“In undertaking a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected with our heart. Many other visions are offered to us in the modern spiritual marketplace. Great spiritual traditions offer stories of enlightenment, bliss, knowledge, divine ecstasy, and the highest possibilities of the human spirit. Out of the broad range of teachings available to us in the West, often we are first attracted to these glamorous and most extraordinary aspects. While the promise of attaining such states can come true, and while these states do represent the teachings, in one sense they are also one of the advertising techniques of the spiritual trade. They are not the goal of spiritual life. In the end, spiritual life is not a process of seeking or gaining some extraordinary condition or special powers. In fact, such seeking can take us away from ourselves. If we are not careful, we can easily find the great failures of our modern society – its ambition, materialism, and individual isolation – repeated in our spiritual life.
In beginning a genuine spiritual journey, we have to stay much closer to home, to focus directly on what is right here in front of us, to make sure that our path is connected with our deepest love.”
~ Jack Kornfield, “A Path with Heart: a guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life”
My own copy of this book is well-thumbed, with folded over pages and passages highlighted. I return to it again and again. If you stay with this path long enough, you will experience the highs and lows, the bliss and the disappointments, heartbreak and healing, rich periods of discovery and deserts void of a single drop of inspiration. Kornfield’s guidebook offers sage advice for every one of them.
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma and India, perhaps most notably with the Thai Forest master Venerable Ajahn Chan. The book opens with the story of his return in saffron robes to the United States in 1972. He waits for his sister in law at the Elizabeth Arden Red Door salon. All eyes are on the Westerner in the saffron robes. The moment is a turning point for him. He instantly realizes that if he can’t integrate what he’s learned into modern American life, its not going to work. This experience drove him to give up his ordination, and his work as a teacher continues to address the need for our spirituality to be relevant and real.
He is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, along with Sharon Salzman and Joseph Goldstein, and also the Spirit Rock Centre in Woodacre, CA. He has led international gatherings of Buddhist teachers of all traditions, including the Dalai Lama. He holds a PhD. in clinical psychology, is a father and activist. There’s a good chance that the meme you just shared on Facebook with the lotus that says its the words of the Buddha are likely from Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book”.
The book is laid out in a progression that matches the stages of going from zealous newbie, intermediate practitioner learning to integrate wisdom into life experience, and the hallmarks of a mature practitioner and human being. Each chapter ends with a meditation or exercise to explore the thoughts and ideas contained there in a hands on way.
Part 1 is titled “A Path with Heart: the fundamentals”. Before going anywhere near the nuts and bolts of meditation, he asks us to compassionately examine our own hearts and reflect on our most human motivation to practice. I often find it helpful to return to square one with these early chapters, to check the roots of my practice, and remind myself of what’s really most important.
Part 2 addresses “Perils and Promises”. How to turn difficulties into the fodder for our practice, dealing with recurring issues (he calls them “insistent visitors”), what to make of unleashed energy, or passing through the “Dark Night of the Soul”.
Part 3 is “Widening our Circle” – the running theme here is how we relate to the wider world through our spirituality. There are chapters on how to leave retreat or intense periods of practice and re-enter the world, and how to breakdown our ideas of boundaries between our “practice” and our “real life”. Kornfield explores how our sense of self come to bear in our relationship with others, and how to deepen our compassion. This section wisely addresses working with a teacher, as well as how psychotherapy may intersect with meditative approaches.
Kornfield does not shy away from the all-too common phenomena of breakdown in spiritual communities, including abuses of power, sex, money, drugs. As responsible practitioners, we must also turn the light of awareness on our own communities, to honestly evaluate both the good and the bad, recognize the shadow side of the particular sangha and practices we’ve chosen, and to examine how our own habits and behaviours may contribute to dysfunctional dynamics. The Insight Meditation Teachers Code of Ethics is included as an appendix. Most organizations only create such a document in hindsight out of painful necessity once problems have already occurred. Perhaps this code may be useful in helping other communities avoid such problems before they arise, or to individual students who are feeling unsure about the actions of their own teachers.
Part 4 brings us to “Spiritual Maturity”. In the final analysis, its not how many hours of meditation you’ve sat, or how long you spent in retreat or the number of mantras you’ve said. The real question is, how has your heart changed over time? Kornfield provides an outline of 10 qualities of spiritual maturity that we can all aspire to and cultivate, no matter where we are on the path. The final chapters eloquently ask how we bring our own contribution to the mystery of life, what Kornfield calls “The Great Song” and what it means to touch the intimacy of life moment to moment.
Throughout the book, Jack Kornfield weaves rich stories, anecdotes, poems and quotes from a wide range of wisdom traditions. It’s all presented with humility, humour, wisdom, and of course – heart. An indispensable handbook for life on the spiritual path, regardless of where yours takes you.