – look to see who is the witness of these? What is the consciousness that is knowing these ever-changing experiences? This is where your liberation will come.”
He said, become – his language, how I translate it, is the one who knows becomes the knowing, rather than the experiences. And then you can tolerate anything, and you can respond with love and understanding, because you rest in the timeless consciousness which is your true nature. So, part of what I also learned in meditation and teach is that it’s not so much about the experiences. Oh, I want to have this or that experience. But it’s this profound turning back to ask, who am I? What is this consciousness itself that was born into this body and that will leave it? And we can talk about death at some point if you want. But what is this mysterious consciousness itself? So, there’s that. And then, I also had the opportunity of being with a few other teachers, and one of my – one of the people that I was very close to and inspired me profoundly was a Cambodian monk named Maha Ghosananda, who was the Gandhi of Cambodia.
And when I met him, we were living and training together in a forest monastery in Thailand, and it was during the time Khmer Rouge came to power and eventually killed two million Cambodians in a kind of genocide. And he was – he survived because he wasn’t in the country, but all 19 of his family members were killed. His temple burned. All the Buddhist texts and so forth were destroyed. And when he was able to, he went to the refugee camps. Refugees were pouring out of Cambodia by the hundreds of thousands. And he went to the refugee camps on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. I was able to go with him at a certain point. And he decided to open a temple in the middle of one of the biggest refugee camps. It was 50 or a 100,000 people in these tiny little bamboo huts.
And got permission from the UN HCR, High Commissioner of Refugees, and built a platform with a little roof over it, and put an altar with a traditional Cambodian Buddha on it and so forth, but it was a camp with a Khmer Rouge underground, lots of them. And so, they put the word out that if anyone went to be with this monk, when they got out of the camp after Cambodia, they would all be shot. So, we wondered who would – if anyone would come. And went through the camp the opening day with a big kind of temple gong, ringing it. And 25,000 people poured into the central square around this little temple.
Tim Ferriss: Oh my god.
Jack Kornfield: And he – Maha Gosananda sat there, and he was a scholar. He spoke 15 languages, and he was an extremely kindhearted human being who had suffered enormously and had transformed it into the kind of compassion we think of with the Dalai Lama or something like that. In fact, they became friends, and Gosananda became the head of all Cambodian Buddhists. But there he was at this point, sitting, looking out at 25,000 people who had suffered immense traumas. And you could see, there was a grandmother and the only two surviving grandchildren that she had were an uncle and one niece. And their faces were the faces of trauma and of survivors. And I thought, all right, what is he gonna say to them? And he sat very quietly for a long time, just in their presence.
And then he put his hands together in this kind of modest way and began to chant in the microphone – he had a sound system – in Cambodian and in Sanskrit or Pali, the Buddhist language, one of the first verses from the Buddhist text that goes, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.” And he chanted it over and over in Cambodian and in Sanskrit Pali. And pretty soon, the chant was picked up, and in a little while, 25,000 people were chanting this verse with him. And I looked out, and they were weeping, many of them, because they hadn’t heard their sacred chants for years. But also, because he was offering them a truth that was even bigger than their sorrows, that hatred never ends by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.
And they were sitting in the middle of the healing energy of the dharma, of the teachings of the heart that can liberate us. Later on, Gosananda, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a number of times, spent 15 years walking through the killing fields and the mine areas and so forth, leading people on foot back to their village. And he said to the refugees, you can’t go back in a bus, or the back of a truck, or something like that. You have to reclaim your land with love. And so, he would lead a thousand people, and he’d be in front with a bell and a gong and a few other monks. And the whole way back, they would be chanting the chants of love and kindness, so that by the time they got to their village or whatever had been destroyed, there was this sense that they were reclaiming not just the land, but they were reclaiming their own hearts.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a beautiful, really beautiful story. And it prompts me to ask a question that I struggle with answering myself, and it’s also a question many of my friends ask themselves. And I’ll take a stab at it. How do you decide when to do deep inner work and take an extended period to do that versus being in the world and trying to impact others and the world? And to just provide a little bit of background on that, I have friends who are building businesses or building careers of some type, or families, and I at this point do not have a wife, kids, or a company to build, at least with a large organization.
And I’ve come back from various experiments, sojourns, experiences over weeks or months, and shared them, and they’ve expressed this longing, this deep yearning to do something similar. And then they ask this question: How do I best decide if and when to do the deep extended work versus being in the world? And I know it might be a false dichotomy. You might not have to choose. But I’ll talk a little bit more, just to fill the space. But I had this experience personally not long ago when I was in South America and had someone telling me in Spanish, which was not their native language – this was an indigenous tribe, but this apo, this mayor, effectively, who worked a lot with different plant medicines. And he said that he recommended one 15-month diet, very, very strict 15-month period with many different restrictions.
No sex, no alcohol or pork, etc., to develop certain capacities and to practice, in effect, certain types of meditative practices. So, I struggle with this myself, is, well, how do you suggest someone think through –
Jack Kornfield: So, did you give up sex and pork?
Tim Ferriss: I’ve done it for short periods of time. I’ve done it for weeks at a time, but not for 15 months. But what appealed to me about that, definitely not the lack of sex/pork. I like both of those things. It was – he said, that’s something you only have to do once in your life, and it opens doors and creates opportunities that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve otherwise. So, of course, that’s very tantalizing. But 15 months is a really, really long time to opt out of everything else.
And I’m not saying it has to be 15 months. For some people, as you know, setting aside even ten days to do a silent retreat is hard. And I know there are things that they can do on an ongoing basis, morning meditation and so on, but for those who are really drawn to this extended deeper work, how do you think about – and that’s why Gosananda brought it up for me, because he’d spent so much time outside of his country and then went back and was really on the ground doing work with locals. How do you think about that, or suggest someone think about it?
Jack Kornfield: First, my answer is yes. Because all of those things that you say are true, that yes, most cultures encourage at some point human beings, the most wise cultures, human beings to step out of their ordinary roles and their ordinary routine, whether you go to the mountains, or the ocean, or a temple, or change how you’re living so that you can open up to the mystery. And so that you also kind of open up to love because what I saw with my teachers, and Gosananda was one, Ajahn Chah another, is that they were able to love no matter what.
And it was really because they inhabited consciousness in a very different way than just a small sense itself. There was something much – a possibility that we could live with forgiveness and love and be really effective in the world at the same time. So, they’re not separate. And that’s sort of what your question is. How do we live in the world, and at the same time, what trainings, and how do we connect with something deeper? And part of it is just intuitive. If you have newborn, young children and so forth, it’s not the time to go out on a long retreat. Your kids are your practice. And in fact, you can’t get a Zen master who’s going to be more demanding than an infant with colic, right?
Or a teenage – certain teenage kids, where you – but with the young ones, your Zen master might say, you’ve got to get up early in the morning. And once in a while, you might roll over. The kid is crying and sick, you have to get up. Your family needs tending, and if you’re even vaguely a responsible and caring parent, that becomes your practice. And if you think, well, if only I could be in the great Zen temple of Kyoto, or an ashram in India, or down in the Amazon with Tim, taking ayahuasca or whatever plant medicine they give. Your kid can be like ayahuasca on steroids. Okay, you want to face yourself, and your own limitations, and your own – you want to look at the small sense of self and find out how to live with it with a freer and bigger spirit, here.
We’ve just hired someone to live with you and train you full-time. So, it’s really – and that’s an important thing. But what makes it work is that you have that intention, not just to soldier through it, but to say let this be a place where I awaken graciousness, an inner sense of freedom and peace as things come and go, where I awaken the possibility of presence, and pleasure, and pain, and joy, and sorrow, and gain, and loss, and all the changes that I find inviolable, or a timeless place of becoming the loving witness of it all, becoming the loving awareness that says, yeah, now I’m having a family experience. And this is the place to find freedom. Because freedom is not in the Himalayas or in the Amazon. The only place it’s found is in your own heart, exactly where you are.
And that’s what Gosananda taught and what Ajahn Chah – that’s really what they wanted to communicate. Now, that being said, if you have an opportunity and you’re drawn to it, like somebody you might – do you know Jack Dorsey?
Tim Ferriss: I do. I do know Jack, yeah.
Jack Kornfield: So, Jack just did his first ten-day meditation retreat.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, good for him.
Jack Kornfield: And he tweeted about it. I wouldn’t say it otherwise, but he tweeted about it, and it was one of the top transformative experiences of his life. And it’s not to say ten-day retreats are the be all and end all. They are very powerful and compelling. But even if you have a company, or even if you have a family, there might be a period of a week or some days where you can in fact get away and step out of those roles and turn inward. And that can be tremendously valuable.
So, I think both are important. You just have to listen to when the time is right.
Tim Ferriss: So, there are so many things that this brings up. The first, though, is just housekeeping. For people who may not recognize the name Jack Dorsey, that’s Jack, @jack, I believe it is, on Twitter. You might then wonder; how did he get that user handle? Well, he’s one of the people behind Twitter, so he is of Twitter and Square fame, among many others. Fascinating, fascinating guy. So, people can check him out. The comment on the infant being the full-time trainer working with you 24/7 reminded me also, since you mentioned Ram Dass earlier, of a quote of his that I like, and I’m gonna paraphrase, I’m sure. But if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.
