Have Some Compassion!
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For more than 40 years, psychologist Jack Kornfield, PhD., has worked to make Buddhism accessible for Westerners through his teachings of mindfulness and Vipassana meditation. His books, CDs, classes and retreats all emphasize compassion, lovingkindness and the profound path of mindful presence.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1967, Kornfield joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to tropical medicine teams in Northeast Thailand. There, he met Ajahn Chah, who became his central Buddhist teacher. In addition to Thailand, Kornfield also trained as a Buddhist monk in Burma and India.
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In 1975, he co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and in 1987, the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif.
Kornfield has published 15 books on Buddhist teachings that have been translated into 20 languages and have sold more than 1 million copies.
He believes the Buddhist teachings of compassion and mindfulness can have great impact on addiction.
“Addiction is a common part of human incarnation. It starts because we’re built with desire. It is always a part of us. Poet Alison Luterman says, 'It’s like when you hide the chocolate chip cookies because you’re on a diet, and you’re the only person in the entire galaxy who knows where the chocolate chip cookies are hidden.' From childhood on, we struggle to find ways to satisfy ourselves and to regulate ourselves because of pain, loneliness, or simply to avoid what’s unpleasant. Trying to manage life, especially when it’s hard, we can then get caught in a cycle of grasping and addiction,” says Kornfield. “In Buddhist psychology, this is called living in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. A Hungry Ghost is a being who has a tiny mouth and giant belly and no matter how much it eats, it can never feel satisfied or whole. When it is strong, what do we do with our hunger? The point is not to get rid of desires, but to find a healthy relationship to them. As William Blake said, ‘Those who want to be free must not rid themselves of desires, but develop an understanding of them.’”
Kornfield discussed more of his thoughts on Buddhism and addiction with The Fix.
Have you worked with people struggling with substance and behavioral addictions?
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Over the years, many people struggling with addiction have come to learn Buddhist mindfulness and compassion. One specific example is when I met a woman who came to a retreat and needed compassion more than anything to face a life-long struggle with binge-eating. She depicted herself wandering around like the Hungry Ghost full of self-hatred. Here are her words:
“I believed that food had an unparalleled capacity to bring satisfaction and relieve me from suffering. Time and again, I’d reach for the food looking for it to do its magic only to have it turn on me, fail me, bring me untold physical, mental suffering and shame. I became hypercritical of myself in that situation and despaired. As I practiced mindfulness, a freedom came as I was able to be aware of the intense discomfort I was trying to escape from. I started to find that I could recover more quickly and less painfully with bouts of compulsive binging if I could spend even a little bit of time being present with my pain instead of eating more and just trying to avoid the effects of having eaten too much and the remorse of having done it again. I could actually watch myself start down that sad, old path, and as the awareness and kindness grew I realized, 'Oh. I don’t have to do this, and self-compassion can grow.' I’m so grateful for the mindfulness and compassion that has rescued me from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.”
That’s an example of how self-compassion can help see what is really at the body, heart and mind’s best interest, and how the tools of mindfulness can let you step back and experience things that you couldn’t withstand because of the discomfort and difficulty it brings.
Are you saying mindfulness is about taking a step back?
Yes, it develops a perspective of loving awareness that can witness experience without being completely caught in it. Modern neuroscience research has shown that steadiness of attention, emotional regulation, and self-compassion all deepen through systematic practice. So there are ways to train yourself to respond differently.
Where can people learn more about the neuroscience of this type of training?
There’s a really good book by Dr. Norman Doidge that’s called The Brain That Changes Itself. There’s also the New York Times Best Seller by Sharon Begley called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.
What would you like addicts to know about your teachings?
I received teachings in mindfulness and lovingkindness from some of the great monasteries and masters of Buddhist tradition. They begin by acknowledging the dignity and nobility of every being. With addiction there’s so much shame, guilt, self-loathing and self-criticism. Buddhist trainings begin with loving awareness and the capacity to step back and witness your experience without being taken over by it. Participating in trainings for compassion and mindfulness requires courage and patience and self-compassion. Step by step, you begin to remember the wholeness and well-being that is your birthright.
