Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Jack Kornfield (@JackKornfield), a meditation and mindfulness teacher who was trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma. Jack has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. 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. Over the years, Jack has taught worldwide, led international Buddhist teacher meetings, and worked with many of the great teachers of our time. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology and is a grandfather, husband, and activist. Some of his current projects include MMTCP, a worldwide mindfulness teacher training; Cloud Sangha, a site offering access to expert mindfulness teachers online; and a positive impact Wisdom Ventures fund.
His books have been translated into 22 languages and have sold more than 1.5 million copies. They include The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology; A Path with Heart; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry; Teachings of the Buddha; The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace; Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are; and his most recent book, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is a fan favorite, one of my favorites, Jack Kornfield. So, Jack is one of the few people I have on speed dial if I hit particularly acute existential distress or anxiety, and this is roughly a two-year anniversary since we recorded an episode, which I suggest everyone listen to. Right at the early stages of COVID. This was in March, of 2020. So who is Jack?
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. Jack co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts with fellow meditation teachers Sharon Salzburg and Joseph Goldstein. Goldstein?
Jack Kornfield: Goldstein.
Tim Ferriss: Goldstein. It’s the German. It’s the spending time in Germany that always messes me up here. And the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, which is stunning. I have spent some time there. We talked about that in our first conversation. Over the years, Jack has taught worldwide, led international Buddhist teacher meetings and worked with many of the great teachers of our time. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology. And I just want to mention an aside here, one of the things that I love about you, Jack, and respect about you is that you spend time both in the deeply philosophical — I shouldn’t say both. There are many stems to this, the deeply contemplative, but also in the deeply clinical. And you’ve worked with many, many different patient groups. So I think that provides you with a very interesting and eclectic broad spectrum toolkit. So I just want to say that for people who may not be familiar with you.
And jumping back in. You are also a grandfather, husband, and activist. Some of your current projects include MMTCP, a worldwide mindfulness teacher training, Cloud Sangha, if I’m pronouncing that correctly.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah, got it.
Tim Ferriss: This is another word that I have trouble with. All right. Nailed it. S-A-N-G-H-A, a site offering access to expert mindfulness teachers online in a positive impact Wisdom Ventures fund. His books have been translated into 22 languages and have sold more than 1.5 million copies. I have read many of them. They include The Wise Heart, subtitle, A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology; A Path with Heart; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry; one of my favorite titles, Teachings of the Buddha; The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace; Bringing Home the Dharma subtitle Awakening Right Where You Are. And his most recent book is No Time Like the Present, subtitle, Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are. You can find him online, jackkornfield.com. That’s K-O-R-N-F-I-E-L-D.com, on Twitter @jackkornfield, Instagram, @Jack_Kornfield.
Jack, it’s so nice to see you again. Thank you for making the time.
Jack Kornfield: It’s a pleasure, Tim. Happy to see you and very glad to know that you’re in BLEEP and that you brought rain with you. You turned out to the rainmaker after all, and we really need it out west. So way to go.
Tim Ferriss: I thank you. Thank you. I do what I can where I can. So I just need to figure out exactly how I managed to precipitate this rain and replicate that. But that’s a project right after the podcast.
Jack, there’s so many different places we could start. I thought I would begin with explaining one of our most recent conversations and that was prompted by feeling some amount of existential distress that has been on slow burn for a while now. And we don’t have to start here in terms of our conversation, but I want to mention it to folks, just to underscore the fact that I do have you on the speed dial, per se, because of your deep expertise and awareness related to certain things. And in this case, it was angst and distress related to climate change, extreme weather events and noticing a growing apathy, feeling of learned helplessness perhaps, in my audience, which scares me more than most things. I mean, there’s a lot of strife. There’s a lot of anger. And I think these things may be intertwined and we’ll probably cover all of these in our conversation.
Now, just to set the stage for this uplifting conversation, before we started recording, I asked what we might chat about. And you said, “Well, death, war, and anger.” So we will cover —
Jack Kornfield: All the cheerful topics.
Tim Ferriss: All the cheerful topics.
Jack Kornfield: And joy and well-being, but we have to make the descent and then come back out reborn into a new brighter world.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. So let’s start with anger because in between my rainmaking activities in the dry alpine west, I also make time for stupid arguments over breakfast, one of which I had this morning. I think that was also precipitated by yours truly. So not all great things. And you mentioned you have a number of stories before we started recording, related to anger. So let’s start there and I’ll let you lead wherever you think it makes sense.
Jack Kornfield: I will. But let me ask you a question first. Why do you ask about anger? What is your intention, or what makes you ask?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I ask about anger because I notice as I reflect on not just my own behavior, but behavior that is common in my family, a tendency towards perhaps an emotional home base of anger. It’s a very familiar feeling and I recognize how it can be corrosive. And I’ve spoken to people who have wanted to discuss their respective perspectives on say clean anger. I have tried to contend with it in different ways. Some have suggested fully expressing it, hitting a pillow, working on a punching bag. That tends to amplify and perpetuate anger in me. So it does not have the desired effect of dissipating anger at all. It just turns it from a seven to a 10. And it’s something I want to work on because I also recognize that even when I convey neutral content, from the perspective of the words that I choose, sometimes my tone has an undercurrent of anger and that causes strife.
That causes arguments. That causes various types of tension. And a lot of it, most of it is not helpful. So that is part of why I ask.
Jack Kornfield: Well, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And If I may just add one more thing. From a macro societal perspective, I have never seen more polarization and anger than I see today, just observing this audience of let’s call it 10 to 20 million people a month. As I look at all of it from a 30,000 foot view, I have never seen so much anger and hostility ever in all my time on this planet, so that’s also frightening.
Jack Kornfield: So that really helps me a lot because your openness about it is actually what we need. If we bury it or stuff it, it just festers. As you say, you can try to be nice and then it seeps out in the tone of your voice. And people feel that. We resonate with one another. It’s not a complicated thing. You could call it mystical, but if you put a violin on the table and somebody else plays a violin nearby, the strings of both of them will resonate. And so yes, there you’re looking so nice. And then that little stuff seeps out. So I’ve really had to wrestle with anger a lot. And the Greeks call it a noble emotion, the philosophers, because there’s something of value in it. So the first thing I want to say is that anger in itself isn’t bad.
It’s difficult to work with, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s something for us to understand because it’s part of human incarnation. And often the anger comes out of hurt, or it comes out of fear, ways that we feel vulnerable. It’s a way of protecting ourself. James Baldwin said, he said, “I believe the reason that people cling to their hate and anger so stubbornly is because they’re afraid that once hate is gone, they’ll be forced to face their own pain.”
And so we also project it on others, the ones that cause our pain and so forth, instead we get angry as if they were the ones making it happen. And we have the enemy du jour. It doesn’t matter. Right now it’s Russia and everybody’s cheering. We have the Pentagon. It’s like, I don’t know what to say. They’re celebrating. We have a great enemy again and a bigger budget and so forth, but it can be the immigrants or the Mexicans or the blacks or the gays or whoever it is, the enemy du jour.
And because we can’t bear our insecurity and we can’t bear the fact that we’re vulnerable in certain ways and that what’s out there is also part of us. So Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian author, when he was in the gulags, writing these brilliant things and sent out into Siberia, he said, “If only it were simple, if only we could just round up the evil people and get rid of them. But the problem is the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to get rid of a piece of our own heart?” So this is where we are as human beings.
So here I am, I’m in the monastery. I did some years training as a Buddhist monk. And in my family, there were four boys and we each had different roles. My brother got angry a lot. I think that was the healthiest in some way, because my father was an angry, paranoid wife batterer, somewhat mentally ill, and also a brilliant scientist who helped develop some of the first artificial hearts and lungs and did space medicine and stuff. But he was a terrifying figure in many ways. So I was the peacemaker in the family, trying to calm it down. I’ve now made that a profession. You know how that goes. But anyway.
And I go in the monastery and I’m sitting, minding my own business, meditating, walking slowly in the forest in the remote part of Thailand on the border of Laos. That’s an ascetic forest monastery. I wanted something tough. You know? We’re young men. Is there anything dangerous to do around here? Let me try it. And I start to sit and at some point, not that long in my time there, the first months, I start to get more and more irritated at the way the monks around me are behaving and the problems and this one and that one.
And then I just notice that I’m getting angrier. And all of a sudden I realize that I have a lot of anger. It just starts boiling up because there’s no distraction and I can’t put it on somebody else really. And so I go to talk to my teacher about it. I said, “All this anger was bubbling up.” And basically it shocked me because I thought I was a peaceful person. And mostly, I just didn’t want to be like my father and hurt people. So I’m not going to be like him. But it turns out he’s in there and it’s all in there. And I tell Ajahn Chah, my teacher, and he looks at me and he says, “Good.” He said, “Great. This is what you need to look at.” He said, “I want you to go back to your little hut, had a tin roof, close the one window in door, put on all your robes. This is the hot season. And if you’re going to be angry, do it right.”