Jack Kornfield: Yes. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Which I think is a fantastic one. And that’s part of the reason – and you know some of the back story, but we all have – I would imagine we all have tough things that happened to us, experienced traumatic experiences as children.
Have a lot of triggers related to family members, typically. And for me, the force to break takes a number of different forms. But that includes a trip every six months, an extended trip of two to four weeks with my parents and my brother, when he can make it. So, that’s, only after being introduced to meditation, something that I would consider as a practice. And the last point I’ll mention just out of my personal experience is that there’s a piece of paper I have in my wallet and I’ve had in my wallet for a few years now. It’s getting a bit worn down. It’s a piece of construction paper. An ex-girlfriend gave it to me who knew me very well, and it says “The task that hinders your task is your task.”
Jack Kornfield: Oh, beautiful, beautiful. Beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: And that’s a good reminder for me. I wanted to ask you a few questions that are personally important, but also may apply to other people.
The first is the question that I believe you mentioned Ajahn Chah, perhaps others, have indicated is the question, versus the experiences or movies of these, say, out of body experiences and so on. To whom do they happen, right? To whom do they happen? Is this a koan, like what is the sound of one hand clapping, where there isn’t really an answer you’re expected to arrive at? Is the value in contemplating the question more than any answer?
Jack Kornfield: Yes, both. No.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, both, and no.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. Because it is a profound contemplation for us, one of the great questions of human incarnation. Who are we? How did we get into – how did you get into this body with the wiggly things on the end of your limbs and the little bits of claws that you have left as nails, vestigial tail, and a hole at one end into which you stuff dead plants and animals and glub them down through the tube?
I mean, the whole incarnation thing is really pretty wild. So, who are we? And I wonder, how do we make meaning of it? This is a lifetime question. And in that way, it’s a koan. But in another way, it also actually does have an answer. And the answer, of course, has to be found by each person. The answer, to point toward it, it’s very clear that you’re not just your salad and vegetables and hamburger body, and you’re not just your emotions, I hope, because they’re always changing. And your thoughts, good god, I hope you’re not your thoughts. So, you start to realize, all right, what is there, then? What is this self? Who am I? And neuroscience – and there was a Time Magazine issue on modern neuroscience where it said neuroscientists have searched throughout the brain over many decades now and come to the conclusion that they cannot find the self located anywhere in the neuromechanisms of the brain, and that it simply does not exist.
But what does exist is the sense of self that’s built out of sense of identification with our thoughts and body, and so forth. It’s all wise and appropriate. We should be. But we also know that it’s not the end of the story. And you know it from walking in the high mountains, or listening to an extraordinary piece of music, or making love, or taking some sacred medicine, or sitting at the bedside of someone when they die, that mysterious moment when the spirit leaves the body, or when a child is born. We have these moments where we open to mystery and realize that who we are is not just our personal history or our body and emotions; that we become the consciousness itself, the witnessing awareness, that we are the loving awareness that was born into this body.
And that becomes actually a direct knowing, a direct experience. So, there’s a way in which we also can come home to ourselves, and it brings a tremendous sense of freedom and wellbeing as all the movies of ever-changing life happen to us. So, that’s why I said yes and no and both. And this is just a little aside, thinking about you going back to your family as a practice, I mean, twice a year as you’re doing. I just want to remind you and listeners that Buddha and Jesus both had a hard time when they went back to their family, so don’t think that there’s something wrong with you. It’s just part of – that’s why they call it nuclear family, I think. Anyway.
Tim Ferriss: There’s another – I guess it’s a word more than a question that I’d love to ask you to define, and that is compassion or compassionate. When you use that word or those words, what do you mean exactly, or what would you like it to mean for people?
Jack Kornfield: I would like to distinguish compassion from empathy. And I’ll use a simple illustration. If you’re on the playground and you see a kid being bullied, and you feel, oh, that must feel terrible, that hurts, that’s an empathy. And empathy can be useful. It also can be – you can get overwhelmed by empathy if you don’t know what to do with it. But there’s some way in which you start to feel it resonate in you because we are not limited to these bodies. We are actually an interconnected system of consciousness. And I’ll talk about that a little bit more in a minute.
But we all know, whether it’s mirror neurons from neuroscience, or the field of presence, as neuroscientists like Dan Siegel talk about, extended presence, we can feel empathy with one another when someone’s sad and someone’s angry, someone’s hurting. Compassion is the next step. You see or recognize, you feel, and then you care. You care about it, and you want to, if you can, do something that helps. So, if you see a kid being bullied and you realize, I want to tell the teacher or the principal, or I want to just walk over there and say something or intervene to help stop it. And so, compassion, it’s called the quivering of the heart when it wants to move to alleviate the suffering of yourself, because you can have self-compassion – it’s very important, or those around you.
And it’s born into – and the earliest studies of infants at Yale and various places like that show that – and even very, very small children have this resonance and this kind of care. And so, it’s not shut down in us. We’re a species that’s interconnected, and we care for one another. And this is your birthright, this natural compassion. And through practice and meditation, you can reawaken it, you can extend it. And it can become your way of living and moving in the world. As a little aside, and I’ll just bookmark this one, just got back from a conference with our dear friend Adam Gazzaley, our mutual friend, and Richie Davidson, who’s another of the most famous neuroscientists, especially in this area, and a number of another – some contemplatives, and neuroscientists, and some technologists from the Valley and D.C. talking about how to build compassion into our interface with the technological world. Compassion tech.
And then starting from the very simplest things, so projects like can you build a FitBit for compassion? Where instead of your body, where you can either note moments of care around you or in yourself, or be prompted to care for yourself? Or when you say to Siri or Alexa, I’m feeling lonely, and so forth, what kind of response do you get from the algorithms and all of that? Because in the UK, England just appointed their first Minister of Loneliness for the country. And you’d think it was a joke, but it’s not. It’s like an old Beatles song, “All the Lonely People.” There are ten million lonely people in England, they’ve estimated, and this minister’s got – and it’s for isolation, and loss of capacity, and health, and all kinds of reasons that loneliness makes things way worse.
But there’s some way in which compassion is that which connects us. And it’s a beautiful thing. Even if you walk on the street and you see someone who’s struggling and so forth. It doesn’t mean you have to fix the whole world. That’s not your job. That would be egotistical. But you can reach your hand out mend the things that you can. You can tend the things that you can. And you can do it not because, oh, you pity them, those poor people, but because they’re your family. You recognize that we are common humanity. We’re in this together.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to build on that and preface it with a comment on the text. So, you mentioned collaborating Adam, and discussing the potential of combining or utilizing technology to help people to develop and harness compassion. And some folks listening might be like, oh, come on. That’s so pie in the sky.
But I’d like to point out that you’ve already collaborated successfully with Adam on software like Meditrain, M-E-D-I-T-R-A-I-N, which was one of the tools Adam has used in his N of 1 or N or 2 experiments in rejuvenating his mental capacity to – I want to say in his twenties. Adam’s one of those guys, you can’t tell if he’s 28 or 45. He’s just a silver fox who always looks young. So, I don’t know how old he is, but he’s not 22. But the Meditrain was one of the tools that he utilized. And I don’t remember the name that he used for this run of experiments. You might know that the training that he did, Neuroman, or something like that, was very, very successful. So, you already have a track record of collaborating successfully with neuroscientists and technologists. On the compassion front, I’d love to use that as a segue to loving kindness.
And by way of personal example, I failed – well, failed is a strong word. I quit – I stopped meditating after many, many attempts. I had a very absurdly high number of false starts over many years, and it really stuck after a number of experiments and experiences I had doing three or four-day trainings with, say, transcendental meditation and having social accountability. Being accountable to someone else is very helpful. But another turning point was experimenting with loving kindness meditation. And I think in part, it succeeded because it took the focus off of me, me, me, I, I, I, and allowed me to focus on others. But I’d like to read a brief paragraph from a profile of you in The New York Times. This is from 2014. And feel free to correct anything that is incorrect. But I’ll give it a read first.
And I quote, “In the West, Kornfield says, ‘We encounter a lot of intense driving ambition and a lot of self-criticism, self-judgment, and self-hatred.’ Concerned, he initially turned to the Dalai Lama for advice, but self-hatred was such a foreign concept to the Tibetan Buddhist that he wasn’t able to offer any real insight. Over time, Kornfield and his colleagues began to believe that Americans needed particular meditation practice, closely linked to the concepts of self-forgiveness and loving kindness, a training in the unconditional acceptance of imperfection. Without such a foundation, says Kornfield, meditation can easily become” – and this is the part that I underlined and starred – “Without this foundation, says Kornfield, meditation can easily become yet another form of striving, ‘another thing you do to make yourself better,’ instead of a path to true contentment.” So, could you please describe for folks what loving kindness meditation practice looks like, and elaborate any way that you feel might be useful or helpful for folks?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. And that meeting, which was some decades ago, with the Dalai Lama – yeah, he didn’t understand. When we talked about self-hatred, he couldn’t even – there was no word for it in Tibetan. We went back and forth with his translator. What does this mean? Finally, he looked up and he said, “Hm, but this is a mistake. Why would anyone do this?” And then he asked, “How many of you” – there was a group of us who were teachers – “have experienced this?” And almost everyone raised their hand. So, we see that when people begin, in our culture, en masse, to meditate or to turn inward, really, that it’s very common to encounter a lot of self-criticism, self-judgment, or even self-hatred. And there are all the causes from our – these are all kind of conditioning that we got from our childhood, our education, and so forth.
