Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Jack Kornfield (@JackKornfield). Jack trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to have introduced Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West.
Jack co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, and Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California. Current projects include The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program, which has trained 7,000 mindfulness teachers in 75 countries, and Wisdom Ventures, a fund investing in companies that promote compassion.
Jack is also co-founder of Cloud Sangha, which offers a free, quick mindfulness test to gauge your mindfulness levels. Cloud Sangha is a conscious online community that brings people together to create meaningful human connections and integrate mindfulness into everyday life.
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. This is a rare, in-person episode, and my job always is to investigate interrogate people I consider to be world-class performers. I have one in front of me. He’s a friend. He is a repeat guest, a very popular guest, Jack Kornfield. You can find him on Twitter @JackKornfield. Jack trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma. That’s an understatement, but maybe we’ll come back to that. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to have introduced Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. Jack co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein and Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California. Current projects include Cloudsangha.co, which we will talk about, which offers practice groups for all, the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification program, which has trained 7,000 — 7,000. That’s a lot — mindfulness teachers in 75 countries, and Wisdom Ventures, a fund investing in companies that promote compassion. His books, many books, have been translated into 22 languages and have sold roughly two 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 — one of the best book titles of all time — Buddha’s Little Instruction Book; The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace; and his most recent book, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are. You can find all, thanks, Jack, at jackkornfield.com. That’s K-O-R-N-F-I-E-L-D.com and we’ll link to, of course, all of his social and everything else in the show notes, tim.blog/podcast. Jack, so nice to see you.
Jack Kornfield: I’m very glad to see you, Tim, and I’m glad that our lives have now intertwined over a number of years. So it’s been a pleasure in all these different venues.
Tim Ferriss: It has been a pleasure. You have been a safety net, a mentor, a guide, a field EMT, perhaps with some of my situations over the years, and I really appreciate your —
Jack Kornfield: Well, it’s my pleasure to. We do it for each other —
Tim Ferriss: — the triage, the wisdom, the teaching, and there are a million different directions we could go. But before we started recording, we were chatting a bit, I was making my tea, asking about good departure points, perhaps the initial liftoff where we should go, and we landed on a name, and that’s Stan Grof. So perhaps you can take that and lead us wherever you may, providing context on who this is, why it matters, why it relates to your life, and so on.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah, thank you Tim. And I wanted to do this in some way because Stan Grof in the scene that I want to set for you who are listening opens the doorway to a huge number of really interesting questions about who we are, about humanity, about healing, about interconnection, about all kinds of things. So here’s the scene. Stan Grof or Stanislav Grof, as he is sometimes called, Czech-born physician and psychiatrist, who was the last legitimate LSD researcher in the 1970s. He’d done LSD research in Europe, got samples from Sandoz and took some himself. And it completely changed his life from being a kind of academic physician to say, “Whoa, there’s something a lot bigger going on here.” And he ended up at Johns Hopkins when he escaped from the communist regime running the last LSD research for people who had cancer and were in hospice, were dying for vets, returning for clergy so that they might actually have a little experience of the divine that was off the pages of their texts and so forth.
And then he moved after that to be at Esalen for a long time. We collaborated there together for about 20 years over the course of our time to get to the story. And he’s a polymath, speaks 12 or 15 languages, and reads Sanskrit and is completely well versed in the European education of the great music of the world and all kinds of things like that. So when it became less possible to work with psychedelics except a bit underground, he developed, with his wife Christina, holotropic breathwork, which allows people to go to some of those very profound open states using breath. And it mirrored things that I’d learned in monastery in Burma where we’d done incredibly intense deep breathing for some hours and open to all kinds of states.
We worked together, retreats all around the world, and we’d be in a room with 200 or 300 people, huge speakers, I think The Grateful Dead or something like that. Half of the people, 150 lying on their backs on a nice mat and then a sitter next to them. And then the music would start with the instructions, very simple instructions, breathe as deep and fast and hard as you can and keep it going for the next hour or two until for liftoff, till you go wherever you go. So people would be breathing away and there would be this incredible music. It might be drumming from the African musicians in the Congo drum jungle or all kinds of world music. And as you looked out over the room, once the breathing had kicked in after half an hour or an hour, it was walking into Dante’s Divine Comedy, which has, it has Heaven and Purgatory and Hell and so forth.
So there would be people in bliss laughing, smiling, their arms spread like they were angels having the most ecstatic experiences. There would be people in the middle who were working stuff out with their bodies, things that were tight that would want to open and every kind of possible sound would come. There were a lot of people in a birth experience because like psychedelics of different kinds, one of the doorways you go through is in your regression is to relive your birth. And so there would be people pushing and being squeezed and going through a process that was both physical, but more than that, it mirrored what their birth was like. And then there would be people reliving incredible traumas of different kinds, birth traumas, childhood traumas and so forth. And they were encouraged to go through it and let it all out. So there would be laughter, there would be the sounds of ecstasy and there’d be people crying and screaming and you’d all at the same time with this pounding music.
And you’d go like, “What is this?” The result of it kind of cut to the chase once the music quieted down and people are invited to make some art and then talk about it is that, and Stan’s work is this, if you trust the body and psyche and heart and mind to open and you give it the opportunity in the medicine and someone’s with you, so you’re not alone, it wants to open and whatever’s unfinished wants to come out or whatever needs to be expressed. And if there isn’t something that’s waiting there, then it becomes the doorway to the realms of profound both awakening, freedom, understanding, beautiful things.
And one of the great sayings that Stan offered is we all began this collective journey was from our friend Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist who said, “If you’re to do this inner work, you either need a very big story like the vastness of the universe that has what we could see in front of us, Heavens and Hells, and the hungry ghosts and the jealous gods and everybody all enacting it. Either you need a very big story or, even better, no story at all.” And this scene was really the scene of the gateway to the human heart and the human psyche. This is who we are, what we carry, and then we shrink down a bit as we need to in our roles to be a parent or an artist or a businessperson and so forth. But they’re really kind of a contraction of this enormous spirit that we were born with and that we carry. So how’s that for an opening scene?
Tim Ferriss: Divine Comedy of expansive states. I think it’s a great place to start and I’ll add just a few things to that and then I will have numerous questions that come to mind. So the first is for people who may wonder about the scope of Stan’s experience. He’s probably in some way directly or indirectly supervised at least 1,500 sessions. I remember when I spoke with him quite a number of years ago.
Jack Kornfield: LSD sessions?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. Thousands of them. Thousands.
Tim Ferriss: So the breadth of experience that he has in witnessing in a clinical setting, how these things affect consciousness and also outcomes is vast. It’s really vast. The second is holotropic breathwork for people who need just a bit more in the visual in terms of conjuring and image of what you just described, the pounding music really can be pounding music. Yeah, it’s really can be very, very loud. And I’ve had some really bizarre experiences going through holotropic breathwork, which I don’t do that often, and I may be doing something incorrectly, but I tend to have, speaking of pounding, a pounding headache the day after from the breathwork. However, I’ve had some really unusual experiences that I didn’t go in trying to confirm. So I didn’t go in with the expectancy of these experiences, but later I was told that it was sometimes referred to as yogic sleep.
Maybe you have some thoughts related to this, but the experience of breathing as hard as I can, I take these directions very literally. So I’m really going for the gold medal of heavy breathing, sweating profusely, and having the experience of subjectively a gap in time where I haven’t fallen asleep in the physiological sense that most people would conjure. But I’ve gone blank and then I come to, and I’m still breathing as intensely as I was, but I had these gaps that would pop up repeatedly. Do you make anything of that?
Jack Kornfield: There’s a beautiful old yogic text that details eight kinds of yogic swoons.
Tim Ferriss: Swoons.
Jack Kornfield: Swoons. Not a word we use very often, but basically it’s description of what it’s like to leave our ordinary consciousness and either go to a place where, no, where it’s the void, where there’s nothing or the sense of profound emptiness, but there’s still some awareness, there’s a variety of them and some of them have a huge impact on us when we experience it. It’s as if, oh, the whole world that we’ve constructed is a little bit like a dream and we’d step out of that dream of our identity and here we are and coming back into this dream. And it puts in an incredible perspective,
Tim Ferriss: Raises a lot of questions also, whether it’s in my experience that I described, certainly you can have some interesting responses with say, tetany, and it’s like the lobster claws from the breathing, when the hands get pulled in and you start puckering at the mouth just physiologically due to various changes in the blood. And I should note for folks, I have quite a few friends who have trained or done weekend courses in holotropic breathwork. It is not standard that people have headaches afterwards. I haven’t experienced that for whatever reason, I just drew the joker card on that.
But I have found it very helpful. I’ve also experienced with breathworkers in Baltimore, specifically the approach of sort of holotropic minus 40 percent intensity. You can still seemingly reach some very, let’s call them alternative experiences of consciousness. But if we put that type of practice aside, even my experiences in some cases with, say, surgeries in anesthesia where I’m given a push of Versed before I go under, and the last thing I remember is them asking me to switch from say a gurney to a table. But they afterwards tell me that I was conversing freely, following directions, cracking jokes for 20 minutes afterwards, which I have no recollection of.
Jack Kornfield: Who was that?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, who was that exactly? Who was that? If the primary observer that I have sort of constructed as this identity of the self was not that, who was that? So if you look back at your life, you’ve had some very unusual experiences from the vantage point of let’s just say most westerners who are raised in the secular society without mindfulness practice, you’ve spent a lot of time in silence. You’ve had the experience of metabolizing your anger wrapped in all sorts of clothing. And we’ve explored these in previous conversations, so we probably won’t get into all the weeds, but how do you think of, this is a big question, but consciousness as it stands right now, or is that a bad question?
