On Transforming Suffering and Opening to Compassion: An Interview with Jack Kornfield
It is my profound honor to bring to you one of the true leaders of our time in respect to the marriage of Eastern and Western Psychology, Jack Kornfield. Not only that, he also holds his PhD in clinical Psychology which makes him so relevant to the connection between mindfulness and psychotherapy. He is author of The Wise Heart and many other books and with NICABM’s help he is putting out a wonderful 6-week course to help us deepen our experience with mindfulness, self-compassion, compassion, mental health, forgiveness and much more. I’m happy to let you know about it.
Today he talks with us about the connection between East and West psychology, his work with Dr. Dan Siegel, and how his own trauma in life has influenced his work with himself and others.
Elisha: You are a well known as a leader in the continuing dialogue of Eastern and Western psychology and are very skillful in how you marry the two. With all of the suffering that many of our readers experience, how do you see each supporting the other and where do you see this dialogue heading in our culture?
Jack: The suffering that is experienced by people is described in the Buddhist tradition as the first noble truth of the Buddha. The Buddha says that life entails a certain measure of suffering and no one is exempt from that. There is pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. Human happiness and mental well-being doesn’t come from avoiding these changing circumstances, they happen to all of us. True happiness comes from the openness of heart, compassion, resiliency and mindfulness, the wisdom that we bring to it, that gives perspective and meaning. In eastern and Buddhist psychology there are many kinds of trainings in compassion, in mindfulness and a balanced perspective that make it possible to hold our suffering in a wise way. We can also learn how to release suffering from the body and emotions and transform its energy.
In Western psychotherapy, much of the same is true. The biggest complementary difference between east and west is that most of western psychotherapy is done together with another person. At best we can call it a kind of paired attention or paired mindfulness in which another person is helping to direct your attention and encourage your capacities to be with your experience with greater wisdom, greater balance, greater understanding, and greater compassion.
With Eastern practice you can have the same paired experience working with a teacher to a certain extent, but then much more emphasis is put on continued trainings and practices that you do regularly and frequently on your own. These capacities develop strongly through practice over and over again. East and West complement one another in this way.
Elisha: Speaking of marrying East and West, can you tell us a bit about your work with Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of Mindsight.
Jack: The beautiful work that I’m able to share with Dan Siegel describes this same wedding of East and West and particularly of modern neuroscience and the neurological basis for the capacity for resilience, authentic presence, and for interpersonal attunement,demonstrated in a lot of the neuroscience research. The capacities for wisdom and compassion that I teach about can also be understood from Interpersonal Neurobiology how all this happens and how it fits both in eastern and western perspective. Dan too teaches how it can be developed and learned, changing us and changing our lives.
Elisha: Like many of the readers of the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog, in your new book, The Wise Heart you mention that you had your own confused, painful and lonely family history. How has that history influenced your work on yourself and with others?
Jack: It’s influenced me a great deal. When I shifted from studying science at Dartmouth, from studying organic chemistry and mathematics to Buddhist and Asian studies, it was partly because I was looking for way to deal with my inner suffering and trauma. I had the pain of living in a family with a violent and abusive father and the underlying fear I carried. Much of my training in the Buddhist monasteries was in lovingkindness and equanimity and mindfulness. But first I had to learn how to deal with fear, hurt and trauma. Also anger, which I didn’t know I carried, which I suppressed a lot. My father was so full of rage I didn’t want to be like him. Lo and behold I discovered that it was not just in him, but was in me as well.
So over the years of training and practice, I began to explore the trauma I carried and the ways to release trauma out of the body, out of the stories, out of the emotions. This healing is built into the practices of mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, and forgiveness. I began to explore them in the east and then after the monastic training I began working on my doctorate and clinical work and training in western psychology
Now when I work with people on meditation retreat or individually and they bring their trauma or their painful history or their unfinished business I am able to sit with them and know it from my own experience. There are many ways to transform and release trauma and my dual training gives me a good sense of what is going on in them, and a good way of marrying the skills from the east and west. I have gotten trainings from being in the presence of a skilled therapist who would call my attention to movements or emotions that were unconscious to me that really made a difference. In trauma work someone would encourage a bodily release and there weren’t even words for it when it would start to come out. I now have those experiences and skills to marry East and West, to intuitively listen to what is most helpful to the person in front of me.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from a person who was experiencing deep emotional suffering in their life right now, what advice or suggestions would you give them.
Jack: Very little advice to start with. I believe the most important thing I can do is to be fully present as I sit with them and not to try and advise them. To sit and be present, even to hold their hand or if they were not open to it, hold them in my heart and let my own experience resonate with theirs. To bring myself to their experience with as much compassion and care and perspective and deep breath and love as I could. To start with words I’d be curious, what is your suffering, and what are your tears and anguish and trauma? I’d want to know and not impose any advice, without first clearly hearing what they knew and where they were and what they were looking for.
And then perhaps from this shared capacity to be present I’d want to communicate a deep trust that we can open to it all and move through the experience of suffering. I’d want them to know that their experience is part of their humanity, part of the difficulty and the gift of human incarnation and we are all called upon to bear our sorrows as well as our joys, and that we can bear them and they’re not the end of the story. That our sufferings don’t define us and we don’t have to be so loyal to our suffering that we don’t see that there is a greater mysterious majestic dance that we’re a part of so that the communication of trust as well as the capacity to be present is there.
Because it is as William Blake says that in the minute particulars that goodness is transmitted, not in the general or the ideological, but actually in the presence itself.
Elisha: So much gratitude for all your work and from me in this moment. I’m really grateful for your life and the work you put out, for touching me and so many others.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. If you want to go deeper with Jack, you are welcome to look into his 6-week course.
Buddha photo available from Shutterstock
Goldstein, E. (2013). On Transforming Suffering and Opening to Compassion: An Interview with Jack Kornfield. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 23, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2013/03/on-transforming-suffering-and-opening-to-compassion-an-interview-with-jack-kornfield/