But what it means is that you’re sitting there saying, I’m not doing it right. I’m no good. And you turn meditation into one another thing that you don’t do right because you can’t control your mind. The truth is that you can control your mind easily. That’s not the point. There’s a different way of approaching your mind, which gives you tremendous capacities. But it’s not, oh, I have to stop my thinking, or I don’t want to have these feelings, and I hate having all these judgments. I don’t want to be so judgmental. I want to stop all that. I hate this judging mind. It’s just more judgment. So, instead, as you become first able to become the loving witness, the mindful loving awareness that says, oh, this is the judging mind, and it’s been trying to protect me. Thank you for trying to protect me. I don’t need you now. Thank you. All of a sudden, there’s a distance from the painful, or destructive, or self-critical thoughts, simply by witnessing, and with loving awareness, and acknowledging them.
This becomes the gateway to the practice of loving kindness and self-compassion. And very often, people can’t do it for themselves. They feel that’s too much of a stretch. Like, why would I wish myself well? It feels egotistical. And so, the way that this practice begins, and skillfully for such folks, is instead to think of someone that you really care about a lot, and picture them, remember them, put in your mind’s eye, and feel the kind of well-wishing you would want for them. May they be protected and safe from difficulty. May they be held in loving kindness. May they be well or healthy, strong. And you wish them that may be happy.
And you do this for a time, a kind of inner well-wishing. And also, maybe you feel, as you think of this person who you care about, you let yourself also tune into the measure of sorrows they have, the struggles that every human being has, and it tenderizes your heart as you think of them, because you don’t want them to suffer. You feel a kind of rising in compassion and care. So, may they hold themselves in compassion. May they be safe and protected and well. And you do that with one or two people that you care about for a time. And then you can imagine, even as I’m describing this and you follow in your own heart, you can imagine these two loved ones looking back at you with the same kindness, and saying, just as you wish us protection and safety and happiness and wellbeing and compassion, they gaze at you and they say, you too.
May you be safe and protected. May you be filled with tender compassion for yourself, and kindness. May you too be healthy and well, and may you be happy. I want you to be happy. I think about – when I’m doing this, I’m visualizing some loved ones. And I know that as I do it, I can feel they want that from me. And then finally, as you feel that from these loved ones, you can put your hand on your body, or your heart, even, if you like, and take it, and then begin to realize that you can wish this for yourself. May I hold all of the joys and sorrows of my life with tenderness and kindness. May I hold my struggles with compassion. May I be filled with loving kindness and loving awareness.
May I be safe and protected. May I be well, strong, or healed. And as you repeat these simple intentions that have been done for thousands of years, it’s as if your cells are listening. And this is the research of people like Liz Blackburn and Elissa Epel, who – Liz Blackburn got the Nobel Prize for discovering the telomerase and the telomeres at the end of the caps in the DNA. It turns out that your cells listen to your heart and to your intention, that consciousness affects your body. And little by little, even though it can bring up its opposite – I hate myself, I’ll never be good enough – and you see all those, and you say, thank you for trying to protect me. I appreciate that. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be held in love. And little by little, like water on a stone, it starts to soften the places that are holding your lack of self-forgiveness, your lack of care.
And loving kindness starts to grow in you. And it’s a very beautiful practice. There’s lots of places you can find it in my work, and teachers like Sharon Salzburg, and Pema Chodron, and Tara Brach, and so forth.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular – do you have any guided loving kindness meditations or audio that you can recommend people listen to?
Jack Kornfield: I do. And I don’t know – they can go on my website, jackkornfield.com. I think they will be on there. I do know for sure, I have a whole series of great programs with Sounds True, soundstrue.com, that include meditations on mind vast as the sky, meditations on compassion and loving kindness. And I did a book – one of the books I’ve done is called A Lamp in the Darkness.
And it contains, I think, eight or nine different guided practices that you can get either with it on the CD, but you can get it as a download, basically. And Sounds True also has that. And it has a compassion practice, and a grounding practice, and a vast sky like mind practice, and so forth. So, you can look for all of those.
Tim Ferriss: Wonderful.
Jack Kornfield: The beautiful thing is that you can learn this. And I was, a couple of years ago, invited to be part of the first White House Buddhist leadership gathering. There were 120 Buddhist leaders from around the country from different communities. I don’t think that’s gonna happen again very soon, but there it was. One could hope. And we talked – most of the communities did beautiful things. They were involved in soup kitchens, and tending the homeless, and projects to support healing for – whether it was malaria or other diseases in different, other parts of the world, and so forth.
All kinds of great stuff. And certainly, meditation. And when I got to talk, which was kind of a summary talk toward the end of it, I mentioned that in a historical record, whether it’s true or not, the text and so forth described the Buddha meeting with kings and princes and ministers and so forth. And probably, if the Buddha were around now, he’d go to the White House if he were invited. He certainly would have met with Obama, and who knows now? And he had advice about wise society, which he would give to leaders. And he’d say, if you can train your people to meet one another with respect, to listen with respect to differences, and to come together peacefully listening to one another, and then your society will prosper and not decline.
And if your society tends the vulnerable among them, the young people, the old people, those who are sick, it will prosper and not decline. And if your society tends the environment around it in a healthy way, it will prosper and not decline. And so, these are principles of compassion and wise society that you could read, perhaps, in a number of great traditions, from the Iroquois nation or from the Taoist sages. But here is the beautiful piece. Yes, there are good things, meeting in harmony and discussing in harmony, and being respectful of one another, and so forth. There are practices that you can teach and learn that develop this capacity, so that in our elementary schools now, through organizations like CSEL, which is a Consortium for Social and Emotional Learning that’s worked in 10,000 schools, kids learn social and emotional learning.
They learn compassion. And it changes their lives. They’re better academically. And all these kids carry the troubles of our times. They hear the news. They see the trouble even in their own family. To teach you how to steward your own heart, I mean, from when you’re young. And then these capacities are now being incorporated, as we know, mindful space, stress reduction, in clinics, in hospitals, in businesses. And there are the mindfulness teachers that when the Seahawks won the championship or the Chicago Bulls and the LA Lakers, when they were championship teams, they had a meditation coach, a mindfulness coach, George Mumford, a good friend. And these capacities can be learned wherever we are. And they transform our live. It’s not just by accident or that you have this beautiful experience on the mountains or making love.
But you can make that alive for you through these trainings every day, every part of your life.
Tim Ferriss: Jack, there was a question I was planning on asking at some point anyway, and I think this is a good segue, which is how can you get a busy person hooked on mindfulness practice? What would be a first step, or how to start? And since we’re talking about loving kindness, I would like to give a bit of a hard sell for loving kindness meditation as one option, because I recall, perhaps it was two years ago, I was really beating myself up. And for people who don’t know this about me, I’ve spent the majority of my life being the – my own worst enemy in terms of inner dialogue. Extremely brutal and hypercritical and loathsome of myself in so many different respects. And I was going through a particularly intense and difficult time with that inner critic, just ruthlessly eating myself up.
And at that point, another friend of mine, Chade Meng Tan, who created the Search Inside Yourself classic on Google. He was a very early engineer, which became the most oversubscribed class for employees at Google, recommended that I take a look at loving kindness meditation. And I didn’t have any particularly sophisticated approach to it, but I decided, with nothing to lose, and that I was having so much trouble during that period sitting still and trying to focus on, say, the breath or anything like that, that at night – this happened to coincide with a book deadline, probably not pure coincidence, so that my beating myself up was exacerbated during that time. That was a few years ago. And I began at night – in my case, when I would take a shower at night or sit in a sauna – I very often go to hotels to write, which is something Maya Angelou and a few others convinced me might be a good idea – that I would consider two people, just like you had mentioned, two people I really cared for and wished them well.
That’s all I did. Chade had said to me – Meng is usually what I would call him – that at one point, a woman in one of his classes had done this for one day at work. Every hour on the hour, she would just look out of her office and wish someone well that she could see in her mind’s eye for 60 seconds or so. And she said it was her best day of work in seven years. And I found that unbelievable, so I decided to try it myself. And that week of just spending maybe two to four minutes at night before going to bed ended up being one of the most blissful weeks in memory, certainly at that point, in several years. It was really profound. And I couldn’t pick out any other variable that had changed. So, for me, I just want to, for people who are listening and saying, eh, you know what, I’m type A, driven, super hyper competitor; this doesn’t apply to me – that it very well could apply to you. And that by taking a little bit of the harmful edge off, you don’t automatically remove your competitive edge.