They are called trainings because it takes perseverance to change. It’s like the man who wrote to the IRS saying, “I’ve been unable to sleep because I cheated on my taxes in 2011, so I’ve enclosed an anonymous cashier’s check for $3,000. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send the rest.”
That’s how we learn as human beings. We learn a step at a time, but even in the beginning there’s something in us that knows there’s another possibility. So training in mindfulness, lovingness and self-compassion is done systematically to develop those capacities.
Is this achieved through meditation?
Meditation is simply a word for the development of inner attention. There are many forms of meditation—compassion meditation, body relaxation meditation, meditation of peacefulness and equanimity. These are all trainings to strengthen our inner capacities. Some are done quietly by yourself and some are best practiced during the day especially in the moments when there’s a struggle to regulate yourself. In the moment is the most important place. Think of sitting meditation like training wheels on a bicycle. When you sit and learn how to regulate yourself, you learn how to tolerate your fear, loneliness and self-judgment with self-compassion, and realize that these are waves of emotion, it’s not who you are. This is how you learn. As the Persian poet Hafiz explains, “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut you more deep. Let it ferment and season you as few humans and even divine ingredients can.”
As you learn to be a witness to your pain or loneliness or fear, and hold them with mindfulness and compassion you start to learn a different way of being. Mindfulness brings you back to the wholeness and dignity and choice of how you respond to that.
In today’s fast-paced world, it seems difficult to stop and take these moments of reflection.
Yes it is, and because of that it’s more important and critical than ever. We each need to find quiet time to down regulate ourselves. Otherwise, the speed of the modern world will keep pulling us along in unhealthy ways. As Anne Wilson Schaef said, we live in an addicted society. She wrote, “The best-adjusted person in our society is the person who is not dead and not alive, just numb, a zombie. When you are dead you’re not able to do the work of the society. When you are fully alive you are constantly saying, ‘No’ to many of the processes of society, the racism, the polluted environment, the nuclear threat, the arms race, drinking unsafe water and eating carcinogenic foods. Thus, it is in the interest of our society to promote those things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like. In this way our modern consumer society itself functions as an addict.”
From the Buddhist viewpoint, is addiction considered an overactive desire?
It is simply viewed as a powerful and unhealthy desire. Desire can be healthy and benefit us. Desire can also be filled with clinging, fear and grasping, and then it becomes a source of suffering so addiction is misdirected and unhealthy desire. Buddhist teachings and practices help us step back, see clearly and release the attachment of unhealthy desire to free the heart and mind.
How does the Buddhist teachings help do this?
There are many ways. Trainings in meditation help, particularly trainings in mindfulness and self-compassion. Many Buddhist communities are sympathetic to the inner work of addiction. One of the Buddhist teachers who is particularly good with this is Noah Levine. He just wrote a book called Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction.
There are many free guided-meditations in mindfulness and compassion training both written and online. Just reading and listening to them can soothe the heart and remind you that it’s possible not to have to go through the cycle of suffering again. The teachings themselves become a replacement for the anxiety and pain of addiction, and help regulate body and mind and bring you back to greater ease and well-being.
Can Buddhist teachings be effective in combination with other forms of therapy and/or medications?
Yes. They can. I’m an “all of the above” person when dealing with problems as powerful as addiction. It’s important to draw on many streams of support: 12-step; AA; your community; your religious background; and trainings in mindfulness and compassion, as well as medication.
What is your view of AA and 12-Step programs?
I have enormous respect for their brilliance and heartfelt honesty and for the fierce community of spirit that they create. My friend, Anne Lamott the novelist writes, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.” It’s so important to have a community, A sangha or program of like-minded people who are suffering in the same way and who are also seeking inner relief, freedom and well-being for themselves and others and who do this with integrity. The 12-step program does all of this well. Also, the 11th step really teaches that you actually have to learn these capacities and deepen them and then they can transform you.
Do you think spirituality is a necessity in the recovery process?
