Jack Kornfield

Jack Kornfield: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Jack Kornfield, in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” In other words, we put off important things, assuming that we can do them later. But there may not be any “later.” Life is short; make good use of it.

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, but it’s not something he said. It’s Jack Kornfield’s adaptation of something from Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan in his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” where the shaman says:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change?

The resemblance isn’t coincidental — Jack makes reference to this quote in one of his talks.

Recognizing that our time here is brief can help us appreciate life and see what the important things are. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how, in the light of that, it’s important that we take responsibility for our lives.

Life is short; make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But if you really take on board how brief our time here is, you’re also forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable. And for most of us that’s loving, being loved, and living meaningfully. “Fun” comes much further down the list. Love and meaning, it turns out, are more fun than fun itself.

Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique. Being aware that the breath you’re taking right now will never come again makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, try noticing how each moment is unique. That moment, and that moment, and that moment—each one flits by. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

Think about those around you, about those close to you, about those you’re connected to with ties of blood or love. Think about those who barely register in your attention, and about those you don’t like. Every one of them is going to die. And you’re going to die.

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Life is unpredictable. When you’re with someone, you have no idea if you’ll ever see each other again. Everyone you see today—this may your last encounter. And maybe you should behave as if it was. What last impression, what last words, would you like them to have of you, should either of you die tomorrow?

As I often say, “Life is short; be kind“.

Try adopting as a mantra, “We may never meet again.” Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. Let yourself feel affection. Let yourself appreciate others’ basic goodness. Let your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to find happiness in a world where true happiness is rare. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love: Now.

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Why develop mindful presence?

This is the second post in the series on mindful presence. You can view Part One here.

So why should we go out of our way to develop mindfulness?

Mindful presence feels good in its own right: relaxed, alert, and peaceful. Not contending with anything. No struggle.

In addition to the inherent, experiential rewards of mindful presence, studies have shown that it lowers stress, makes discomfort and pain more bearable, reduces depression, and increases self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Mindful Presence Series

  1. What is “Mindful presence”?
  2. Why develop mindful presence?
  3. Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up.
  4. Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.

To quote the father of American psychology, William James:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.
William James, Psychology: Briefer Course, p. 424 (Harper Torchbooks, 1961)

At a deeper level, mindful presence is the counter to our habitual state of mind, which a Thai meditation master once summarized as, “Lost in thought.”

To quote Jack Kornfield:

 . . . you [become] mindful of the constantly changing conditions of sight, sound, taste, smell, physical perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. Through mindfulness practice, you [begin] to experience how conditioned the world is and how these conditions constantly change.

To free ourselves, we need to quiet the mind through some mindfulness in meditation. Then, instead of identifying with the changing conditions, we learn to release them and turn toward consciousness itself, to rest in the knowing. Ajahn Chah called this pure awareness, “the original mind,” and resting in “the one who knows.”

The senses and the world are always changing conditions, but that which knows is unconditioned. With practice . . . we can be in the midst of an experience, being upset or angry or caught by some problem, and then step back from it and rest in pure awareness. . . We learn to trust pure awareness itself.
Jack Kornfield, Buddhadharma, Summer 2007, pp. 34-35

And in addition to the psychological, everyday benefits of mindful presence, it is also, in Buddhism, considered to be a direct path to enlightenment and the end of suffering:

This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentations, for the passing away of pain and dejection, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana – namely, the four establishments of mindfulness.

What are the four? A person dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, and mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world.
[In the Buddha’s Words, p. 281]

This isn’t the place to get into detail about that quote, though I invite you to let the feeling of it carry you along. But in passing, it is worth noting that “contemplating body in the body” (or feelings in feelings, mind in mind, phenomena in phenomena) means being simply aware of immediate, experiential phenomena as they are without conceptualization or commentary. Just the sensations of the rising breath in the belly. Just the subtle feeling of a sound being mildly unpleasant. Just the sense of consciousness being contracted or spacious. Just a single thought emerging and then disappearing. Just this moment. Just this.