And in fact, I would argue, just as you mentioned, that the Bulls and so on used to have, or still do – used to have a mindfulness coach for competitive advantage, that it can be another tool in your toolkit. It doesn’t take you out of the game, so to speak. It just makes you more aware of the games that you’re playing. So, that’s a long sort of infomercial sales pitch that I wanted to just make sure I got in, because I discounted a lot of these practices for a very long time because I thought it would, at best, be a waste of time; at worst, take away some of my skills or tendencies that allowed me to get to where I am. So, that is more of a confessional than a question. But I would love to hear your thoughts, any additional thoughts on loving kindness meditation, but also any additional thoughts on how, if you wanted to get a busy, maybe even impatient person hooked on mindfulness practice, what first steps or approaches you might suggest.
Jack Kornfield: So, a lot of different questions sort of woven into what you said. And the first is that there’s a kind of misunderstanding in our culture that love is a weakness, and it’s not. There is a way in which it’s the force that can – I think probably the only force that can meet the level of aggression or violence and other such things that are happening in the world. It’s the power that lets mothers lift cars off their children or lets somebody like Dr. Martin Luther King stand after his church was bombed and children were killed, and say, we will meet your physical violence with soul force. We will not harm you, but we will love you so deeply that we will not only transform ourselves, but we will transform you in the process.
And so, the notion that love is somehow a weakness, I think we do everything out of love. We want to be loved. Even in our ambition and our desire for success, underneath it is, we want to be well. We want to find our happiness. And that’s part of love. So, it’s actually a power. And my colleague and friend Wes Nisker went to interview Gary Snyder a couple of years ago. Gary is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and environmentalist. For 50 years, he’s been writing about bioregionalism, and one of our great kind of elders in this environment movement. He said, “Gary, what do you have to say to us now that pollutions are rising, the world climate is changing, hotter and hotter, the species’ extinction?” And Gary looked back, and he said, “Don’t feel guilty. If you’re gonna save it, don’t save it out of guilt, or anger, or fear. Those are the very things that are actually making the world worse. Save it because you love it. Because it’s part of you.”
And that is the power, whether you’re starting a company – but also, it’s not just that you – with some vision. Oh, okay, now I’m gonna become this wealthy playboy or whatever, a zillionaire. That what does your life means for you, and what do you really want? And when you listen, there’s something in you, and it’s part of your birthright, to both be able to give your gifts, but also to love and be loved in return. And it turns out that it’s power. So, then what you talk about is that it doesn’t much to begin the training. And your two minutes or four minutes in the evening, or this woman at her work, taking once an hour, 30 seconds, or a minute, to look at somebody there and offer a well wishing, can transform everything.
For people who want the practical support, because it is hard to do on your own, if you go soundstrue.com and look up the programs that I have, first there’s a 40-day program called Mindfulness Daily, which is 15 minutes a day or 12 minutes a day, depending on the segment, that both gives instructions in mindfulness, loving awareness, and loving kindness practice. And it’s 12 or 15 minutes a day. And by the end of those 40 days, you really have learned the inner skills. And then it builds up. There’s then a deeper training called Power of Awareness. And for those who are interested, we’re about to open an online teacher training for people interested in mindful – in passing along mindfulness and loving kindness to others.
Tim Ferriss: Jack, just to interject for one second, for people listening, I will also link to all of these resources in the show notes, which you can find at tim.blog/podcast, so you don’t necessarily have to remember all these things. You can go to the URL, and we will have direct links to these resources. Sorry to interrupt, Jack.
Jack Kornfield: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Just wanted to mention that for people listening.
Jack Kornfield: And with it, then, there is also – of the programs there, there’s one called Guided Meditations that’s a download. It’s like $10.00 or something. And it has a loving kindness practice, a compassion practice, a forgiveness practice. I think it may even have a joy practice and so forth, so you can – and it’s really helpful to have guided meditations at first, because otherwise your attention – we have a very short attention span in modern society. Albert Einstein, at least according to Scientific American, said, “If you can drive safely while kissing a girl, you’re simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” And we are in this kind of multitasking world with our devices, and we’ve forgotten how to tend our own hearts. We’ve forgotten how, in some ways, to really be present for one another, and more importantly, for our own life.
And so, getting guided meditations is tremendously helpful. And doing these little mini practices that you talk about, one minute, two minutes, several times a day, can transform you. Now –
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I was just gonna mention to people also, if you look at behavioral change, if you look at BJ Foivre, formerly of the Persuasion Laboratory at Stanford, you look at diet, dietary change, any of these things, doing less than you think you’re capable of doing is a really good long-term strategy. I mean, in terms of starting off rigging the game so that you can win in the beginning, so that your pass/fail mark in your mind is a really, really low hurdle. So, I just wanted to reiterate –
Jack Kornfield: Beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: Guided meditation. Don’t white knuckle in the beginning. Make it as easy as possible.
Jack Kornfield: Beautiful. And the same principle from ancient texts say that you start in the easiest way.
For some people, kindness for themselves seems impossible, but then you pick a child you care about or someone else, or even when you do go to yourself, you think of yourself when you were an innocent child and wish yourself well. The game is to do whatever naturally opens the gateway, whatever’s the easiest. For some people, it’s their dog. You come home and the most nonjudgmental being in their life wags your tail and loves you, and it doesn’t care what’s going on in your head. So, you take the avenue that most naturally opens your heart, and then you do this just a little at a time, as you said, and it doesn’t take long. But the other thing that’s important is that sometimes as you do it, it can actually display or show you the hypercritical nature of your mind, the shame that you carry, the self-judgment or self-loathing.
And so, then you say, well, what do you do then? Or it brings up its opposite. That’s the place that you just breathe and hold all that stuff with kindness, because this is our humanity. And we all have some of that. And the point isn’t to get rid of it, or judge yourself for having it, or try to fix it. It’s almost as if you put your hand in your heart and you say, you know, this is mindful self-compassion deep training. This is part of the measure of struggles that I’ve been given, like every human being. These things have tried to protect me, and now I can hold them with tenderness and say, all right. Thank you, but I don’t need your help anymore. I can be kind to myself. And in that way, you’re not trying to fix yourself or perfect yourself. If anything, you’re trying to perfect your love.
Tim Ferriss: Jack, I wanted to give you credit for help that you gave me and also tactical advice that you gave me during the ten-day silent retreat.
You gave me a lot, but I want to highlight one that’s related to what you just said. I was going through a very, very difficult time, particularly days seven, eight, and nine. And you gave me the advice that you just mentioned. And there’s one component I want to really underscore for people, and that is when you’re, for instance, trying to do loving kindness meditation, and instead, you get the opposite, or you get this self-ridicule – who are you to try it, to meditate in this self-indulgent way? This is ridiculous. Or this voice just starts to pop up that is angry or hateful, whatever it might be. The process of not simply dismissing it or fighting against it, but recognizing it as a coping strategy that helped you in the past in some way that you developed because, in my case, the rage was a fuel, without which I probably would never have left Long Island, right?
I had friends who later overdosed on opiates and so on. So, it was a gift, in a way, and a tool. And, as you said, you can thank that response or that part of yourself, and then put it – and I remember you recommended even visualizing, and please correct me if I’m wrong or elaborate – but visualized taking that part of you that is a coping strategy, thanking it, and then putting it, say, on a shelf, where you can use it later if need be, along with, say, other icons or figures who, whether it’s Buddha or other, that you recognize as wise, and then continuing with the meditation. So, thanking that part of yourself for the function that it once served, even if it is not serving you now, was such a key insight for me, that then helped me to manage my internal state or observe and appreciate my internal state for the next several days, where I really felt like I was lost at that point.
So, that was a really direct tool that helped me tremendously.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah, thank you for bringing it up, because it’s so important for people. When we come to that hypercritical, shame, shame place, we feel very vulnerable and we’ve been identifying with it, and because you needed it – I needed these things for survival. And so, if you try to get rid of this stuff, you just end up in a fruitless battle against yourself, and it’s just more judgment. So, what you described, saying thank you for helping me survive. I appreciate it. Let me put it on the shelf or the altar. I’ll put it in the lap of Buddha or whoever, the goddess of infinite compassion. You hold it for me. If I need it, I’ll pull it back. And that sense that this isn’t who you are. It doesn’t describe who you are. It isn’t who you are. It was a strategy because we’re vulnerable beings. And you were tender as a child.
And you had to make sure you could survive. Thank you for that. And now, I have a different capacity. Let me just talk about that capacity a little bit, because the capacity for presence and the great part of compassion that’s said to be your birthright is a really mysterious thing. We talk about identity. And when my youngest brother’s wife was dying of cancer, and she was just a beautiful being, and I spent quite a bit of time with her and with my brother, I had gone home – she was close to dying. I had gone home to sleep, and I Wanted to get up early and hurry back, because it was very close. And I got in my car. I had to stop at the drugstore to pick up a prescription, hurriedly running, dashing through the aisles and so forth.