I would say it’s important for most people because our soul and spirit needs to be connected to something greater than our small sense of self, our limited identity. Whether that spirituality is religious or for some simply feeling the sacredness of life there is a need to treasure yourself and others. The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness.” In whatever form it takes, spirituality moves us from a materialistic or depressed or self-critical perspective to a sense that life itself is sacred.
I have seen people from every religious tradition helped by Buddhist practices. You can employ the trainings in whatever way that they support your well-being and religious beliefs. The important thing to know is that there’s no need to become a Buddhist! Buddhist practices are offered freely to everyone, whether you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Agnostic or Atheist. Modern neuroscience has shown that through even eight weeks of inner training you can deepen self-compassion and mindfulness and unhook yourself from mindless states. These are our human capacities and Buddhist teachings offer some clear, direct and wonderful tools to do so. The point in the end is to live your life with a wise and compassionate, free heart—everyone can learn to do this.
What kind of role can forgiveness meditation play in recovery and healing?
It’s critical. On my website is a beautiful forgiveness meditation that comes from my book The Art of Forgivingness and Lovingkindness and Peace. Forgiving others and ourselves releases the heart so we do not continue to carry hatred. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you condone what has happened. In fact, you must protect yourself and say “I'll do all I can to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone again.” Forgiveness simply means not carrying hatred in your heart, but being willing to start anew. The most important forgiveness in addiction is self-forgiveness, a deep process of learning to hold yourself and your own self-betrayal and the suffering you caused to yourself and others with mercy and tenderness so that you can begin again.
Much of your work seems to emphasize compassion. Do you think our society as a whole lacks compassion, and do you think this lack of compassion may contribute to the society-wide issue of addiction?
I think it does. We’re so quick to judge ourselves and others. In one conversation with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers, we asked the Dalai Lama about self-hatred and self-judgment that people face as they begin to do these inner trainings. He was confused by the question. Apparently, there’s no word for self-hatred in Tibet. Finally, he looked at me when he figured out what we were talking about and he said, “But this is a mistake. Why would anyone do this?” However, our culture itself can be so judgmental and so critical that it encourages it. The medicine is the healing balm of self-compassion. There are beautiful trainings for this in the Buddhist tradition. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion is also a great source.
I want to share this story. A young army lieutenant who had a problem with anger was remanded by his supervising officer to do an eight-week training course in mindfulness. After the first six weeks of mindfulness training, he stopped on his way home at the super market. It was hot and crowded and the lines were long. He became irritated when he noticed that the woman in front of him was in the wrong line. She had only one item and should have been in the express line. The woman was carrying a little boy and she and the checkout clerk began cooing over the child. The lieutenant became more irritated. Then when the woman handed the kid to the clerk, he exploded inside and thought, “How thoughtless of her. Doesn’t she realize there is a long line of people trying to get home?” Since he had been practicing mindfulness, he could feel the anger build in his body and the pain it brought and he realized it wasn’t going to help anything. So he took some deeper breaths, relaxed and feeling the anger he let it soften. Gradually it subsided. When he got to the checkout clerk, he kindly noted to her, "That was a cute little boy you were holding back there.” She looked at him and said, “Oh, did you like him? He’s my boy. My husband was killed in Iraq last year, he was in the military, like you. So now I have to work full-time, and my mom takes care of my boy. She brings him in once a day so I can see him.” You see, we are so quick to judge other people, not knowing the struggles and difficulties that they carry. To learn to forgive and to bring compassion to others and ourselves can transform everything.
Where do you draw the line between being compassionate and being taken advantage of?
That’s interesting because people think that compassion and love are weak. Actually, love gives people the power to do amazing things, like a mother picking up a car off her child. And true compassion includes fierce compassion. It takes courage when you are truly compassionate. You don’t harm yourself or let others harm you. Rather than seeing compassion as a weakness, notice how as it grows, it benefits you and others. It gives you strength and courage to speak out with integrity and to change your life. It’s quite the opposite of weakness; it’s power.
Can someone with a mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia benefit from Buddhist teachings?
