Love & Well-Being
with Trudy Goodman Kornfield and Jack Kornfield
The final Lifespan Learning Institute’s IPNB conference, usually held at UCLA campus, was held in Marina del Rey in April, 2019. The theme was Timeless Wisdom, Timely Action. I have been going to the annual conference for about 10 years and so it was a bittersweet weekend. The subtitle describes the intent of the conference – Interconnection, Awareness, and Identity in the Cultivation of Compassion and Well-Being. We explored many elements of our connections and disconnections because of the barriers we held or had been culturally created around us. The presentation by Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman Kornfield was just one of the opportunities to explore ourselves within and without. There was much to discover.
Richard Hill, Editor
I’m very happy to be here, especially happy to be here with my beloved Trudy. We got married last summer in Hawaii, in Ram Dass’s garden. First year of marriage has been great. So far, so good. I’m also pleased to see all of you. Before we start, I just want to get a little sense of who’s here. How many of you are in the helping profession? Okay, that’s almost everybody. A few clients you dragged along with you, I can see, but mostly therapists. How many are educators? Wonderful, thank you. Artists? Yay! Scientists? Wonderful. Business people? Great. Let’s see, politicians? No? Come on! How many of you have an established mindfulness or meditation practice for quite a time? Almost half.
To start, let’s take a breath, maybe even three breaths, and come into the present, in this room, in the midst of this conference. Feel your breath and your body and just being alive here and now.
For our theme, and the theme of the conference, we chose mindfulness, consciousness, well-being, and then we threw in love, just to make sure we covered all the bases. These are all profound topics and a little bit mysterious—no one quite knows what consciousness is, or what love is, just like we know that there’s gravity and there are all the equations in physics, but no quite knows what is gravity or what is light. Here we come together in this mystery of our human incarnation to inquire, and to share, and to somehow wake up to this amazing circumstance where we find ourselves. I want to read a poem to start, from Ellen Bass, who’s one of my favorite poets: a poem about a woman in a Portland airport, gate C22. The poem is called “Gate 22,” and you can find it in her book The Human Line (2007).
I read this to invite all of us into the room, our emotions, especially our longing for love, which is part of this mystery of being alive as a human being: a longing for connection, our ability to pay attention in these gifted and beautiful ways. Alas, we live in a time in which, as you all know . . . and most of you are healers, and therapists, and so forth . . . in which, with a kind of multitasking and busy complexity, we short-change ourselves and who we are and our connection with one another. Albert Einstein, according to Scientific American, reportedly said, “If you can drive safely while kissing a girl, you’re simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
So how do we operate in these times, how do we serve others, how do we understand love as in that poem, and consciousness itself, well-being? With these kinds of questions, I went to train in monasteries as a Buddhist monk after graduating from college. I had asked the Peace Corps to send me to a Buddhist country and ended up in Thailand. I hoped to find a master teacher after reading all those old Zen stories, and I found there are still some wonderful masters. But I also went to heal my own suffering. I grew up in a family where my father was quite violent, and abusive, and paranoid, and the whole family system of myself and my three brothers and mother was filled with fear and confusion. I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions, with my anger, with the fear, with actually how to be in a healthy relationship. And finding a wise teacher, he taught these things, but he started with something more mysterious. He started with the deep question, “Who are you? And what is it to be human? And what is the nature of your consciousness itself?” And whenever you ask these questions, it’s clear that they can’t be answered by Google. You have to look deeply. How do you enhance well-being and love? And who are you deeply?
Since this conference is about consciousness itself, let me raise some questions about consciousness that are interesting and tough. And if you happen to be a scientist, one of the most helpful things in science is to have data points that are outside the current paradigm, or the belief that you have. It was only having those data points that led from Copernicus and Galileo to Newtonian physics to quantum physics and to Einstein’s equations and beyond. So here are a couple of points to consider.
When I first started meditating intensively, I did a yearlong retreat in silence, meditating 18 hours a day. I started to have out-of-the-body experiences. We’ve had lots of accounts of them. People in accidents will report that while they looked like they’re completely unconscious, they were floating above watching. And they can even tell you afterward what the EMTs and paramedics did in ways that they could not have seen. So there I was floating out of my body, looking out the window . . . and there’s my body lying over there, and I thought, “Wow, consciousness doesn’t necessarily have to be located right here”—not an uncommon experience.
Here’s another data point: I was on my way to see my beloved sister-in-law, Esta. She was at the last stages of dying of breast cancer, my youngest brother’s wife. And I’d been with her a lot. I went home to sleep, and it was on my way early in the morning, rushing to get there because I knew she was close, I had to stop in the drug store. As I’m rushing and checking out, all of a sudden my whole body relaxed. And I felt, “Oh, Esta died.” When I get in the car, I pick up the cell phone and call my brother Kenneth. “How’s Esta?” And he said, “Oh she died five minutes ago.” And I said, “I know.” But it’s not just me that knew. Many of you have had this experience. I remember several times while traveling in Asia that friends knew when their family members had died or had an emergency. How is this possible?