He didn’t say “Go beat something.” He just said, “Sit in the middle of it, take the seat and feel the fire of it. And first of all, learn to tolerate it.” Because part of what happens with anger is when we can’t tolerate the emotions and so forth, then we lash out, or it leaks in our words. And he said, “So go and sit and bring your mindfulness to it and learn to tolerate it.” Because a lot of the power of meditation as the neuroscientists say, is to increase the window of tolerance. So you don’t get reactive to things, but you have the ability to feel things fully and then decide how to express it. So I sit there and after a while it’s like, okay, anger comes.
And the great image in the Buddhist teaching is of the Buddha seated under the tree of enlightenment, that big world story or myth. And while he is sitting there, he gets attacked by the armies of Mara. “You have no right to sit here.” Mara comes as doubt. Mara brings temptations, and then it was all the beautiful maidens and a golden chariot. You could have all these things. The Buddha says, “No. Been there, done that. I want something freer than that.” And then Mara attacks him with spears and flaming arrows and things. And the Buddha’s response is to say, “I see you, Mara.”
Mara comes back other times in Buddha’s life. And the main thing that the Buddha does, he doesn’t fight Mara, he says, “I see who you are. I see you.” And in that you can feel that there’s a freedom in the heart, a spaciousness to be present for it. So I get better with this shit, right?
I’m okay. Now I’m not quite so angry. I know I have it. I leave the monastery. After some years, I go back to New England where I’d been last, hook up with an old girlfriend who was great. She was doing graduate teaching at Harvard. And very quickly we get into conflict and I realize, okay, it’s one thing to deal with anger in myself. But being a monk, I had no training in how to deal with relationship. You know? And going back was hard.
People talk about leaving the monastery and going back to their family. They forget that both Jesus and Buddha had a hard time when they went home to their family. Right? So this is like the real place of — so I’m there with this woman and all my neuroses come up, my neediness, my whatever, fears, all the things around intimacy that I didn’t have to deal with as a monk.
So I start to do that and I realize the anger is building up again. She was great, actually. She said, “Okay, you dealt with it in yourself. Now let’s do this together.” So she says, “Come with me.” She had an old Volvo station wagon. And in the back she had 10 cases, big cases of bottles. And she said, “Come with me.”
She drove me to an old place where they were demolishing a brick building. She said, “All right, get out. I want you to throw those suckers at the wall, and say whatever you have [to say] about me, whatever. Just let it out.” Not so much as pounding the bag, but just making it all conscious. It wasn’t like I have to do that every day. And then I went into a Reichian therapy and this guy said, “You have the monk’s defense. You can be aware of anything, but you’re afraid to actually express it.” So he said, “What —
Tim Ferriss: Jack, may I interrupt for a second?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What type of therapist was that?
Jack Kornfield: He worked with Wilhelm Reich, who was a contemporary right after Freud, who worked with the energy and sexuality of the body. And he asked me, “What time of day is hardest for you?” And I said, morning, I’m not a morning person.” He said, “Great. I’ll see you at 6:00 a.m. when your defenses are down.”
So I go in and he has me do these breathing exercises to charge you up my body, play some evocative music and starts working on my body saying, “You’ve got to let this stuff out, whatever it is.” Okay. He worked on my body so hard. One day he cracked two ribs, actually.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, geez.
Jack Kornfield: I wept, I cried. I got angry. I did all these things. So this was part of my learning it. And now I’m a lot less afraid of it. And therefore I also can use it. So when I had my house being rebuilt and we were supposed to go to Europe and the contractor who was a good guy, kept saying, “We’re a little behind,” I said, “You got to finish. Before we travel for a long time.” Was putting it off. And I kept asking, nice guy that I am. And he says, “Oh.” Finally, I said, “We’ve only got a month to go and…” And I yelled at him. I said, “Man, if you don’t finish this, I’m going to sue your ass in court. I’m going to get it. I’m just tired of this shit.”
And I’m really angry. And he looks at me and says, “Oh, you really want it done, don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah.” Next day, he sent like a triple crew. And I realized that I simply needed to speak contractor-ese. I was kind of speaking like Buddhist monk, but that was not his language. So it became easier in some way to work with it and to realize that I have my own inner Taliban. I have my own inner Iron Curtain, that it’s not just out there. And by taking this energy and saying, “Yes, this is something that I can work with,” it just becomes much easier for me. And it runs through me quicker. It’s not that it doesn’t. I mean, I watched Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama get angry or upset. So it’s not like a — it’s part of us.
And then I guess the last thing to say, because it also allows for a kind of graciousness about it. When I see myself getting angry, if you really look, when I really look, underneath anger is hurt or fear or some kind of humiliation or something like that, where you feel like you’ve been disrespected. And if I can drop from the anger to say, “What’s under this?” And then express it and say, “I really feel hurt when you say that,” or, “That makes me afraid,” that very conflict with another person or a group of people, it changes from being, “I’m right and you’re wrong” to “This hurts,” or “I’m afraid about this.’ And we can have a genuine conversation that’s entirely different. So I’ll pause here because that’s a lot of story.
Tim Ferriss: That is. And I want to dive right back into the stories and your teacher’s name —
Jack Kornfield: Ajahn Chah.
Tim Ferriss: — Ajahn Chah.
Jack Kornfield: Right.
Tim Ferriss: So I recall from looking at my notes from an earlier conversation that we’ve had on this podcast, you tell the story of being out with this teacher collecting alms, food, one day, when you saw big rock in the middle of a rice paddy. Tell me if I get any of these details wrong. And Ajahn Chah asked, “Is that boulder heavy?” And a number of the young monks said, “Yes, it is, master.” And then he replied with, “Not if you don’t pick it up.” Right?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And being able to witness what’s present without being lost in it. Now let’s contrast that for a second, because I feel like you said, this internal Iron Curtain sometimes, or this internal conflict between not picking up the boulder. Right? So not voluntarily overexerting and speaking contractor-ese.
So my question for you is, if you have the impulse to speak con contractor-ese, where you’re just like, “For fuck’s sake, enough is enough. So and so isn’t doing the job they’re supposed to do,” how do you surgically use contractor-ese in your own life and know when to sort of turn off Mr. Nice Guy and speak more directly? Because that I imagine can also become a hammer looking for nails, right?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s something that I do, where someone might, excuse constantly speaking to everyone in contractor-ese with, “Well, I’m just keeping it real,” or, “I’m just being honest,” or whatever the phrase is that they use to deflect the fact that they’re just being an asshole a lot of the time. How do you think about that?
Jack Kornfield: So I would, in a certain way, I’d offer you a challenge because you like challenges. You’re one of those guys that say, “Anything dangerous to do around here?” But it’s both outward and inward. And the challenge would be this, that when you speak from that place, which I do, and it has its time, often, it makes things worse. I think Benjamin Franklin said, “What begins in anger ends in suffering,” generally speaking.
So the challenge is, can you speak your truth that’s underneath the anger? Can you say, “I am worried that that isn’t going to happen, or that this is all going to fall apart, or I feel so hurt?” You know? When you say those kind of things. So when you do those things, can you actually drop — now you’re aware of your anger and allow a certain deeper level of understanding and then express it. It doesn’t mean that there might not be occasions when you need to stand up. But when you talk about saying the truth, Tim, the problem is that pesky little word “truth.” You know? Because there’s a truth of how Tim sees it and how it should be, but there’s another truth that you feel worried, or hurt, or anxious, and so forth. That’s also true, and that’s a different truth that’s even more challenging, sometimes, to express, but it connects you. And when people are arguing, I think about in couples, you can say the simplest thing, like, “What did you mean?” But with different tones of voice, like, “What did you mean?” and it’s like an attack, or you can say, “What did you mean? I really want to understand you.” It’s the very same words, but the feeling that’s communicated is either blame, or it’s “I’m actually curious, what’s going on in you? What did you mean?” And so there’s no simple answer, but it’s like riding a bike, yeah, you fall off each side, and you practice it.
Tim Ferriss: So let me, once again, turn this conversation into just a self-serving therapy session, because I think that it helps me, it’ll probably help, it will help at least a few other people out there, and I also don’t want to misrepresent myself. I’m not just raging, throwing rocks through windows nonstop 24/7, I think maybe, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was the Buddha who said, “If you walk outside and one day you meet one asshole, that person’s an asshole, but if you walk outside and everyone’s an asshole, you’re the asshole.” I might be misattributing that. It could have been Abraham Lincoln or Oscar Wilde, but I do think about that.
So I’m not raging, I’m not a rage-aholic, I wouldn’t say, but the biggest challenge I think that I have is not the words I use, but the slight edge or tone that I think, whether by genetics or environment, I have adopted, because there was a lot of this in my household. I’m unclear on how to systematically work on catching that tone, and I have to imagine it begins with awareness. Now retrospectively I’m aware, for instance, this morning, the issue wasn’t what I said, it was probably the edge with which I said it. Do you have any suggestions for how to work on that?