Jack Kornfield: It’s a totally, it’s a central, really important question. And kind of connecting it with, starting with that scene of seeing Dante’s realms all laid out and the people in ecstasy and those in agony and everybody in between. One more thing to say about it because some people say, “Well, that’s too fast. If you’ve got a trauma and it’s not right.” Of course nothing’s right for everyone. But there are two ways to go with this. One, which was Stan’s way, is just as you said: go for the gold, just keep going. And the people he trained to sit with you, if something was opening up and it took a long time, they would take all night and sit there with you as you breathed, breathed or screamed or wept, or just lay there quietly until you felt you had been able to experience it all and come back to a place of presence.
Now, some other people say, “Oh, you have to resource the trauma away. You have to get more quiet and strengthen yourself before you even approach your trauma. And that’s better for you.” Neither of these are the right way. But I’m glad there is this spectrum. For me, entering that room or doing that work throws me into the place of being the conscious witness of it all. And my deepest experiences, whether it’s through long meditation, I spent more than a year in silence doing this little hut doing intensive meditation, 18, 20 hours a day, or whether it’s psychedelic experiences, which were equally profound or other things. Who we are is consciousness. And there’s a couple of levels. There’s a lot of levels to it. One, I can say we’re not your body. Clearly your physical body changes all the time. So it’s not who you are.
You rent it, you get to use it. You’re not your emotions. They’re always changing like the tide. You’re definitely not your thoughts, at least I hope not in most cases. Certainly for me and people I know who you are is you could say is the consciousness that was born into your body and that will leave it. And we could talk about death and how consciousness leaves, but there’s a deeper level than that to know that not only are you that as consciousness, but more profoundly it’s all consciousness that at the deepest level, what I’ve experienced is that there is, whether you call it primordial consciousness or a field of consciousness, that the creative principle that creates all things and we’re a piece of that or a part of that. And there are all kinds of beautiful myths that talk about how consciousness wants to explore all the possibilities it can be or it is the creative of the universe.
There’s the void, and then out of the void comes creativity in all these myriad forms. When you experience this, and it’s not a philosophy, you understand that this is a play, the Hindus call it the Lila, the play of the divine, or something like that. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have to take care of your part.
Tim Ferriss: The play as in theater.
Jack Kornfield: The play is in theater, the play as in theater, the play of the divine. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to play your part as Ram Dass would say, “Remember your true nature and your social security number.” You have to remember both. And that’s part of the very interesting paradox of waking up because knowing, not cause knowing that what you are is consciousness itself, that you are awareness, you’re not all those other things. You are the awareness that’s experiencing these things when you know that it gives you a kind of freedom, a sense of well-being and freedom within which you can go through all the things you do as a human being.
But some part of it behind that is smiling and going, “Wow.” I hope I say this when I die. “Wow, what a ride,” that it’s been quite — and some of it is painful and tragic, but with that perspective, there’s a place of wisdom. I’m going to read you something, it’s just a not very long —
Tim Ferriss: Please.
Jack Kornfield: A few lines —
Tim Ferriss: We’ve all the —
Jack Kornfield: From The Tao Te Ching.
Tim Ferriss: All the time in the world.
Jack Kornfield: “If you don’t realize the source [of consciousness],
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.”
And so that it’s a kind of 3,000-year-old or 2,000-year-old description of the consciousness where you’re both disinterested and amused and at the same kindhearted and attentive. And it’s the wedding of that universal dimension with this mystery of actually being a human being. And from that, then, which is what you’ve done, then you can enter, or you go to Japan or you going to say, all right, let’s play this game. Let’s do martial arts, let’s do business. But you do it with less fear and attachment and much more with the delight of the game.
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think that you’re to come back to the play term, sort of you’re aware of the movies that you are watching or the games that you’re choosing to play, but you have that outside witness perspective so that you don’t necessarily identify or grip to strongly onto those things.
Jack Kornfield: Exactly. And that includes your own personality. And again, I like, just because I’m thinking of him in this regard, referred to Ram Dass, he talked about his personalities being like his pet, and he would see his neurosis and he said, “You think that getting wiser and more enlightened, that all would go away?” He said, “It doesn’t, I stopped it. It’s my pet. I feed it, I say, ‘Thank you,’ but I know it’s not who I am.” And from that place, even the kind of great suffering that many of us have in our lives, the people that we love who’ve died, and we can hold it with great tenderness, but it’s not a surprise. It’s like, “Oh, this too. This is part of what it is to be human,” and someone dies and then from that perspective, it was their time.
Tim Ferriss: Quick question for you related to the Joseph Campbell quote that you mentioned earlier. I’d love for you just to elaborate on that a little bit. Maybe what it means to you that you either need a really big story, one of maybe a cosmo vision or a mythology or no or better still no story at all.
Jack Kornfield: No story at all.
Tim Ferriss: What does that mean to you?
Jack Kornfield: So I have a friend, Roger Walsh, MD-PhD, who’s on the faculty of Stanford Medical School, written a lot of books as both a mystic and psychiatrist and other things and being somewhat scholarly he decided to read through the entire encyclopedia of world religions from Ahura Mazdā all the way to Zoroaster and everything in between.
Tim Ferriss: Underachiever.
Jack Kornfield: Exactly. So I said to him afterwards, I said, “Roger, you read the whole damn thing. What did you get out of it?”
And he said, “What I saw is that every religion has a story of the origin of the world. That is a story of some kind about how to navigate gain and loss, praise and blame, good and bad.” He said, “Usually has a story about death and afterlife. They’re all very different stories. They’re quite compelling. They’re all different stories. And when I was finished, I realized human beings need to tell a story and place it on top of the mystery. Because without the stories, then we would be in the present with the mystery of being alive with the universe. But for most of us, we want a story. And so these are the big stories that humanity has written.”
Tim Ferriss: What is the alternative of no story? Because when I think of no story, that actually strikes terror into my heart because I imagine this free floating nihilism or meaninglessness, and I understand experientially in some of these, what would I call them, alternate modes of experience through psychedelics and so on, that you can have the experience of no story, no time, no name, no self. I understand that. Or I shouldn’t say I understand that. I’ve experienced it. I definitely can’t claim to understand it. But what does the alternative mean to you?
Jack Kornfield: Well, this is really important because it’s as if you’re talking to some Zen monk somewhere and they talk about emptiness and you go, “Oh, shit, emptiness. How do I deal with that? How do I buy a new car? Or how do I take care of my family?” Or things like that. So it’s a really important question. And there a couple of, we talk about a number of levels. One level is the more opinions you have about the way things are, the more trouble you have. And one of my favorite passages, the Buddhist texts aren’t really full of a lot of jokes and humor, but there’s one place where the Buddhist says, “And those who clinging to their opinions go around the world annoying one another.” And that’s an observation that holds true thousands of years later.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, sounds like Twitter.
Jack Kornfield: So we know that the more we’re attached to our view — because whatever you’re thinking or whatever you view — there is an alternative. It’s not the only view. So on this level, what my Korean Zen master Seungsahn said is to keep a don’t-know mind, or Suzuki Roshi calls it beginner’s mind, where you meet somebody fresh where you go into circumstance first. So that’s part of not having a story, but it’s a much more positive cast on it. Then the second is that without having that story, then it’s replaced in somehow by a sense of, I don’t have quite words, wonder, value, meaning, a sense both of the vastness of things, and also the delight in being incarnated as a human being.
And so with that, like The Tao Te Ching says, “You remember the source,” which is you are consciousness. That’s who you are. And you get to witness this. You are the awareness, the loving awareness. Then your story might be all right, I am the loving awareness, as you are, as everyone who’s listening, you are a loving awareness and you get to then embody and enact in this world. And then you get to choose how. And it turns out in our direct experience that there are ways we can act that bring understanding, connection, joy, happiness, well-being, and ways we can act that create suffering. In the Buddhist teachings that Buddhist said, “I do not answer philosophical questions.” People would have always go, “What’s the first beginning? What is all the meaning of Karma? How all of this, what’s the story?” And he would say, “I just teach how human beings can release themselves from suffering and fear and confusion and live with the innate freedom that is their birthright. That’s what I teach.”
And that is a story if you will, it’s my favorite story, I think in this life, because there is suffering and difficulty in incarnation, there are causes that human beings can understand. And there’s freedom. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island Prison after 27 years, that’s a long time. That was half his life in that prison with such magnanimity and graciousness and compassion, he not only changed to South Africa, but he somehow changed the imagination of the world. That they can put your body, they can put your body in prison, but no one can imprison your spirit or your consciousness. And when you know this deeply, then there comes a different innate kind of story, which is one more deeply of connectedness and care.
Tim Ferriss: Stan Grof, to return to our dear friend Stanislav, has written a lot of books. You mentioned he’s a polymath. He truly is, and he’s prolific also in his writing. There is one book, it may be two volumes, I can’t recall offhand, called The Cosmic Game.
Jack Kornfield: One Volume, The Cosmic Game.
Tim Ferriss: One volume. All right. Why does this book of all of his books grab your attention? Or why is it meaningful?
