Please enjoy this transcript of my second interview with Jack Kornfield (@JackKornfield), who 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.
Jack co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts (with fellow meditation teachers Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein), and the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology and is a father, husband, and activist.
Jack’s books have been translated into 20 languages and have sold more than a million copies, including The Wise Heart; 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, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are. He offers a brilliant online training program for those who want to learn to teach meditation at JackKornfield.com.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch some minor errors. Please enjoy.
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Tim Ferriss: You had a rich and spicy vegetable soup and you’re wondering if the audio is spicy. Do I sound spicy?
Jack Kornfield: You sound rich and wholesome, which I’m not sure that’s a compliment, but nevertheless…
Tim Ferriss: Jack, welcome to the show.
Jack Kornfield: Oh, thank you, Tim. I’m happy to be back.
Tim Ferriss: I am thrilled to have you back and for purposes of context for people listening, we’re recording this Monday, March 9th, 2020, and things are very “exciting” in quotation marks at the moment, and I am perhaps not so secretly going to use this conversation, which is intended to be listened to by my audience, as a therapy session for myself. And I will confess, Jack, that only very recently in the last even few days have I ever in my life taken prescription medication for sleeping. And I know that I’m not alone and perhaps struggling to not necessarily make sense of, but contend with a lot of what is happening currently with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, et cetera. And I thought we would start with the topic that I had written down here at the very top, and that is talking about a large virtual class you taught recently in China. Could you speak to what that was and what the experience was like?
Jack Kornfield: I taught a class in China of people who had been involved in meditation, so it was through a community of people. I know there are many folks who are already under quarantine at home and dealing with the collective anxiety and fears that are happening, the incredible disruption that’s happening in China, which may well be happening here and looks like it’s actually coming to us in a very rapid fashion. So we talked about how to hold it all. And to get them to laugh a little bit, I said, “We have — at our center in California at Spirit Rock — we have a whole group of people who are on our winter/spring two-month retreat, a hundred-plus folks, who are mostly in their own little rooms. They meditate quietly together. They can’t go out, they can’t talk to anyone, and they paid lots of money to do it.”
I said, “And you get this for free. So what will it mean to take your circumstance and, even though there is anxiety or fear or, again, not able to sleep, all the kinds of disruptions, what if you were to turn it around and say, ‘The universe has provided you with a retreat that you might not have had any opportunity to do in your life in this way,’ and to use it somehow to deepen your compassion, your self-care, the wisdom you have.” And I said — because I use the image that is so powerful from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh — he said, “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
And I said, “So these are tough times and it’s quite obvious that we’re in this complex of cultural anxiety and the spread of the virus and so forth. You can either give in to or get lost in your fear and anxiety, or you can take this as a time to begin to train yourself in steadiness, in trust, in the ability to have a vaster and broader perspective, and perhaps more than anything, with a kind of common humanity, to develop your sense of care and connection more deeply for everyone else.” This is the time that the bodhisattva, which is a Buddhist term for a being who commits to compassion, turns toward the difficult circumstances and makes their own heart a zone of peace and compassion and says, “We know how to hold this. We’ve been training our whole lives for this difficulty. And now let us see if we can use this so it’s not happening to us, but it’s happening for us.”
That reverses the frame of it. Now, I don’t mean this is easy, but it is actually true. Circumstances can change, it’s said, like the swish of a horse’s tail from something benevolent to something difficult. And when you enter a retreat, especially a long retreat as I did in my own training in Buddhist monasteries, they will often say, “During this retreat, many people will be born, many people will die, and your task is to come to that great inner freedom that can hold birth and death and joy and sorrow and be a benevolent and liberated spirit or liberated force in the midst of it all.” So we had this kind of conversation and people talked about their concerns with their family and obviously their economic fears, which I worry about more broadly here in the US how many small businesses will be affected and how many people who live from one paycheck to the next.
And it just touches my heart even to say it. And at the same time, maybe this wakeup also is a call for us here to have universal healthcare because in fact, it doesn’t matter how rich you are when you go out in your car or you go out to the market, you’re surrounded by all these other people. And if everybody around you doesn’t have the necessary care, then it will inevitably affect you because more and more we can feel how we’re tied together. “So what do we do with this?” I asked them. We can either get lost in our fearful fantasies, or we can let them go or give them a safe place. The way to work with anxiety to begin with is to acknowledge it — anxiety and fear — and say, “Thank you. Thank you for trying to protect me. I’m okay for now.” And put them aside.
You can even visualize putting them aside. You can take your fears and anxieties as thoughts or images and put them into a bowl or put them into a sword and place them on an altar in your mind and say, “All right, may the wise ones of the past, may the Buddhas — and whoever it is that you admire — you hold this for a while. It’s not my job to hold this, and let me be the person who lives in the reality of the present with a centered spirit and a compassionate heart.” And that kind of conversation got a lot of response as a reminder, really, of what we know.
Tim Ferriss: And for people who want to explore the exercise you just described, I would actually highly suggest our first conversation because you may or may not recall, but we spoke about anger, specifically my anger or anger response to certain circumstances, which included a discussion of “contractor-ese,” as you put it, which we don’t have to get into, but people can explore that in the first conversation we had. I would like to follow up with a question about the distinction — and the labels I’m going to use are somewhat clumsy — but how to combine what Bruce Tift, I believe his name is, he wrote a book called Already Free, calls the developmental view and the fruitional view, or the developmental framework and fruitional framework, meaning that you have a developmental framework that one could associate with Western psychotherapy where you identify problems, you work through your problems, you improve your circumstances, maybe you ask for that raise, quit that job, have the difficult discussion with your spouse, whatever it might be. So it’s a personal development/improvement path in some respect, problem-solving path. Then the fruitional view, which at least as he would put it, is improving your ability or changing your lens through which you relate to your circumstances. So for yourself, how old are you now, Jack, if you don’t mind me asking?
Jack Kornfield: I’m about to turn 75.
Tim Ferriss: 75.
Jack Kornfield: It’s a wild number, because inside, of course, I don’t — and very often — we don’t feel anywhere near as old as those numbers that roll by. And inside, I don’t know at what age I feel. 50, 40, 30? Because it’s all just a concept.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So how do you, in let’s just say the current circumstances, think about how much of your mind space or energy to dedicate to relating to the anxiety and fear and so on differently or with an accepting heart, so you don’t become lost, as you put it, in these overblown fantasies in some cases, versus the kind of brass tacks of problem-solving where you’re taking steps to disinfect packages, you’re taking steps to socially distance, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Thinking about medications you might need for the next two to three months if there are shortages, how do you think about or suggest that people blend those two? Because I do see people who fall in a binary way 100 percent on one side or the other and that doesn’t strike me as ideal.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. One side would be almost a kind of denial and just carrying on or saying, “Well, the outer doesn’t matter.” And the other is to get lost in the future —
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Jack Kornfield: — your fearful fantasies when the future is still really unknown for us. Part of what happens for me, and I think as we mature, become wiser, is that we become comfortable with paradox. The way to put it most simply is you need to remember your Buddha nature and your social security number. There are different dimensions to our being, just as light can be measured as a particle or a wave depending how you examine it, and there it is in its particle form and you can see it, or there it is as a wave function in the same way consciousness itself can be experienced differently.
It can be experienced as a field of vast, timeless awareness. It can also be experienced in each moment as the consciousness of what’s here, almost as if it’s a particle. And we human beings have this miraculous capacity to hold these multiple dimensions in a wise and open heart. So I recommend to people of course, be sensible. Any good spiritual teacher says what they want from students is a student who’s dedicated, yes. And also who has some common sense and not just lost in illusion. So be practical and in your community, be careful because this virus is spreading and it will spread further.