Jack Kornfield: Well, it’s a deep and a beautiful question for us as human beings, because it can be anger or it can be other patterns, addictive patterns, or other things that we fall into. And you said something straight up right away, the first step is just to be aware of it, because if you’re not aware of it, you’re on automatic pilot. The next step is, you said I’m aware of it retrospectively, you want to move the time a little closer to when it happens. And there are two things you can do, one is pause, start to tune yourself, you could even take a little notebook. I think it’s a great thing anyway, get a little notebook and put the word anger on the first page, and then just periodically let yourself write about it. So you let images of your family, anger about the world, the climate, whatever, you just let it, so you start to see, okay, this is the repository of angry, this is what I’m learning about it, this is when it comes, so you’re making it more conscious.
Then as you catch up to it more in the current moment when it arises, the next step is to pause, and with your notebook, if you write down little examples, you don’t have to fill it with pages, but all right, this morning, tone of voice I got, then you can begin to imagine or feel a different scenario. Don’t even do it out loud yet, but imagine what upset you in the morning, even with that little tone you’d say, how else could I have handled this? What else? And the thing is that the imagination has an enormous capacity to change our neural structure, how we envision, as you know Olympic athletes, they envision and they go into a game and they do better, you know this very well, you actually get to envision yourself, all right, now I am the Buddha, I have a certain fierce compassion, so you haven’t put it all aside, but basically I’m a gracious and caring human being, how would that come out in this situation?
And you start to realize that you have this capacity, if you really begin to look at it, to transform your patterns, which is what, that’s why it’s called practice rather than perfect, whether it’s meditation practice or something else. And I — well, there are two things. There’s a word, querencia, in Spanish, and it refers to the place in bullfighting where the bull stops in the middle of the ring at some point, with the bullfighter there, and the bull and the matador are facing off.
And the matador finds his querencia, it’s the place in the middle of all of that energy which is unmoving, which is just here I am, on the earth, there’s the bull, there’s all of this stuff. If you find that in yourself when you practice, when you learn to find that, then it gives you all kinds of other opportunities. And I remember this woman coming to see me who was in the middle of a terrible divorce, so we’re talking real things here. Her ex-husband, who is also a wealthy lawyer, hired a killer lawyer, he was going to keep the kids and keep all the money, he was angry at her, even though he’s the one that had the affairs. But anyway, so I said, “First of all, get yourself a kickass lawyer to defend yourself,” read that from the Buddha, I don’t know, anyway, wherever that comes from.
But we worked for a while and she came in one day, because he was trying to turn their children against her, Which is one of the greatest pains a parent can have, but also not so uncommon. And she said, “I sat with it, I let myself feel all the pain, and the tremendous amount of grief,” and that’s part of our work, was just the grief of it. And then she came in one day and she said, “I will not bequeath a legacy of bitterness to my children. I will not say a bad thing about their father, I simply will not do it.” And that was the querencia, that was “It doesn’t matter what the bull does, I know what my values are, and I know who I am.” And that, you have that in yourself. That power is in you.
Tim Ferriss: So Jack, I want to make sure that we talk about death, and from the notes that we exchanged before we started recording, what happens as you die, or when you die. But before we get to that, to give people something to look forward to, I wanted to chat with you a bit about something you and I haven’t spent that much time talking about offline, and I feel like this may connect closely to my anger response, or just general aggressive response to the world, and that is hypervigilance. So you know about my childhood trauma and my traumatic background, per se. For people who want more on that just search my name and trauma and it’ll pop right up, so we won’t get into it right now.
But there’s a degree of hypervigilance in always seeking safety and maximizing, or optimizing, for safety that I think may be the foundation under which a lot of this anger arises, and I’m wondering how you have worked with people, whether they have complex PTSD, or undiagnosed traumatic response in the form of hypervigilance, how do you work on that with people?
Jack Kornfield: Well first of all I’m just listening to you and feeling the suffering of it, not just for you, but for the child that you were, and for the child of so many people who are listening, the childhood, not everybody’s, but I became somewhat that way, not perhaps as much as you, because I didn’t know when the car pulled in the driveway whether I going to get a raging violent maniac father, or just a ordinary father. So I had to be vigilant like you. Underneath that there’s fear, but there’s also a lot of grief. The loss of what could have been a healthier family, the grief that that child wasn’t protected, and so forth. So for me part of what helps with the vigilance is bringing a kind of compassion to that frightened part of ourselves, because it’s not just you as an adult, but as you point out, it’s really that hypervigilance was learned long ago to protect you.
And so I will do a practice of having people visualize themself when they had to learn that, when they weren’t safe, do some compassion practice, put their arm around that child, hold that part of themself, really, in some way, and also begin to say to all that fear almost a mantra recitation, “Thank you for trying to protect me,” because it wires in the fight, flight, or freeze immediately in the brain, the tiger’s coming, or whatever. “Thank you for trying to protect me,” you feel your vulnerability. “I’m okay just now, I’m all right, thank you, you can relax.” And it becomes actually a practice where you let yourself feel the hypervigilance and you say, “Thank you for trying to protect me,” so you’re not suppressing it, you actually honor it, because it kept you safe. And you say, “And right now I’m okay,” and then you let yourself feel it in your body. “I actually am okay in this moment, I’m safe, thank you, I’ll be all right.”
And again, it becomes a training that you do where you are acknowledging what’s true, the suffering of it, the activation, and the grief that’s underneath it, the tears that are under it. And now we’re kind of also in the territory of trauma which you and I have talked about before, and it’s so important in this time. I might have, I don’t know, in that last conversation we had, in the podcast, I probably referred to some of the retreats that we did, Michael Meade, Luis Rodriguez, other compadres of mine, compatriots, with returning vets from the Middle East, who have tremendous amount of trauma, and part of what was needed was to make a safe enough space that they could bring out, in a conscious way, that which was kept inside out of fear, to protect themselves and others. So we got combat vets together, and part of it was to write, or talk, or tell your story. And these are stories that they couldn’t tell anybody else. You can’t go home and tell people the graphic details of what happened in the battle zone; it would shatter them.
I know it also, working with physicians and nurses in neonatal units in the hospital and my beloved Trudy, who has done that work, talks about how the nurses come home and they can’t tell the people around them that, “This week I held three babies in my arms as they died,” and describe it, you can’t do it. So the vets say, “I can’t, I can’t,” and this was the powerful thing, “I can’t tell you what I saw, and I can’t tell you what I had to do,” and that’s the worst, because it’s a weight on the soul of a vet. So first we got them together, and as combat vets they found a safe space to tell their stories that they couldn’t tell to anybody else. And we also invited them to write a story, or write a poem, or begin to articulate it, and it’s held in the body, so there was movement that we did, and martial art kind of things.
There was some group songs, the songs of warriors returning from Africa, or Tibet, the Mayan, that we could chant together, and the stories of what it meant for a warrior to put down their armor and come home and become, again, part of those who till the fields and care for their families, and there are all these ancient myths about it, and people began to let all that out that they were carrying. And then in the end we invited their family to come in, and each man stood up and told at least some part of the story that they’d never told before. And as each person spoke, when it was done there was a group chant of honoring them and saying, “We now welcome you back, a warrior, who’ve done your deeds as a warrior. You can let that go now, and we welcome you back as a human being in a new way in our midst.” I mean, otherwise people get out of the military and the bus stops at the corner, or whatever, and they’re left out and nobody knows, nobody tends them.
So I tell the story partly because it’s important in terms of trauma that it’s held in our body, we need to be able to tell the story, we need others also around us to witness us and to see that this isn’t who you really are, this was a role you took on. But it’s not who you really are, and that mirroring also has a tremendous benefit for blessing when you’re seen in a different way, because then you can start to see yourself in a different way. I digressed from your question.
Tim Ferriss: No, I don’t think it’s a digression, I think these are parallel tracks, and they’re probably converging tracks at certain points. I realize those two don’t go together, for those people out there who are sticklers about parallel, but a question that comes to mind for me also, which is very front and center, is I think about mental health, new therapeutics, new models for trying to address mental health. The United States just as a country is woefully underprepared for the sheer volume of patient cases that need to be dealt with. If you compare them to almost any other first world country, whether it’s a Scandinavian country, or even much larger countries, from the perspective of having trained psychologists and psychiatrists, the US really has woefully inadequate ratios, which leads me to wonder how you think about group therapy dynamics?
Because it seems like one way to increase the treatable population while decreasing the per person costs, and this applies, as you just indicated, not just in some of the spheres that I know well, and you know extremely well, but let’s just say in the psychedelic therapeutics arena, where you could look at group therapies and integration with some of these different compounds, whether it’s MDMA, or others say psilocybin for treatment resistant, or major depressive disorder, but it applies also in un-enhanced environments, like the veteran example that you just provided. Do you have any thoughts on paths forward, or paths worth exploring with respect to group therapeutic models?