And I’m at the checkout counter, and all of a sudden, my whole body relaxed, and I thought, Oh, Esta died. And I got out to the car, and I called my brother. I said, “How’s it going?” He said, “Oh, Esta died a few minutes ago.” And I said, “I know. I’ll be there shortly.” And we’ve all had these experiences. If I ask in a room how many have had this particular kind, where you knew someone died when they died, a quarter of the hands will go up. Why is this? It’s because who we are is not this body. We are the consciousness itself. And so, with all these practices, what they allow us to do is to step out of what’s called the small sense of self, or the body of fear, and reconnect with the field of connection, of interdependence, of compassion, and to take our history and to honor it, but not be bound by it.
One of my stories is with Ram Dass again, this wonderful spiritual teacher, in the early years. When he came back from being with his group in India, he was sitting up there and teaching devotional practices and meditation practices. And he had a beard, and white robes, and beads, and he was sort of in the guru outfit. And a woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “Ram Dass, Ram Dass, aren’t you Jewish? What’s with this Hindu stuff?” And Ram Dass said, “Well, yes, I am, actually. I was bar mitzvahed” – as I was, too. “And there are many things I love about the Jewish spiritual tradition. The generosity of it, the Kabbalah and all its great teachings on the many stages and states of consciousness, the Hasidic masters who are like Zen masters.”
And then he paused and looked out, and he said, “But remember, I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side.” And there was something both witty, which he was, but also profound about it. Because we are not just our parental history or the historical circumstances of this place and body that we were born into. And something in us knows this, so that when you look at – there’s a wonderful book that came out last year or the year before called the book of joy, which was a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu. And both of them have marvelous laughs. I think people go to hear the Dalai Lama by the tens of thousands not just for the Tibetan teachings, some of which are actually hard to understand, or even the fact that he’s this Nobel Prize-winning world figure. I think people go to hear him laugh.
That somebody who’s carried so much suffering from the loss of his country, where he can’t return, and the burning of temples and texts and all of those things. And he and Tutu had a week together where they were asked, and this created this book, how can you be joyful? How can you laugh like this when you’ve lived through Apartheid and the death of so many people around you? And the Dalai Lama – they banter back and forth like brothers. And the Dalai Lama says, “So much has been taken from me. They’ve taken our sacred texts, they’ve taken our ability to make prayers in public. They’ve taken so much of our culture. Why should I let them take my happiness?” And then Tutu starts to laugh and giggle and say, “I’ve been through so much, but I’m not going to let myself live in that place. I’m going to let myself live in that which affirms life, and in a kind of profound joy that we made it, that we’re still alive. That we can contribute, that we can be here on this beautiful earth.”
And this shift of consciousness is what’s needed for the world. Because if we look honestly, no amount of technology alone is gonna save us. Nanotechnology, and space technology, and biotechnology, and worldwide web, Internet, computer, supercomputer technology is gonna stop continuing warfare, and racism, and tribalism, and environmental destruction. Those are happening based on the consciousness of the human heart. And so, we are now – we’ve made these enormous developments outwardly, where you have the Great Library of Alexandria in your smartphone in your pocket, along with a million cat YouTubes or whatever. But there it is. It’s all in there.
And then what we need is collectively to develop a transformation inwardly of our inner life that is parallel to this enormous outer transformation. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff some years ago said, “We are a nation of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” You know?
Tim Ferriss: Oh god.
Jack Kornfield: “I don’t know how old humanity is, but it’s time to grow up.” So, this work that we’re talking about it both individual, but as you learn to meet your own life with greater understanding and compassion, it empowers you to move through the world in a different way and to help others do the same. And then you get that kind of joy of Tutu and the Dalai Lama, that you’re somehow part of an awakening that humanity now needs more than ever.
Tim Ferriss: And Jack, I’d love to ask you – these interviews are always driven by some self-interest. I always have some issue or challenge or problem that I’m trying to figure out, so I reach out to someone like you to help me do it, but I record the conversation. As we chatted about before we hit record, and you know this already, but the last several years have been very, very important for me in terms of addressing certain traumas, and the last eight weeks in particular have been transformative in a lot of beautiful ways. And the periods, the duration of periods within which I don’t berate or attack myself have become longer. But there are still times when the wheels fly off the car, and this last week has been one such example. And I tend to, when I make a mistake, or feel like I’m backsliding or relapsing, to compound the problem by beating myself, which then I start to – then I beat myself up about beating myself up, and you know where that goes.
So, let me paint a picture. So, I found out recently that my Japanese host father – and I’ve been in touch with this family since I was 15. I’m very, very close to them. I’m 40 now. And I found out that he just was admitted – because the host mother sent me an email – to the hospital with liver cancer.
Jack Kornfield: Mm.
Tim Ferriss: And this – they don’t have details yet. I just sent a follow-up email. They don’t know what the prognosis is exactly. But needless to say, the worst-case scenarios are certainly being conjured in my mind, or the potential of those. And then simultaneously, I’ve been contending with, and I believe you have some experience with this – contending with what should be a very simple construction project of a cabin up in the mountains.
And it has been delayed and delayed and delayed, and there have been cost overruns and cost overruns and cost overruns, and promises made, promises broken, expectations set, expectations missed. And a friend of mine called with a whole new slew of problems yesterday related to this place. And I lost my shit, for lack of a better term. I mean, there are many other things going on simultaneously. But I got really pissed, and I was like, you know what? This extending the olive branch of being understanding gambit is not working with these people. I need to take out the baseball bat and pull old Tim off the shelf, who was just this juggernaut, head through brick walls, and be like, listen, fuckface. If you don’t do A, B, C, D, and E here, well, these are gonna be the consequences. And then I’m like, well, wait. I’m supposed to be compassionate. But how do I not be a pushover? And it turns into this big, dramatic play inside my head.
And then I wait – this is gonna end soon. I’m not gonna keep going. But what I then often do is self-medicate with caffeine. And I think it’s a way of feeling productive without actually being productive. And it also creates so much volume on the noise, I think I use it to tune out a lot of feelings. So, when someone relapses or has this kind of experience, what do you suggest to them? I mean, is there a particular pattern interrupt or approach that you’ve found helpful for regaining footing?
Jack Kornfield: Oh, so there’s a number of things to say. Yeah, first of all, you could call it relapsing, or you could just call it, yeah, it’s being human. The most beloved poet in Japan was a Zen master named Rio Kan. And there’s a two-line verse of his that I particularly find fitting for this, where he wrote, “Last year, a foolish monk / this year, no change.”
And you can sort of feel the human and the tenderness in it. And there’s a way in which you see your personality. The point – you have a body. You have this particular body you’re born with, and you can transform it in certain ways, within the limits of the body that you were given. And similarly, you have a personality. And anybody who has a number of kids realizes that you don’t come in tabula rasa, that you actually – this kid is born and has this kind of temperament. So, you have a personality. And just like you don’t want to look too closely at the body sometimes, you don’t want to look that closely at the personality either. It has its foibles and its fears and all of that. And so, you start to kind of look and say, oh, well, there’s a really good example of how neurotic I can get. Thank you. Thank you for reminding me. And then you get a little sort of like the keeper of the zoo, a little more tender with those kinds of creatures.
So, that’s – it’s bringing in the nonjudgment or loving kindness for the way that you actually are, and not your ideal, or bringing compassion, you could say. Yeah, this is a tough one, and I got triggered. So, what? Now, the other thing is that I had the same experience, where we had a big remodel of our house when I was, some years ago, raising my daughter and in my first marriage. And we were supposed to go and teach and travel in Europe, and this guy, he was a good contractor, but everything, of course, gets more expensive, and you gotta do this. And it kept getting slowed down. And I said, “You were gonna get this done so we can make these decisions. We’re going to Europe, and it’s not happening. You’ve gotta hurry up.” I do that like three or four different times, and it doesn’t happen. Finally, I go in. I get pissed, and I say, “Listen, you said this, and our contract was gonna be done by then. And if you don’t fucking get this done by that time, I’m gonna haul your ass into court and sue you, because I need this down. And I’m not gonna pay you the goddamn money,” blablabla.
He looked at me, and he said, “Oh, you really want this done, don’t you?” I said, “Yes.” The next day, there was this huge crew. It starts to get done. And I realized, okay. I’ve been sort of talking meditation speak, yeah, nice to get it done, he was a fucking contractor. And I just had to speak contractor-ese. Get the goddamn job done, or I’ll haul your ass in. Okay, I get it, yeah. I’ll send a team over. And that’s all it took. So, but there’s something playful about that as well. It’s not that you can’t – I’ve seen the Dalai Lama get angry at people. It’s not that you can’t use that power and that understanding when it’s necessary. You can get very strong or forceful. And you don’t have to judge yourself unless you hurt people.
And then, of course, that’s the misuse of it. But it’s just – it’s part of being human.