Jack Kornfield: It does, I’m glad you named it, because he explores the very questions you’re asking. Not only who are you, but he also shows, suppose we were to have a world that didn’t have loss, didn’t have conflict, didn’t have disease, didn’t have the kind of troubles that we live, what would that world be like? And he explores, and you kind of follow along with his exploration, how it is that the world that we live in somehow has been manufactured in some way? What there is to learn from it. What’s beautiful about it is that he says, I think in the beginning, that he took the records from 5,000 LSD sessions and from the the deepest understandings and the height. A lot of the people who did those sessions were also people who were already meditators or yogis or martial arts masters in some way and shaman people who had already a very deep spiritual perspective. He collated them and he said, “Here’s what we, as human beings, when the gates between the worlds open, this is how it looks.” Which is really compelling because he’s so clear that he doesn’t want to say, “This is how it is or how I think it is.” He said, “This is what 5,000 people report from the height or the deepest of their experiences.” You go, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that. I know that that’s true.”
Tim Ferriss: All right. I need to dig back in and get into The Cosmic Game, so I’ll get that on my Kindle for my upcoming travels.
Let’s talk about something perhaps that many people listening will identify with or at least recognize in their daily experience, and that is anxiety. Maybe we could just define terms and look at anxiety as fear of the future. You could also define it differently, could be pre-experiencing the worst case scenario. I really don’t know how you would like to define it, but if you wouldn’t mind digging into that and share any approaches that you think are helpful practices, thought exercises for people who are suffering from anxiety, that would be very helpful.
Jack Kornfield: I was going to say that word before you said it, so we’re somehow riding some current, we’ll see where it takes us and if we’re still in the same boat as we go through the [inaudible 00:32:10].
Tim Ferriss: I’m learning how to paddle, we’ll see.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. Anxiety’s a big, but also a really important question. The first thing to note is that we’re living in a time of tremendous cultural anxiety. Even in places where there was warfare or starvation or things when there were very small groups of people, there was still a basic I know who my family is, I know where the land is, we’ll have the food or we won’t. In certain ways there’s a kind of upheaval now of identity, where we live, who we are, and so forth, that’s accelerating, and it’s been accelerated, of course, for all kinds of things and we’ll get to it. It’s certainly being accelerated by technology and we’re on the cusp, on the rollercoaster ride. The click, click, click, click, click as you’re going up to the top to start your ride, and the little sign that you got your ticket for said, “AI, go on this ride, so we’ll get to that.”
Anyway, so there’s the anxiety, there’s the economy anxiety, there’s the collective anxiety about climate. There’s racial and economic injustice that’s really in our forefront. Then there’s the human anxiety of our own family and people going through things of loneliness and economic insecurity. First thing to say, there’s a whole bunch of things that might be helpful.
The image that I’d like to start with is an archetypal one of the Buddha seated under the Tree of Enlightenment. The night of his enlightenment before he was enlightened, the Indian god named Mara, who was the god of greed, fear, hatred, aggression, all of the kind of forces of suffering appeared and said, “What are you trying to do?” to the Buddha and this is the way it appeared. He said, “You have no idea what you’re dealing with.” He said, “Let me show you this enlightenment stuff.” He paraded before him all the most beautiful dancing dakinis and gilded chariots, the Lamborghinis of the time. The Buddha said, “Been there, done that, thank you, okay.” Then he said, “Well, you have no right to be there.” He started throwing flaming arrows and swords, and the Buddha lifted his hand and touched them all with compassion, and they turned to flower petals.
Tim Ferriss: Cool.
Jack Kornfield: Then Mara said, “You don’t even know who you are. You don’t know what you’re doing. There’s no reason for you to be sitting here.” Then Mara came basically, in the form of doubt, doubting. At that point, the Buddha put his hand down and touched the Earth and said, “Will you bear witness to my right as a human being here halfway between Heaven and Earth to awaken to the way things are?”
Tim Ferriss: Can you say that one more time? Heaven and Earth or Heaven and Hell.
Jack Kornfield: Between Heaven and Earth. We didn’t get to Hell yet. If you want to go there, we can go there later.
Tim Ferriss: No, no.
Jack Kornfield: Halfway between Heaven and Earth in this human form, “Be my witness that we human beings have the right to see clearly not with delusion, not with doubt.” Then Mara appeared again, and the Buddha just looked at Mara and said, “I see you, Mara. I see who you are.” The minute he said that clearly, Mara dissolved. Now, what people don’t know in the Buddhist text is that after his enlightenment, Mara came back to visit the Buddha quite a few times. You think there’s enlightened retirement, but Mara’s part of the game, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s a really beautiful image about this where he sets the scene of the Buddha sitting in a cave. Again, the Buddha really is a stand-in for your awakened self, sitting in a cave, mouth of a cave meditating and his attendant is there, and Mara appears, and his attendant tries to chase Mara away, and the Buddha says, “Ananda, is that my old friend, Mara? Set out some tea. Let us sit down.” He says, “Is that you, Mara?” Usually all that it takes is for the Buddhist say, “Is that you, Mara?” or, “I see you, Mara.” Mara looks and kind of sadly slinks away, if you will.
The first thing about anxiety is to acknowledge that it’s entirely human, that there are cultural reasons for it, and that there are physiological reasons. That we have fear and we have fear of loss and all of those things. To be able to name it and say, “Oh, this is anxiety. It feels this way in my body.” Your hands sweat. Your breath stops, your heart. It’s hard to feel. It’s unpleasant in the body. Then it has its thoughts. We’ll get to those in a minute. What you can do in naming Mara, you can say, “Oh, anxiety, I see you. I feel you.”
That’s the first thing, and already you start to step halfway back from it as the witness. That already begins to liberate you a little bit. Then the next thing is you can also say, “Thank you for trying to protect me.” Because if you fight against the anxiety, what that is more anxiety. Oh, my God, I’ve got to get rid of it. I hate it. But instead, it’s almost like you take a little bow, “Okay, Mara, I see you. Thank you for trying to protect me.” Because that’s what it’s trying to do. You remember that statement from Mark Twain where he said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” These are the stories, sort of the advanced stories. Say, “Thank you, Mara, I see you. Thanks for trying to protect me.”
Then the next thing is to know that there’s something called the wisdom of insecurity, that it’s actually okay to be insecure. My monastic teachers would say, “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” We could ask him all kinds of things, “Tell me about enlightenment.” My teacher would laugh, he’d say, “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” He wanted us just to get comfortable with uncertainty. Then what happens is when you realize that you can’t know then you come back into the present moment. Then the next thing to do with anxiety is ground your senses. Feel your feet on the floor or maybe go out in nature, stand there with a tree. Feel the roots of the tree and imagine your own feet as roots into the Earth. Notice the wind comes and the storms and all those things happen but the tree is rooted and it can stay there, and you can be the same. You can let the storms of thoughts and fears and so forth arise. That’s another practice you can do.
Then you can question your thoughts. This is more beautifully spelled out by Byron Katie, for example, who has these practices of questioning your thought says, “What if that thought isn’t true? How can you know that thought is true?” If you look deeply, you can’t know it. You get to a place of realizing that your thoughts are tentative, they’re creation. You say, Thank you, thank you for trying to protect me.” Again, you become the witness of those thoughts.
Then a few more very simple things that you can do. You can find where you feel the anxiety most strongly in your body. Once you feel it, you can feel into its elements. Is it hot or cold? Is it hard or soft? Is it vibrating the earth, air, fire? You really get close into it. You can ask it what stories it tells because it’ll have a story. Then you say, again, not only thank you, thank you for trying to protect me, but you wrap it with kindness, with loving awareness and say, “Thank you. I know you’re worried. I can respect you and hold you with kindness and compassion, and you know that that’s not who you are.” This is a part, it’s something, it’s common for human beings. You say, “I respect this, and who I am is honoring you and so much bigger than who you are.” You feel yourself literally being both the witness, the grounded one, “I know you. I see you Mara,” and you become more the Buddha rather than one who’s caught by all these things.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say a bit more about asking, for instance, in this case, the anxiety, what stories it tells? Maybe give an example whether from your personal experience, someone else’s, or just a hypothetical what that might look like. That’s the first time I’ve heard that and that piques my curiosity.
Jack Kornfield: It’s a beautiful question, because one of the things that I’ve learned all over these years is that you can have the Sufis call it a sohbet, a conversation with the heart. If you let yourself get quiet, it might be after a little walk in the woods or just sitting quietly taking a cup of tea or something that you like to drink and letting yourself quiet down or meditating if you want to. When you get quiet, you can have an inner conversation and there’s information that’s waiting there for you to ask.
For example, we’ll take, since we’re talking about anxiety and you want to have a conversation with it, you can say to the anxiety, “Where do I feel you most strongly in my body?” Okay, that’s a pretty simple one. Then you can ask the anxiety, “What is the thing you’re most afraid of?” Usually it will be something like loss, death, something huge. Okay. Okay, thank you. Get quiet and say, “Tell me the story you have about it.” Then your anxiety will answer and it will say, “Well, if you lose your job, which we’re afraid you will, you’ll be out on the street, you’ll be homeless, people will beat up on you. Then you’ll be in the hospital or you’ll become…” whatever. There’s a whole disaster scenario. You can say, “Yes, thank you. I hear your story.” Then there’s another interesting question. All these are things you can ask, and if you’re willing to ask and get quiet and listen, usually your body and your heart will answer.