There’s not a question of it. And the question more is there’s a collective and an individual one. For us as individuals, how can we go through this and tend ourselves and others with care and not spiral down inwardly into a place of fear or despair? And this is possible. We’ve done this as human beings, we’re survivors and we have generations of ancestors behind you that are cheering you on and saying, “Yep, we lived through some tough stuff, too.” And I remember being in the forest monastery and I got very sick at different times as a monk or in that period of my life training.
Tim Ferriss: Can you just — for people who don’t have context — explain the forest monastery, what you mean by that?
Jack Kornfield: Sure. When I became interested in Buddhism, I went in the 1960s to Thailand where I worked for some time in the Peace Corps on tropical medicine teams in various remote villages. And then I became a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of the forests of the area of Thailand and Laos that were still huge, vast for us. And in those monasteries, we lived very, very simply. Took our alms bowl out to the nearby village to walk and get whatever food we could and sewed and made our own robes.
It was a marvelous way of life and one that was ancient and much of it was really the training. We did a lot of meditation. We also did various kinds of communal practices and service and things like that. Was learning how to be steady and balanced and compassionate to ourself and others through all the ups and downs. So I remember when I was sick with malaria, I had typhoid too, there were various things I went through, and I was lying on the kind of wooden floor of my little hut in the forest and didn’t go to the daily chanting or whatever. So the teacher came to see me and he said, “How are you?” I said, “I’m really sick.” He felt me. He said, “You have a high fever.” I said, “Yeah.” He looked at me quite knowingly. He said, “It’s probably malaria.”
I said, “It probably is.” He said, “Makes you feel bad, doesn’t it?” I said, “Yeah, really suffering.” He looked at me, I said, “Yes, really suffering.” He says, “Makes you think about going home to your mother, doesn’t it?” And I smiled, because he was a very funny guy. I said, “Absolutely.” He said, “This is malaria. All of us who lived in the jungle have had it. Now there’s good medicines and I’ll send the medicine monk to help you later. But remember, no matter how hard it is, you know how to practice with this. We’ve all done this.” And he smiled. He looked at me, he says, “You can do this.” And he actually urged me to sit up in the middle of it. There I was sweating and chills. He said, “Sit with it, meditate with it, and you’ll find your center in the midst of it all.”
So that was the kind of training. And in some way, we all have that training in our lives. We know there are choices where we go down the rabbit hole of our fears and get lost and contracted. And that’s fine. You can say, “Thank you, thank you for trying to take care of me.” As you might to your fears. But then you remember that who you are is not limited to that. And this is the shift of identity, that who you are is bigger than the thoughts and the fears or worries. And when you remember who you really are, which is awareness itself, a vast, loving awareness, then you can look at the circumstances, hold them with great compassion, and say, “Well, how do I want to live now? How do I want to follow this?”
And the beautiful thing is that you learn that you don’t have to pick up all those difficult thoughts and carry them around. We were out wandering in the rice paddies on our way to a village to collect alms food one day with my teacher, Ajahn Chah, and some monks. And out across the rice paddies was this great big rock, a boulder. And Ajahn Chah said, “Is that boulder heavy?” to us, he asked the question, kind of the way a zen master would, and being intelligent young monks we said, “Yes, it is, master.” And he smiled and he said, “Not if you don’t pick it up.”
Tim Ferriss: I knew that there had to be a trick coming. I knew there’s something coming.
Jack Kornfield: And it was something that we learned inside of how to witness what’s present without being lost in it.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Jack Kornfield: And so let’s, all right, let’s stay with the question of the spread of this virus because our society isn’t very well prepared, but we can prepare ourselves. We can prepare our hearts so that we’re that one on the boat, whether we stay in our homes at times that we need to, and take it as a time of deepening our sense of presence and care for others. It also means that we can become altruistic. It can bring out the best in us. And let me tell you a story. This was on BBC, not so many years ago, they did a special on the 60th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad in World War II. And Leningrad was besieged by the German army for almost three years, through three long winters.
And there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people inside, many who were close to starving. And one older woman who had been there as a child was describing the experience. And she said, “We would go out once a week.” She said, “In the winter, I went out to pick up bread for my mother and myself, and the streets were icy and slippery. And I stood in the bread line and went and got my piece of bread. And as I came out, I fell on the ice and the bread fell into the mud puddle. And I sat there and I wept. I was a young girl and another woman walked out behind me who had received her bread and she helped pick me up and she tore her piece of bread in half and wrapped it in a cloth and handed it to me.”
Then this old woman led the camera down the hallway of her railroad-type apartment into the kitchen and opened a cabinet. There was a ceramic, which she pulled open and pulled out a blue kerchief and untied it. And inside was a part of that piece of bread. And she said, “What that woman did for me is she gave me the spirit to live through the next year and a half of the siege, and I’ll never forget it.”
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Jack Kornfield: So we have the opportunity, even in difficult times, to let our spirit shine.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe especially in difficult times. And I’ve been thinking a lot of an expression recently and how it might apply to me and how I’m responding to current life events or world events for that matter. And I don’t know the attributions, I apologize to whoever actually said or wrote this, but that adversity does not build character, it reveals character. Have you seen any — and let’s just take for the time being that to be true, whether it is or it isn’t, but let’s assume that to be true. Have you seen any patterns in the people who are having the greatest difficulty emotionally, psychologically with the spread of this novel coronavirus, and is there anything to be learned from that that can help people?
Jack Kornfield: Well, the first thing to say is that I’ve seen people, I have a friend who’s a doctor who’s going around and visiting anybody who has got symptoms and she’s — from the outside, you might call it heroic in some way, but she said, “But this is what I trained for. This is the oath that we take as physicians that we will actually be there.” And so it brings out what’s beautiful in lots of people. However, as you say, if we have a tendency to worry, which many people do, or if we have a tendency to feel ourselves to be small, if our identity is built somehow around the sense of separateness, then this can then exacerbate it. What’s helpful is to have a bigger perspective. The Ojibwa Indian Native Americans have this amazing, I find, poetic way of putting it. They say, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself when all the while I’m being carried by great winds across the sky.” And we are in this human incarnation for a certain measure of time.
No one knows how long they have. A beautiful and difficult and remarkable dance in this life. And how will we do it? We’re being carried by vastness and we’re not just this personality or our history or the small sense of self. You’re a spirit that was born into your body. You are the loving awareness that was born into this incarnation. And you get to remember who you are as you start to awaken. And it gives you a tremendous kind of freedom. So my hope is that people will see their habits and also remember that who they are, the Buddhist texts begin with the words, “Oh nobly born are you who are the sons and daughters of the lineages of the awakened ones. Remember who you really are.” That it will actually bring out what’s beautiful in people.
Tim Ferriss: I asked — I think this is relevant to a question I asked earlier in so much as you strike me as someone who relates to life and death and mortality, perhaps differently than many folks, including many people I’ve had on this podcast. And you mentioned that you’re about to turn 75. I think you’ve got lots of mileage left. And I also know that that older segments of the population, as it relates to COVID-19, at least, appear to be more susceptible to severe illness and death. And many people, including myself, are worried about their parents and are, perhaps in some cases for the first time, but certainly, right now a lot of people are looking at mortality or feeling the sort of imminent looming specter of death in some capacity or the potential of death and struggling with that. How do you relate to death and mortality?
Jack Kornfield: So I want to tell a little story of relation to my twin brother when he died, and I don’t remember so well what we did in the last podcast. So if I’m repeating it —
Tim Ferriss: That’s okay. No problem.
Jack Kornfield: I think it may be relevant. And then from that, maybe we can talk about how one learns to face death in a different way. So a few years ago, my twin brother, who was an accomplished and acclaimed scientist and a geneticist and a world explorer, he was a population biologist more than anything else. So he explored the underwater genomes of the great lakes of the world and Lake Malawi in Africa and Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Titicaca in the Andes and so forth and genetic diversity and all those sort of things.