Jack Kornfield: I do.
Tim Ferriss: Because it seems like it’s not just, I’m sorry to interrupt, to ask and then interrupt, it seems like it’s not just a way to, I want to emphasize in my mind, it’s not just a way to decrease costs, it’s also a way to, in many, many instances, improve outcomes, rather than having one-on-one isolated treatments.
Jack Kornfield: Yes. So first I want to note something else, we have a mental health crisis here, and Vivek Murthy, who’s the current Surgeon General, and a great guy that I know, said what he’s seen, more than half of what comes through the doors of our hospitals and clinics presenting as physical problems really has its root in emotions and mental, that it’s the level of stress, and that’s really part of the crisis, and we’re allowed to have a medical problem, but it’s actually not tended.
There was a section of The Wall Street Journal, dozen years ago or so, it was the front page of it actually, and it talked about the overmedication of children, front page Wall Street Journal, saying that 45 million of our children are on antidepressants or ADHD medication, or antihypertensive, or antipsychotic, or various medications like that. Huge number. And then we have to pause and say: our children, why? Even before we get to your question of how do we heal, there’s something about the way our culture, the drivenness of our culture, and the outer focus of it, in which we’re actually not listening to our children. And you see it in all kinds of ways, I don’t even have to go any further, but even the terrible gun violence that we see, and so forth, in some way comes out of a tremendous amount of pain in childhood. I’m not trying to make any excuse for that.
So here we are, we’re in a culture, now let’s just look at it clearly, we’re a culture that doesn’t how to do this, and I think it has to happen on a lot of levels. You’re correct that this isn’t an individual problem, and people will come to see me and say, “I have a tremendous amount of anxiety right now, and I’m anxious about this, this, this in my life,” and I look at them, I say, “You may be anxious about that, but you’re living in a culture that’s diffused with anxiety right now.” It’s not just the earth, you’re actually swimming in the psyche, or the field of consciousness around you, and it’s in the news, and it’s what people talk about, and you can’t not feel it. So it’s not just personal, nor is it personal to those children. And in some way stepping back and seeing that already starts to give you a little relief, okay, it’s not my fault, I’m not doing something wrong, because we can so easily judge one another, or judge our mental state.
So then, going to your very important question, there are new modalities of healing, and certainly some of the psychedelic work with psilocybin, ketamine, MDMA, tremendously helpful and promising. But the other part which you talk about, and it’s really the epidemic of loneliness, it’s what the vets were feeling when they were in their home alone and they couldn’t talk to anybody about, all that was inside them, is that we need each other. And healing is not an individual matter, for almost everybody that is human being, especially the healing of the heart and the psyche. We need to hear each other, to comfort each other, to allow the measure of grief, and with it then to allow something more beautiful to arise, because if you could see the vets after that retreat, there was a tremendous amount of love that grew that they could express, because they felt free in themselves in some way.
And so it’s not just that you want to get back to, okay, I can function again, but that you want to renew your heart, and you want to renew your soul and your spirit, and that’s possible. And usually it needs to be done together, it can’t only be done in yourself.
Tim Ferriss: So Jack, let me ask you a question about the anxiety-suffused society in which we find ourselves, and this is a question I’m very interested in personally. So to what extent do you think about creating the ideal environment for yourself and your loved ones, versus adjusting to an anxiety-suffused society that is unlikely to be wholly changed by your efforts? And it makes me think of a very often quoted quote of Krishnamurti, which is, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” But one could argue that is absolving yourself of any responsibility. So how do you think about choosing between those two, or a ratio between those two, or contending with that tension if you see any tension between those two?
Jack Kornfield: I love your question, because it’s a little like a Zen koan, the world is on fire, it’s inflamed. Do I stay around and try to put the fire out? Or the Titanic’s going down, do I help people in the lifeboats? Or do I flee? Do I go in the mountains, or do I get a little lifeboat and so forth? Do I stay, or do I go? And the answer to those koans is “Yeah,” which you point to. You gave the little mathematical answer. How do you titrate it in some fashion? Because I think it’s both. The metaphor that everyone uses these days is, put on your oxygen mask first before you put it on your children.
There’s a way in which we have a responsibility to ourselves to try to stay healthy and well. And I know if I go into a refugee camp, it doesn’t help if I go in and I’m depressed and anxious, they’re already feeling upset they don’t need me to breathe. They actually need somebody who says, “Yeah, this is suffering and they are ways to manage it. There are ways, even though it’s difficult, there are ways and there are possibilities for us.” The great anthropologist and philosopher Wade Davis said, “Despair is a failure of the imagination.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good one.
Jack Kornfield: Brilliant line, because it speaks to the heart. Despair is a failure of the imagination. Human beings have been in tough times since caves and saber tooth tigers, since battles between different clans. And then we don’t have to talk about the Huns and the Visegrads, or the Roman army, or the armies of the, whatever, the Aztecs, or wherever around the world. We, human beings, have dealt with epidemics, flood, tornadoes.
Continuing war is not a new story, right? And we’re survivors and we survive in two ways. First of all, we survive by protecting what we care about, which is ourselves and those close to us. So I do that. I want to protect my grandson, have him live in a place where it’s safe, if that’s possible, or it’s safe enough, or myself. But I also don’t want to turn away for two reasons.
My daughter said, “Well, if climate change and everything gets bad, would you move to New Zealand? Or would you get a…” And I said, “I choose to be on the deck of the Titanic, and I’ll help people in the lifeboats.” That’s what I’ve taken as a vow, as a Bodhisattva, that you turn towards suffering, and you offer what you can. But part of that offering is to see that the world that I want for my grandson needs my attending. And it doesn’t mean I can change it, because this is the way of the world in some ways, but it can be better or it can be worse and we know that.
We can stand up for things that really matter. And so your question, which is a really, it’s a question of the heart. It’s also different for different people. There’s some people who are profoundly contemplative. And I think the extreme are those Tibetan yogis in a cave, who are broadcasting compassion to everybody in the world. If we’re all connected, as they say, as we find, then that’s their contribution. But then there, I was out on the streets in March for Our Lives in DC for this, and that was also important. And I love the fact, it was not this one, but with the prior March for Our Lives, I forget who it was, but there was a fantastic, Black gospel singer who stood up and she sang in a gospel style, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” 40 years after it came out. Gather around, people, the times are changing. Don’t block up the wall. And I listened and it was the very same medicine that we needed.
And I felt so glad to be out there with people. And I felt so glad that we were doing lobbying, petitions, and sending money, and trying to support the organizations and do what we could. And I’ve also worked with kids coming out of street gangs in the cities. They’re veterans too. When we’ve had retreats with Army veterans, military veterans coming back, combat veterans. And some of these young kids, they look at each other in their eyes and they nod and they know that they’ve all been together in battle, because some of these kids have seen as much shooting as some of these vets have.
And so we actually need to tend to that. And it becomes part of our, I don’t know, our really part of our life purpose in some way. Yes, to take care of yourself, but yourself isn’t temperate. To take care of yourself is everything.
Tim Ferriss: So, Jack, let me ask you, and I’m going to say a bit, but the basic question is what makes an effective Bodhisattva versus an ineffective Bodhisattva. So the seven habits for the effective Bodhisattva or something like that is where this is —
Jack Kornfield: If you can measure it, then you can change it, right? How do we measure it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right. Well, I don’t want to over secularize and pull all the magic out of it, but let me just riff for a second. You’ll see where this is coming from.
As I mentioned earlier, and I’m going to circle back to this. I’ve never before noticed so much apathy and disengagement and anxiety and depression in my audience. So let’s call it 10 to 20 million who I think are fairly representative across a very broad spectrum of, not just American, but global society, but let’s just stick with US society at the moment. It’s every race, every creed, every political orientation. And I think one contributing factor, this is a theory, is that never before have people been exposed to constant global bad news of every type. And so the question of how to be an effective Bodhisattva stems from something that I’ve been journaling on myself in the last few weeks, and it came about from reading a revised edition of a book called The 80/20 Principle.
And it talks about, in one section, happiness islands, and identifying your closest, say, 10 relationships that bring you peak positive emotional states. And I began to, after I made this list, ask myself, whenever I got an email asking for a coffee date, or a phone call, or fill in the blank, would I rather spend time with this person? Or, if I look at my list of top 10 relationships and ask myself the question, am I spending as much time with these 10 people as I would like? If the answer is no, would I be better served, and would our relationships be better served by me focusing on these 10 relationships?
And I found myself feeling this tension between trying to serve in my capacity as a writer and a host of a podcast, some amorphous larger group, or would we, on some level, be all better served if each of us just said, “Hey, make a list of your top 10 most important relationships and go serve those 10.” And I’m sure it’s not as binder. It doesn’t need to be one or the other.