Then there’s another really important question or two that you can ask, “What is the most important thing I need to learn from you?” It will give you an answer. I want you to pay attention, or I want you to take care of your financial affairs so I don’t have to worry so much. I want you to make sure you have friends who know where you are, whatever it happens to be, or some bigger story. Then you can step out of the anxiety, and this is a really beautiful one, and get quiet and ask, “What is my best intention of how I want to live this next month or this next year if I only had a year to live what style? How do I want to live this?” Because anxiety also has time in it. You’re stepping out of time and saying, “All right, so my time’s limited. How do I want to live? What is my deepest intention?” If you pause and ask, your heart will answer.
Tim Ferriss: This may tie into my next question, it might not, but you mentioned this MD-PhD earlier, and you said as you told the story of his digesting this gigantic encyclopedia, you said endo mystic, and then you moved on to say what you said.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Since you mentioned Sufism, that also brought the word mystic or mysticism to mind for me. What does that mean to you, someone being a mystic?
Jack Kornfield: I’m afraid that it’s gotten relegated to the realm of religion. The Sufis have their mystics and there were the Christian desert father mystics or the Zen mystics or something. That’s true. These are people who are really interested in some way in vast spiritual experiences and understanding, but it puts it outside of ourself. We all in that sense are open to mystery when we quiet. I mean, nobody, how the hell did you get into this body? You know? You take a look in the damn mirror. These weird round things that we call eyes and protuberances from your head that stick out. Mine stick out pretty far, my ears, got made fun of as a kid. You open your mouth and the tongue comes out and there’s this hole in your body into which you keep stuffing dead plants and animals and grinding them up with these bones that hang down and glugging them down through the tube. You move, it’s weird watching how people, you fall one direction bipeds and then you catch yourself and you fall the next [inaudible 00:46:04]. How did you get in there?
If you don’t think that’s weird, pay attention when you’re making love. It’s a fabulous thing to do. I completely love it. It’s bizarre. It is. Okay, whatever way you do it licking, putting this in that part of that body or that and so forth and a little whatever. I mean, it’s weird. How did you get in here? We don’t have to go to the Sufi mystics or the whatever. It’s really more mystery.
Tim Ferriss: Is the mystical in this sense, and this is my placeholder way of thinking about it, the direct experience of the mystery or seeking the direct unmediated experience of that mystery? Is that one way to think about it?
Jack Kornfield: Yeah, that’s a nice way to say it. I might want to change the word seeking to opening to it. Just to be really direct with you who are listening you know what I’m talking about. You have had experiences, whether it’s walking in the high mountains or taking psychedelics and meditating if that’s your want or your avenue. You’ve had it listening to an amazing piece of music or going into an incredible cathedral or a forest of the sequoias and redwoods of wonder, or you know it from making love, even more from being there at the birth of a child. Whoa, here’s a whole new human being.
My beloved wife, Trudy Goodman, who’s also a meditation teacher in L.A., InsightLA is her center. She was 21 years old. She was giving birth to her daughter. By circumstance, she was in a hospital room alone. It was like in the ’60s, and it was the old-style birth basically. They left her alone and she had no idea. Her body just started contracting and going through these things, incredibly painful. She didn’t understand it in a deep way at all. No one had sort of explained how it happened, she said.
Then all of a sudden it was late afternoon. It was in what the French called the blue hour of kind of transition between day and night. She said, “All of a sudden wasn’t my body. My body was doing its thing delivering this child, but I became all mothers. I could feel that I was in a chain of being that went back to a million lives before one mother after another, birthing people out of their body and would continue. There was this incredible sense of being part of this huge mystery of life recreating itself.” She said, “Afterward I was walking down the street and I look at all these people, I say, ‘They all came out of a woman’s vagina. How could that be?'” You want to look at mystery? It’s staring us in the face.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Jack Kornfield: We are that.
Tim Ferriss: Don’t have to be a whirling dervish.
Jack Kornfield: You don’t have to be whirling dervishes. There are all kinds of ways. We all know this from somewhere, and even more so sitting with someone when they die, because there you are, especially if it’s a reasonably conscious or peaceful death; that person is there and you might be able to talk to them, or there’s some sense of them being conscious. Then as quietly as a falling star, consciousness leaves the body and it’s meat. It’s just dead. It’s like at the butcher. I’m being really graphic, but that’s all that is is just cold flesh. It’s so clear that it’s not that person. You go, “Whoa, the gates between the worlds have opened. Who are we?” You want that baby? It’s around you. It’s here.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Okay. I think we’re at an intersection where I’m going to bring up something just opportunistically because it’s on my mind. This has somehow popped up on my radar I want to say at least twice. I don’t know what it is. I literally have a Wikipedia page open. Why go on Wikipedia when I have you right here?
Jack Kornfield: You could use a chatbot and it would answer. Anyway, go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I could use a chatbot.
Jack Kornfield: The human chatbot will speak. Go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Why use AI when you can use organic intelligence or whatever?
Jack Kornfield: JKI.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. You got it. Jhāna practice. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
Jack Kornfield: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: What is jhāna practice?
Jack Kornfield: Okay, so jhāna practice, now you’re getting down in the technical weeds of certain kinds of Buddhist practices. I’m happy to answer.
Tim Ferriss: This got sent to me out of left field.
Jack Kornfield: I know. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jack Kornfield: One of the things that’s true about the dimensions of deep meditation practice is that we human beings have a capacity to concentrate our attention.
In meditation practices, there are two major dimensions. One is the dimension of awareness. It can be mindfulness or devotion or something where you open to the mystery of things, unfolding thoughts, appearing emotions, or you create certain emotions of love, compassion, joy, all of those things. The other is the dimension of concentration where you focus deeply on one thing. Generally it can be a candle flame or a mantra or a particular emotion like love or your breath. There’s a beautiful biblical phrase where it says, “If thine eye be single, then the gates of Heaven are open,” or something like that.
When you start to get very concentrated, several things happen. Your thoughts start to disappear. To be concentrated means you’re focused on an experience like the breath or a light and the thoughts quiet down and gradually they go away. Not easy to do for most people, but it’s possible. Then, as you get more concentrated on the breath or a mantra or whatever you’ve chosen and you do it over and over again, it becomes a doorway.
The next thing that happens is that inner forms of light will appear. There you’re sensing your breath. We use that as an example, but it could be other things. As you do, the thoughts start to get quiet. Then the sense as you feel your breath is not only is there breath, but around your nostrils or your throat or wherever you’re paying attention, your body and the field starts to fill with light because consciousness is made of light. Light will appear. Then with it comes quite spontaneously qualities of deep joy and happiness and incredible steadiness and inner peacefulness.
When these qualities start to arise, they are the gateway to a whole series of what are called jhāna or samādhi states, the deepest ones. You no longer see or hear what’s happening around you. You’re so absorbed in the light or the bliss or the sense of peacefulness and well-being that everything else disappears. You are in a realm that’s just filled with light and stillness and peace. You can move around from one realm to another, several different flavors of them. The closest thing I can describe to it is if you are a diver and you’re out on the water and there’s waves and the sun shining and things, and then you go under the surface of the water and everything becomes silent, there’s waves on the surface, they have nothing to do with you. Instead you’re in this vast, timeless, silent realm.
The purpose of training to go into these kind of states is twofold. One is it gives you some skill in navigating in your consciousness and mind so you don’t have to live, if there’s a lot of whatever it is, anxiety or conflict or things around you, you can actually stabilize yourself and become quite stable. It gives a kind of faith the mind actually can be trained. The mind can be —
The other is that from that stillness, then you can see or listen more deeply to concentrate as a little bit like polishing the lens of consciousness so that whether it’s a microscope or a telescope, when you’re very concentrated at the beginning, you notice there are thoughts, then you notice the thoughts at the end, then you’re more concentrated. You notice at the beginning of the thought, “Oh, it’s about to arise.” Then you notice the impulse for thoughts to come. It’s like a little burp that’s coming out of the brain. Then you see the space around thoughts where they’re born before they’re even there. Then you look into the body and at first you see hot or cold. Then it pixelates with deeper concentration and you see all the elements that make it up. This is like the microscope or you point it outward and consciousness becomes vast like the sky, and there’s no bounds to it. It’s timeless. These kind of states of consciousness give you access to the telescope and the microscope and the information that comes through that doorway. How’s that?
Tim Ferriss: That was great. You had me at pixelate. Another question about this, and I suspect we’ve talked about this before.
Jack Kornfield: Nobody ever asked me this on the air before, so this is fun. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jack Kornfield: Keep going.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Let’s go.
Jack Kornfield: Keep going.
Tim Ferriss: I hear your description and it grabs my attention and interest. I would love to experience these states. I consider myself good at being a diligent practicer. I’ve trained in sports. I’ve done many things consistently over extended periods of time. My felt experience of meditation is that it’s done regularly on a daily basis in small doses. I experience an improved quality of life, decreased reactivity, but I doubt my own ability to reliably achieve the type of states that you are describing, which has been part of the reason. Now I’m not married to that belief, but I think part of the appeal for a lot of people with, say, psychedelics is, in most cases with sufficient dosing, you’re probably going to feel something.
Jack Kornfield: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: That is not to say that should be the sole tool or that people should be a hammer looking for nails with psychedelics because there are risks and trade-offs and so on. That is just a very long-winded way of asking to get to a point where you would feel reasonably confident that someone could achieve these types of states, are we talking about five years, 10 years, 15 years? In some instances, like 10 people pursue this, they do it for 10 years, and then only three of them experience these states. I fear the possibility that I would dedicate to a long-term practice and then for whatever reason, just not have the capability.
Jack Kornfield: Now this is a really important question. It’s really it. It’s more than about jhāna.