There’s a pithy summary of this simplicity of pure experiencing in the advice the Buddha gave to a man named Bahiya:

Bahiya, you should train yourself in this way: With the seen, there will be just the seen; with the heard, there will be just the heard; with the sensed (touched, tasted, smelt) there will be just the sensed; with the cognized [thoughts, feelings, etc.], there will be just the cognized.

In sum, imagine being in a lovely and peaceful meadow, with a train full of thoughts and feelings and desires rolling by in the distance . . . Normally, as this train approaches we tend to become drawn in, and we hop on board and get carried away . . . “lost in thought.”

On the other hand, mindfulness allows you to see the train coming but have the presence of mind . . . to stay in the meadow! And whenever you get swept along by the train, as soon as you notice that, whoosh, you return immediately to the peaceful meadow, to the refuge of mindfulness.

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Best Dharma quote ever!

From Jack Kornfield:

If you can sit quietly after difficult news;

if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;

if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;

if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;

if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

if you can always find contentment just where you are:

you are probably a dog.

– Jack Kornfield

Thank you to Tim Brownson for sharing this, in a paraphrased form, on his blog.

The comes from Jack’s book, “A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times.”

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Being Human: We don’t have a blueprint

Gary Gach: I wake up from a dream about President Obama, brush my teeth, and sit zazen. It’s a rainy day, so I do my walking meditation indoors. Routine matters. But then I’m to be present for a rare encounter: a gathering of people called Being Human.

I have no idea what it will prove to be. One never does. But it’s just conference retreats such as this where vital seeds can be planted, can germinate and sprout — seeds that can change consciousness, across the boards. And, these days, what better, more crucial game is there, in town?

I tote my bag …

Read the original article »

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Marin planners contemplate Spirit Rock proposal

Marin County officials continued to wrestle with proposed plans for the Spirit Rock Meditation Center — even though the county staff says doing nothing would be worse for the environment than approving the Buddhist retreat’s newest plan.

County planning commissioners decided Monday they need more time to reflect on a new master plan for the complex and told planning staff to outline specifics of regulations limiting attendance at special events. Another session will be scheduled later.

“I’m wondering if we are moving ahead with this before we have the program written out,” said Commissioner Randy Greenberg of attendance regulations. “We don’t know the magnitude of the issue,” added colleague Wade Holland. “What if they get 25,000 people out there?”

A handful of special events over the past 20 years has attracted crowds of up to 1,600.

Although county staffers indicated that moving ahead with a proposal to relocate structures away from creeks and minimize grading would have less impact on the environment than proceeding with development plans approved in 1988, commissioners worried about how to handle crowds.

Jack Kornfield, one of the founders of the 410-acre Woodacre retreat…

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for those who seek Buddhist wisdom, said the center will limit daily attendance to 791 people, as long as it can hold two special events a year exceeding the limit.Commissioners seemed to agree that up to 1,500 will be permitted to attend two

special events at the facility each year, and asked staff to develop specific regulations regarding resource restrictions, traffic, parking, public safety and related permit issues. The panel said each special event would be subject to a use permit requiring a public hearing.
The center wants to relocate structures approved in 1988 but never built, eliminate temporary buildings and add about 6,000 square feet of new construction. The plan would reduce the number of residential retreat and staff units by 21 to a new maximum of 177. In all, the complex would include 142 retreat units, and another 35 for teachers and staff. Some 88 are already built.

Currently, an attendance cap of 315 people is in place, but the limit never has been enforced. Officials noted an environmental review indicated that even if 791 people were brought in to simultaneously jam every unit, meeting room, meditation and dining hall structure, stretching the septic system to capacity, there would be no significant impact.

Commissioner Katie Crecelius indicated planners were making a mountain out of a mole hill. “I actually think this isn’t such a big deal,” she said. “There is a very competent list of mitigation measures. … It’s an exceptional negative declaration (of environmental impact) for a project that is going to improve the environment at Spirit Rock.”

Several neighbors, citing traffic and related concerns, begged to differ, including Jean Berensmeier, head of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group. She called the new plan “excessive” and contended the popular retreat is more than neighbors bargained for.

But Taylor Hamblett, head of the San Geronimo Valley Stewards, another valley group, called the plan a big improvment. “This is asking to do what already has been approved, better,” he said.

