Long before there were meditation apps and resorts offering mindfulness packages, there was Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. After training as a monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma, he was one of the first people to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974.
Kornfield, 72, also holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California. His books—including The Wise Heart, A Lamp in the Darkness, and Teachings of the Buddha—have been translated into 20 languages and sold more than a million copies.
During a conversation for the The Tim Ferriss Show that lasted more than two hours, Kornfield spoke about his inspiring personal journey and shared tips for developing a mediation practice and more mindful approach to life. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited by Outside.
How can you get a busy person hooked on mindfulness practice? What would be a first step?
It’s really helpful to have guided meditations at first because we have a very short attention span in modern society. We are multitasking with our devices and we’ve forgotten how to tend our own hearts and forgotten how to be present for one another, and more importantly, for our own lives. So getting guided meditations is tremendously helpful. And doing these little mini practices—one minute, two minutes—several times a day can transform you.
So don’t white knuckle in the beginning. Make it as easy as possible.
The game is to do whatever naturally opens the gateway. For some people, it’s their dog. You come home and the most nonjudgmental being in their life wags your tail and loves you, and it doesn’t care what’s going on in your head. So, you take the avenue that most naturally opens your heart, and then you do this just a little at a time and it doesn’t take long.
You studied for years in Thailand with a teacher named Agin Cha. What was he like?
He was a little bit like the Dalai Lama. He was funny and wise and very warm-hearted, but also very strict and very demanding. I visited him a number of times and told him I was gonna become a monk. And then I ordained in the village where I was living in the Peace Corps. It was a beautiful ritual. After some days, I made my way down to his temple. I’m walking into the gates and I see him, and I bow and I say, “I’m here.” And he looks at me and kind of leans back, a little skeptical, and he says, “All right. I hope you’re not afraid to suffer. Welcome.”
What was the suffering that he alluded to?
The big suffering was being alone with my own mind. Having to do hours of meditation when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. When you sit and you get quiet, anything unfinished in your heart will come up. My friend Danny LaMa, a humorist and writer, says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.”
And then there’s the outer suffering. Picture a day where you get up at 3:30 in the morning, sit for a couple of hours in meditation on a stone floor, then do an hour of chanting. At dawn you walk barefoot, three miles, five miles, ten miles, with an alms bowl and a handful of other monks, get your food and come back, whatever you’ve been offered. That’s the food for the day. And then you go back to your meditation or to the work of the monastery, of sewing robes or drawing water from the well.
For a lot of people, setting aside even just ten days for meditation retreat is really hard. How does someone decide when to do that kind of deep, extended work versus being in the world?
First, my answer is that most wise cultures encourage human beings to step out of their ordinary roles and their ordinary routine, whether you go to the mountains, or the ocean, or a temple, or change how you’re living so that you can open up to the mystery.
But how do we live in the world and at the same time connect with something deeper? Part of it is just intuitive. If you have a newborn or young children, it’s not the time to go out on a long retreat. Your kids are your practice. You can’t get a Zen master who’s going to be more demanding than an infant with colic, right?
If you think, If only I could be in the great Zen temple of Kyoto or an ashram in India, or down in the Amazon with taking ayahuasca—well, your kid can be like ayahuasca on steroids. What makes it work is that you have that intention to say, Let this be a place where I awaken the possibility of presence, and pleasure, and pain, and joy, and sorrow, and gain, and loss.
But even even if you have a family or own a company, there might be a period of a week or some days where you can in fact get away and step out of those roles and turn inward. And that can be tremendously valuable. You just have to listen to when the time is right.
You’ve said that Americans are in need of a particular mediation practice called loving kindness. Why is that and can you describe what the practice looks like?
In our culture, when we begin to meditate and turn inward, it’s very common to encounter self-criticism, self-judgment, even self-hatred. You’re sitting there saying, I’m not doing it right. I’m no good. And you turn meditation into one another thing that you don’t do right because you can’t control your mind.
There’s a different way of approaching your mind, which gives you tremendous capacities. It’s not, Oh, I have to stop my thinking, or I don’t want to have these feelings. Instead, the mindful loving awareness says, This is the judging mind and it’s been trying to protect me. Thank you. I don’t need you now. All of a sudden, there’s a distance from the self-critical thoughts simply by acknowledging them with loving awareness. This becomes the gateway to the practice of loving kindness and self-compassion.
Very often, people can’t do this for themselves. So, the way this practice begins is to picture someone you really care about and feel the well-wishing you would want for them. You do this for a time and maybe you also let yourself also tune into the measure of sorrows they have, and it tenderizes your heart because you don’t want them to suffer. You feel a kind of rising in compassion and care. You do that with one or two people that you care about for a time. And then you can imagine these two loved ones looking back at you with the same kindness, and saying, You too. May you be safe and protected. May you be filled with tender compassion for yourself.
Finally, as you feel that from these loved ones, you begin to realize that you can wish this for yourself. And little by little, like water on a stone, it starts to soften the places that are holding your lack of self-forgiveness, your lack of care. Loving kindness starts to grow in you. It’s a very beautiful practice.
If you could put a short message on a billboard that got out to millions of people, what would it be?
One thing that comes to mind is a question that many people I’ve sat with at the end of their life ask of themselves, silently or out loud: Did I love well? Because in the end, what matters, really? So the billboard would have a question like, How could I love myself better? It will remind those who read it that there is something that’s asking to be awakened in them.