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Jack Kornfield: In a way, even though I’m happy to talk about it because it’s fun to talk about, I’m also a little bit reluctant because it can mislead people or feed into a kind of spiritual, not spiritual materialism, but idealism of some kind. Okay, I’ve heard about these states or you go and you read this end stories, and then they worked on their [inaudible 00:59:42] and finally, whack, the master hits them and then they have this great revelation or other things like that. Jhāna is completely unnecessary for wisdom. It’s the kind of thing that yogis and people who devote themselves to meditation, some of them can do, some can’t, and some of them can.
Oh, we have an electronic —
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s see where we are. You know what, one thing, Jack, if you wouldn’t mind holding a little higher up on the microphone, just because I think it’s moving the connection a little bit. Where is that sound coming from? Can you tell where it’s coming from?
Jack Kornfield: I cannot. It came from behind you, I thought, but I can’t tell.
Tim Ferriss: Let me go unplug this device. This is amazing. This is the first time this has happened since I’ve been here. One sec.
Jack Kornfield: We’ll get back to it. “Oh, no,” said [inaudible 01:00:35]. “Don’t unplug me.”
Tim Ferriss: “Don’t unplug me. I didn’t mean it.”
Jack Kornfield: Okay. Okay. All right, we’ll see if she comes back again. All right —
It depends, there’s sort of light levels and then very deep levels of this. If you want to do a light-level jhāna, there are several ingredients. One is you probably have to have a certain temperament or inclination to be able to do it, and that’s probably a third of people, not everybody can do it, and then you need to go on retreat. If you want deep jhāna, you need to go on long retreats. If you want what to —
Tim Ferriss: What is long? Just because I know your reference point be different than most.
Jack Kornfield: Oh, yeah, a month or two months or three months, long practice. If you want to have some kind of initial experience, a good friend of mine, a colleague named Leigh Brasingtonh leads 10-day retreats and you can have an experience. And it’s fun to play with. It’s completely unnecessary. Now I want to talk about enlightenment because the point of all this is, if you divide it, there are experiences and then there’s understanding or being, and the experiences that we have, you mentioned psychedelic experience, which I deeply respect, whether it’s jhāna experience or deep insight and meditations of different kinds that we do or other spiritual experiences.
You can be the dervish, as you mentioned, whirling. And it’s such a beautiful thing to see and to do and the world starts to dissolve. Most of these practices dissolve the separate sense of self. And you’re there. As Alice Walker wrote of one character, “One day I was sitting there like a motherless child, which I was. And it come to me, that feeling of being a part of everything. And I knew if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed and I laugh and I cry. I run all around the house. In fact, when it happens you can’t miss it.”
Jack Kornfield: So there are many doorways that open us beyond the separate sense of self, which that sense of small self, it’s sometimes called the body of fear that limited self dissolves. Hallelujah. They’re great. I’ve played with jhāna, I’ve taken psychedelics, I’ve done shamanic things, all these — I’ve had a bunch of experiences and part of it gives me a kind of confidence, “Okay, I know this territory.” Part of it is deeper than that in the most profound places. As we talked about. I know that who I am is not this body. I know that who I am is consciousness. Then the game is not about the experiences, it’s about who you are, who I am as we manifest in the world. And the way that I most express enlightenment at this point is not somebody who’s had a lot of these experiences.
In all these years, my understanding really is that it comes down to love. I’ve met [inaudible 01:05:26]. And lamas, and gurus, and lamas and everybody else in between in my industry. And some of them are fabulous. But there’s a really interesting thing that you can have these powerful experiences and still be a little bit of a jerk. Just getting real about it because —
Tim Ferriss: There’s a lot we have going around.
Jack Kornfield: Our consciousness is like a mandala and we can awaken some dimensions of it. So you have an Olympic-level athlete who’s an emotional idiot. You have a professor of nuclear physics, most brilliant, and she can’t find her shoes or her body. We can develop ourselves in some areas, but it turns out unfortunately, that doesn’t always go over to another area. And so there’s a kind of halo effect where people think, “Oh, this person is a spiritual teacher and they’ve had these spiritual experiences. I’ll go ask them for marriage advice or advice for sexuality.” They don’t know shit about marriage.
So this is our human nature. If we’re actually to become wise, we need to direct our attention to body, to emotions, to relationships, to thought. We actually need to become wise in those major dimensions of our life. And we can’t expect that of people just because they have a certain title or robe or anything else. But having said that, my measure now for myself: are you loving? Am I loving? Are they? And that love isn’t just like, oh, sweet Valentine love, but can you be in this world and can you love it with all its imperfections? And can you bring that spirit of care and love in the middle of what’s tragic and what’s beautiful? That’s a liberated heart.
Tim Ferriss: So love, let’s underscore this. For people who are listening, this might sound like a really strange question who are thinking to themselves, “Well, I love my dog, I love cheesecake. Love my kids.” If they have kids, let’s say, but maybe they’re like, “I’m not sure if I would recognize or even know the feeling of what it is to love the world.” Maybe they feel like they might be color blind to the first-person experience of feeling that.
Jack Kornfield: It’s a gorgeous question.
Tim Ferriss: Is it just something they can intuit or could you expand on that?
Jack Kornfield: It’s a gorgeous question. You remember Einstein said that, “The task for humanity is to widen our circle of compassion, or you could call it love to include all of humanity and all of nature in its beauty.” And so we start by loving that which is right around us. It’s natural, your dog, your children, the partner, the people you care about and maybe your neighbors. And now we’re talking about, “Well, what is wisdom and what is liberation?” And it’s that widening of the circle so that when you are moving through the world, it’s not just that person over there is an object, but they become more and more a part of your family.
There’s a beautiful monument to a mystical experience. Going back to your asking about that in Louisville, Kentucky on, I think it’s on Fourth Street, Fourth and Walnut. And the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton left his monastery and was walking down the street in the middle of Louisville and he said, “I’d come from the monastery. We were all trying to be holy and close to God and have all these spiritual experiences the way one does and pray and so forth. And I was walking down the street and all of a sudden it came to me. I looked in the eyes of everyone going by and I saw their secret beauty that was born in them that no one can take from them. That magnificence of spirit, soul, whatever you want to call it.” He said, “The only problem would be I wanted to fall down at their feet and worship each one that went by.” He said, “If we could see each other that way there’d be no more need for war and cruelty. The world would be a different place.” So this monument, a public monument to a mystical experience, what it does is it says that this is possible, but more than that, there are beautiful trainings to do it.
One of my favorite trainings is trainings in loving-kindness meditation. There’s bunches of it on my website in [inaudible 01:10:17]. And lots of other colleagues and teachers. And it turns out if you practice it like anything, it grows. You start with people close to you and then those in a little wider circle and gradually extend it. And for me, for example, I’m out on the street or I’m driving or something and I’m a bit of a speed freak. I can sit quiet in temptation, but my general M.O. is to get stuff done and move through the — just — anyway. And so if somebody’s driving slowly and meandering and not being a good driver in front of me and I get annoyed or even on the sidewalk, people are blocking it and not aware that I have something important I’m trying to get down, whatever, and I feel a little moment of irritation arise, which it will, I look and I see them, not as they are now, but as they were — as I imagine them at three or four years old, completely innocent child, they all were that no matter what things happened to them. And I go, “Oh, yeah, I see who’s in there. That’s like [inaudible 01:11:24]. I see that there’s that person doing the best they can and there’s that child that that’s in there.”
And instantly my heart changes and I go, “Oh, yeah, there’s a kind of — I wish them well, may they be safe and whatever dance they’re in, may they be protected.” And this quality of love, and kindness, and compassion, it’s grown because I practice it some, it’s where I want to live, but it’s more than that. I see it or sense it as the best expression of enlightenment. All those other things or experiences, they lead us back to love. And if they don’t, I’m not sure that they matter that much.
Tim Ferriss: So would you —
Jack Kornfield: And we can learn it and become it.
Tim Ferriss: So would you suggest maybe people use this objective or beacon of love versus enlightenment as a term? Because the word enlightenment has always bothered me because I’ve never had someone to find it clearly for me in any way.
Jack Kornfield: Let’s call it in [inaudible 01:12:34]. I just made it up, but.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. Okay, great. Problem solved.
Jack Kornfield: We’re problem solved, we’re into in [inaudible 01:12:41].
Tim Ferriss: Problem solved. I also wanted to just take a side note because Joseph Campbell came up earlier and he has so many tremendous books. And one of them is called, I believe it’s The Power of the Animal Spirits [Editor’s Note: The Way of the Animal Powers], which is this anthropological and historic overview of animal mythology cross cultures. It’s a beautiful hardcover book. It’s gigantic, it’s absolutely spectacularly illustrated with drawings and photographs and so on. Just to come back to the why you wouldn’t ask your, fill-in-the-blank, your psychedelic practitioner automatically for marriage advice, for instance, across the board, shamans in almost every culture pretty much considered pains in the ass. Trickster troublemakers.
Jack Kornfield: And here you are aspiring to be a shaman. Tim, you’re in trouble.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no, I’m not in the Shaman MBA program at present. Rule number one of tracking down shamans, if they call themselves a shaman, be very, very, very cautious. Might want to run the other way. Yeah, it’s kind of like if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill them kind of situation. But let’s shift to a moment to wisdom. And I would love to ask you, and this is a question that you can feel free to dissect in any way that you like, but who would you consider some of the wisest people you have met and why? And/or what have you learned from them?