Yes, they can. In this area, I have a great respect for the benefit of medications, which can be so helpful for people who need them. At the same time, they too, can benefit from mindfulness and compassion trainings because these practices start by seeing the original goodness, the nobility and dignity of every human being. Society tends to look at people with mental illness very critically and then the mentally ill person internalizes that view and sees themselves as damaged. But mental illness does not determine who you really are. Who you really are is a being of spirit and soul born into this mysterious human incarnation. When you regard yourself with dignity and then use the help of these mindfulness and regulation tools they add to the sense of well-being and the moments of self-respect that can grow in your life.
In your book, Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are you state, “So, yes, LSD, mushrooms, Ecstasy, or Ayahuasca can bring healing and can grant us access to visionary and mystical realms, realms of tremendous, transcendent understanding. They can bring a perception of unity, the reality of our connection with everything…” You then go on to point out, “But you need to be careful. For some people the judicious use of these substances can open the mind and reveal how consciousness creates the world, that physical reality is created out of consciousness and not the opposite. For other people these drugs are a danger, particularly if one has a history of substance abuse or a family history of drug or alcohol addiction.” Why do you think some people are able to benefit from psychedelics while others cannot?
First, let me point out that in almost every culture worldwide, people use various practices like drumming and dancing and take substances to alter their consciousness. It can be simply smoking tobacco or chewing betel or quat or the powerful medicines like the sacred soma of the Hindus or the Ayahuasca in the Amazon or shamanac medicine in Africa or sacred peyote and mushroom ceremonies of the Native Americans. These substances are used to regulate us and change our consciousness and to step out of our everyday worries, and their use in rituals helps us have a sense of connection to the sacred. We know these medicines can be misused, but in traditional cultures they are usually done in a limited and sacred context.
Whether these are of benefit or danger depends on our history and our biology. If you have a genetic disposition toward addiction or you have a family history of addiction, that makes you much more susceptible to abuse these substances. On the other hand, there are now pilot trials at Johns Hopkins Medical School, NYU Medical School and UCLA using substances like psilocybin, in part, for the treatment of addiction. They’re finding that in certain cases they can be quite helpful in relieving addiction. While for some, these drugs can be a danger, for others, used in the right way they can have benefit, as these clinical trials are showing. For instance with smoking addiction, a guided session with psilocybin brought people to a realization of well-being and self-care that allowed 80% of people that had that session to stop smoking for an entire year afterwards. At its best, psilocybin gave people a sense of well-being and wholeness that was bigger than their addiction.
In your book, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology you state, “Buddhist psychology explains that before every act there is an intention, though often the intention is unconscious. We can use recognition, acceptance, investigation of suffering, and non-identification to create new karma. Through mindfulness and non-identification, we can choose a new intention. We can do this moment by moment, and we can also set long-term intentions to transform our life.” Do you think this can also apply to an addict acting on his or her addiction?
Absolutely. There’s long-term intention, in which, you might enter a program or start a path to free yourself from the pain and the suffering and sadness of your own addiction. By setting the compass of the heart in this direction, you envision your life as someone who frees themselves from the addiction and you see yourself as liberated, having wellness and well-being. That long-term vision and intention is critical. Then short-term intention is needed as well. In the moments when there is pain and the incredible power of desire and needing that comes with addiction, you can pause for a moment and take a breath and ask yourself, “What’s my deepest and best intention in this moment while I’m feeling this pain?” You can realize that your best intention is to take care of yourself and not go down this painful path again. In that moment, you can check in with your best intention and this gives you the power to connect with your long-term intention and tolerate the discomfort, difficulty and grasping. It helps you see that going down that path doesn’t have your best interest in mind. By practicing clear intention, the power of your heart grows stronger than the power of the addiction.
For someone who wants to learn about Buddhism, where do you suggest they start?
There is a wonderful book by Tara Brach called Radical Acceptance. My books, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace; Meditations for Beginners; and A Path with Heartmight be helpful, too. The works of Pema Chodron are also great. All of us offer guided meditations and practices. These can bring benefit to those who struggle with addiction.
Join Jack Kornfield in New York City for The Essence of Buddhist Psychology: A 1-Day Training for Meditators & Psychologists, presented by Omega Institute, November 8, 2014.
Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about addictions to sugar and tanning. Connect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.