Contact Nels Johnson via e-mail at ij.civiccenter@gmail.com

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The sanity pause

wildmind meditation news

Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune: Meditation is a brain-boosting, stress-busting activity embraced by everyone from the U.S. military to corporate executives. And if you’re living a busy, hectic life – and can’t fathom finding time to sit cross-legged in a quiet room – you’re an ideal candidate too.

“The people who race through their life are usually the ones who could use some focus and serenity,” said Tamara Gerlach, a San Francisco-based meditation teacher.

Every day thousands of thoughts zip through our heads, something Gerlach likens to a jar of dirty water: Keep shaking up the jar and it will remain clouded. But “if we set the jar down, letting the dirt particles settle to the bottom, it leaves clarity at the top.”

Meditation, proponents say, teaches you how to replace the mental chatter in your head with stillness. This ability helps us live more consciously.

Q: What is meditation?

A: It’s the “art and practice of being present for your life,” said meditation teacher Elesa Commerse. The key words here are “art and practice.” Meditation re- quires effort and patience, especially in the beginning. One of the biggest obstacles for beginners is that they get bored or expect Dalai Lama-like results overnight. Meditation can be relaxing, but relaxing isn’t meditation. Meditation is sitting with a purpose.

Q: How does it work?

A: There are many forms, but all involve focusing on a single stimulus, such as your breath, a particular word, or an image. Get your body in a comfortable position. When random thoughts barge into your head, label it as “a thought” and bring your attention back to your chosen stimulus, such as your breath.

“It’s like training a puppy,” Jack Kornfield said in “Meditation for Beginners.” “You say ‘stay,’ but after a few breaths, the puppy wanders away. You go back and gently pick it up and bring it back.” Kornfield says learning to sit still and become mindful is one of the most important forms of meditation.

Q: When should I meditate?

A: Whenever you can. Executive meditation coach Mark Thornton was once chief operating officer for JP Morgan; he found that taking micro-meditation breaks while moving during the day could be just as profound as going on a retreat. “I thought meditation was something you did on your own; in fact it can be an integral part of the day,” said Thornton, author of “Meditation in a New York Minute.”

Q: Can I meditate while I ride a bike or run?

A: It’s possible to practice mindfulness in any activity, said Joseph Goldstein, who has led meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. “It means paying attention to what we’re doing, rather than having our minds wander.”

Q: How do I fight boredom?

A: Actually, boredom is a sign that meditation is working. “It means you’re learning to shift your attention away from your mind, which wants complex puzzles to solve,” said Thornton. If you’re bored, you may have lost sight that every moment in life is unique, Commerse said. “When you’re in the present moment, “every leaf, blade of grass, brush of wind, bird song, baby’s cry, every everything becomes magical, alive, discoverable and infused with the ability to transform your life,” she said.

Original article no longer available online.


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Enlightenment in a myriad of beautiful ways

I found a beautiful article by Jack Kornfield recently, which begins with the question, “Is enlightenment just a myth?” There are so many different descriptions of what enlightenment is like, we might begin to wonder whether it’s all made up.

I’m certainly not enlightened, and so I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I do know. Over the years, I’ve watched as my friends and I have changed. And I mean radically. Some of us bear little resemblance to the people we were ten or fifteen years ago. And this is the interesting part. Though I can see that we’ve all become kinder and more confident people, we’ve all changed in very different directions. I think I’ve softened and opened up a lot. Some of us have become natural leaders and community-builders, though with different stripes. Still others have blossomed in their quieter lifestyles — as artists, healers, and the like.

My point is this. I’m seeing living evidence of the many potential colors that enlightenment could come in as each of us continues to grow. We’re all dedicated to the dharma, and yet expressing our commitment in so many different ways. As Jack Kornfield says,

When you actually experience consciousness free of identification with changing conditions, liberated from greed and hate, you find it multifaceted, like a mandala or a jewel, a crystal with many sides. Through one facet, the enlightened heart shines as luminous clarity, through another as perfect peace, through another as boundless compassion. Consciousness is timeless, ever-present, completely empty and full of all things. … Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, enlightenment consciousness is experienced in a myriad of beautiful ways.

