Jeff Kober: Actor, Addict, Meditation Teacher

By Amy Dresner 06/20/15

Kober might look familiar if you’ve ever watched Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, NCIS, Bad Blood, Law and Order or really any television in the last 30 years. We sat down with him to pick his brain on meditation, alcoholism, feelings and ego.

Jeff Kober,
via Author

Jeff Kober might look familiar if you’ve ever watched Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, NCIS, Bad Blood, Law and Order or really any television in the last 30 years. But what really hits you when you meet him is his calm demeanor, humor and the smiling eyes of somebody plugged into something…bigger. Aside from being a terrific actor, he is a serious meditation teacher. I sat down with him to pick his brain on meditation, alcoholism, feelings and ego. 

What is Vedic Meditation?

Vedic Meditation is a simple mental technique that is performed for about 20 minutes, morning and evening. We do not try to silence the mind; rather, we use a mantra—a simple, meaningless sound—which guides the mind to an inner experience that is beyond thought. The source of this meditation is what is known as the Vedas, an ancient set of teachings that speak of consciousness as being the basis of all life. 

It is said in some 12-step programs that “feelings are not facts” but for addicts they can be so overwhelming that they really feel like they are facts. How does meditation help differentiate the two?

I’m someone who has always had really big feelings. A lot—perhaps all—of my drinking and using was about making my feelings different—changing them, deadening them, energizing them. So when I first stopped drinking and getting high, my feelings were as big as they always had been, and I had nothing to medicate them with. They were the loudest voice inside me, and so my actions were dictated by them. In order for me to be okay, my feelings had to be okay. But they aren’t okay. Feelings don’t get to the place of okay and then freeze. They change continually, based upon the most mundane of things—what I’ve had to eat, how much sleep I’ve had, the look you give me when I walk in the room. Identified as my feelings, I’m continually being led around by them, how they need to be changed and what I need to do to change them.

Meditation allows me to transcend the feelings, to go beyond them and begin to know myself as the place that underlies all these feelings. As the "experiencer" that always is there, behind the surface happenings of life. This place is the truth of what I am. Truth is that which never changes. It’s the same "me" that was there when I was five-years-old, and when I was 21, and when I was 51. That is the place I find in meditation, and when I know myself as that place, the feelings can do what the feelings do. They may be more or less uncomfortable, but they no longer determine my "okay-ness."

You’ve said: “I don’t care if I have the feeling or thought to hurt myself or someone else because it’s not me, it’s my ego.” Please explain more about the "ego."

There are a lot of different ways the term "ego" is used. In the Vedic worldview, as I said, consciousness is the basis of the universe. Life as we experience it can be described in terms of consciousness by the metaphor of the ocean. There is the whole, undivided ocean, and then there are waves upon that ocean. The waves are all separate, some taller, some shorter, some gentle, some more rough. Yet they all are ocean. When you’re in the ocean and you see a wave come through, you can see that the wave is simply an energy moving through the water. It is in no way a separate entity. We are like these waves. We are so caught up in our individual experience that we forget we are the ocean. 

Like this, I am this wholeness of consciousness. The truth of what I am, the unchangingness of me, is life itself, expressed individually through me. When I can remember this, when I can identify as this wholeness, the little opinionated mutterings of the ego can be seen for what they actually are, which it turns out is the least of what I am.  

I laughed hysterically when you said your alcoholism says either, “Fuck me, I should die or fuck you, you should die.” Please explain your take on this extremist thinking.

Alcoholism is a funny thing. It’s just this big, brash, destructive energy, crashing through your life. It doesn’t care what it destroys, as long as it gets to destroy something. It’s like destruction is its superpower, and it simply has to use it. And then it uses the intellect to come up with permission. It sees/feels the world as wrong, and then comes up with a story to explain to itself the why and the how of the wrongness. And it’s either you, or it’s me. And whichever one of us it is needs to die, so that the wrongness will subside. Cubby Selby used to say, “Sometimes I feel like a scream, looking for a mouth.” It’s like that. But again, the point of spiritual work is to find within yourself, and identify as, something other than that voice, that scream, that extremist thinking. 

Why do you think meditation is so important for addicts/alcoholics?

Meditation is the way by which we transcend all the noise in our head: the voices, the negativity, the screaming, the extremes of feelings and thoughts. A meditation practice that works allows us actually to go beyond all the garbage and begin to know ourselves as what we are that is other than all of that; the place within that is at one with life, quiet, in complete acceptance of self and others. Whereas the voices of ego or alcoholism see only what is wrong, this place within knows all that is right.

You’ve been sober for over 30 years, right? And you officially became a meditation teacher in 2007. Were you ever sober without meditating? And if so, what was the difference?

I’ve been without drugs and alcohol for a little over 29 years. And for much of that time, I was uncomfortable more often than not. I wasn’t miserable all of the time, but nor was I happy. You know, drugs and alcohol were my medicine. They were what worked to make it okay to be me. Take away my medicine, I still have the condition the medicine was treating, which is alcoholism, characterized by self-centered fear, immature emotional life, a sense of separation from life, from God, from others; the feeling of not belonging, of being restless, irritable and discontent. So me without a drink or a smoke or a whatever is me miserable, and just struggling to learn how to do this thing of life without anything to take the edge off. I tried different spiritual practices, went several times to India, etc. All of it helped a little. But nothing changed the game. It was still "how can I be just a bit less uncomfortable today?" Then about 13 years ago, I learned this meditation. And from that point to this, it’s been a different game.

You talk about people trying to fill this “hole.” That empty feeling is the core of many struggling with addiction. How does meditation help this?