Jack Kornfield: So I could certainly go down the list and I’ll answer you explicitly. And then there’s some place I want to go from here. I studied with a guru in Bombay named Nisargadtta Maharaj. And there’s a wonderful book of his or dialogues with him called I Am That. N-I-S-A-R-G-A-D-T-T-A. And he had a little beaty cigarette stand. He was a kind of modest businessperson, but he had a wonderful guru that he met and he had some profound realization happen to him. And so groups of us would gather around. And one day when I was with him over a course of a few years, I would go and visit him. Somebody says, “You’re 80 years old.” He was sort of getting toward the end of his life, “What do you think about your approaching death?” The kind of thing you want to ask your [inaudible 01:15:24]. And he looked back completely affronted. And he says, “You are telling me I will die?” And the person said, “Well aren’t you?”
He said, “That’s just this body. It’s made of [inaudible 01:15:37]. And wheat flour and vegetables and — you think I am…” It’s like saying, “I’m made of McDonald’s. Is that who you think I am? You think I’m these feelings. You think I am these thoughts. You have no idea. This has nothing to do with me. I was never born and I will never die. Who I am is beyond birth and death. I am the consciousness from which everything is born.” And then later he said, “Wisdom says I am nothing. Love says I am everything. Between these two, my life flows.” So he was a pretty wise cat.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Solid response.
Jack Kornfield: And [inaudible 01:16:19]. Said sort of the same thing as he was dying people, “Oh, God…” Ty, as they called him, “You’re going to die.” And he said, “I was never born.” He said, “Look at a rain cloud and it comes down as raindrops or snowflakes and goes into the rivers and flows into the ocean and then the gets evaporated and becomes a cloud again. You think I can disappear? I am you and you are me. We are life itself unfolding.” And it’s one thing to have him say it, but was another to be with him and have him look you in the eye and say, “This is who we are.” So of course there’s all these beautiful examples.
Tim Ferriss: What are the most reliable approaches for eliciting the experience, the direct experience of non-self? And I say that because I don’t recommend everyone use psychedelics. There are a lot of footnotes to any conversation on these compounds, which are so powerful. But that is how I’ve had my most direct experience of what you’re describing, which has removed much of my fear of physical death. I fear the dissent to death, that’s still there. But in terms of the light switch being flipped and being turned off, I don’t have that much anxiety, at least at present related to that. And I haven’t for quite a while, hold your breathwork might be another tool. Are there other modalities that you think apply or could be applied to more people than powerful psychedelics?
Jack Kornfield: Of course. I mean psychedelics, they do have — they open a lot of doorways and they also need to be used with some discretion, and some caution, or discernment as you say. It’s definitely not just like, “Okay, let me take a high dose psychedelic and see what happens.” You want set in setting and it has to be appropriate for you. All of those sort of things. It’s really what we’ve been talking about, that there’s a worldwide treasury now, we live in the treasury of the great spiritual teachings and practices. And you can go online and find masters, or sages, and lamas, and lamas, and so forth, many of whom are really, really good.
Tim Ferriss: How do you separate the charlatans from the real McCoy though?
Jack Kornfield: This is — it’s just like, I don’t know. It’s sort of like shopping for a car, you know, the minute you walk in, if it’s a sleazy salesperson and a showroom and it feels like [inaudible 01:19:27], you go somewhere else.
Tim Ferriss: But there are so many jokers with large followings out there.
Jack Kornfield: Oh, yes. Well, there really are.
Tim Ferriss: Any suggestions for the intrepid —
Jack Kornfield: I’m basically —
Tim Ferriss: [Inaudible 01:19:39].
Jack Kornfield: Yeah, I would say — but even then, it’s not really, I’d say probably start with the name brands. Although there’s plenty of very widely known [inaudible 01:19:53]. Who’s also misused their position. What a good teacher wants is your dedication and your common sense. And if the common sense is thrown out, it’s the wrong place for you, you really have to trust yourself as well. Now you were asking about wisdom. I want to read you a few lines from a great Indian master named Atisha and they’re really instructions because, “Okay, how do we do this?” Yes, you can find practices, meditations thing, reflections and walking in the wilderness, things that will open your mind and your heart.
Here’s Atisha’s instruction in something like eight lines. And there really each is a kind of practice.
The first one, “Consider all experiences to be dreams.” That there’s a dreamlike nature and it is true. I mean here we are. You and I are talking in April, 2023. What happened to March? What happened to January? What happened to your childhood? Where did it go? What happened to — do you remember Y2K? What happened to 2000? It’s back with the pyramids and the dinosaurs, everything disappears back into the void from which it came. And then something new is born. It’s the reason why people keep writing love songs. It’s not like there haven’t been a lot of good love poems, but the universe wants to keep recreating itself all the time. That’s why your body creates a hundred billion red cells every day, red blood cells. The universe is a process of creation. But it also is like a dream because it appears today is here and it will be gone like your life of this kind will be gone at some point. So consider all experience to be dreamlike.
Next one, “Be grateful to everyone.” So that’s an instruction and it’s sort of fits with this other instruction. Let suffering teach you compassion because in Tibet, in some of the Tibetan teachings, they actually pray for suffering. They say, “May I be granted enough suffering so that the great heart of compassion will open in me.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s interesting.
Jack Kornfield: “Consider all experience to be dreams. Be grateful to everyone because they all haven’t lessened to offer you might be an unpleasant or painful lesson. Let suffering teach you compassion.” Next line. “Don’t be swayed by outer circumstances.” This is a tough one. They want you to be this and that and all that conditioning. And you can see it and you can use it. But don’t let it guide your life. Let your life be guided when you get a little quiet by your own values in your own heart.
A few more lines, I love this one. “Don’t brood over the faults of others.”
Tim Ferriss: I could use some work on that one.
Jack Kornfield: This one can save a lot of agony because people don’t act the way we want them to. And they all have their faults and not us, of course, but don’t brood over the faults of others. You can feel how there’s liberation in every one of these lines. And you can practice it. “Explore the timeless nature of consciousness.” Which is what we’ve been talking about. Two more things, “At all times. Simply rely on a joyful mind.” And we’ll talk about joy in a minute. Joy and community too. There are things I want to talk about. And then the last line I really love, he says, “Don’t expect a standing ovation.”
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell Atisha?
Jack Kornfield: A-T-I-S-H-A.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man, that’s great.
Jack Kornfield: And don’t expect — and it’s like we’re looking for the universe to affirm us. The universe has affirmed you, baby, you wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Tim Ferriss: Don’t expect a standing ovation.
Jack Kornfield: So those are all — you’re asking how we do it. Those are all actually practices. They’re instructions in some way. And you can take one or another. This year, I’m going to practice being grateful for everyone. The ones that are difficult. I remember when my daughter first got her one of her first jobs and she was complaining about — she liked the work and she liked — but the manager, sort of the middle-level boss, was not good. He was a tyrant. He didn’t organize things. She said, “God, it’s so bad, we need to get rid of him.” I said, “Caroline, welcome to the world of work. You think there’s a bad boss there? Try another job. There will be someone — he’s a stand-in for the archetype of the bad boss, you will find them. So you’ve got to figure out how to deal live in a place and not brood over it, where people are just that way.”
Tim Ferriss: Joyful mind. I could always use more joyful mind. So joy or joyful mind. How should we find our way into this vast subject, which I think all listeners could certainly use a bit more of? And when? We’re in no rush.
Jack Kornfield: Yes. So I want to repeat something that I believe I might have said in a previous podcast with you. But it is one of the great poems of the last decades in my mind by Jack Gilbert. And it’s particularly so because we at this time, you and I and those who are listening, not only is there the mystery and incredible beauty of life with all its sorrow, it still has unbearable beauty in so many directions. But we also carry in our heart the suffering of the world. And we can talk about that and how one holds it. But this is a poem called “A Brief for the Defense.” The defense of what, you might ask? By Jack Gilbert.
“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…”
And so that’s a line to make injustice — the only measure of our attention is to praise the devil. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.
Tim Ferriss: What is the name of that poem one more time?
Jack Kornfield: It’s called, “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. And it really speaks to the tearing open of the heart in our time that we have the suffering of the world and it’s presented to us. If we don’t have it in our family or in our neighborhood, it’s there on our screens and it’s there given to us. How do we hold it? And is it okay? Is it okay to be happy? And the Buddha put it the same way. He said, “Live in joy and love even among those who hate.” There’s an instruction, yes that’s there, “Live in love, even among those who hate. Live in joy in health, even among the afflicted, live in joy, in peace, even among the troubled.”
And that was like my teacher’s monastery during the wartime in Cambodian [inaudible 01:28:59]. In Vietnam. It was a place of peace in the middle of all of that, “Live in peace even among the troubled, look within, be still, free from fears and attachments. Know the sweet joy of living in the way.” So these are really instructions, permission. People think spiritual life is a grim duty. “I’m going to meditate. I go to the gym, I work out, I have a diet, I’ve got my trainer, I’ve got a — and now I’ve got to go and meditate.” And it’s not meant to be a grim duty. If you don’t have some joy and pleasure in it, that’s the wrong direction, maybe. It’s really an invitation to quiet and calm, to bring in care and compassion, and to find a joy. If you go into a refugee camp, they don’t want your depression and sadness. They have enough of that. They actually want somebody to come in and say, “Hey, let’s see what we can do with this,” even though it’s incredibly difficult.