He did lots. He was an acclaimed professor. But he got blood cancer and after a time it morphed into a leukemia that they were not able — in the end, he had a stem cell transplant and all kinds of good treatment, but they were not able to stop. So I was with him in the weeks before he died and I loved him a lot as a twin and a funny, high spirited, interesting, playful human being. But there he was lying and knowing that he was going to die soon. And I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll teach you meditation,” I said to him. But he’d been in some pain and in all kinds of states. And I realized pretty quickly that it was a little late for that. I mean, yes, I could do a couple of guided meditations, but mostly it was beyond his doing some inner training. So I said, “How about instead, if I meditate with you, and I’ll meditate out loud? And so you’ll get a sense of how I do this.” And he was a member of the Explorers Club, which has the people who first climbed Everest or went to the North Pole or the South Pole, or went to the moon, all these great explorers. I said, “Will they take inner explorers?” He said, “No, no, no, we only do the outer stuff.”
“Okay,” I said. So I closed my eyes. I was sitting next to his bed and I began to meditate. And I said, “I’m simply paying attention with a loving awareness to what’s here in body, heart, and mind.” My main practice is that I’m opening to what’s so, and learning from it. And there are different channels or perspectives that open up. So I said, “I’m tuning in right here,” and I closed my eyes. And after a minute or so I said, “My body is feeling cold. and the cold is centered in my testicles and in my penis and right in my groin. And it’s getting colder. It’s like ice.”
And as I continued to pay attention, and I said, “And this is death.” I feel it because our minds and bodies as twins were really linked. I feel death growing in my body. And he said, “So what do you do?” And I said, “You pay attention to it.” And so I sat with that for a little bit, and I said, “Now I feel my attention moving from the ice in my genitals up to my heart. And all of a sudden the temperature changes and I feel my heart warm like an oven and a color, kind of a red comes. And I feel a love that I’ve had for you since we were in the womb or maybe lifetimes past, who knows? But this love I feel is outside of time that, whether I’m with you in your body or not, we love each other and I feel a rest, a connection in this love that’s huge and warm, and keeps us connected forever.”
And I stayed with that for a time and I said, “Now my attention is moving spontaneously up to my head and my head’s dissolved and now I feel myself to be vast space and awareness itself.” Which is how I practice often in meditation. And I said, “In this place, I can sense that there’s a body here. Some sensations of mine and a sense of body over there because I can see and hear and feel yours. They’re just appearances on the screen of timeless awareness coming and going and who we are is so much bigger than this. We are the field of consciousness itself that manifests in these incarnations. And in this, I feel absolutely at peace and open and spacious.”
And when I opened my eyes and looked at him, he had become much more peaceful. It’s as if he had taken in these dimensions, and it had reminded him of something that he knew deep in himself, because these are the different dimensions of freedom that come as one trains in meditation. And so let me talk about that a tiny bit and then I’ll get back to your question about death because there —
Tim Ferriss: No rush whatsoever.
Jack Kornfield: That’s so interesting as well. There are four dimensions of freedom that you learn as you train in, we’ll call it meditation or in the inner capacities of presence. And each of them involve a shift of identity. The first is that you become more and more able to be present with the content of your experience with what is called the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows. I’ll use sitting as the example, as you sit and meditate, you’ll have your longing and your love and your itches and your worries and your anger and your joy and your creativity and your imagination and your pain in the knee and your resentments. And you have all of those things come. And the first thing that first dimension of freedom that grows for you is what the neuroscientists call expanding the window of tolerance.
They are able to tolerate your humanity with its broken heart and its incredible love. With the unbearable beauty of the world you live in and the ocean of tears. And the poet, I believe it’s Hafiz, says, “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut more deeply. Let it season you as few ingredients can.” And so you sit with your loneliness and you learn to say, “Aha, this is loneliness,” and give a bow to it and say, “Yes, thank you for your song.” And you sit with your love and you acknowledge that. You sit with the difficulty or shame that many people carry. I remember working with this man who’d been an orphan, and he felt there was something wrong with him because he was put into an orphanage even though it was nothing that he as a child had done. And you learn to tolerate your humanity and that already brings a tremendous kind of freedom.
And then the next dimension of freedom, and they’re not in order. They’re different dimensions because we are able to hold. We’re beings of multilevel or paradox. It is not just the content, but the process or the common humanity of experience. And you start to realize that what you take so personally is just what life is. Zorba the Greek says “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is not.” He goes on somehow or another. And you start to see that there are different kinds of tears. There’re the tears from your own trauma and being hurt or wounded or abandoned or abused that need to be honored. And we might talk about trauma more later, but there’s another kind of tears that are called the tears of the way.
And those are the tears of the Dharma where you realize when you face your own loneliness or longing or the way that you’ve been mistreated, all of a sudden you realize, oh, loneliness and longing come with being human. Praise and blame come with being human. Joy and sorrow come with being human. I think last time I told you the story of being with Pema Chodron, with this person, this woman whose partner had committed suicide and how terrible that was for her. And Pema telling her to hold it all with compassion. And then I asked in this room of two or 3,000 people for people to raise their hands or stand up if someone in their family had committed suicide or someone close to them. And two or 300 people stood up, and all of a sudden that woman gazed back at them. I asked her to look, and they at her, and the room became a holy place because there was so much common humanity of that which the heart has to bear. And yet we know we can bear when we are connected with others.
And so the second dimension or aspect of freedom is our common humanity. That it’s not personal, that you have suffering, or that people get sick or that you have triumphs and successes and you make a name for yourself or build something beautiful. These are part of what human incarnation does and you begin to hold it all not as me and mine, but as part of this great dance. And it’s all both impermanent and not so personal. It has both its joys and its suffering and the heart grows wider to hold this.
And then the next dimension which opens up further and kind of talks to that question you talked about — developmental versus fruition practice — and I’ll get back to it, is the dimension of awareness itself.
My teacher Ajahn Chah, this great meditation master in the forests of Thailand and Laos, had lived in caves and done austere practices and long days and months of meditation and out in the jungles where there still were tigers and all of those things. And he had deep insights and visions and lots of suffering but also tremendous insights and beautiful states of samadhi and awakening. And he went to see the greatest master of his time. Another Ajahn — or teacher — named Ajahn Mun and told him about all the things that had happened in his meditation and insights and understandings and beautiful states that had come of dissolving his body into light and so forth.
And Ajahn Mun’s response was, “Chah, dude, you missed the point.” He said, “Those are just experiences. They’re like movies on a screen. You sit and you have the war movie and you have the movie of conflict at work and you sit and you have the romantic comedy and you have the documentary.” He said, “They’re all happening. They arise and pass. Those are not the point.” “The point,” he says, “is because none of those can be held on to. They all come and go. The question is, to whom do they happen? Turn your attention back to the one who knows — to the knowing.” There was a phrase he used, “Sikhi Buddho — to the one who knows and becomes the witnessing of all of this,” because who you really are is consciousness itself, manifesting in the different forms that are experienced. But consciousness itself is timeless and pure and open vast like the sky containing all things but not limited by them. And when you become the loving awareness itself, then this is the gateway to have an even greater dimension of freedom.
And then since I’m going on and on here, I’ll add the fourth dimension of freedom, which is that as you become familiar with and remember and remind yourself and discover that you can be the loving awareness, that you are the witness to things. All of these things change. But even now as you listen, Tim, and as people are listening to this podcast and you feel your body seated there in a chair or you’re in your car or wherever you are listening, and you hear the sounds and the other sounds around you, and the sights. There is a consciousness that knows these. Turn your attention from the experience to the mystery of consciousness that is ever-present. This is the one who knows, the knowing. Rest in it. It is your true home, and from this place, then, there opens one more dimension of freedom.