See also:

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The mindful enlightenment

Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment

A fresh kind of enlightenment is in the air. Madeleine Bunting recently reported on the bold vision for progress being set out by Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society Of Arts. Calling for a new “revolution of the mind”, the RSA is grounding its arguments in empirical studies from neuroscience and psychology.

Evidence from these disciplines is making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds, wired for empathy and able to access a consciousness that, if developed, could help release us from the shackles of emotion that so often bind us. Building on its 18th-century precursor, the defining feature of this enlightenment is an understanding that to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, we don’t just need more action, we need more awareness.

This is familiar territory for Buddhists, whose training is rooted in a path to awakening which holds dear the same kinds of insights – that through experiencing more clearly, we can begin to transcend the suffering that comes from thinking, feeling and behaving as if we are single, separate and solid. As we begin to realise the nature of our predicament through meditative disciplines, we naturally lean towards compassion for others, whose fate is intertwined with our own.

Some 2,500 years separate these appeals to enlightenment, but despite their common ground and aspiration, they can sound very different. One comes in the language of science, backed by observational studies of the brain, say, or human behaviour. The other has an ancient, religious feel – words like Buddha, meditation, even enlightenment (in this context) can prompt negative reactions that stem partly from current attitudes towards religion in our society. Centuries of Buddhism, in its many institutional forms, has no doubt contributed to this perception.

It seems unlikely that the man known as the Buddha would have wanted to establish a religion – his teaching is not a set of things to believe, but considerations for a way of life. Understanding, he said, must come through observation of one’s own direct experience – a kind of inner science based on first-person investigation of the body, mind and world. As Stephen Batchelor has pointed out, these core insights are easily cloaked in religious garb when that is the prevailing discourse of the day.

So what happens when Buddhism meets our secular world? Whereas some students of Asian emigre teachers in the 60s and 70s appeared spellbound, wide-eyed with enchantment at exciting foreign rituals, many western teachers have moved on – Jack Kornfield recently explained that “more and more, we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity, but as a support for living a wise, healthy and compassionate inner life”. He added that some of his students don’t identify as Buddhists, “which is absolutely fine with me”.

Some new champions of Buddhist-inspired practice bear no mark of Buddhism at all – from universities and healthcare settings, to schools and boardrooms, mindfulness is being taught without reference to its religious heritage, while Andy Puddicombe’s media-savvy Headspace brand is taking meditation to the Jamie Oliver generation. Puddicombe has even managed to get Chris Evans sitting quietly for a second or two.

Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater, and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha’s insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.

[Ed Halliwell, Guardian]
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Teacher who helped shape American Buddhism is still on a quest

Jack Kornfield says ‘we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity but as a support for living a wise and healthy and compassionate inner life.’

In 1972, Jack Kornfield stepped off a plane in Washington, D.C., his head shaved and his body swathed in golden robes. He had come home to see if he could make it as a monk in America.

Kornfield had spent several contemplative years at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, where he lived with few possessions, followed a strict monastic code and retreated each day to the lush forest for hours of meditation.

But in the U.S., he found no monasteries that practiced the Vipassana meditation he had studied. And the precepts he had followed in Thailand — which barred him from handling money and required that he eat only donated food — proved difficult to follow.

He gave up his robes and starting driving a taxi. He dated, got a doctorate in psychology and continued to practice Buddhism on his own terms, using the teachings he had learned to help cope with everyday life’s ups and downs. And with time, he began to help build a new Buddhism.

This distinctly American incarnation encouraged students to find mindfulness in all parts of life, not just in meditation. It was less religion and more practice.

“More and more, we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity but as a support for living a wise and healthy and compassionate inner life,” Kornfield said recently. “A number of the people I teach don’t consider themselves Buddhists, which is absolutely fine with me. It’s much better to become a Buddha than a Buddhist.”

Kornfield is in Los Angeles this weekend for two events — a talk at the Armand Hammer Museum on Friday night about the psychologist Carl Jung’s journals, and a three-hour meditation class on Saturday at the InsightLA meditation center.