Tim Ferriss: So building on that, and also off of the previous mention of holding suffering, I’d like to shift to community. The timing is perfect for that looking at my personal experience because I’ve been in Los Angeles for a few weeks and I made a commitment to myself, which is very atypical for me because I have this productivity fetish, and I should put “productivity” in quotation marks, whatever that means.
But I decided that my mantra for this time here was going to be social, not solo. That meant rather than doing what I normally do, which is default “No” to any type of social invitation, I made it default “Yes.” My well-being, my sense of inner peace is so much improved since I started doing that. Granted, my output is lessened substantially, but at this point, who cares? I think, on some level, it’s highlighted for me how even in a city, for instance, could be anywhere, any city, it’s possible to be surrounded by people, but feel entirely alone. It takes some intentionality, perhaps, to build and be supported by community, so maybe this is a place to talk about cloudsangha.co, Cloud Sangha, but we could lead into it in any way that makes sense to you.
Jack Kornfield: Yeah. I welcome this as part of our conversation. First of all, there is an epidemic of loneliness as you point to it. The Brits have their Minister of Loneliness now. I think it’s even gotten more extreme since Brexit in some way. They actually got lonely from the continent now, sadly. But anyway, from the very earliest understandings, there is a teaching or appointing to the fact that we need each other in community, whether it’s the Jewish minyan, or whenever two or more gathered in his name, whether it’s the satsang in Hindu or the sangha in Buddhism, or within a community and a village around a teacher or a shaman and so forth. We’re communal beings. We’re raised by one another, we’re connected, and so we languish when we don’t have connection.
One of the great problems in the current time is that there had been a way that many, many people had a sense of community through religious affiliation for generations before, their church, their mosque, their temple, whatever it happened to be. That’s dropped away a lot for all kinds of reasons and it’s left people more isolated and so together with Tara Brach and a couple of friends, we founded a company called Cloud Sangha, S-A-N-G-H-A, sangha, which means community, cloudcommunity.co. You can join for a month or several months to start with and become part of a group of people who meet together every week around themes that you’re working with. We have groups for anxiety and how people are managing and learning about it and transforming it. We have groups for people who are parents, and in those groups you can talk about whether it’s your toddler’s tantrum or your teenagers acting out or whatever it happens to be. We have groups for people who are interested in promoting joy in their lives and groups for those who are dealing with grief or loss, those kind of things.
People who join them love them because you can be living in Boise, Idaho or Belfast, Ireland or whatever, and it can be hard to practice on your own. It’s hard to meditate. It’s hard to feel a sense that you have a community who are supporting you. What happens is as people come together and share, they learn as much or more from them themselves together as from any teacher. I’ve done this sage on the stage thing a lot in my life, and yeah, I can put on a good act or show or something. Sometimes it helps people. I love telling stories and I remind them and so forth. But when we’re in groups, one of my favorite things to do is to say, “What have you all learned about this?” Somebody will raise their hand and say, “What about grief? Or what about climate? Or what about how do I…?” If I respond, “What have you all learned?” there is a collective wisdom when invited that comes out where people learn so much from each other. This is really what Cloud Sangha offers.
It also has, if you go onto cloudsangha.co, for the fun of it, there’s a test you can take, a mindful awareness test that to see, just for your own fun, which areas are you really attentive in your life and which ones you really wish you had support for and it would make such a difference. We’ve got great people running them and people who are in them love them. It’s one of the offerings in my life now that I’m very really happy to be a part of and want to invite people to try.
Tim Ferriss: Are there practices, tools, and so on that help people to share in communal experience? What are people finding most gratifying?
Jack Kornfield: There are a couple of things. There are some practices and there’s teachings and you can go on that and there will be guided meditations and there’s weekly teachings by several variety of good teachers. But it turns out people will come together. For example, it will be a group on parenting. Some are doing a mindfulness practice, maybe some are doing some other form of meditation. They learn TM or maybe they’ve been doing Jewish or Christian practice or shamanic practice or something. But there they are and their toddler is having fits and screaming as toddlers sometimes do as they’re supposed to. The common element is much less the focus on what you’re practicing as how do you engage in the world from that place of practice.
People will say, “Well, I meditate and it helps me be calmer with my kids. Surprisingly, when I’m calmer, my children get calmer.” Or they say, “When my teen is pushing back, if I get into the conflict mode with them, it just builds. But if I do my practice of loving-kindness, or I do my practice of whatever it happens to be, and I look at them and I see their secret beauty…” Especially, it’s a beautiful thing to do when your kid is sleeping there, you’ve had a little conflict at that age, and then you go in there, they fell asleep, and you go look in them and you see who they are, who were as a child, there’s something, that original beauty is there when their personality drops away a little bit. But they share that and it’s less critical what the practice is and much more how are you applying it and what are we all learning in doing this? This is where the rubber meets the road in some way. Again, it goes back to that definition of in enlovenment, or enheartenment, or something that’s not enlightenment, but how do we learn to love in the midst of all of this?
Tim Ferriss: I’ve come to feel, I’m excited about this, because I have realized for myself, if I have, and I realize it’s not the same thing, but group dinners with let’s just say three friends, two, three nights a week, that does just as much for me, maybe more in some cases than short meditations on a daily basis, just having that support. I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive. I do both as of right now.
But that social cohesion for us monkeys on this spinning rock in the middle of the cosmos, it’s easy to perhaps forget in the frenzied individualistic prism within which we live in say, the United States, it’s easy to forget the value of something that is so obviously in front of us, but so often lost in the wake of, in my case, this quest for productivity and so many other things, so I’m excited to take a look at this myself, cloudsangha.co, and the spelling again for folks, is cloud S-A-N-G-H-A dot C-O. I have some notes in front of me, and this has been something on my list to ask about, and maybe you’ve already brought it up. It certainly includes a name that has already come up. Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert, flunking the course. Ram Dass and flunking the courses, this a cue that I have in front of me, what does “flunking the course” refer to?
Jack Kornfield: Ram Dass was a very close friend for a lot of years, and I’ve known him in his different incarnations when he was Baba Ram Dass, just back from India, having written that bestseller Be Here Now that opened a lot of people’s eyes about how he’d been the Harvard professor and then he took LSD and said, “Oh, whoa, it’s a bigger game than this,” and then he met his guru in India and all of that and he came back in his robes, and his beard, and beads as sort of the guru Baba Ram Dass.
One of my favorite early Ram Dass stories is there he was teaching a whole crowd and he was articulate and funny and very self-deprecating, which is part of why we loved him, because he would confess his neurosis publicly and everyone would go, “Oh, me, too,” right, because there’s a common humanity. One woman was sitting in the front row, an older woman, and waved her hand and said, “Hey, Ram Dass.” He called her. She said, “Hey, there you are in the white robes and doing this whole Hindu guru thing. Aren’t you Jewish?” Ram Dass said, “Well, yes, I was born Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed.” She said, “What about it?” He said, “Well, there’s beautiful things in it. There’s the Kabbalah and all the mystical teachings and there’s the Hasidic masters who are like Zen masters. There’s a lot that’s great in it.” Then he looked at her and he said, “But remember, I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side,” and he was very witty, but it was also profound because who we are is not limited by our parents or our history. Who we are is much bigger than that.
Ram Dass evolved over his life, starting Seva Foundation and working to combat blindness in Nepal and India for now six million people who’d been blind can see and all kinds of other stuff. Then he had that major stroke and ended up living 20 years in a wheelchair with tremendous pain and different kind of infections. But he came more and more and more loving, so when you’d sit with him toward the end of his life, he’d look around, he said, “I love it all. I love the windows and I love the floor and I love the people would come in and I love the dirt.” He said, “I just love it all, whatever it is.” People would come to see him and he would love them.
There’s a phrase in India called “the glance of mercy.” When you go to see your guru, if you go to see the right kind of guru, but it doesn’t have to be in India, it can be here, they look at you and it’s somehow they see through you. They see all your life, you, Tim, your strengths and your neurosis and your productivity, the rat and the wheel going around making it spin faster.
Tim Ferriss: God save us.
Jack Kornfield: All that stuff. They look at you with so much love and they say, “Wow, you’re just amazing being.” You get this glance that sees everything and says, “Yes, I love you,” and it changes you somehow. That’s what Ram Dass became in the end. Krishna Das, the great chanter, and also a fellow student of their guru, Neem Karoli Baba, said, “Ram Dass became, in the end, the person we thought he was when he first returned from India. He really became that place of love.”
Now, I’ve gone on and on, and I haven’t answered your question because I’ve forgotten it as I’ve been waxing about the pleasure of —
Tim Ferriss: Flunking the course.
Jack Kornfield: — Oh, yes. I went to see Ram Dass after I’d had a couple of events where I fell over on stage and was unconscious for a while and opened my eyes eventually and I was surrounded by all the doctors who were part of the audience and so forth and I got all these workups and I had a lot of tremors and I got misdiagnosed as having something like ALS, I was going to die relatively quickly, and I would have dementia with it.
I thought I’d made my peace with dying, “Okay, I’m going to die.” But then when they said, “Oh, yeah, and dementia, too,” that flipped me over the edge. That’s not how I had pictured it and I got frightened, really. I remember sitting with my daughter after I got that and crying a little bit and thinking, “Okay, here we go into dementia land along with tremors and my body going out of control.” Then a couple of weeks later, I got more tests and turned out that was the wrong diagnosis and I’m okay, I’m fine, I’m just aging like everybody.