I think of a hospice director, a colleague of mine, who for 15 years ran the biggest hospice in Seattle. A family came to see him one morning. They said, “We’re gonna visit our father who’s 88 years old and close to death, but we have a conundrum. We don’t know whether to tell him that his younger brother was killed in a car accident yesterday.” They said, “Should we leave him to have a peaceful death, would hearing this upset him?” The hospice director said, “I can’t answer. Let’s go together in the room and see how your dad is doing.” The father was lying there quite close to death, drifting in and out of consciousness. But he saw them in present, and they greeted him. And then he looked at them after a couple minutes and he said, “Don’t you have something to tell me?” And they said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, my brother died.” They said, “How do you know?” He said, “Oh, I’ve been talking to him since last night.”
So you who are scientists or psychologists, what do you do with this story? What is consciousness? Do you think it’s really just an artifact of brain neural activity? That’s one explanation, but it may not be sufficient.
That’s what I said to my dad when he was dying and he said, “I’m a scientist, I’m just gonna go back to dirt.” And I said, “Yeah, but around the world people report another perspective. I too have sat with people who are dying, and they report floating out of their bodies, seeing light. Beyond experiences of all the pain and suffering, you transcend that in near-death experiences, and there comes a sense of well-being, of wholeness, as you move out of your body.” He kept shaking his head. I said, “Okay, well, you’re a scientist, so keep an open mind, check it out, and if it happens, remember I told you so.”
What is consciousness? In Buddhist psychology our human experience is made of three things. It’s made of sense impressions, consciousness—which is the knowing faculty that receives experience—and then the whole set of mental qualities, which might be fear, or love, or grasping, or generosity, or appreciation, or clarity, or confusion, that determine the relationship of consciousness, which is pure, just the clear knowing with the experience that arises. And one of the mysteries of consciousness and deep meditation is like light: it has both a particle and a wave nature. There are moments of consciousness with seeing, and a moment with hearing, and a moment with tasting or smelling. But also consciousness can be experienced as a field, a field of awareness. And this is actually who you are. You are awareness that was born into this human body. How do you think you got in here? You know, this thing with a hole at one end into which you stuff dead plants and animals regularly, you know, and grind them up and push them down through the tube. You ambulate by falling one direction and catching yourself, and falling the other direction, and it’s bizarre. But here you are, you’re in this human incarnation, and consciousness came, and spirit came into your life. What you are actually is the consciousness itself. But look closely, see what you think.
Now, we can look at consciousness. My teacher Ajahn Chah, he went to visit the greatest master of his time because he’d been mediating and having all these experiences, Samadhi, and light, and insight, and so forth. He told about these experiences, and the master peered back at him and said, “Chah, you’ve missed the point. Those are just experiences.” It’s like being in the movies: there’s a war movie, or a documentary, or a love story, or a comedy. He said, “That’s just what’s on the screen. For you to find freedom and discover who you are, turn your attention back to the awareness itself, become the one who knows. Become the witnessing, the knowing. And then you can see the whole game will rise and fall, but you’ll rest in your true nature.”
Mindfulness invites us to do just that: to turn our attention first to the experience of the present moment, but then to look back and begin to notice that there is consciousness itself, there is awareness, which you can’t escape. It’s like fish in water. There’s the space of knowing that is ever-present for you. A little experiment: When I say go, do anything you can to stop being aware. Close your eyes, plug your ears, “I’m gonna not be aware.” Go! . . . Ha, ha, right? You can’t do it. And what you start to realize is that awareness is trustworthy. It is present exactly where we are.
Now with this awareness, when we rest in awareness, which also I’m using as a synonym for consciousness, you begin to shift from reactivity, from grasping things and resisting them. You become the witnessing of experience, which is spacious, gracious, both present and, at the same time, in that presence it has balance and ease. And then one of its other mysterious qualities is it doesn’t identify with things. Normally we identify with the body being our self, with the personal history, “this is who I am,” or with our political point of view, or with our gender, or our roles, and “I’m a teacher” or whatever we are, our race and so forth. Consciousness has the ability to identify with things, which is really mysterious, but they’re not who you are. They’re temporary roles, all of them. Like Jules Feiffer shows in a cartoon: the man is sitting disconsolately saying, “I inherited my father’s way of dressing and sartorial style.” Second panel, “I inherited my father’s politics and his views about the world.” Third, “I inherited my father’s attitudes and his way of responding to things.” And the last panel, “And I inherited my mother’s contempt for my father.”
Reprinted from Mind, Consciousness, and Well-Being. Copyright © 2020 by Mind Your Brain, Inc, and Marion F. Solomon. Shared with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.