As my teacher in India, Sri Nisargadatta said, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between these two, my life flows.” And as you become the witness of these words of your body of experience of life, it’s not that you remove yourself from life, but you actually become more intimate with it. You become able to hold it in this great heart-mind. That word in Sanskrit is citta, which means both heart and mind that is loving awareness. And with loving awareness, not only is there spaciousness, but there’s also intimate connection. And so your love grows for this mystery of life even as your freedom grows.
And so these are the different dimensions of their part of the training that we do when we train teachers in meditation. But these are the different dimensions of freedom that are possible for us. And as you learn these, they allow you to enter the terrain of birth and death with a wise and spacious heart. So I’d be happy to talk more about death, but let me take a pause here because I’ve been going for a while and I wonder how all this sounds to you?
Tim Ferriss: I enjoy this type of discussion. It makes sense to me conceptually, experientially, and perhaps we’ll get to this point, or we’ll cover this topic at some point. I think particularly with certain adjunct assistance in ego dissolution, I feel as though, from an experiential standpoint, also perhaps glanced on the edges of some of these dimensions personally. And I suppose as the shepherd of my listeners, the way it’s landed is both very, very fascinating and wondering how, for someone who is in pain currently thinking about ruminating upon perhaps just perseverating with the topic of mortality and death, the uncontrollability of vastly changing circumstances, perhaps they’re separated on opposite sides of the country from their parents or grandparents and recognize that healthcare systems may be overwhelmed, et cetera, et cetera. Is there something that they can do just as a triage practice? They may not go through all of these dimensions, but is there anything they can do in terms of practice or anything you can share that might give them some reprieve or lessen the severity of that anxiety that’s associated with all of that?
Jack Kornfield: Yes, there are a few things that they can do, and I’m grateful for the practical dimension of your question. So first I want to answer personally. I’ve had a really good life, so I feel in many ways complete. And so what will happen in terms of death, I don’t particularly want to die. I’d like to be there for my grandson Desmond, who’s now approaching one and a half years old. I want to play tag and ball and watch things and watch him develop and grow and all that. But I also feel at peace with myself. That being said, of course people are going to be afraid, and of course they’re going to be worried for whether it’s their parents who are older or other people they know who are vulnerable or themselves. So here are several different things that are important.
The first is to stop and just to sit down for a little bit and maybe put your hand on your heart every day and remind yourself, “Let me hold all of what I’m worried about with a tender compassion. Bring in the element of compassion because we human beings go through difficult things. Let me hold myself and my worries and my parents or my friends that are vulnerable, may they be safe and well.” You can sort of extend your well-wishing. “May we hold ourselves with tenderness and compassion.” So this sort of brings that altruistic quality and reminds us that we can hold things with kindness. Not to judge yourself even if you think, “Oh, well, I shouldn’t be worried so much,” or “I should this,” or “I shouldn’t be anxious.” Again, just say, “Thank you for trying to take care of me.”
And then the next step is to notice, “I’m okay for now.” And this becomes really important because your parents are okay for now, or the people you worry about are okay for now. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t prepare or get your masks or sequester yourself or line up the kind of care you might need or medications. But to live where you are, to come back and say, “I’m okay for now,” and feel yourself rooted in the earth.
Another thing that you can do, you feel yourself connected to the earth, is literally to go outside and find a beautiful boulder or a rock or a tree and stand with it and feel the roots of the tree. Look at it and sense how it goes into the earth and how that tree lives through winds and storms and loses its leaves and regains them and how life keeps renewing itself and stand with that tree and feel how you too can root yourself in the earth. How you can stand in the winds of change and feel grounded and steady and flexible, and find those qualities in yourself.
Again, you can take your images of worry and fear. Thank them for trying to protect you. And visualize placing them in a bowl or into some other form and put them on an altar. And that altar in your mind can be filled with the image of whoever, whatever you take to be sacred. It can be the Buddha and Guan Yin or Jesus or Mother Mary or Gandhi or whoever it is. Or, if you have an altar at home, because some people do, and they put their favorite spiritual inspiration on it, you can write your worries on a piece of paper. Feel all the energy of those fears in your body. The emotions of it, the stories, and then fold the paper up and bring it to your altar and put it in the lap of Guan Yin or in front of Mother Mary and say, “You hold these now; I will do what I can for my parents. I’ll take care of myself and my family and community. I’ll let you carry the fears. I’m going to do it from a place of centeredness and courage.”
Know too as you do this, that just as I talked about with a vastness, don’t be squeamish about letting things go. You can actually let go of some thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t mean they won’t be there. They’ll come up again. But you can say, “You know, not now. I put you on the altar, I let you go. I put you back into the earth. And instead, I’m now going to shift my consciousness to calm and spaciousness and vastness.” And feel your breath breathing in and out as it does and feel how life has carried you. And let yourself open to a space of steadiness and calm. And maybe link your spirit with all those others who are steady and calm in the world right now just as you are, the thousands and thousands who found a way to be calm and steady. The physicians and nurses. The fathers and mothers of children who found their way to tend one another with a steadiness and a calm, and link your consciousness with them.
So these are a few of many practices to suggest. And this is important to say also, that it’s not a one-time thing. That’s why they’re called practice and not perfect. Because you do it, you lose it. You kind of get lost again. You can’t sleep, as you said, Tim, or you get lost in worries, and then you can’t sleep. And you say, “All right, let me sit up and meditate. And let me meditate on vastness. And let me become the Bodhisattva of peace and compassion and extend my compassion to everyone else who can’t sleep tonight. And we’ll meditate together, and we’ll meditate on our connection and love.” And little by little you’ll get bored just doing the compassion over and over and you’ll fall back asleep.
Tim Ferriss: It strikes me that this, well a number of things strike me. First, for people who have not ever tried this, the visualization of placing these various feelings or concerns on an altar, or with other advice-giving sources you respect, or physically putting it on your altar, at least has been for me, surprisingly effective. And not only that, but it doesn’t have to take a long time. The power of the metaphor for me, at least, has been very effective and certainly, Jack, you’ve helped me in many other instances over the years.
The linking of consciousness with others I think is something I haven’t quite paid enough attention to. And that strikes me also that it can be particularly important and nourishing when people are, say, social distancing, or self-quarantining, or otherwise isolated or feeling physically isolated. So that strikes me as very good practice. And I had a follow-up question, which was, could you maybe expand a bit on “Don’t be squeamish about letting things go?” Because I think I need to hear, perhaps, maybe just you repeat what you said, or elaborate just a little bit.
Jack Kornfield: Well it makes me think about Ram Dass, who we may talk about as we go on as well. And that story when he was teaching as Baba Ram Dass and had just come back from India with his white robes and beads and so forth and offering Hindu and Buddhist meditation, some of what we just did, and some Hindu mantras, and this woman in the front row said, “Hey, Ram Dass, aren’t you Jewish? Come on. What’s with the Hindu stuff?” And Ram Dass smiled, and he said, “I am.” As he pointed out, he said, “I was bar mitzvahed,” as I was. And there’s a lot that I love in the Jewish spiritual tradition. The Hasidic masters are like the Zen masters. You read the stories and the Kabbalah has all these dimensions of consciousness. And then he smiled, and he said, “But remember, I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side.”
And it was a witty comment, but also a profound one because we can get lost in things that we’re identified with and really take them to be ourself. But then in a moment, we can also say, “Aw, that’s just common humanity.” And we can step back and not take it so personally. And in this case, it’s like your whole history, your parents, your trauma, your gender or whatever, all those things are given to you in this incarnation in a certain way. But in another way, who you really are is bigger than all of that. And so then you can also spread out your consciousness or open to that vastness and say, “I’m going to connect myself with everyone in the world who is steady and calm right now. We will do this together.” So I don’t know if that helps.