But I went to see Ram Dass and I told him that story and I said, “I thought I was cool with death. I’d done all these meditations in the monastery sitting with dead bodies and my own practice. Then when the dementia came in, I got frightened,” and he looked at me, he laughed, and he said, “Oh, yeah, I flunked the course a number of times.” The minute he said it, it was like this huge relief because it was just being human. Our body doesn’t want to die even if you know, like you said it, and I think it’s true that we’ve prepared ourself in some ways, but the body doesn’t want to die. It has its own story. Ram Dass represents for me, and I think for us, that loving witness that can wink and say, “Wow, we really got into a predicament this time, didn’t we? It’s okay, it’s just a dance that we’re in, and it’s fine.”
Tim Ferriss: He did have a real facility for combining humor with the profound in really pithy, short statements. It’s remarkable.
Jack Kornfield: Yes, he did.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve been listening to some of his audio recordings. There’s a podcast, I can’t recall the name, which is effectively sharing archival audio of his —
Jack Kornfield: Yeah, I think it’s probably the Be Here Now Network.
Tim Ferriss: That’s it. That’s exactly it. What an incredible communicator. I mean, incredible human. I never met him, but incredible human.
Jack Kornfield: Incredible humor and twinkle and sparkle and yeah, all those good things. Yeah, he was human, too, so he had his own foibles. The thing that was so beautiful about it is that he would make them all public. He would say, “All right, here’s where I messed up this week,” and everybody would smile and say, “Oh, just like me.”
Tim Ferriss: I remember at some point, and I’m not going to be getting this totally right, so you can correct me, I don’t speak Sanskrit or can’t read Pali or whatever it might be. But my understanding is that Ram Dass, Dass is the equivalent of “servant of” Ram.
Jack Kornfield: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Then you have Krishna Das.
Jack Kornfield: Das.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Is Das(s) simply a common suffix and therefore that’s it?
Jack Kornfield: Yes, yes, it is.
Tim Ferriss: Or is there deeper meaning be behind the choice, I don’t know if they made it or their guru or someone else made it of Krishna and Ram respectively?
Jack Kornfield: Their guru gave them their names, looked at you, and say, “You serve Ram, you serve Krishna.” There’s this whole — the cool thing about the Hindu is that they have so many gods, you can pick your favorite, and the way it works, I mean, the problem is that we have God as a noun that’s singular. God, and then we fight over it, “My God is realer than your God or better than your God or bigger than your whatever. My God can beat up your God,” whatever it is in all these different traditions. All that you need to do is add an S. There is Yahweh or Jehovah or whatever and there’s Jesus and Jesus and there’s also other versions of God. There’s Krishna and Brahma and if you allow, as the Hindus do, that the divine has many names and many forms, instead of fighting over, and say, “Let’s celebrate.” Okay. Anyway, “Dass” means “the servant.” I don’t know who you serve, Tim, but you could be —
Tim Ferriss: I’m not sure. I guess I need a guru to tell me what my name is.
Jack Kornfield: — yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway, no, one of my teachers was named Buddha Das. He was the servant of the Buddha or the Buddhist teachings or things like that, so it’s very, very common.
Tim Ferriss: For those who end up digging into Stan Grof and some of his writing, he has some really fun stories around the servants or worshipers of Shiva and his interactions with them, which is a whole separate can of worms. Which topic did you want to talk about?
Jack Kornfield: Stan also has a book, I think it’s something like When the [Impossible] Happens, it’s his stories of all the wild things that happened in his life that were completely unexpected and that you can’t put into ordinary consciousness. Just like we’ve talked about it before, I’ve had the experience a number of times of knowing that someone died at a distance and not necessarily that they were ready to die or they didn’t have cancer, but I knew it. They had an accident. Who would know that? Then I reach out and I found out, yeah, they had an accident. Then I’ll ask in a room of a hundred or 500 people, “How many people have had the experience of knowing when someone’s died unexpectedly?” A third of the hands go up. It’s because we’re connected. It’s just the reality of it.
I want to talk about climate and justice. One of the teachers that I most admire who’s in her 90s now and still alive is Joanna Macy. She wrote a wonderful book called World as Lover, World as Self. She’s been doing what she calls despair and empowerment work for decades now. I remember her going and meeting in the survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. At first, they didn’t want to talk to her. They said, “Why are you rubbing our noses in it? You want to come, you American, and we’ve already had such a hard time. Why should we talk about it all again with you?” She sat and listened. She repeated back what she’d heard, and she said, “The only reason I really want to talk to you, beside my sympathy, because I, too, am a mother and grandmother,” she said, “is because I don’t want this to happen to other people’s children and you have a story that the world needs to hear.” Then they wept and they said, “All right, we’ll tell you the whole story.”
She’s collaborated for years with others in doing this work that she calls despair and empowerment work. She describes it this way. She said we’re in a time of what she calls “the great turning,” where humanity has the capacity and tools to make the world and how we live a beautiful place or not. But things have gotten bad and it’s not just a disaster, it’s also an opportunity. We can all feel that in some fashion or other. Her game is first to get people to feel the grief and the anger and the guilt and the despair and to share it with one another so you don’t feel alone and that you can sense that you’re part of the web of life that’s responding just as if you’ve cut your hand or your finger. You didn’t say, “Oh, that poor hand,” as if it’s separate from you. It’s part of your body that people could start to feel that they were together in the body of the Earth, holding this and responding.
She said, “All right, now let’s listen more deeply.” One of the things that she did with an environmental activist named John Seed, they created something called the Council of All Beings. On those retreats, after expressing grief and despair and holding it with compassion and feeling the interconnection of the Earth alive, saying, “We need to do something,” people would be sent out into the woods for half a day to wander the woods and the streams with the instruction to sense whose voice you want to carry, who you wish to be a representative of. It might be someone you meet out there, or it might be that it inspires you.
People came together and sometimes they, even in a shamanic way, would make a drawing or put something on their body that represented what they wanted to do, come back in circle, and then they would speak, but not as themselves. They would say, “I speak for the redwoods,” or, “I speak for the salmon, and I want you to know that most of my people have died off because of this and that happening, and this is what I want you to hear. I speak for the…” You can name the species or the part of the Earth. What would come out of people was tender, grievous at times, but also tremendously inspired because those voices said, “Here’s what we need to do. This is what we salmon ask of you and you can do this. This is what we, the sequoias and redwoods want of the world now.” She shifts the despair to a sense of interconnectedness and that we become the voices of the Earth in its most benevolent and best form.
It seems important to say this because we started talking about anxiety long ago in this conversation as we winded our way through all kinds of strange places. This takes us back to touch on that. The important thing is to know that suffering is not the end of the story. It’s the Buddhist first truth that there is suffering and there are causes. We can see it, greed, hatred, fear, and so forth, and there’s an end to it. There’s another possibility, which is the empowerment of love, of action. Part of what makes things liberating, and this has to do with compassion and empathy, is not only what you feel, but then what you’re empowered to do when you speak for the salmon or whoever it is.
Here’s the difference between compassion and empathy. If you’re walking by a schoolyard and you see a child being bullied, the first experience inside might be “Oh, I feel for that child. That’s wrong. I feel their suffering,” so you have a kind of connection and empathetic connection with that child. “Oh, I’d hate to feel that. I don’t want children to feel…” You feel with them. “Com” means “with”—“with passion.”. But that’s not enough compassion. It turns out as a verb. You have the first step is empathy. The second step in compassion is you walk over and you talk to them, or you go to the teacher or you go into the office and you say, “The kids on the playground are bullying people.” You not only feel it and you let yourself enter in a communion, if you will, with what you see, but then something in you feels empowered to say, “Let me reach out my hand.”
You don’t have to fix the whole world, but you can reach and mend the places that you can touch. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Just like you come to L.A. and decided to be social rather than solo and it makes a difference, reaching your hand out and touching or doing something empowers you and it changes the world.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s a tremendous place to leave people with that as a closing comment for food for thought. Is there anything else, though, that you would like to add, Jack?
Jack Kornfield: Oh, maybe 108 other things. But this feels like a wonderful conversation and also a kind of expression of our friendship for a long time. I’m glad to see you and see you seeming so well.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, Jack.
Jack Kornfield: I certainly know when you describe that you’re in new phases in your life in different ways and I can very much appreciate that. I’ve had fun.
Tim Ferriss: Me, too.
Jack Kornfield: As I said, it’s not a grim duty. It’s actually a celebration.
Tim Ferriss: It is a celebration. I think I’m going to also set “A Brief for the Defense,” the poem by Jack Gilbert, as a reminder so that I reread and reread and reread that. It’s a really potent reminder and I think it’s catching me at a good point in my life, so hopefully that’s true for other people as well. Jack, people can find you online, Jack Kornfield, that’s with a K, K-O-R-N-F-I-E-L-D dot com. Twitter, @JackKornfield, Instagram, @Jack_Kornfield. They can find Cloud Sangha at cloudsangha.co. We will link to everything that we’ve talked about in this conversation in the show notes for people at tim.blog/podcast and they just can search your name in the most recent episode, probably, unless we do more of these, someone’s listening to this a few years later, they’ll be able to find with ease. Thank you, Jack.
Jack Kornfield: Thank you, Tim. What a pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: So nice to see you.
Jack Kornfield: What a pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: To those listening, until next time, be just a little kinder than is necessary to others and to yourself and remember that compassion can begin with feeling, but can also incorporate and often should incorporate some form of reaching out, some form of connection, some form of action. Thanks for tuning in.
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