Tim Ferriss: Is there something you say to yourself when – now, I think – I don’t know. You are, certainly in person, and with any contact I’ve had with you, one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. And I don’t use that word very much, but your presence of listening and being with someone is really incredible. And I don’t know how much of that is intrinsic versus trained, but for better or for worse, coming out of the womb, I’ve been very impatient since day one. So, I worry about – it seems like my default is speaking contractor-ese to more than just the –
Jack Kornfield: The contractors.
Tim Ferriss: The wayward contractor who’s putting off work. Is there some – when I feel that, the sensations of anger beginning to bubble up, is there something that you would suggest as self-talk, or just a temporary pumping of the breaks to make it an informed decision versus just a lashing out?
Jack Kornfield: Well, I could give you an answer, but in a minute, I’m gonna guide you in a little practice –
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
Jack Kornfield: So that you can find a better answer. First, I just want to say that that anger, yes, it’s your habit or maybe your temperament. That’s energy. And there’s nothing wrong with energy. It’s the power that lets you do all the kind of things that you’ve done in your life that are tremendously creative, or resourceful, or daring, or whatever kinds of things. So, you want to respect, okay, I’m getting filled with energy. And it might be that you want to lash out. But first, you want to respect that energy. Wow, let me feel this in my body. Woo, anger. How big is it? Woo. Okay. Then your question is, what can I do to modulate it?
I could give you, okay, take some breaths, ground yourself, look at that other person, blablabla. But instead, as we’re talking, let yourself picture a circumstance recently. It might have been with the contractor who’s doing your cabin or something else, and that uprising of the injustice of it, and how right you are, and how you’re gonna get this goddamn thing done, and how you have to be hard and strong, and you feel all that, and feel the energy in your body. The first thing is, just remember what it felt like. And now you’re becoming the kind of mindful loving witness of it and saying, wow this is a lot of energy. Can you feel that and remember that?
Tim Ferriss: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Jack Kornfield: Okay. Now, next step is that the wisest figure you can imagine – maybe it’s the Buddha, or maybe it’s – I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Some great master or martial arts master who’s mastered themselves as well as their art comes to you.
And let yourself imagine somebody’s gonna teach you how to manage this powerful energy.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Jack Kornfield: And see who appears. Somebody appears to you.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm.
Jack Kornfield: And first, they look at you, and they smile, and they say, yeah, this is really – this is the big energy. And they appreciate you. So, instead of saying, oh, you’re a doofus, they say, oh yeah, you actually carry some powerful energy, and they acknowledge that. They bow to you. Yeah, Tim, you got it, all right? And then you say, yea, but how do I manage this when it takes me over? And so, this Zen master, whoever comes, reaches under their robe and pulls out a gift for you, which is a clear symbol of exactly what you need in that moment to help you regulate it so that you can keep the energy, but do it in a way that doesn’t cause harm to you or another.
And this clear symbol, you’ll be able to see it’s just what you need. So, let yourself picture the gift that they put in your hand, and let yourself imagine, see, envision, picture, what it is. And if you can’t see it clearly, hold it up to the sunlight. You’ll be able to. And then let me know what you get.
Tim Ferriss: You want me to tell you what it is?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So, the person who came to mind for me – I went through a few – was the creator of judo, a fascinating guy named Jigoro Kano, a really small guy.
Jack Kornfield: Okay. Yes, who could throw all the big guys and smile at the same time.
Tim Ferriss: Right, exactly. Changed a lot also in Japanese government. Fascinating guy. The symbol – I don’t know why this is, to be honest – but it’s a pyramid the size – with straight edges, a little too big to hold in your palm, that is blue.
It’s a sort of – almost a mixture of pure sky blue, like bluebird blue, with a bit of electric blue mixed in. And it’s sort of a smoky vapor that’s floating around in side this glass pyramid. I have no idea why that’s the case, but that’s what came up.
Jack Kornfield: All right, so we’ll stay with it, and then there’s one more little piece. So, he gives you this pyramid. Free associate a little bit on what it might possibly mean because these symbols are like dream images, and they come from a deep place in your psyche. And this pyramid has a message for you, this blue pyramid. Just guess what it might be.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s very, very stable. It’s an extremely stable structure. And for me, it also – I could imagine it representing power also. It seems like a very powerful symbol in many different cultures, certainly.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The blue is a little easier for me. It’s a very cooling, soothing color, where certainly red is the color I associate –
Jack Kornfield: The fire. Right.
Tim Ferriss: With the fire, with the high resonance, anger, energy would be more a red fire element, so the blue would be a cooling or countering balancing force for that.
Jack Kornfield: All right, so now what I want you to do is imagine taking this blue pyramid gift, which represents a kind of extreme stability and also a kind of power and cooling that’s given to you by Jigoro Kano and taking this into your body so that there you are, filled with this energy and anger, this huge wave. You let that be there, and you take this pyramid in, and you let that energy be inside this stable, grounded place of power.
And feel what it’s like to be inside this blue pyramid with this energy and feel how it affects it. Just notice, as if there, you’re in that circumstance. And now I’m remembering, I am a blue pyramid with – and what does it feel like?
Tim Ferriss: Well, the most noticeable thing, and I wonder, of course, how much of this is the actual visualization versus the time out that I permitted myself to have. But there’s very often a tightness on the left side of my chest, right by the sternum, that I feel when I start getting wound up. And that is absent when – after taking this gift and then visualizing it being incorporated. That dissipates.
Jack Kornfield: So, what you’re practicing – and you know this very well, in athletics, that yes, you practice things, but other times, you also practice envisioning, whether it’s playing piano or whether it’s some Olympic training, that some of the times, you just do it through visualization, and it activates a lot of the same neural circuitry.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely.
Jack Kornfield: So, here, you’re starting to get the feeling of what it’s like to be in the middle of this upwelling of anger and so forth, and then taking a couple of breaths, and feeling the blue pyramid, and the connection with the earth, and the stability of it. And the power, then, of that presence that cools you and allows the anger to be there, but not in the same uncontrolled way. Now, there’s one more thing, and that is if you imagine, again, Jigoro Kano, I believe you said his name is.
Tim Ferriss: Yup, you got it.
Jack Kornfield: He comes up to you after giving you this gift, and he touches you kindly on the shoulder, and he has a few words of advice of how to handle this powerful energy that comes up in you, because he knows all about it. And what does he whisper into your ear, kindly?
Tim Ferriss: Well, he whispers – this came to mind immediately.
Jack Kornfield: Mm-hmm.
Tim Ferriss: He says, [speaking Japanese], which is – I still have this, actually. There are two – he has many famous quotes. But he has what you might consider proverbs – short aphorisms that I’ve actually carried with me since I was 15. But they’re packed away somewhere, and I have two of them. They’re on cloth. And the first is [speaking Japanese], which means basically, if you work hard, you will achieve. You will reach your target. It’s not the best translation, but that’s the idea. The other one is [speaking Japanese, which is effectively, the most efficient use of energy. But it could also be the best/most benevolent use of energy. And it’s a principle of judo, but it’s something that he applied to everything, including education. So, it would be that very short, bite-sized aphorism, which is – and I’m sure some scholars might disagree with me, but roughly translated here, at least as I take it, as the maximum or most efficient use of energy.
Jack Kornfield: So, take that in. Take his intentions, [speaking Japanese], benevolent and efficient use of it. Feel the pyramid. And now, your assignment is that the next five times that this comes – which it will, maybe tomorrow, or next week, or so forth – bring in the blue pyramid, stable, powerful, cooling, so the energy’s still there. And then you hear his voice say [speaking Japanese], and you go, oh yeah, I can use this, but I can use it in a benevolent way. And try it five times. And then text me. Let me know what happened. Because now we’re closing the loop. If you do it and see, now you’re responsible. If you agree that you’re gonna do it, it sort of gooses the game a little bit, and you go, okay, now I’d better do it because I have to let Jack know what happened. And let me know what happens.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I’ll be able to use it this week because I’m flying out to the site of this cabin to meet with everybody and see what the hell’s going on, so I’ll have at least five opportunities to do that.
Jack Kornfield: You have your Zen training ahead. I mean, the other thing that’s great, and then that you can hear in this, rather than in my giving you a cookie cutter answer, is that we actually have the wisdom that we’re seeking, or that’s available – we have it in ourselves. I mean, you didn’t have to fly to Kyoto and get in your time machine to go back and see Jigoro Kano, or whoever it happens to be, the Dalai Lama, or whoever happens to come to you, the Buddha, or some other great figure. But actually, the goddess of compassion, that we carry that wisdom in our own heart. And part of what these contemplative trainings do is they give us access just by taking a little pause.
It didn’t take you even 30 seconds. Okay, he appears. What do I do? Oh, here’s how my body would feel. What perspective should I bring? Oh, here’s efficient and benevolent use of energy. Oh, okay. Now I remember. So, these answers for the questions of the psyche and the heart don’t require going somewhere. They ask us to quiet and begin to listen. And as you do, then you discover your own inherent wisdom and your own compassion as well, because the benevolent use that he offers to you, where does that live? It lives in Tim. It lives in you.