Tim Ferriss: It does help. And you also mentioned a name that I know some listeners will not recognize, and that is Guan Yin. Now speaking as someone who’s spent some time at Spirit Rock and actually had some very challenging times in my first silent meditation over an extended period of time, which you were very gracious and generous in helping me to get through, there’s a very large wooden carving of Guan Yin at Spirit Rock. Who is Guan Yin and what is the significance of Guan Yin for you as a symbol or an avatar or an icon?
Jack Kornfield: Part of what’s interesting about consciousness is that it works in the minute particulars. Your toenails and the kind of breakfast you ate this morning and the number of people in your family and what kind of carpet or wood you have on the floor that it has the specifics of life. But it also has an archetypal dimension, which is to say it has patterns. The archetypes are the patterns of life. There’s the pattern of houses or places to live, whether they’re huts or thatched or caves or wooden or concrete or something. They all fit under the pattern or the archetype of a home.
In the spiritual language, the archetypes of awakened consciousness, which are sometimes described as great, wise beings and so forth. There are many, many kinds. And Guan Yin is a bodhisattva. Bodhisattva is a compound word that means — bodhi is awakened and sattva is being — someone who’s committed to compassion and the freedom or the awakening of all beings. And there’s lots and lots of bodhisattvas. And in fact I think there’s lots of bodhisattvas in my neighborhood. People who treat one another beautifully, who help uplift one another, who have a free heart. We know bodhisattvas.
So, Guan Yin is the name for a Buddhist archetypal bodhisattva. She is the consciousness of universal compassion. And sometimes she’s depicted with a thousand arms and a thousand hands, enough to reach out to respond to the needs of the whole universe. So we have these images of Guan Yin because, as an archetype, she’s a symbol of compassion itself and we can become that. The beautiful thing is not that there’s some symbol on the wall or carved statue in whatever tradition it is, but that these are really symbols for what lives within us.
And so we have all these capacities, and depending which ones we — Thich Nhat Hanh used to talk about it as seeds in consciousness — depending which ones we water and tend, those are what blossom. If we water and tend our anger, it will grow. If we water and tend and spend time in our fears or our conflict, they will grow. If we water the seeds of peace in us, they’ll grow. If we water the seeds of compassion in consciousness and tend to it, it will blossom. And the invitation of these archetypes is to realize that we have this in us. It’s not separate from us.
And also I think there’s something else. People kind of approach spiritual life as a grim duty. “All right, I jog, I meditate, I go to therapy, I watch my diet, I’m trying to lose weight, and now I’ve got to do the damn meditation stuff.” You know? And it’s not about that. It’s not about like, perfecting yourself, “Okay, I’ve got to fix my body and I’ve got to heal everything and then I’ve got to fix my personality. And perfect it.” It’s not about perfecting yourself, it’s about perfecting your love. Can you live in this world with love for this human incarnation, with all its marvels and its imperfections?
There’s something bigger than that. The zen master Ryōkan, the most beloved poet of Japan, he wrote of himself, “Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change.” And there’s so much tenderness. That’s like Guan Yin speaking. Or here’s another phrase from Guan Yin. “My old faults, like snow falling on warm ground, that there’s a forgiveness and a tenderness” — and in that archetype of Guan Yin that says, “Yes, we’re human. And yes, we all get afraid, we make mistakes, and we can water the seed, the magnificent seeds of presence and care and love. All of those are also part of who we really are. And then beyond that, we are consciousness having this great game.”
And that’s where your psychedelics come in, my friend, as well as meditation. Because you were beginning that —
Tim Ferriss: I was tiptoeing around.
Jack Kornfield: — that piece of the conversation. Yeah. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s jump in. You mentioned one of the arch —
Jack Kornfield: Let’s jump in.
Tim Ferriss: — archbishops of American psychedelia, Ram Dass in a sense, at least starting back in his Harvard days and his previous incarnation as Richard Alpert. So could you speak to, it could be specific around Dass, it could be in the context of your own life, but what role does or do psychedelics serve, if any? And they don’t need to be limited to psychedelics. We could put it under the umbrella of sacred medicine or something else.
Jack Kornfield: Sacred medicines.
I’ve written about this, I’ve written a number of articles. I have a chapter in a book called Bringing Home the Dharma, where I write more extensively about this. There is a long tradition as we know in many, many spiritual cultures, whether the ayahuasca cultures of the Amazon, the African cultures, ibogaine and so forth, and the Indian cultures of soma that’s woven into the Vedas, or the Huichol Indian culture of using peyote, or the magic mushroom cultures of Central America, and so forth.
There’s this long, beautiful, human tradition of using sacred medicines to help us remember who we are. And because they’re so powerful, they’re also scary to people because they take apart of our conventional reality, which is why when Tim Leary and Richard Alpert back in the old Harvard days were — turn on, tune in, and drop out — were espousing that at the same time there was the sort of freewheeling hippie movement of love and peace as opposed to the war in Vietnam. That was a long time ago, half a century ago. But it was also threatening to the culture at large that was more focused on getting through school, having a job, on making a bunch of money, on fulfilling your social roles.
And these sacred medicines, they have different dimensions, but in the deepest way, they let you shift your identity from being that separate sense of self, that separate atom in the cog of the culture, and come back to remember love, to remember who you are, to have a sense of mystery and vastness. And of course, in the meantime, depending on which ones you take, they’re also quite cleansing. And so you’ll find in taking them that you relive your traumas, and if you relive them in a conscious way, you can release yourself from them.
I’ve worked for 40 years or more together with Stanislav Grof, another of the great elders in the psychedelic movement. And now, of course, with Michael Pollan’s wonderful book on How to Change Your Mind, and the resurgence of research at Johns Hopkins and UCLA and NYU and so forth, it’s again possible to see the benefits of these medicines, and people are using them in all kinds of ways. Now they can be misused like anything. We’re Americans, we know how to misuse anything! And for certain people, people who have already psychiatric concerns or histories and so forth, they can actually be dangerous. So I don’t mean to say that everything’s all hunky-dory. And they can easily be misused as party drugs and things like that, or people then, in wrong circumstances having what they call a bad trip because they don’t actually understand it.
But in general, when they’re approached as a sacrament or as a sacred medicine or something in the simplest way to invite us to learn from a deep dimension, our being, they can be quite magic and you can take psilocybin mushrooms, or join a circle that is drinking the ayahuasca tea. When it’s held in the right set and setting, where it’s quiet and you’re tended by someone else and you’re able to let go and open in a safe way, you’ll find that there’s a purification that takes place, a release of things held in the body and in the emotions of past difficulties and traumas, images and visions will come.
And then beyond that, if you will allow it, there opens a sense of joy and mystery and a connection to the consciousness that you really are. And all these things are possible. And what I’ve written, almost all the very well-known and respected teachers of my generation from the Eastern side of our meditation in the West, teachers like Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein and Pema Chodron, you name them, they all started with psychedelics. We all did and it gave us a glimpse into something that we then wanted to learn further.
The beautiful thing is that there’s a great complement between this and the inner trainings in meditation. When you meditate, you learn how to navigate these vast spaces and all the intensity of emotion and healing that come up with a more gracious and understanding perspective. And in my many, many years of working with Ram Dass, but especially with Stan Grof where we would lead retreats for hundreds and thousands with holotropic breathwork, many people who are also using these psychedelics at the same time or near that, we learned and showed people both how to open through this process and at the same time how to use the meditative skills of witnessing, of being the loving awareness of tolerance, of opening the window of tolerance, of trust and compassion, holding whatever arises in compassion so that all the lessons in the openings would actually land in a more integrated and wise way in their life.
So I’m excited that these are now available in our culture and that people are in a conversation about how to use them in a healthy and skillful way and celebrate that as part of our human heritage of what we can use to remember that who we are in the end is love. That who we are is life itself living through us and our connection that we are — as my teacher said, “Wisdom says I’m nothing and love says I’m everything” — that we are consciousness connected with all things.
