In his new work, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, meditation teacher and therapist Jack Kornfield reflects upon the hundreds of interviews that he has conducted with seekers and teachers of many spiritual traditions, as well as upon his own experiences. We spoke with him on what he has gleaned from his investigations.
Sounds True: From the people you've spoken with and from your own life, what would you say is the greatest misconception about the spiritual path?
Jack Kornfield: I believe there are several. One is that enlightenment will come to us instantaneously and remain permanently. As it turns out, there is no “enlightened retirement.” Yes, there are moving and transformative experiences. But a spiritual life is not just about experiences; it is about the way we live. Another misconception is about certitude, that we eventually become “the wise person who knows about everything.”
People used to ask my teacher Ajan Chah all kinds of questions about enlightenment or the future of the world or what would happen in their own lives. He would often just smile and say, “It's uncertain, isn't it?” He had a tremendous joy with that understanding, because whatever happened, he knew how to live in compassion and in the reality of the present, without grasping. He was free. In many ways, the spiritual path is less about attaining something and more about letting go.
Sounds True: How do we start this process of “letting go?”
Jack Kornfield: Letting go requires forgiveness and sometimes asks for a willingness to grieve or to release attachment to our point of view. We often believe that letting go means getting rid of something, but it's not. In a sense, letting go is the same as love.
Sounds True: What do you mean?
Jack Kornfield: Well, let's say there's something difficult in us that we feel we need to change in some way. We might believe that letting go means changing the situation. But to really let go means not controlling others, or even our own minds—which we can't do—but rather to compassionately care for the world as it presents itself.
Sounds True: Can you give us an example from your own life?
Jack Kornfield: Around the first year of my marriage, just after our daughter was born, my wife had me read The Goddess Within by Jean Shinoda Bolen, a book about the feminine. I was drawn to Aphrodite and her beauty, and to Artemis and her strength. But I didn't connect much with the goddess Hestea, who's a sort of “invisible” goddess. When I told that to my wife, she looked at me and her eyes filled with tears. “But that's me,” she said. “That's who I am. You've never seen me clearly. You've never even really loved me.”
I was stunned. I realized that somehow, secretly or unconsciously, I had been hoping that my wife—a very quiet, introverted person—would gradually come out and be more like me. All of a sudden, in that moment, I saw my expectations. And I saw that to really love her meant to love her just as she was. It changed our marriage.
Sounds True: Why do you think this kind of letting go is so critical to spiritual development?
Jack Kornfield: It's simple. If we don't know how to let go, we suffer. Life is filled with things we cannot control. The fundamental teaching of the Buddha is that when we cling to that which changes, we create suffering for ourselves and others.
Sounds True: Jack, in the past 25 years, has anything about the spiritual path truly surprised you?
Jack Kornfield: Oh yes. For one, I thought that if I worked with the big difficulties in my life—my fears, arrogance, neediness, anger—then they would go away. That I could somehow uproot them and they would be gone. But they aren't gone. That was a really big surprise. At the same time, my relationship to my imperfections has changed. Now, there's a lot more spaciousness and compassion, and a lot more humor. I've become what Ram Dass calls “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” I had thought that if my practice brought a true mystical experience—which it did—it would then transfer to the other parts of my life. But it turns out that those experiences simply gave me a road map of the heart. It's up to each of us to apply that map to our lives.
Sounds True: You were a monk for six years, and now you're offering these teachings to lay people in America. Most people haven't had this kind of foundation. Is it really possible for the rest of us to go deeply into the spiritual life?
Jack Kornfield: If you're committed, it's absolutely possible. Many of the most awakened and wisest followers of my teachers were the lay persons who attended the monastery. They had fields to plow and children to raise and homes to tend. But they came in a devoted way. They meditated. They took the practices of awareness and lovingkindness to heart. At times, Ajan Chah would look around and say, “You monks are doing okay, spending all this time studying and meditating. But you want to know who's really accomplished something in this monastery? Look back there at those old men, those old women who are sitting there!” So we would all look back and our teacher would laugh—and of course it was true.
Sounds True: One last question. Do you have a favorite metaphor or image for the spiritual path?
Jack Kornfield: I sometimes think of being on a boat, going down an uncharted stream. We don't know what's going to come around the next bend. We might get caught in the branches along the side of the stream. Or crash into the rocks and need to repair our boat. And we don't control the flow of the water; we're carried. It's a great adventure to open to that and really be present.