As one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, one of the nation’s most popular Buddhist centers, he has led retreats around the globe and has taught alongside eminent Buddhist monks such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

Kornfield is credited as one of the teachers who helped Buddhism take root in the West by making it palatable and relevant for Americans.

These days, there are hundreds of Buddhist centers across the country, and meditation programs in schools, prisons, hospitals and even corporate boardrooms. But when Kornfield helped found the Insight Meditation Society in 1976, Buddhism was still a novelty in America. The small scene was dominated by Asian emigre monks — charismatic Tibetan teachers and Zen masters who taught Buddhism with a samurai-like intensity.

Kornfield and two similarly inclined friends, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, decided America needed a place where people could practice the Vipassana meditation of Southeast Asia and India. More so than is taught in Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana calls for a systematic exploration of the inner self.

Together, they bought an old Catholic monastery in the woods of Barre, Mass., and invited spiritual seekers for retreats. In sitting and walking meditation sessions, they encouraged participants to be mindful of their bodies, their breath and the activity of their minds.

Students and teachers wore street clothes, and teachers gave real-life advice on how to live mindfully in the modern world.

Although nearly all students of Buddhism in Asia were monks, most American Buddhist students were laypeople with families, jobs and Western sensibilities. Kornfield knew from experience that they needed their own message.

“Our minds are quite scattered with planning and remembering and tracking and we don’t live much in the present,” he said. “We can be so lost in our minds that we don’t see the sunset over the Pacific, we don’t see the eyes of our children when we come home, we don’t see the garden.”

Kornfield, who sees affinities between meditation and psychology, encourages his students to pair traditional meditation practice — usually sitting — with forms of cognitive therapy.

Some critics have dismissed Kornfield’s approach as “Buddhism lite.” But if his bestselling books are any indication, his message resonates with many people.

Trudy Goodman, who had studied with Zen and Tibetan monks before she arrived at the Insight center in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, said it was sometimes harder to connect with her Asian-born teachers.

“I feel that Jack has changed Buddhism by being a pioneer for the inclusion of our emotional lives in the practice,” said Goodman, who runs the InsightLA center.

In 1988, Kornfield founded the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the Marin County community of Woodacre, which he still runs. He has a wife, Liana, a psychologist, and a daughter, Caroline, who is on an internship in Cambodia this summer. He opened the center as a place to explore a more family-oriented approach to Buddhism. Among other things, he and others lead classes in parenting and teach introductory Buddhist courses for middle school students.

Kornfield also continues to develop his own practice.

His roving life of teaching gives him plenty of opportunities to practice patience and mindfulness, he said. When he’s home, he likes to spend time in his small writer’s cottage on the retreat center’s grounds. From the window, he can see rolling green hills and a line of bay trees planted along the edge of a stream.

[Kate Linthicum, LA Times]
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Meditation and the false lure of zoning out

Psychology Today: How to change your brain in ways which support healthier, more satisfying relationships.
by Marsha Lucas, Ph.D.

Here’s the polite version of a question I received recently about my support of mindfulness meditation as a practice for well-being in relationships:

Why are you encouraging people to zone out? Sitting around pretending they’re above it all, and avoiding real feelings? Who wants to be in a relationship with a self-involved bliss-ninny?


There are an awful lot of misconceptions about mindfulness meditation. This one, about how people who meditate are just using it as a place to “hide out” by just getting zoned, escaping into some blissed-out, checked-out place, is why a lot of people mistakenly decide that meditation is useless, or worse.

There are some merits to asking the question, though, because it’s true that some people who meditate use it in ways which aren’t beneficial, sometimes making them pretty obnoxious to spend time with.

The place from which I look at the benefits of mindfulness meditation is in my work with people who want to create more meaningful lives, including better, healthier, more satisfying relationships. I’m a clinical psychologist who believes that being emotionally present and authentic is the cornerstone of emotional well-being. I’m also trained as a neuropsychologist, who knows that the better integrated a brain is, the better it works. It’s a bit like needing the left hand to know what the right one is doing in order to get anything done. (I don’t just use that phrase lightly – in cases of damage to the corpus callosum, the brain’s bridge between the right and left hemispheres, one hand quite literally doesn’t know what the other is doing, with one buttoning up the shirt and the other following behind, unbuttoning it.)