I remember this image from Alice Walker, who wrote of one character. She said, “One day I was sitting there like a motherless child, which I was, and it’d come to me that feeling of being a part of everything. And I knew if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laugh and I cry and I run all around the house. In fact, when it happens, you just can’t miss it.” There is a reality of our interconnection that is available to us and we all know it. We know what from walking in the high mountains and having our eyes and senses cleansed and open. We know it from lovemaking and dissolving into one another into the field of love. We know it from being there at the birth of a child, witnessing that mystery or holding the hand of someone at the time of death and seeing that miraculous moment when spirit leaves the body and after that it’s just a corpse and realizing that we’re not this body. Who we are is spirit itself.
We know in all these different ways and the sacred medicines are a way of bringing us back to that.
Tim Ferriss: Jack, I’d love to ask you perhaps about mistakes or misuses of these plants and medicines and compounds and so on in the sense that just as there are people who use these tools in the right settings with the proper preparation, proper supervision, guidance — and I should say just as a caveat, neither of us are recommending anyone do anything with severe legal side effects. In other words, many of these compounds are Schedule 1 in the United States and otherwise highly policed and scheduled and controlled. So follow your local legal restrictions and requirements, but just as there are people who use these things in responsible ways, there are also people who are somewhat like a hammer looking for nails in the sense that they try to use these tools to fix everything and anything or they use them, I wouldn’t say to escape exactly because these are on some level anti-escapist tools.
What you’re trying to get away from is almost certainly going to come up and stare you right in the face for an extended period of time, which can be uncomfortable. But what in your mind are, how can these be overused or abused? Abuse is a strong word. So let’s just say overused.
Jack Kornfield: Well, they can become party drugs and I’m not against parties or people having that kind of dance and loving connection, so forth. But they can be used in ways that are superficial if you say that in which — or they can be used in a setting where you can get lost or frightened in the setting because it’s not really very well contained or on occasion — the beautiful thing about most of the psychedelics is that they’re not particularly addictive, which is a great relief. However, human beings, we can still try out and taking a lot, a lot, a lot and see what happens. And that’s not particularly helpful or healthy. That’s another way of misusing it or trying to get somebody else to do that.
They should be approached with respect and approached with that respect means also, not too frequent and that you have to ask your own heart. Well, what does that mean? “How much can I learn from it? How do I integrate it? Can I take some time afterward?” It’s not like piling on. And the truth is that none of these things is a kind of magic cure as you said that you’re just going to fix everything with it. because it doesn’t work that way. Each of these are opportunities for healing, for understanding, for opening to continue and all that. Bless it. That’s great.
You want to take the journey and not kind of leap ahead. And you started somehow early on talking about the difference between development and fruition. The fruition lens of becoming the consciousness, the one who knows, you can have that perspective. And because we are paradoxical, you also still need to do the inner work or even if you have had a beautiful vast meditation or a psychedelic trip or something that’s opened you like that, still there’ll be places that you’re caught and there’ll be trauma that you carry. And that becomes the place to develop compassion, open the window of tolerance, allow that healing to take place and understand that we’re multidimensional beings.
And so, yeah, I mean these are part of the — it’s so mysterious. We are mysterious, spiritual beings and these help open the gate, but so does poetry, so does looking deeply in the eyes of another person. So does going out onto the ocean and seeing its vastness or walking in the high mountains. These are all our birthright. So does even the mystery of sleep. I mean, we want to sleep — you talked about wanting to sleep and I find that when I can’t sleep and mostly I’m able to sleep pretty easily, I get up and I meditate. Say, “Okay, it’s given to me time to meditate.” And then I notice my mind is maybe thinking about something or obsessing or worried or something. I say, “Oh yeah, thank you for trying to take care of me. It’s okay.” And I go back to my compassion practice or to the vastness. And after a while I get bored and I go back to sleep.
But there’s some way in which sleep is mysterious. Tim, here we are. And then every day we long to go unconscious. Forget about the dream part. We do. It’s like, “Oh, can I only have a period where I disappear?” People are worried about disappearing in meditation. Hallelujah. Can I have a period where I disappear? And I’m not so self-involved with my life and all the things I have to do and love and hate and so forth. Please give me a little piece. It’s such a weird thing that beings sleep. Nobody looks at these things.
It’s just like eating, you have this hole at the top of your body into which you stuffed dead plants and animals regularly and grind them up with these bones that hang down and glug them down through the tube and you ambulate it by falling one direction and catching yourself and you fall the other side and you catch yourself. I mean, how did you get into this weird thing? You know? So, we’ve lost that sense of mystery. Sleep is one of the great mysteries and we love it. So, when you have that sense that instead of being success or failure, it’s like, oh, you get to see this mystery and realize that it’s connected with everything.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned Stanislav Grof earlier. Stanislav Grof, very fortunate to have on the podcast before his stroke not too long ago, which I think he’s largely recovered from in terms of writing, but had some aphasia afterwards. Much like Ram Dass did, although not that severe. He, I believe, has certainly spoken extensively on these topics and one of his observations, I’m going to paraphrase here, that is I believe in his most recent book or actually combination of two books, it related to suicide and attempts at suicide, perhaps being attempts to free oneself from the ego, but thinking that the only path available for that is extinguishing your physical form. And that part of the reason you see efficacy with certain psychedelics as been shown, at least in certain clinical studies done with psilocybin, the ability to reduce end of life anxiety in terminal cancer patients or even address say, treatment-resistant depression is in part because just as we long for sleep to go unconscious in a sense or go subconscious, it’s that temporary alleviation of the burden of self-centeredness and this sort of recursive self-referential prison that we can create for ourselves.
So I do think that’s an astute observation about sleep. I just want to underscore a few things you said also. One is that I do think for anyone who is considering any type of psychedelic experience, it is incredibly valuable to put on a little bit of mileage with a regular meditation practice and to practice even in a somewhat volume turn down sense, sitting with emotions that may be difficult or thoughts that may be unpleasant for say a consecutive 30-day period, meaning daily for 30 days or 60 days minimum before considering a larger psychedelic experience. That would be certainly something I would strongly suggest and it’s akin to on some level drinking from the water fountain before you drink from the garden hose, before you drink from the fire hose. I think that they can be complementary in a lot of respects, but I do think it’s a very good idea.
Jack Kornfield: It’s really good advice. It’s really good advice and also if you’re going to do it, the other dangers you want to have, make sure that the source of that sacred medicine is clean and good and not just street stuff and you want to have a sitter for people who do — it’s like going out into — an astronaut. You want a containment. So you want someone who’s not taking that to sit with you, tend you, give you whatever you need, keep you warm, give you something to drink, foster a sense that you’re protected so that what needs to happen inwardly is held in this sacred set and setting. And that makes all the difference.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely.
Jack Kornfield: Now, what Stan said, what Stan Grof said about suicide too, let me paraphrase it in a pretty similar way, that when people feel that they want to commit suicide, they are right that something needs to die. They’re mistaken in thinking that it’s their body that has to die. But they’re facing something that really does have to die and changing it may be the whole way they’re living their life. It may be the history that they have that they have to die to, that you could call it an ego death, some sense of identity that they’ve had, that they don’t want to let go of but they have to, some difficulty. So there’s some way in which just as you point to the deep inner work of a psychedelic session where there comes an ego death or a death of the way we hold ourself and all that we go through is coming to that. That transforms us and we realize, it’s the problem isn’t our body, the problem is actually in our own heart and mind.
Now, if anybody’s interested in a wise perspective on the nature of consciousness, my favorite book of Stan Grof is a book called The Cosmic Game, which you can get like everything online and it’s a description he described 5,000 people, 5,000 sessions sitting with people whether they did LSD or holotropic breathing or other sacred medicines. And it’s a summary of the deepest insights and understandings that have come. And it’s a very beautiful framework for understanding the nature of consciousness itself.