But that’s why I asked this question because there are a lot of well-intentioned people who want to do good, but they’re so scattered and their goals are so unclear that they never really produce much. And that’s a very rambling, I think long compound question, but you see where I’m going now.
Jack Kornfield: Because it’s carried in the hearts of a lot of the people listening. Part of the reason, I think, as you point out, that people aren’t responding maybe as objectively as they might, is because they are overwhelmed, and there is a despair and it feels like a helplessness that sweeps over a lot of people, the problems are too big, it’s not possible.
One of my favorite friends, colleagues, mentors is a woman named Joanna Macy, who’s been working on nuclear disarmament, climate change issues, world peace, all kinds of things for decades now, she’s in her 90s. And years ago, she started, I think it was together with John Seed and other environmentalists, a series of practices called the Council for All Beings. And it was part of what she calls despair and empowerment work. And that phrase really carries a lot.
So people would come, and they’d meditate, and they’d talk about that issues of climate change and so forth. And then they would be asked to be silent for a day or two while they were there in some camp, out in nature, and to go out and find whether in the forest, in the stream around, or in their imagination, it could be the polar bears in the Arctic or whatever. Some profound connection that they have with the natural world of something that they really care about. And then, because she’s playful about it. They had all kinds of stuff there. She said, “Okay, come back and dress up as your thing.” So people came and made a look, that was some decades ago. But in any case, they came back and they made a circle. And in that circle, they were asked to speak for that part of life that they felt so deeply connected to.
And someone would sit up and say, “I speak for the salmon. I’m a salmon poacher. I speak for the salmon. Here is what I need. And yes, here’s my grief. And here is what I am empowered to do now.” Someone else said that “I speak for the redwoods,” or “I speak for the monarch butterflies,” or “I speak for the…” whatever it happened to be, and it required and invited people to be willing to face the very thing you talk about, the apathy, the despair, and say, “Yes, I’ll give voice to that.” And then to bind themselves to something they care about, like those 10 people in the circle that you said that you most care about, maybe you could expand the circle a little bit further and say, “And are there a few other beings in this world.” It might be the Ukrainians, or it might be the polar bears, might be the monarch butterflies, or it might be foster children in foster care.
It’s not your task to fix the world. That would be hubris. :”Okay. I’m Jack Kornfield, and I’m the Bodhisattva. I’ll fix it all.” Nobody’s ever done that, right? But it is your task to feel your care and to extend it to make, to put your oxygen mask on, to make something that’s safe and sacred, as best as you can around you, and then extend that with your particular gift. Your gift is partly through your podcast and your writing.
Others, it might be planning a community garden, or their own amazing garden and giving some of the food away, or starting a conscious business and doing it with the intention to make a business that brings well-being to people who work for it and so forth. There are a million ways to do it. Nobody can tell you how. You have to listen and nobody else — the other thing is that nobody else can do it for you. I mean, you are doing it in a way.
So, you spend plenty of time with those 10 people. Hallelujah, I encourage it. And I don’t believe you’re going to stop your podcast. And I don’t want you to.
Tim Ferriss: No, I’m not going to stop my podcast.
Jack Kornfield: You got both. Actually, in a way you’re asking something that you’ve, in part, you’ve already answered. So there’s a story of a woman who taught in a middle school or something like that, in the Tenderloin in San Francisco and the most difficult, poorest part of the city, more people without homes and so forth.
And when she got home, she had an apartment near there. If she had the extra bandwidth and if she wasn’t too tired, she would make sandwiches and go down and give them to the homeless people in the neighborhood. And little by little people found out about it. And she became a minor celebrity for giving out the sandwiches. And once that was found out, somebody wrote something about it. So she started to receive envelopes of money “for your good work for the homeless.” And she answered them all with a one-line note sent back, she said, “Make your own damn sandwiches.”
And that’s it. It’s not that we have to carry it for someone else, but that each person actually has to decide what their gift is. And no matter how much despair you have, I want to ask you on behalf of my grandchildren to extend your hand and mend something to connect with somebody, to do something, not just on behalf of them, because actually I know that it’s good for us in our human incarnation for our soul, somehow to do that. And that’s part of the answer to it. It’s not just despair, but it’s empowerment and realizing that Alice Walker’s phrase, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It’s clear the politicians ain’t going to do it. The military, ain’t going to do it. Who is it? Oh, as Miss Piggy would say on Sesame Street, “Moi?”
Oh, now we’re really in trouble. But it also makes a difference. And I used this last time when we talked, because it’s an image that I find so compelling from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh who died recently. He said, “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats,” and he went to try to help with them and things. “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 steady, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” And then you say, well, who is that one person? Because the boat’s rocky, the seas are up, there’s anxiety, there’s depression.
But also we are now facing a time of tremendous moral challenge and opportunity. You could either, you succumb in some way and drown in the depression or the helplessness. Course they, you are now being charged in this time in human history to stand up in some way and offer your piece of moral courage as a voice or an action. Your piece of compassion, your Bodhisattva, which meets just someone who wants to alleviate suffering no matter what’s happen. Being willing to see the suffering from the despair and say, “That’s not the end of the story,” because it isn’t. We’re survivors for centuries in millennia. We know how to do this.
Tim Ferriss: So I’d like to segue to two things, Jack. The first, just because I keep planting this flag and I want to make sure I don’t break any promises to listeners. You mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh, whose books had a huge impact on me, specifically one. I don’t think it’s an anecdote. I think it’s more of a metaphor, but I remember it so clearly. I can’t quite pinpoint why this stuck with me in the way that it did. I’m going to come back to his death, which I watched. I watched his, not his death, but his cremation and the entire procession on YouTube actually live streaming.
The metaphor, just so I can mention it since I brought it up, is he talks about doing the dishes. And if, while you’re doing the dishes, you’re thinking of only what you’re going to do after the dishes that if later you think you’re going to say, enjoy a peach after you finish the dishes, that when you are eating the peach, you’re not going to be enjoying the peach. You’re going to be thinking of whatever comes after the peach. And that’s just stuck with me for decades now, that if you’re thinking of something else while you’re viewing what you’re doing as drudgery and you’re looking forward to X, chances are when you then think you are going to enjoy X, you’ll be thinking of something else if you don’t train that present state awareness.
So a lot of his teachings have stuck with me. Let’s talk about death for a second. And what, specifically, the wording that I have in front of me is what happens as you die. You have over your many decades of life now one of the widest ranges of experiences, including non-ordinary experiences, of anyone that I’ve ever met. So please expand on this in any way that you think makes sense, death and what happens as you die.
Jack Kornfield: I will, but first I want to pick up Thich Nhat Hanh for a little moment of two parts and it will segue into death.
Christiana Figueres is a Costa Rican diplomat. You may have heard of her. She said she was the UN representative for climate, and she helped to organize the Rio Climate Summit that happened, I don’t know, a decade ago or so. And then it was her job to organize the Paris Climate Summit that happened, I don’t know, four years ago or whatever it was. And she tells a story. She said she had gotten to a place where there was so much contention among the different nations and players about whose fault it was and who was going to do what, that she became really despairing about climate, and about what we might do. Understandably so, and maybe even a bit paralyzed. And then somebody said to her, “I think you need to step out of this despair place for a little bit, try something different. There’s a place down in Southern France run by this Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh…” — she’d never heard of him — “…called Plum Village. Why don’t you just go there for a couple weeks, get out of Dodge?”
And so she did. And she said, “I went there,” and first of all, it slowed her down. She was not running like we do. We watched Thich Nhat Hanh walk. And he walks like every step, you were talking about being present, like every step is a miracle, that, “Wow, I’m still alive. I can walk. The Earth is here. Here we are. What have I closed my eyes to? It’s extraordinary.” Like it was the last day of his life. He’s just there. And then she began to practice with him, to breathe, to bring some well-being into a body that was carrying so much tension and suffering. And to let it go to hold it in compassion to begin to release to. He told her to put a little smile on her lips as she did it.
And it wasn’t like the smile of okay denial, but it was the smile of the sages of the wise ones who’ve been through everything and say, “We’re still here. We know how to do this.” And then she took the teachings of interdependence from him of how every breath you take is completely breathes with the raccoon in your backyard and the earthworms. It’s not a fiction. It’s the reality. We’re exchanging air. I heard that thing. You probably heard it that what’s the likelihood that one breath, that the next breath you take will have a molecule from Julius Caesar’s dying breath. And the likelihood is 99 percent. So I heard that and I come from a family of scientists, even though I’m a weird one in that. I thought, “Well, could that be true?” So I did the math.