According to Buddhism, this discomfort is a given. Pema Chodron speaks about the background hum of anxiety we are at the mercy of, what her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, called the "ubiquitous fear" that is part and parcel of life. They are saying that as this individuality, as this packet of meat, as a human, this is how life feels. Low level fear and anxiety, always, broken up by moments of happiness that is great enough to pull us out of the ubiquitous fear, and moments of terror, when the low level fear becomes more acute and takes over the whole of my experience. I think this is what is in that empty space inside. It’s these feelings. And we know that a drink or a puff or a snort or a pill will mask or alleviate these feelings for a moment, and take me out of the story of despair that gets told inside my head when these feelings are all that I know.

Again, meditation helps me to experience myself as something other than all these feelings. If this place of fear and anxiety is the "core" of me, that’s a pretty sad state of affairs; and a drink or a drug is perhaps an appropriate response to that state of affairs. But if I know myself as this other thing, as this bigger thing that is beyond these uncomfortable feelings, then I can simply experience the discomfort and move on. It’s not telling me that my life is hopeless. It’s not telling me I might as well die, because nothing ever will make this better. It’s just one sensation in a whole field of sensations, one color of thread in a whole tapestry of threads. And I can focus on it and make myself miserable; or, through meditation, I can pull back and see the whole picture. And the whole picture, as it turns out, is pretty sweet.

Aside from a feeling of wellbeing, connecting to your source, creativity, etc., what are the physical benefits of meditation?

Meditation has been shown, in study after study, to retard and sometimes even reverse aging. By lowering stress levels in the body, meditators are much less prone to heart attacks, cancer and even infectious disease. The body is designed to heal itself. The less stress we have, the more the body can do what it naturally wants to do. People report (and studies confirm) improvement in sleep quality. The lessening of stress from meditation improves physical performance. Studies which measure ability to perform complex tasks accurately, quickly and with a minimum of anxiety show that only six weeks of meditation improves performance by upwards of 40%. Look at the basketball teams coached by Phil Jackson. When you think about it, it’s simple physics: a stressed body is working against itself, always. 

You talk about meditation as helping end that binary thinking of good/bad, that labeling. Tell me more about that.

This is again that thing of am I this ego, or am I something greater than the ego? The teacher Dr. David Hawkins describes the ego as simply an outgrowth of the animal nature. Binary thinking and labeling is necessary for the animal to survive. From the first organism that evolved without chlorophyll, survival depended upon knowing what is food and what is poison; what is safety and what is danger. The animal survives by judging everything, all the time. So my animal nature, too, is doing this all the time. Dividing the world into those who are for me and those who are against me. And it doesn’t matter how "spiritual" I may be, or how long sober. This is the way of the ego. Then the question becomes: am I going to lend credence to these judgmental thoughts and act as if they are giving me useful knowledge? Or am I going to see this judgmental nature as a given and listen for the truth that is behind it, behave from the place of love that I am learning to know myself as that which underlies this whole system? As Bob Dylan says, "You’ve got to serve somebody." Am I going to serve the ego, by taking these judgments seriously, or am I going to serve God, by taking this underlying essence of love seriously?

You are also a terrific actor and an acting teacher.  Do you incorporate meditation into your instruction?

Thank you. And yes, I incorporate it a little. To the extent someone is able or willing to hear it. The truth for me is that acting is much like life—I’m always seeking to express something other than the small self and its endless parade of anxiety and need and paranoia. In acting, the voices of "What do you think of me?" are just like they are in life, only 100 times louder. So you have to insist even more on not listening to them, and listening for something other.

I’ve been an on and off meditator for the last two years but I struggle with the discipline. Is this common and why?

I think the most common reason for struggle with meditation and keeping it regular is because someone does not have a practice that really works for them. It’s not about stilling the mind. It’s about allowing my mind to be guided to the place of healing within. This didn’t happen consistently for me till I learned a technique that did the guiding for me.

Also, even with a practice that "works," it pays to remember that the intellect has been co-opted by the ego, and it’s the voice of the intellect that will be telling me whether or not I need to meditate today. And what happens to the ego each time I meditate? It loses its power. It gains nothing, only loses its power to be in the driver’s seat of my life. So to use my thinking to decide whether or not to meditate is like consulting the fox as to the relative safety of the fence around my henhouse. 

Many people feel that if they have thoughts during a meditation that they are not doing it right.  

The mind generates thoughts all day long. This does not stop when I sit down to meditate. And in fact the number of thoughts comes even more clear to me when I close my eyes. With a good meditation practice, we learn not to care about these thoughts. We learn rather to find the quiet out of which the thoughts arise. In actuality, our thoughts are only a small part of what is available to us in consciousness. We will be distracted by the thoughts, but we can come back to the silence—without judgment, without undue effort, without berating ourselves for doing it wrong. It’s the nature of the mind to think. We let it do what it does. I can’t stop it. I can, however, decide, again and again, whether I’m going to give my attention to the thoughts, or to the space behind them.

12-step programs in their 11th step suggest prayer and meditation. In your opinion, what is the difference? And do you do both? I’m not a big one for prayer unless it’s an emergency!

Meditation is absolutely essential to guide me, again and again, to the place within that is other than the small self. I’ve spent decades behaving as this small self. I’m going to need a lot of practice to begin to know myself as this large self. So for me, I need this meditation practice twice daily. 

Prayer is for those times in life when I am stuck in the experience of small self. When fear seems to be appropriate and when thoughts of "kill, kill! die, die! There’s something terribly wrong here!" are the only voice in my head. At those times, prayer is the tool that reminds me "I am not this," the tool by which I can support myself to listen beyond the noise for that "still, small voice" that is there, patiently waiting to guide me to the next right action.

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2011. She recently wrote about the documentary, The 13th Step.



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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.