Now, the other thing that you’re sort of pointing to, Tim, has to do with one of our ongoing themes has to do with trauma, and how do we deal with that as it comes up, whether it’s in a psychedelic session or in our meditation or just in our lives. So there’s that. So we can go there. I’m also remembering sitting with Ram Dass when — oh, gosh, my mind is blanking. What’s the name of the researcher at Johns Hopkins who’s been doing all the psychedelic research?
Tim Ferriss: Roland Griffiths.
Jack Kornfield: Roland Griffiths. Right. So Roland —
Tim Ferriss: He’s the director of the center.
Jack Kornfield: So Roland had come to visit Ram Dass, it was probably last year or a year or two ago, and they’d never met in person. But Roland in a way has been picking up that psychedelic work that was left off almost 50 years ago by Stanislav Grof, who was the last LSD researcher legitimately doing that work. He was, again, at Johns Hopkins. So they shared stories and it was actually quite a beautiful afternoon because Ram Dass told him about the Good Friday Experiment with clergy back in the 1960s in Boston and how various clergy members had had experiences of God and experiences of deep religious awakening in this. Then Roland was describing what he’d learned and it was like a passing of the torch. So much love that was there in the room, which is of course what Ram Dass was like in these last years.
Then Roland said, he said, “The thing that makes the biggest difference for those who come through our studies, whether they’re healed, whether they’re able to approach their death in a more peaceful way or whether they have great trauma and that starts to heal or they’ve had depression or addiction.” He said, “The various groups that we’re working with,” he said, “One of the scales that we’re using to measure the experience is a scale for mystical experiences.” And he said, “I can see in our data quite simply that if someone has — ” and he went on, “And many of our people do, a full-blown or truly deep mystical experience, everything shifts in their life.”
So this is the invitation from meditation itself or from these psychedelics in the right setting. Because remember, the way that it’s done at Hopkins is with a blindfold on and earphone so that your trip is entirely interior and you’re attended by someone and it allows you to go into the depths of your own being. So this is really different than party tripping or something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Very different. Very, very different people can learn more about that program at hopkinspsychedelic.org also, where you can see not just Roland but many other team members who are absolutely incredible. Mary Cosimano, of course. You have Matt Johnson, many other scientists and researchers. So it’s worth looking at the studies and the science that is being done there, which has really sort of set the bar for how these compounds are researched in the last few decades and hopefully moving forward.
Question for you about trauma. Let’s jump into it.
Jack Kornfield: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: How would you suggest people think about trauma? You and I, and I may speak publicly about this more another time, but you and I have had a lot of conversations over the last, say, four or five years and I feel like my response to the current circumstances in the world, COVID-19 and so on, is really an exaggerated display of the hypervigilance that is a result of childhood trauma. I can prove that in a mathematical proof, but it seems somewhat self-evident to me and I would guess that a lot of people out there may share that sentiment in some capacity. How should people think about trauma? How do you think about trauma?
Jack Kornfield: So I want to take a pause here. We’re talking about a lot of things that are actually very deep in our human experience. We started with the virus itself and the fact that we human beings have periodically lived through epidemics and that many people have died. It’s not just that one becomes calm, but that it’s really something huge to be able to try to hold. It’s like people living through warfare. I wish I could say, “Well, that’s human history,” as in the past history, but it’s current and we have these streams of refugees from war zones in Syria or Sudan or other places, or the undeclared wars in the streets, and central America between gangs, and parts of our country, wherever it is. So first I just want to feel the weight of this in our human life and take a breath and say —
So this is a deep question for us as human beings. How do we hold this? What’s true is that in our lives, those who are listening in yourself, and for myself, many of us have some significant trauma in our past and if we’re not aware of it or don’t have a way to manage it, then we can become over vigilant as you described. We can unconsciously manage it through addictions, by drinking or drugging, or using in all kinds of other ways or eating or sex or whatever it is, in ways that are unhealthy, addictive patterns. We can live our life in a lot of fear. So to understand trauma is really important. For anyone who’s working in the realm of the psyche of the heart and mind, whether as a psychologist or spiritual, and I can’t even divide them, it’s just who we are as humans. Understanding trauma is important.
Trauma in the simplest way, it speaks of an experience of suffering of some kind — physical or emotional pain of some kind or other that’s happened — in which our body goes into its fight, flight or freeze, a kind of survival. Then that gets locked into our bodies and hearts and minds. Sometimes we can have difficulties and process them somewhat. Be there for it, feel the feelings, feel it all and live through it and release it and then it doesn’t become trauma. It becomes part of our history, something that we’ve learned and that’s more how animals do it, apparently. One of the great trauma experts, Peter Levine, has these videos which show, for example, a — I think it’s a great big jackrabbit being chased by a coyote and it’s running as fast as it can and the coyote is running as fast as it can and you could see it absolutely terrified.
Then all of a sudden, I don’t know, some other larger coyote or something comes along and distracts the coyote that’s chasing it, and the hare, the rabbit, giant hare, ducks down a hole and escapes and you see the coyote sniffing around for a while. Like, “Where did it go?” And then it saunters off and then you see the hare come back out of the hole or wherever it ducked into and it’s weird. It starts to dance, it starts to jump around as if it’s releasing all the tension and all the struggle that was there in that life or death chase. It does that for a while and then it settles down and then it kind of hops along and goes on its way.
Well, for us as human beings when we’re children and whether we’re abandoned or abused or terrible things happen or as adults as well, where there’s an accident or even surgery where they put us to sleep, but our body remembers it, we don’t release that and it gets stuck. To the extent that we have major trauma that’s unrecognized or unreleased. As I said, it takes over, in some unconscious way, our life. So let me tell a couple of examples that help give a perspective. The release of trauma happens again because we’re beings of multilayers or multidimensions. It happens in different dimensions. There’s a physical dimension of it.
So when you start to remember or recognize or you may already have some memories that there is trauma, one part of it, and it can be in therapy or sitting with a very good trauma person, the people who are trained by Peter Levine’s somatic experience or EMDR or Bessel van der Kolk’s practices and so forth, that you start to remember as best you can, start to tell the story and then feel what it does in your body and your body’s going to want to start to move and tighten and release. If you’re able to be with someone or with yourself over a period of time and tolerate that gradually what’s been held in the body gets released.
The second dimension of it is the emotions. I know this very well from people who face trauma arising in their meditation on retreats that I teach and I’ll have them close their eyes and the images from the past will arise. Then with them come all the emotions of terror, fear, of weeping, of rage or grief and all those things that get stuck in that child or in that person, even in your body when there was the accident or there was the trauma of being abandoned in some terrible way. All those emotions arise and to be able to tolerate them and, often with the help of another person, make a field of presence and compassion that can allow those to be released becomes important.
Then there’s the mental dimension of telling the story. So having worked with vets who returned back from Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait, Middle East especially, but other places as well, and led retreats with my colleagues, Michael Meade, Luis Rodriguez, this wonderful Latin poet and activist, Malidoma Some, West African medicine man. When vets return and it’s all the more so from the women who are vets, they can’t tell their stories to their families, to the people around them, because they’re too horrific. Nobody wants to go home and have to tell the stories of the things that they’ve been through. It’s too difficult. But when we get combat vets together and make a safe place and create a ritual where we light a candle and make a ritual space and say, “This is where we can hold the suffering and the horrors that you have lived through in the humanity of it and who we really are.”
They begin to tell their stories. There are two kinds of stories. The first part is, “I can’t tell you what I saw,” and then they’ll go ahead and tell stories. The other combat vets all know this. Then the more difficult story is, “I can’t tell you what I had to do, what I was forced to do.” Then the real grief comes, even deeper, because it’s a betrayal of our soul in some way to be forced to kill other people. The fact that they’re able to tell their stories and be witnessed, that a person can tell the story of what really happened to them as a child and be witnessed with a loving gaze and with an understanding of how much suffering that was and how it’s held in the body and the emotions, and to realize that it’s not who you are, that who you are is so much bigger than that, has an enormously transformative effect.