I said, “Okay, how many molecules? Well, in one mold, there’s Avogadro’s number and one liter maybe, of that breath. There’s 10 to the 23rd molecules. Okay. How many liters of air? And I looked it up. How many kilometers of atmosphere there is? And then how many liters in that. It turned out it was 10 to the 22nd. I said, “Yeah, 99 percent Julius Caesar’s with you. You are breathing everybody.” Exchanging breath with Gandhi and Mother Theresa, and Vladimir Putin, and Stalin, and everybody else. We’re in it together. She saw it and she said, “Oh, my God, I’ve been doing it wrong. I’ve been thinking in terms of victim and perpetrator, which is how everyone is seeing it. You’re bad and you’re being hurt and so forth. She went back and she said, “I saw us as a family, as interconnected, and I wrangled 196 countries,” or whatever it was. “And we got the Paris Climate Accord.” So this is a Thich Nhat Hanh story, but also a climate story, because it’s saying that there’s another way to see it besides despair and empowerment.
So when Thich Nhat Hanh died, he wrote this thing. He taught about it for a long time. He said, “I have not died.” He said, “You just think I’ve died.” He said, “But if you look at a cloud, the cloud turns into snow or rain. It falls in the streams and goes in the rivers and go to the ocean. The sun heats the ocean and the cloud forms again.”
He said, “We are this.” He said, “I’m not separate from you and the clouds in the rain. We are just the same field of awareness of consciousness, of being. And so I was never born who I really am and I can never die. I’m with you.” So I was sitting with my father as he was dying because I’m getting philosophical there, but people actually want some — Thich Nhat Hanh remarkable. So I’m sitting with my father. Now, my father was, as I said, I think now slightly mentally ill, paranoid, violent, easily triggered and so forth. And he was near to dying.
As I said, he’d been a scientist who’d helped invent heart lung machines and things like that. I’ll stay with this story. There’s another little one I might tell. But anyway, so I sat with him and he was terrified of dying. He was in the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. He’d been a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and he kept looking over at the monitor to see if he’d died yet and if anybody would notice. And because he designed some of these monitors, he was really tuned with — and his fear was really great. I said, “So Dad, what do you think happens when you die?” And he said, “Nothing, dirt. You go back to — I’m a scientist. You go back to dirt.” I said, “Well, if you’re a scientist, that’s a presumption. I thought scientists did experiments. Don’t you want to see what happens?”
He said, “What do you mean, see what happens?” I said, “Well, let me tell you my experience. See,” I said, and I described how when I was in the monastery, I’m beginning to learn my meditation and I got exhausted. I did a year in silence sitting in meditation or walking 20 hours a day. And I lay down on the floor one day, completely exhausted, thinking,” I’ll get up in 20 minutes and keep going. I’m going to get enlightened.” You know how foolish young men are. And I got up and I started to do this slow walking in this cottage I was living in and I got to the window, I looked out, I saw my teacher at a distance in the cottage several places over, meeting with somebody. I turned around and I walked across the floor and I saw a body on the floor and I went woo, a little rush of fear, and then I realized, “Oh, God, it’s me.”
And I was having my first out-of-body experience and I went close and I peered at myself, I said, “Wow, this is trippy.” And then — I fell into my body and I’m on the floor. And I stood up and then I learned more how to do that. So I told that to my father. I said, “I had past life experiences. I remember being a monk in a kitchen in the Middle Ages in a Chinese monastery and it was not fun. And then I looked into it and it was how it was in those days.” And then I said, “And then I’ve done past life regressions with people all around the world and people who believe it or don’t believe it, it doesn’t matter. Half the people have these amazing experiences and it doesn’t matter whether they believe it or not. It’s a complete surprise.
And I’ve sat with people and they’ve died and they’ve gotten close and they’ll float out of their body and then come back.” And I said, “How’s it going?” Say, “Well, I started to let go and there was this whole field of light,” which I know from meditation and dying and meditation. And I was later, there was this sense of love and bliss. And then I did a life review, which happens in a moment I saw my whole life. And what that incarnation was like.
And I kept telling him these stories. I said, “So when you die,” I said, “You claim to be a scientist. Why don’t you take it as an experiment? Because it’s likely that you’ll find yourself floating out of your body and you go, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ And then there’ll be a sense of light and release. And often there’s a sense of joy and a sense of connection to something so much bigger.” I went on for a little bit. I said, “Of course it might happen that you’re right and nothing happens. But from my experience inwardly and with so many people, you’re going to start to die and you’ll float out of your body. And there’ll be a lot of, it’ll be surprises for you. And if that happens, remember, I told you so.”
Tim Ferriss: How did he respond to this?
Jack Kornfield: He responded medium. It got his curiosity. And I felt good, because I at least told him what I knew. We are consciousness. You’re not your body. You have a body, but it’s not who you are. You’re certainly not your thoughts. Oh, my God. If you were your thoughts, we’d be in trouble. They keep changing anyway, one opinion to another. And you’re not your emotions, they come like the tide or the weather. So who are you? Who you are is the awareness itself that was born into this body. You are consciousness. So I got to tell him a little bit of things that — my side of science, sort of the weird science side, and he sort of listened and I thought, “Well, maybe this’ll be useful to him.”
Tim Ferriss: All right. I have to pick at, not pick, but pick up on one thing you mentioned in passing because a lot of folks are going to harass me, and it’s also piqued my curiosity. When you mentioned your first out-of-body experience, and then I believe you mentioned later learning how to do that type of thing. How does one learn to do that type of thing and why would one learn how to do that type of thing? What is the value?
Jack Kornfield: All right. The first thing is I wondered whether it was real or not. But then when I got back in my body and I went over to the window and looked out, there was my teacher and there was the person visiting them who I wouldn’t have seen while I was sleeping. More often than not, people’s experience of that kind, and it’s actually more common than you think, happens in an accident or in some great distress.
And literally you could talk to thousands of people who said, “Oh, I was in this car accident, the medics came and there I was floating above, watching.” And they can tell you things that happened that they couldn’t possibly have seen, their eyes were closed. They couldn’t see that way. So there are thousands of detailed accounts of that. So it’s not esoteric and you don’t have to go to the Himalayas or sit in silence for a year or something.
It’s actually part of our human nature, whether it’s in an accident or some things like that. And the simplest thing I can say is that as I got tremendously concentrated and focused in meditation and could move my attention different places, I could both move it into my body and then I learned to move it into the space of awareness that was not my body. And that’s enough to say, but it’s not that far away. I don’t know that it’s that valuable per se. I’m not counting it, but I learned something, just like I learned things from taking psychedelics. Woo. Look at that. Everything is dissolving. Oh, woo. It’s not how I thought it was. And in fact, and whatever, all kinds of things. So I learned something of value from it.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I may come back to that, but it sounds like the out-of-body experiences wouldn’t make the cut into The Seven Habits of Effective Bodhisattvas? Is that what you’re saying?
Jack Kornfield: What makes the cut is knowing who you are, that you’re not limited by the identity that you play in the world. Because we have all these roles, you’re a podcaster, you’re a writer. You’re the boyfriend or the father or the grandmother, you’re a business person or a healer or so forth, all that. And all those roles change. I mean, one person can be both the father of somebody and the son of their mother and the grandson of their grandmother. Well, if you’re a policeman and you come home, there you are, you’re on your beat and you’ve got your uniform and your gun and so forth. And if that policewoman comes home and tries to be the policewoman in her family, she will have a very unhappy family life. She has to not only put her gun down, she has to put her identity down and become a mom or a wife or a daughter to her parent, or a colleague, friend.
So we have all these identities. They’re not who you are. They’re what your incarnation offers to you and you get to use them to grow your heart and compassion, to understand the world. I mean, you can have your own purpose, but I would invite people to reflect on what would be a beautiful purpose for this incarnation, rather than one where you just suffer. And when you start to see that, then it frees you, then the suffering isn’t so much of a problem.
I think of our friend Ram Dass, 20 years in that wheelchair, half paralyzed from a stroke, aphasia, repeated infections, lots of body pain. And by the end of his life, he just became pure love. He said, “I love everything. I’m so grateful. Like Thich Nhat Hanh for this life. I love it. I love this wheelchair. It’s carried me. I love those who take care of me.” He said, “I used to take care of everybody and start, do all these things. Now they have to pick me out of bed and wipe my butt. I didn’t like that.” He said, “I wanted to be the hero who’s going to save everybody. And now I have to be a vulnerable human being. And I love that too. It’s taught my heart something even bigger.” So what do we want to do with this life, basically. You each have your measure. What do you do with it?
Tim Ferriss: Well, let me ask you Jack, just to pick up on finding a beautiful purpose. Speaking personally as someone who’s generally oriented towards the world and my environment and people around me with vigilance, hyper vigilance, I think I have focused a lot on reducing risk, eliminating pain. It’s a subtractive approach. It’s getting rid of things. And we’ve talked about, for instance, contending with despair, but I have to — well, I don’t have to, but I imagine that finding or seeking joy amidst it all is perhaps quite different from subtracting the bad things. How would you speak to that or suggest people think about that?
Jack Kornfield: So first, if you’ll forgive me, I want to read you a poem and it’s a full page poem. So it’s not super short. And it’s one of the great poems. I love poetry that I’ve read in decades from Jack Gilbert, who is one of our master poets. And it’s called —
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Jack Kornfield: — “A Brief for the Defense.” All right. And it speaks to your question.