So from that stance, let’s take a look at the notion that mindfulness meditation leads to people becoming zoned-out, self-involved bliss-ninnies.

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“Don’t people use meditation just to escape?”

Is it possible for people to hide out in meditation? Yes. People who “use” meditation to escape, just like using drugs or alcohol to escape, can closely resemble the “kindly, calm pod person” that Judith Warner wrote about in a New York Times blog post. The added “benefit” of using meditation as your drug of choice is that, unlike zoning out on alcohol or drugs (or TV, surfing the web, and so on), you can also adopt a “more enlightened than thou” stance that some meditators have been known to take, much to the annoyance of those around them.

Even Jack Kornfield, PhD, one of the pioneers and great teachers in the use of mindfulness meditation in the West (and also a psychologist), points out that “[m]editation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.” He goes on to say that “the sitting practice itself… often provide[s] a way to hide, a way to actually separate the mind from difficult areas of heart and body.”

Obviously, this isn’t the approach to mindfulness meditation which I advocate. This will become more clear as we go on.

“The people I know who meditate just ended up being more self-involved.”

This can happen, too. In one variation of this, sometimes people who meditate profess that their practice is making them “more present” when in fact they’re just more self-involved. Judith Warner again:

[P]eople who are embarked on this particular ‘journey of self-exploration,’ as [Mary] Pipher has called it, tend to want to talk, or write, about it. A lot. But what they don’t realize – because they’re so in the moment, caught in the wonder and fascination and totality of their self-experience – is that their stories are like dream sequences in movies, or college students’ journal entries, or the excited accounts your children bring you of absolutely hilarious moments in cartoons – you really do have to be the one who’s been there to tolerate it.

For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.

What she’s describing (okay, complaining about) is not “real” mindfulness, though. Mindfulness isn’t about droning on and on about your own inner exploration, ignoring the feelings of others (or your own), or gushing your newfound love for all of humanity. Mindfulness is about developing a larger capacity in yourself for empathic, attuned, contingent connection.

That last sentence is vital: Mindfulness is about developing a larger capacity in yourself for empathic, attuned, contingent connection.

* empathic = being able to see things from another’s point of view, getting a sense of their intentions, and being able to imagine what something “means” to another person

* attuned = allowing our internal state to resonate with the inner world of another, to “get” someone else’s inner state, allowing us to feel connected

* contingent = responding to another in a way which is informed by what we sense in them, not just what we think or feel

(These definitions as presented here are largely influenced by Dan Siegel, whose latest book, Mindsight,I highly recommend.)

A thumbnail sketch of what this looks like: You talk to me, and I listen with an open heart and an open mind, tuned in to you while also being aware of my own internal state. And my response to you, if I’m being mindful, is contingent on what you’re saying and feeling and communicating – not just my own internal experience. When I talk, I’m speaking with mindful awareness of my internal state as well as being attuned to you, and I pay attention to shifts in myself and in you while I speak, to be able to remain connected, attuned and empathic.

That would be a far cry from being self-involved.

“Seems to me that people who meditate aren’t dealing with their real problems.”

It’s also true that many who meditate may need additional help. As Jack Kornfield put it in his essay, “Even The Best Meditators Have Old Wounds To Heal”:

There are many areas of growth (grief and other unfinished business, communication and maturing of relationships, sexuality and intimacy, career and work issues, certain fears and phobias, early wounds, and more) where good Western therapy is on the whole much quicker and more successful than meditation…. Meditation can help in these areas. But if, after sitting for a while, you discover that you still have work to do, find a good therapist or some other way to effectively address these issues.

Jack, in his honest wisdom, goes on to say that many American vipassana (mindfulness meditation) teachers who have gotten stuck in disconnection, fear, or other unconscious places, have sought out psychotherapy.

(As a brief aside, I would say that the same seeking of good psychotherapy should be true of anyone leading others in a quest to better understand themselves, or to heal emotionally. That includes psychotherapists. It’s my strong opinion that good psychotherapists have done (and continue to do) work in their own psychotherapy, and need to have the capacity for empathic, attuned, contingent communication.)