At the end of these retreats for veterans, they would then stand up, we’d invite family and community members to come and they would tell a little of their story or read a part of a poem they wrote or something. Finally you’d get some of it out to everyone else to hear, and then they would be ritually and symbolically and literally welcomed back into the community. “We hear you. We now understand what you’ve gone through and you are one of us. We welcome you home.” It makes me wonder and worry about all those hundreds of thousands who were just let off the buses back home. No one really helped them with the stories and the wounds that they carry. Of course, I’m talking about military, but I could be talking about you, Tim, or me, where my father was incredibly violent and would throw my mother down the stairs or beat her black and blue so she had to wear long sleeves in the summer so people wouldn’t see how much she was battered by him, and how it was to stand there and witness that or have his rage turn on us.
It took me a long time to deal with the pain and the anger. I didn’t even want to feel how much anger I had because I didn’t want to be like him. But then as I meditated, I realized it wasn’t just out there. That it was in me as well. So these are all dimensions of healing of the body, of the emotions, and the heart, and of the story. One of the great gifts of being with Ram Dass in these last years is that he became transparent. He became a lighthouse of love. You would just sit and he would gaze at you with what in India was called the glance of mercy. The eyes of that guru, that being, whoever she or he is that looks at you with so much love and you go, “Blah, blah. I’ve felt this and I’ve done that and I feel so — ” and your whole story and your pain and your suffering and they just look at you with so much love and you remember that that’s not who you are, all that trauma.
So we can do that for one another in these deep, healing ways. So that’s the beginning of your question about trauma.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, Jack. Well, I think that, number one, I would like to have you back for a third installment sooner rather than later. I’m ashamed that it took so long to have you back on. So that’s the first thing I would like to say. No pressure to accept the invitation now, but I would love to have another installment of this conversation for public consumption. I think this is a sensible place to talk about what you’re up to now and perhaps tie up this conversation because it’s provided a lot for people to chew on and think about and hopefully apply and use. I have all sorts of followup questions that I will ask another time, but the one that I can’t push off is asking you what you are focused on these days. So what is —
Jack Kornfield: I’ll get to that in just a minute. And yes, I hope next time we can talk about climate change, we can talk about servant leadership because I did some teaching and meditation in the UK Parliament with people from both sides of the aisle and what that was like or working in Palestine and Israel and things like that. I’d love to talk about all those many, many more things like this. I want to say one more thing from Ram Dass and then it connects directly to answer your question of what I’m working on. And that is that we held a couple of — there’ve been a whole series of memorials for Ram Dass as a spiritual friend and teacher and colleague who died in December and I was fortunate enough to teach with him and be with him in December, not long before he died.
He was so loving that when the retreat ended, it’s the last day, they give a little set of beads with a thread from his guru’s blanket tied into it and all 350 people would pass by Ram Dass who was seated there and who didn’t have a lot of words because his aphasia had gotten worse. He couldn’t speak as much toward the end of his life. He just gazed at them with some much love that people would stand there and start to weep. At the Memorial, Krishna Das, who is a colleague and a friend and a quite famous musician who does chanting that you hear often in yoga studios around the country and so forth. Krishna Das told a story. He said, “I first met Ram Dass when I was 18 years old.”
Ram Dass had just come back from India and was wearing his white robes and his beard and he was teaching and Krishna Das said, “It was the most compelling spiritual voice I’d ever heard and I just wanted to follow him. I went back to India, spent time with his guru Maharajji and spent time around Ram Das in the community and really became part of it and have for years now.” And he said, “I can tell you this after this 40 years had passed.” He said, “Ram Dass became the person we thought he was when we first met him.”
It was a beautiful and rich comment that talks about all of us because in some way we already know, and in another way we’re works in progress, right? Of becoming. But it’s also — it’s gorgeous because it means that we can become that love and we can become that loving awareness that it’s who we really are more and more in our life. So the one thing that I will say then to answer your question, I’m involved in other projects in Silicon Valley and with trying to humanize the future of technology and AI and that would be another topic, and writing new things and so forth. But I’ve got a training program for people who are interested in teaching meditation. If you’ve been a mindfulness practitioner for a few years or a meditator for some years and you’re interested in passing it on to others, it turns out to be one of the most delicious and transformative things you can do with your life.
It doesn’t mean it becomes your whole life, but one thing that you can do becoming a meditation teacher, and so with Tara Brach, we have this online training program into which we poured our very best teachings and our hearts. It’s a two-year online program that’s really quite wonderful that you can find out about by going onto my website, jackkornfield.com, and it involves a few in-person short retreats, if you can do them. Mostly online, you become mentored, you become part of a small group and you have a wonderful teacher as a mentor and you have a whole group of others that you’re training with. We now have people in 50 countries around the world doing it and it transforms their lives and then they take it into their schools and businesses and communities and health centers and so forth.
So it’s a beautiful thing to do and I’m excited because we’ve just put everything that we know that’s good in it and people learned so much and they become part of an amazing community. So that’s my current favorite activity. Or one of them, along with talking with you, Tim, and along with holding my beloved Trudy, my wife and Dharma partner and walking out in the spring blossoms here in the Bay area.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you have many projects. I want to highlight this one for a second because I have spent time with you in person. I have spent time with you on retreats. I think you are an incredible teacher. You’re also an incredible clinician and you have toolkits beyond that of perhaps the prototypical mindfulness for a meditation teacher. So I want to also just give a nod to the expansive toolkit that both you and Tara have. So I want to mention also Tara because Tara Brach is the author of a book that was recommended to me that I have also recommended to many, many people called Radical Acceptance, which has had a large impact in my life. The fact that the two of you are offering this teacher training, in effect, for those interested in meditation, I think is just a tremendous opportunity. I don’t say that lightly. I say that as someone who has spent time in live discussion with both of you and spent time in person with you and seen what both of you can do as practitioners and as teachers.
So I highly, highly recommend that if you’ve ever thought about not just learning more about how to meditate, but as a practitioner how to teach this, how to help others, that you go to jackkornfield.com and take a look. I would say, not to make this a hard sell because it’s not a hard sell, I don’t have any skin in this game, I don’t get anything from it other than hopefully introducing you to two spectacular teachers, that it’s very likely that you’re going to be spending more time online from this point forward for the next few months. It makes sense, at least to me, to look for opportunities and there are many different options to feel connected and some cohesion with a group that is not in a physical location. So this also presents I think an excellent option for embracing and cultivating that if it makes sense. So I will get off my soapbox, but since you’re very understated, I wanted to at least just draw a couple of [inaudible].
Jack Kornfield: Thank you. I appreciate it. I appreciate our friendship. I appreciate that we’ve gotten to know each other in some really important in deep ways and I so value the work that you do and the heart and care that you put out to all the people that listen. So thank you for the opportunity and thank you to all those of you who listened.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks so much, Jack. Where else can people say hello if they want to say hello? I have @JackKornfield on Twitter. Is there anything else you’d like to mention? jackkornfield.com of course.
Jack Kornfield: That’s probably sufficient. We can wave at the market as we walk by, but for the moment we’ll issue the hugs and just make a little cleanliness bow to one another as we go by.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds good, Jack. Well, it’s always such a pleasure to spend time with you and to learn from you. I really appreciate it. I think I’ve — probably from hitting record to now — probably lowered my blood pressure 20 points, so I appreciate that also and I can’t wait for our next conversation. So thanks again for blocking out the time to have a chat.
Jack Kornfield: My pleasure, Tim. Take good care.
Tim Ferriss: You too. And to everybody listening, thanks for tuning in and you can find show notes, links to everything we have discussed as always at tim.blog/podcast. So until next time, thanks for tuning in.
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