Tim Ferriss: One of the reasons I’ve wanted to have you on the podcast for so long is that for me, you represent a very wide spectrum of tools.
You have developed a toolkit that has enabled you to work with everyone from the seekers of, say, the Buddhist – along the lines of the Buddhist traditions to, say, adolescents who are cutters to war vets with PTSD, missing limbs, and so on. You’ve worked with a very diverse set of students and patients, maybe. And that leads me to my next question, which is after these experiences abroad, why did you decide to come back to the U.S., period, and then why did you decide to go back to school and study clinical psychology?
Jack Kornfield: So, after the first five years in Asia, there were a few other Westerners who would become monks. There was a handful.
And some were gonna stay for the rest of their lives. I’d learned a lot, and so that was kind of a choice. Am I just gonna stay? And I realized, no, I want a family. I want a lover. I was a young man, after all, and just celibacy for those years was actually pretty hard. I wanted to see if what I had learned really translates into the life back home. I don’t want to just leave it. And so, it was some wrestling, but it became very clear to me that I wasn’t fit for the monastery for the rest of my life. I had not only other desires and longings, but also a real interest to say, does this work elsewhere? So, I came back, and I was like, well, what can I do? I got a couple jobs right away. And of course, what I knew how to do was be a student. But I was now a student of the mind and the heart.
And I said, well, how do I learn more about what happened to me in the monastery? Oh, I’ll study Western psychology. And so, that started me on that particular path. And I learned a lot of complementary things. There’s some very good trauma work in the West that I’ve learned about that really enhances the compassion, and loving kindness, and mindfulness, things that I learned in the temple. And now, I’ve done a lot of years of teaching, Eastern and Western psychology together. These principles that I’ve learned are spreading so widely in Western psychology. I went to the largest therapy conference in the country in December down in Anaheim and gave a talk. Here’s a roomful of 3,000 or 5,000 people, and I ask, how many of you have some experience of meditation or mindfulness practice? And the majority of the hands went up.
And that would not have happened 20 or 30 years ago. So, Eastern psychology is now becoming more visibly woven into the understandings of clinical psychology in the West, and it’s beautiful. Now, I want to say something else. When you talk about working with a variety of populations, yes, people in prisons, yes, or kids coming out of gangs, but also CEOs. And there’s a dialogue that Bill Ford and I did. He was, at that time, the chairman of Ford Motors. He was actually the CEO, perhaps, before that, but he’s the chairman of Ford Motors. And he talks about it too. It was in 2008, I guess, when the auto industry was just about the melt down. And he called.
We’d had some contact. And he’s a meditator. And he said, you know, I’m gonna lose my grandfather’s company and maybe the whole industry on my watch, and it’s hard to sleep. What can I do? And we did loving kindness practices and mindfulness practices together and so forth, and I gave him some practices that he could use. And it turns out that at whatever level you’re on, whether you’re incarcerated, or whether you’re a CEO, or whether you’re a returning vet, that these inner capacities that we have to be present without getting lost, to bring an understanding attention to these energies, just as you were doing with anger, in ourselves, are really, really liberating. And sometimes what’s needed, like for the vets or the people coming back from the war, is also a kind of forgiveness practice and trauma work.
And we’ll come together, and they’ll say things like, I can’t tell you what I saw, because in fact, people don’t want to hear the horrors of war. They can’t tell the story, and if they do, often, they retraumatize themselves. And the people around them couldn’t bear it. But there’s something worse, because they’ll say, I can’t tell you what I had to do. And so, it’s locked up in their hearts. And then what do they have? They can drink, or they can distract themselves, or get in blind rages periodically. But if you get a room of returning combat vets and hold it with the proper space of understanding and compassion, not only can they tell their stories, which they’ve never told, but they can listen to one another and say, oh yeah, I’ve been there.
And all of a sudden, they’re not so alone anymore. And that release of the weight on their heart – so, there’s a social dimension to trauma where we need to tell the story – helps them release also what’s carried in their nervous system, and in their body. And there’s some correlation between those two together. It becomes very powerful. And we need that. I do a lot of teaching of forgiveness practice and self-forgiveness. And those are also on those guided meditations that I teach. And for a lot of us, self-forgiveness, like self-compassion, becomes a very, very important way to liberate ourselves from what we had to do to survive in the past so we’re actually free in our life.
Tim Ferriss: How do you set the stage, for instance, with those vets? What do you say to them, or what exercise might you do that open the door for them to share these stories?
Jack Kornfield: So, a couple of images, one with gang kids, and then one with vets. For gang kids who come in, these kids are trying to get out of gangs, and they come with a mentor or something like that to some events we’ve had. And you get these guys, and their hoods are up, and their hats are on backward, and they’re leaning back and saying, like, come on, man, you’re gonna teach us meditation? You’re gonna teach us – give us some poem, stories. Listen, man. We’re out on the street. People got nine millimeters. You know, you gotta give us something better than that. So, we try to make a setting that honors who they are from the very beginning. We say, well, we can’t talk yet about the real things that we came here to do because there are too many people in this room who have not been acknowledged and not been respected.
So, would you go out in the parking lot and pick up a stone for every young person you know who’s been killed? And we light one candle and put it in the center of a table, and say bring it in and say their name, and put their stone by this candle. The simplest possible ritual. And these guys and sometimes gals would come in, and their hands are full of stones. No young people should know that many dead people. And they’ll say, “This is for Tito, and this is for RJ, and this is for Homegirl.” And pretty soon, there’s a mound of stones, and the names of people they’ve lost were put into the fabric or the air of that room, and their hoods are no longer over their heads. They’re sitting up, like, okay, this is a place where we can talk about what’s really going on. So, there’s something about making, whether it’s through the simplest ritual, or making a container in which people realize that this is a safe place to talk about what we’ve never done before.
With the vets, one of the things that – Michael Meade, Luis Rodriguez, these guys from Mosaic Multicultural Foundation that I’ve worked with for years and are really wonderful – Michael, who’s a great drummer and a storyteller and mythologist who’s also been working in prisons with vets and gang kids for years, he’ll say, let me tell you an ancient story of returning warriors. And he has a handful of stories from Africa, or Tibet, or the Mayan tradition about warriors coming back with their hands covered with blood, and their eyes filled with the Mars, with the martial energy, that they can’t stop the violence because it’s taken them over. And here’s a myth or a story that tells about how ancient warriors were brought back into their community.
I’ll tell you the myth if you want to hear one of them.
Tim Ferriss: Oh yes, please.
Jack Kornfield: So, here we are, and there are these vets, and already, stories have started to pour out about I can’t tell you what I saw, I can’t tell you what I had to do. And Michael stood up, and he said, let me tell you an old Irish story of an Irish warrior named Cuchulainn, or I’m not sure how his name is pronounced, something like that. And he was the most fierce and famous of all Irish warriors. And the Irish warriors were madmen, because they would go out – they’d paint their bodies and they’d go out naked. And sometimes you’d just see them coming and you’d run the other way. But anyway, there was some marauding king and army that had come to threaten their area. And so, Kokolane went out and almost singlehandedly chased them and defeated them.
But then he was coming back to his own town in a chariot covered with blood, and his eyes blazing, bearing down on his own town, still possessed with the violence of war, with the god Mars. And they were all terrified he would come and do violence there too. And so, they went, what can we do? And they went to ask the old wise woman in the village, and she said three things. And so, the first thing, they lined up all the women in the village, who bared their breasts. And this slowed him down, as if it reminded him of his mother’s milk or something. And because he was slowed down, then the second thing they did was take a rope and tie it around him and put him in a huge cauldron of cold water, which hissed off his body. And then they filled it three times with cold water, and finally, his body cooled down.
And then a third thing they did is they took him, still bound, and they lay him on a carpet in the court of the local king. And they sang to him the stories and myths and songs of warrior who had protected the kingdom and then come back and released the violence and the fears that they carried, and planted their crops again, and loved their families, and resumed living in harmony with the community from which they came. And they told ancient stories and sang the songs for three days and nights. And when it was over, Cuchulainn’s eyes opened, and they untied him, and he was back as a normal human being again. And after Michael told this story to the vets who’d been telling terrible accounts of things that happened, in this room, a hundred men stood up.
And we’d been working with a simple African chant, a song that was really an African chant of a prayer, “Earth, hold me, for this living is hard.” We all sang to the vets together for a long time, as if we could sing them back into their bodies from this, as if they were lying there in the court of the king. So, this is – and you asked the question, how do you make a setting that allows people to truly feel that they can tell their stories and be held in compassion, whether it’s the grief of these gang kids that no one’s really given them the place to give voice to, or the vet who says I can’t tell you what I had to do?