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
That’s a quite extraordinary poem.
Tim Ferriss: That really is. Who is the author one more time? Did you say Jack Gilbert?
Jack Kornfield: Yes. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of attention is to praise the Devil.”
Tim Ferriss: How did you find this poem? Or how did it come into your life?
Jack Kornfield: Oh, I read poetry a lot, and I don’t know where it came from. I’ve had it for some years. And I’ve made friends with some poets and I’ve even tried to write poetry. Sadly, I’m not very good at it. It’s like you go to your favorite band. All right, I’m young. I’m going to go hear The Dead. I wish I could play with them. I can’t, but I’m a great fan. And we’re lucky because we have the great poets of the world. We have Hafez and Rumi and we have the Chinese poets, we have Li Po and we have all these magnificent poets.
My good friend Luis Rodriguez, who was the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles couple of years ago and is a Latino activist who’s worked with gangs and worked in prison because he was in a gang. In fact, his first major book which wasn’t poetry was called [Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.], which he says proudly is the most stolen book in high school libraries across America. And his platform as a poet, he’s running for governor. He wants to be, if he can, come in second, so he can run against Newsom. He knows he won’t win. He said, “But I want to stand up for the homeless. I want to stand up for the farm workers. What kind of culture it is that these people all work to feed us and they don’t have enough food stamps to feed their children? I want to stand up for climate and for public transportation and alternatives.” He’s got all this, it’s a beautiful platform.
Tim Ferriss: Jack, let me ask you if I could, just before we move to your friend, “A Brief for the Defense,” why did you read that? And what do you make of the title also?
Jack Kornfield: “A Brief for the Defense,” because it’s in defense of joy. And I’ll go back to it with you, I’m happy to. André Gide, the great French philosopher said, “When you understand correctly, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.” And we’ll stay with that for a moment. Joy, for there’s a book and now a movie that came out, The Book of Joy. You may have seen it. That’s a dialogue between Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who recently died, and the Dalai Lama about joy.
And part of what’s in that book, it’s mostly in — a record of their dialogue. They each acknowledged immense suffering that they’ve been through and the people around them. For Tutu, the incredible suffering and under Apartheid and all the conflicts and the people who were killed and died, and many who he knew and thrown in prison and what tore apart the nation, really. And he was right in the center of it.
And the Dalai Lama of course, fleeing from Tibet, having the Chinese army burn the sacred texts and the monasteries and imprison monks and nuns and take over the culture. And as he said, “They’ve taken so much from me. Why should I let them take my happiness?” And they talk to each other and they’re both very funny. They both have great senses of humor. And they say, for them, like Gide’s moral obligation, the world is too magnificent and mysterious and too beautiful to live on the channel of despair. It’s just not.
And so in the Buddhist tradition, we have these practices where you cultivate joy, where you look through the eyes to see first the secret beauty and everybody going by. And one of the parts of that practice of joy, and you could try it, Tim, is when you look at somebody, try to imagine their happiest day, their happiest moment as a young child, because even if they had a bad childhood, some do, there were days when they were tickling and wrestling and rolling around and laughing, I think there’s an inviolable spirit in children — I’ve seen it in refugee camps — that just can’t be stopped, an innocence.
And so you look at that person and you see not that adult with all their cares and traumas and whatever, their fear and anger, but you realize that child of the spirit is in them. It actually still is. And then you start to remember your most beautiful, happy days as a child, happy moment somehow. And then you invite and invoke it. May I live with that spirit? May I see it in others?
So Tim, I want to pick up with the thread of joy coming out of that poem and Gide’s sense of joy as a moral obligation because people can also often think about meditation as something like a grim duty. “All right, I’ve got to go to therapy and I’ve got to work out and I’ve got to diet and I should meditate.” As you know, as if it’s some self-help thing, and especially since you asked, when your nervous system, as all of ours, is in disarray right now. Somewhat in vigilant and wary. Meditation is not supposed to be a grim duty, but rather more an act of adventure and understanding of opening the mind and heart and bringing a sense of well-being.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “What use is freedom if it doesn’t also include the freedom to make mistakes?” And my teacher Ajahn Chah, we would ask him different questions about things. And a lot of the times he would say, “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” “Tell me about enlightenment.” He’d smile. He’d say, “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” Or “Tell me what happens when you die.” “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” I mean, he had teachings, but he loved the wisdom of uncertainty. He said, “Why don’t you be just as you talked about?” Tim, when you’re washing the dishes, as Ajahn described, to feel the soapy water in your hands and enjoy washing the dishes or being with another person.
I remember reading about these Russian astronauts who got in trouble and were not sure they would even make it back from their orbit above the Earth where they’d been for a while. But finally they did and their capsule came down and opened and they said they touched the Earth with their feet and it was the most glorious moment just to be in the dusty plain of Kazakhstan and touch the ground and the plants that people might have called weeds. To see the eyes of people who were walking around, meeting them, or to be able to go home and sit at a table with people felt absolutely miraculous.
And so there’s something about meditation when we quiet the mind and yes, we can bring compassion and tend to all the difficulties that we carry, but it’s an invitation to get bigger, to feel the sense of mystery. As the poet says, “I’m moving at tremendous speed toward a star in the Milky Way. My heart’s a little fast, otherwise everything is fine.”
And for you, and those who listen, to remember that spirit of adventure and joy that was there as a child, the child of the spirit. So if you would Tim, close your eyes for a moment. Let’s just meditate together and other people can join us and take a couple of long breaths and let yourself settle.
And notice that there are different channels. Consciousness has these different dimensions and you can tune into the channel of despair or the one of outrage, but you can also tune into the channel of the Dalai Lama and two, two, and so forth of adventure and caring and joy.
And as you sit quietly, let yourself remember one of the best moments of your childhood, even vaguely, one of the best days of joy, laughing, playing, enjoying, tickling the child of the spirit, and keeping your eyes closed, feel it. And let me know if you can remember something like that.
Tim Ferriss: I can.
Jack Kornfield: What’s it feel like in your body? Stay with it.
Tim Ferriss: It feels light. Unencumbered, feels expansive.
Jack Kornfield: So stay with —
Tim Ferriss: Exploratory.
Jack Kornfield: Beautiful.
So stay with this, the quality of light and unencumbered, expansive, exploratory, joyful.
And let it fill your body, and let it fill your cells and DNA to remind you that this child of the spirit, this inviable joy that was born into you is still really available. It can’t be taken from you no matter what. So just let it open and filling your whole being in an easy, joyful way.
And now let yourself imagine that some being who carries the spirit of joy and wisdom, amidst everything in human life. Some amazing being comes to join you know as a guide, as a friend, as inspiration and let yourself be surprised who wants to come with carrier of joy, and wisdom and meet it all, and see who wants to arrive or appear. And allowing this, keeping your eyes closed. Notice, let me know who it, if anyone comes.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it’s actually a friend of mine is younger than I am. Who I think does a pretty good job.
Jack Kornfield: Good, good, good.
Tim Ferriss: With levity and adventure, while also being really effective in the world.
Jack Kornfield: So both adventurous and joyful, adventurous, and effective. And so this friend, guy, male, female?
Tim Ferriss: Male, in this case.
Jack Kornfield: This fellow comes and he’s now with you and you see his smile and maybe he puts his arm around your shoulders just like your brother, “We’re in this together. Come on, let’s have a good time. Let’s make an adventure where we make a difference. And we do it with real joy.” And let yourself feel that connection so that you’re together in this.
We need that from one another. And then as you feel this, he reaches into his pocket and he has a gift for you. That’s a clear symbol of what you need to step out of that small sense of self that you’ve talked about. That’s vigilant, hypervigilant and learn to try to protect yourself. But he knows you’re much bigger than that. And he has the perfect symbol, the gift that will help you to be who you really are. This joyful, vast, adventurous spirit, and see what he gives to you. He places it in your hands. If it’s not clear, you can lift it up to the light. So you can see it. Just what you need. What do you get from him?
Tim Ferriss: Would you like my answer? So I don’t know why. Well, maybe there is no why, but it looks like a very small maybe inch and a quarter inch and a half diameter, almost like pendant, but it’s a silver circle with some type of circular bluish green stone in the center, which is round.
Jack Kornfield: All right. So hold it in your hand. And then you can ask him, what does this symbolize? He’ll tell you. You can know. Your intuition, your understanding will come. What does he tell you it symbolizes?
Tim Ferriss: Unending connection. The circularity of it, just the illusion of separateness.
Jack Kornfield: So hold it in your hand. And he’s reminding you that part of the joy and the adventure you can have is that you’re connected with it all. You’re always connected that circularity. And there’s a joy in that. A spirit you can’t fall out of that circle, because it is you. You are life. And then he whispers in your ear, a few words of support for living with joy. What does he say?
Tim Ferriss: The first thing that came to mind was “Take it easy! Take it easy!”