So, mindfulness meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure for everything that ails you. It is, however, powerfully helpful, whether on its own, or in conjunction with psychotherapy.

I’ve had people come into my practice who have been meditating for years, who have found that they’ve resolved much but can’t seem to crack the core of the issue, and their meditation practice serves them well in the psychotherapeutic work.

I’ve also worked with people who have been in psychotherapy on and off for years with different therapists, benefitting from it but with the next level of growth seemingly out of reach. When we’ve added mindfulness meditation to the mix, they’ve begun to make some remarkable progress which they hadn’t been able to before.

“Can meditation really change people for the better?”

Nothing is a “build it and they will come” guarantee when it comes to personal change. A joke in psychotherapy is, “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.” That’s not just true of psychotherapy, but of any endeavor we take on to create better, healthier, more meaningful lives, and that would include meditation. (As George Carlin said, “Ya gotta wanna.”)

Mindfulness meditation is being shown in a growing mountain of well-done, peer-reviewed scientific research to make demonstrable changes in how your brain is wired — which in turn changes how you perceive the world, how you respond to it, and how you behave.

Meditation isn’t a magic wand that creates enlightenment, but it does have what can look like almost magical effects on connections in the brain — including synaptogenesis (the creation of new connections between neurons), and even neurogenesis (the creation of brand-new neurons in the brain– an ability which neuroscience has only accepted as a real phenomenon in the last 15 years or so).

What I see in people who practice regular mindfulness meditation is that they’re more integrated in how they relate to the world, including themselves. (This is more true of people who are practice developing their mindfulness at all times, not just when they’re formally meditating.)

They haven’t found a magic way to hit the “bliss” button – not if they’re being really truthful with themselves. They might experience bliss more often and more fully, but it’s likely that they’re also experiencing all of their emotions more often, and more fully. What they’ve found is a way to be more whole, more integrated, to not just listen to their rational intellectual side “versus” their non-rational, emotional side.

I see a lot of very bright, high-functioning people in my psychotherapy practice who are so far one-sided or the other — over-reliant on the rational, or hyper-attuned to the emotional — that they can’t get a handle on what their “real” problem is. Mindfulness meditation helps them see a more integrated picture, warts and all, and then they’re also better equipped to deal with it in an honest, authentic, insightful way.

Let’s take a look at how that applies to a relationship problem. If you use only your rational brain, and ignore your feelings and those of your significant other, it’s unlikely to go well (in fact, you’ll probably make things worse). On the other hand, if you lead solely with your emotions, you could similarly end up never solving the problem (and blowing things up). It’s much like the right-hand-buttoning, left-hand-unbuttoning dilemma.

But: If you are able to integrate both your intellect and your emotions — and be attuned to your significant other’s feelings and thoughts as well (in a real way, not the way that Judith Warner described) — you can be positively brilliant in dealing with the issue.

“Yeah, but is there any real change?”

Yes — “real” as in “measurable by scientific methods”. This is what the research in neuroscience is pointing to. Researchers have been looking at the structure and activity in the brains of those who practice regular mindfulness meditation, and they see changes and benefits.

Which of those findings excite me the most, as someone who works to help people create more meaningful lives and relationships?

How about this: Increased activity, connectivity — even size — in brain areas (most especially, an area called the middle prefrontal cortex) known to support the integration of the rational, problem-solving areas (e.g., the frontal cortex) and those known to be centers for emotions (e.g., the amygdala).

The brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to be more integrated, and the clinical evidence supports these changes as well, such as the nine benefits of mindfulness meditation I discussed in a previous post.

If your brain is better integrated, you’re neither ignoring the facts nor discounting emotions. You’re better able to know what’s true for you, and to be better attuned to the person you’re with. You can evaluate more clearly what you’re feeling, rather than having knee-jerk reactions or jumping to conclusions. While it doesn’t mean you always do, you’re more likely to be able to stay present with whatever’s going on.

So, does that sound like a zoned-out, self-involved bliss-ninny?

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