Tim Ferriss: That’s very powerful, and it makes me also think back to conversations I’ve had with Sebastian Junger, who is a war-time journalist who has coproduced and shot a number of really harrowing documentary films, including Restrepo, and most recently wrote a book called Tribe that touches on some similar topic area, and leads me to ask you, are there any rites of passages or rituals that you feel would be useful for every man or woman who experienced – and this is something that I’ve felt a longing for and a lack of since my teenage years, because I’m not Jewish, did not have a bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah. I don’t know if that serves that purpose in the Jewish tradition, necessarily.
But are there any rituals or rites of passage that you think we could use in, let’s just say, the United States that would be helpful to – whether it’s a specific population, a specific group, or anyone?
Jack Kornfield: So, what you’re talking about is a really big subject. It’s the subject of initiation, and unfortunately, bar mitzvahs, at least when I was young, was a relatively lightweight and meaningless thing. You get up there, and you recite your Hebrew portion of the bible, and now you’re a man, and they give you a bunch of presents, and there wasn’t a lot of meaning in it. But the problem that you raise is that of the lack of initiation. And what’s true is that it’s been forgotten in our culture. One of the few places you get initiation is going into the military. That’s initiation. But a lot of these gang kids, for example, they’re trying to initiate themselves, which can’t really happen.
You need elders, and you need it in a ritualized way. But they’ll go out, and if you’re in the Masai tradition in East Africa, in the Masai people, as everybody’s heard, a young man at a certain age of 14 or something will go out and kill a lion to prove that they’re now an adult member of the society, and that they’re brave. And that’s part of their initiation. There are initiations for young women as well. And it’s not just in Africa. The Mayans had initiations. And in Thailand when I lived there back starting in the 1960s, at that point, almost every young man and many young women, when they reached the age of 19, 20, they became a monk for three months or for a year, and lived in an austere way, and it was part of their initiation to learn both the inner life of themselves, and also a kind of discipline.
We don’t have it, and because of it, kids are trying to initiate themselves on the streets by shooting somebody or doing something that shows that they’re brave, but it’s not a lion. It’s another person. Or it’s trying to get the attention of the others and prove how powerful or strong they are. So, we desperately need these, and we need them built into our education and into our psychology. And I can’t give you a simple answer, but one of the people who has the most intelligence about this is a man, a colleague of mine, named Michael Meade. And if you look on Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, his writings on initiation, and what’s possible here, and the things he’s said are very, very inspiring. So, that’s a place that I would look.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good starting point. Wonderful. I will definitely find that. Well, Jack, I think we could go for hours and hours and hours, and I always love chatting with you, and I’d love to perhaps even consider doing a part two sometime. But given that we’ve already gone for two-plus hours, I want to ask just a few more questions. And I’ll actually start with just reading something very short, which is from your 2017 year-end message. And so, I think this is just to inject some more optimism into our conversation, which we’ve already had plenty of. But this is just a small portion of your yearend message. Martin Luther King, Jr. describes our collective journey with hope. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice.” And Pablo Neruda explains further, “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Renewal is happening. This is back to your voice.
Take quiet time to listen to your heart, to meditate, and to rest amidst the great turnings. Feel the renewal of spring that can be born in you. Align yourself with goodness. Let yourself blossom like a lotus or whatever unique flower you are, shining in the world, offering tiny seeds of love amidst it all. Blessings to you in 2018, Jack. And I want this note to then lead into – and certainly, you’re welcome to comment on that – but which book you would recommend of yours people start with, or where they start with all of the many materials, recordings, readings that you’ve produced? Because you’re a fantastic writer and a prolific writer. You have some of my favorite book titles I’ve ever heard, by the way, including After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, which maybe we can touch on. But where would you suggest people start, of the many things that you’ve written and shared with the world? And if you have any comments on that yearend message, you’re welcome to share that as well.
Jack Kornfield: So, for books, if you want something simple, I have books like An Introduction to Meditation that Sounds True publishes, or I have a little book called The Art of Forgiveness, Loving Kindness, and Peace, which is very simple stories and practices. And if you want something that’s richer and fuller, then you can look at one of my bigger books, like A Path With Heart, or The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Principles of Buddhist Psychology. And again, I think lots of stuff online. And Sounds True is particularly a good place to go, along with my website. And that 40 Day Mindfulness, Mindfulness Daily, which is like 30 bucks or something, is a really wonderful way to start. In terms of what I’ve written about The Trusting Heart, one of the greatest Zen texts from a thousand years ago says to be awakened or enlightened is one with the trusting heart and mind.
And it doesn’t mean that we won’t go through hard times. We always have, and we will again, and we are now, in many ways; but that we also have born within us the capacity to meet these difficulties with understanding, with courage, with compassion, and transform them. In that way, one of my favorite recent books is called The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Stephen Pinker. And he’s a remarkable professor at Harvard, an anthropologist, historian, talking about the growing consciousness of humanity in spite of the kind of wars and conflict and environmental things. There are so many good things that have happened that he charts over the last few centuries of the development of certain abilities for peacemaking. There’s actually less war than there’s been. Respect for women, the reduction in child labor, all kinds of things.
And in that same regard, there’s a wonderful book called Bury the Chains, which is about the ending of slavery in the British Empire, starting with this handful of men who met in a British tea shop or printing shop, and spend 30 years riding around the country bringing X slaves who are well-spoken to talk about the Middle Passage and the horrors of slavery and so forth. And even though the British empire’s economic engine was built around slavery and sugar, by the end of their work of 30 years, the British Parliament outlawed slavery, and the British empire, decades before it happened in the U.S. And the Quakers were a big part of this. And the Quakers famously wouldn’t take their hats off for the king.
But when – what is his name, Thomas Clarkson, who was the center of this group trying to end slavery and going everywhere to do it – when Thomas Clarkson died, all the Quakers of England took their hats off, because he’d freed so many spirits and so many lives. So, we have these amazing possibilities as human beings, and we’re just growing into them now culturally, and it’s about time. But they are possible. And we each have a contribution to make in it.
Tim Ferriss: Jack, I’m gonna ask you one more question before we wrap up, just letting people know where they can find you on social media and elsewhere, the website and so on. But the last question is one I like to ask, and this is a metaphor.
But if you could have a short message on a billboard – in other words, get a message out to millions or billions of people – it could be a few words, one word, a phrase, a quote of yours, a quote of someone else’s, what might you put on that billboard?
Jack Kornfield: Well, two things come to mind. One is a question that when I’ve sat with people, many times at the end of their life, that they then ask of themselves, silently or out loud, is did I love well? Because in the end, what matters, really? The billboard would have a question rather than a statement. And it would have a question something like, how could I love myself better? So that actually, it’s not that I’m gonna tell them something. They already know this. But I’m gonna remind those who read that there is something that’s asking to be awakened in them.
How could I love myself and this world better? Then you go, what gets in the way of that, and how could I love that too? How could I love myself in this world better?
Tim Ferriss: Mm. Well, Jack, I want to, of course, thank you for your time today, but beyond that, I want to thank you. And this is very much from deep in my heart. Thank you for helping me to learn to love myself better, and quite frankly, to see something in the first place that is worth loving. That’s not where I’ve spent most of my life, so it’s turned into if not my – I hesitate to say my top priority, because I’m worried about sounding self-indulgent, but it’s become of the most important and fruitful tasks in my life, is asking that question: How could I love myself better, or how could I learn to love myself better?
So, thank you very, very sincerely for that. And the words don’t do it justice. But that’s the best I can do right now remotely, is to put it into words. So, thank you for that.
Jack Kornfield: Thank you, Tim. This was a pleasure to do. And what I feel and I know is that as you tend your own heart in a wise way, that it makes you available to bring the gifts, the many gifts you have to the world, you personally and others, but to do it in a way that’s on the carrier wave of connection and love, and it transforms everything. So, thank you too.
Tim Ferriss: Well, Jack, I’m looking at a text thread of ours, and I’m feeling the necklace around my neck, which is really a thread, a red thread, that was used to close one of the elements of the closing of the ten-day silent retreat. And I shot you a text not too long ago asking what the three knots meant, because I’d forgotten. And this is what you wrote back.
First note equals refuge and whatever you hold as most inspiring and sacred. Second, commitment to compassion for self and others. Third, following your highest intention. And the intention that I set at the end of that 10-day retreat was to learn to love myself so I could love others more fully. But I’ve realized that maybe what it is is learning to love myself so I can help others learn to do the same. And you’ve been an integral piece of that, and I just love that I have the opportunity to introduce you and your work and these traditions to more people. And I will certainly be linking to where everyone can find you online. But are there any particular best places, just to reiterate where people can find you? And I’ll link to these in the show notes.
Jack Kornfield: Jackkornfield.com, and also look up Jack Kornfield on soundstrue.com for those programs that I talked about. And then spiritrock.org, which is our great meditation center in the Bay, San Francisco Bay area.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely stunning, beautiful location. Worth visiting just to bathe in the scenery, but many more reasons to visit as well. Well, Jack, thank you again.
Jack Kornfield: Thank you. Thank you, Tim. Was a pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, you can find show notes and links to all the resources, books, and everything that we discussed at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thank you so much for listening.
Posted on: June 4, 2018.
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