Jack Kornfield: Okay. Listen to that.I’ve heard the song, myself. And you’re laughing as you say it and feel that laughter fill your body because he’s really reminding you who you are, that you can do this, that this is actually not just a channel, but this is underneath all the rest that we try to do. Here we are, we try to be grown up responsible, protect ourselves, take care of everything. Take it easy. You can do what you do as he does. Adventure and success for this joyful spirit, and pause and just feel it. How is this?
Tim Ferriss: It feels good. Feels lighter. There’s a certain unwinding sensation to it.
Jack Kornfield: Beautiful. So you’re kind of demonstrating in your own experience now for other people who are listening, watching. You’re really demonstrating what meditation can do. It can open you from what’s called the body of fear. The small sense of self to expansiveness and to a sense of connection and well-being. And as you found that kind of adventure and joy, now, the beautiful thing is that even if you’re traveling and you happen to go to Costa Rica or Indonesia, or wherever you go, that he’s not far away.
You can close your eyes and he’ll join you in spirit, wherever you are. Because as in that circle, he’s part of who you are. And it’s always available in five minutes. And this is one of the gifts of meditation. And it’s not like Pollyanna because there’s a lot of difficult things we have to carry. And Mara keeps coming back with progression and doubt and so forth. And you can say, “Yes, I see you, Mara. I know you’re here.” And there’s the Buddha seating seated there saying “Yes, Mara, I see you. Oh, you’re Mara, but that’s not who I am.”
Oh, it’s a pleasure. Pleasure to sense you in this way, because I know it’s true for you. So then you wanted to ask a question about loving-kindness.
Tim Ferriss: I did. I was inclined to ask about loving-kindness meditation because as you and I have discussed, think quite a few years ago, so it’s been a little while. It seems to be sometimes an effective on ramp for westerners who have trouble with other forms of meditation. I don’t know if that’s a fair statement to make, but I do recall for the first time doing loving-kindness meditation myself, very short meditations. I mean really five minutes is what we’re talking about, but doing it every night before bed, when I was working on Tools of Titans, this book of mine. And it was incredible to look at the before and after effect on my default state of being, after five or six or seven days of just doing five minutes consistently of loving-kindness meditation, it was quite shocking to be honest. And for that reason, I thought I would ask if there’s any loving-kindness meditation you might recommend for people who would like to give it a shot?
Jack Kornfield: Sure, well course I’m glad you had that experience. And it is common for people. And sometimes just sit in meditation. You sit, you close your eyes, and even if you’re just trying to breathe and feel your breath and calm. The mind is racing or the emotions of worry or anxiety or other things kind of take you over. And it doesn’t feel like it’s — at the first it’s not easy. And it even doesn’t feel like it’s working. It does work but in the beginning they can feel that way. The wisdom of what you’re saying is quite right.
That to actually deliberately turn the attention toward loving-kindness meditation or something like it, the joy practice that we just started to do, and it doesn’t take long in five minutes. You just did five minutes and it changed your state.
The other practice that’s also good is a walking meditation, especially if you’re upset. Sometimes it’s actually not that good to try to sit, but we move naturally pace anyway, but this is more deliberately like Thich Nhat Hanh walking with a kind of deliberate care and attention and maybe bringing in a little loving-kindness meditation. Take each step for yourself or the people that open your heartless naturally, that you care about.
So if people go onto my website, jackkornfield.com. There are a whole series of loving-kindness meditation. If you click on meditations, primarily audio, there’s a couple with videos, but primarily audio and it helps to have a voice guiding you through it at least for the first while. And then as you did, you can take it on and find your own language and do five minutes a day or 10 minutes, and it will change your consciousness really very quickly.
And then I love doing it. I can be on the airplane flying somewhere and I’m reading my book or lost in whatever I’m doing and it feels very isolating. And then I’ll take three minutes and I’ll look up and I’ll look down the aisle. There’s an old grandmother. And I wish her well. May she be safe and happy and loving-kindness surround her with loving-kindness. And then there’s that pierced teenager over there. May he be well and surrounded with loving-kindness and then there’s that old man over there. And I just do two or three minutes of it kind of almost like offering a blessing of wishing them well. And then when we land and we get off, I could almost like wave goodbye to those folks because they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I got connected with you. You don’t know it, but we are connected.”
It changes everything and it happens. We’re walking down the street. It can happen in a moment. So some of the other things just to recommend, I have a book entitled The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, which has both stories in it and written on instructions for joy practice and loving-kindness and compassion practice. Along with those things on my website.
And I do have this, what people are finding to be a kind of amazing teacher training program for people who are interested in learning it for yourselves and passing on these practices. You mentioned that MMTCP mindfulness meditation certification program. Also, you can find on my website and it’s a two-year program. There’s ways to start to learn meditation if you haven’t. And we’ve now done it for 5,000 people in 70 countries. And I get stories like this woman, who’s in Lahore, Pakistan, who said, “After I’ve gone through this, now I’m teaching this in a girl school in Pakistan. And it’s so helpful for the girls to have the compassion and loving-kindness training and joy practices.” Or I get a note from a guy who says, “Yeah, I’m in Kenya. I work in a clinic and yes, we need attend to people medically, but they also really need medicine for the heart.” And I teach people and there’s so much gratitude. So for anybody interested, it’s a wonderful training and that’s also available.
And yeah, I feel really blessed Tim, because somehow looking for adventure like you, and as we do when we’re young, I decided to go into this Buddhist monastery and it was tough, which of course we want as young people to be initiated, to try something difficult, to see what we can learn. And as my teacher said, “Where have you learned the most when it was easier when it was difficult?”
So somehow humanity has to learn this right now. We’re in a place where the deepest sense of what the world needs of our courage, our steadiness, our being that one person on the boat that Ajahn Chah talked about to be calm and steady in the face of these storms. And it shows a way for us to reconnect and not just to survive, but actually to be able to instill a sense of graciousness or love well-being or love. And I think that one of the other little practices that I find a wonderful reflection in the morning when I meditate or get quiet is the question, what would love have me do today?
What would love have me do today? And then the heart starts to answer. And some of it’s tough that we have to attend to this and do that. But what would love have me do today? And what we’re talking about is listening and trusting our own intuition and trusting our own heart to guide us.
I have a little passage to read, which are instructions from a thousand years ago or a long time ago by this Tibetan master to meditation master teacher named Atisha. And here they are, it’s really what we’ve been talking about. And here’s how we talked about it. He said advice, Atisha’s advice. He said, “Consider all experience to be dreams. We take it all so seriously, but there’s this vastness of the galaxies and millions of people being born and dying and peace coming and war coming and joy and sorrow and gain and loss and consider it all to be dreams. Be grateful to everyone. Thank you to everyone. Even the ones that make difficulty. Don’t be swayed by outer circumstances. Don’t brood over the faults of others.” I love this one, because it’s so easy to judge the others.
“Explore the timeless nature of consciousness. Let suffering teach you compassion. At all times, rely on a joyful mind. And the last is don’t expect a standing ovation.” I like that one. It’s not a performance. It’s really living your own life, becoming the Buddha that you are. The wise one, the wise woman or the wise man, the sage, really embodying that you just found in yourself with your friend with that kind of joy that’s both able to accomplish things but able to do it in a way that plants seeds of well-being and adventure and caring.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, Jack. I want to bring up also one quote that you shared with me long ago. This is quite a few years ago. I think it was in our first conversation on the podcast. And this is, I believe a quote, you can correct me if I’m wrong, from Ryōkan Taigu, who is a quiet and unconventional Soto Zen Buddhist monk — I’m reading from Wikipedia — who lived much of his life as a hermit. Also well known for poetry and calligraphy. But the quote that you shared was, and let me just make sure I get this right. This is Ryōkan referring to himself, “Last year, a foolish monk, this year. No change.” So when you’re judging yourself harshly, maybe just also remembering that this business of being human, isn’t always easy, even for people who focus on cultivating a lot of these faculties.
Jack Kornfield: Perfect. “Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change.” Laughter in his spirit as a poet can be. Thank you, Tim. Always.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, absolutely. And I will include links for everyone in the show notes to everything we referred to. So jackkornfield.com. @JackKornfield on Twitter, and on Instagram Jack_kornfield, and for those interested in the loving-kindness meditations on your meditations section of your website, which is jackkornfield.com/meditations. I will also put some links to specific meditations on that page, in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And thank you so much for taking the time Jack. It’s always such a pleasure, such a joy and so helpful to me personally, to spend time with you.
Jack Kornfield: Well, for me too, I’ve enjoyed our connection since the very beginning so, and it’s good to see you blossoming in your own unique Tim way.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, Jack. Thank you. I appreciate that.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. Live well.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. Take care, Jack. Bye.
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Explore the timeless nature of consciousness. Let suffering teach you compassion. At all times, rely on a joyful mind. And the last is don’t expect a standing ovation.