When we’re deluged by bad-news stories, it’s hard to not feel discouraged or even depressed. But, according to Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield, falling into despair is not a response that helps anyone—not you, nor your community or the world. Instead, he argues, we must aim for compassion, caring, and equanimity.
In this conversation, the acclaimed author of books like A Path with Heart and The Wise Heart offers up his perspective on suffering and what we can do to maintain our caring heart, using practices honed over thousands of years from traditional wisdom traditions. Many of these have been validated by researchers studying the new science of personal and social well-being, suggesting an interesting confluence between ancient traditions and modern science.
If you want to hear more, Kornfield will be expanding on these ideas in a session at The Science of Happiness: Live, the GGSC’s special three-day event on May 2-5, 2019, in Northern California.
Jill Suttie: How do you define happiness?
Jack Kornfield: Happiness has lots of meanings. We’re happy if there’s safety and security in our life, and we’re happy in the deepest way when we feel a sense of belonging and connection with one another, and with the beautiful world around us. We’re happy if we have a sense of purpose and meaning; we’re happy if we can learn to tend our own heart and mind in a way that brings inner well-being and peace and joy amidst the vicissitudes of life.
Happiness in the deepest sense is not a feeling state or a succession of pleasures, but a deep sense of well-being and an appreciation for life itself, with all of its mystery and changes.
JS: How can we find happiness when there is so much suffering in the world?
JK: There is inevitably suffering in every human life, and nothing insulates us from this—no amount of money, success, fame, or accomplishment. But it’s possible to cultivate and develop a sense of well-being, joy, deep happiness, and worth, even amidst the difficulties of life. I’ve been in the poorest refugee camps and seen people move with more dignity, connection to others, and love than in circumstances of tremendous wealth and prosperity.
If you go to work in a refugee camp, it doesn’t help the people there if you are depressed or unhappy. When you are working with people in difficulty, they don’t want you to come with your fears and confusion.
Yes, compassion is important; but joy is also important—it is what the French philosopher André Gide called “a moral obligation.” Our gift to the world comes as much through our being and presence, our smile and touch, our sense of possibility and the mystery of human life, as it does in the specifics of what we do. Wherever we go, we can be a beacon of well-being, love, and care that not only touches but uplifts those whom we encounter.
Greater Good is part of a new movement in Western psychology toward positive states, drawing on capacities built into the ancient wisdom traditions of the world. Buddhist psychology is the opposite of the medical model of Western psychology, which focuses on diagnosing and healing pathology. Buddhist psychology is focused on human well-being and offers practical ways to build joy, caring, compassion, a peaceful heart, a liberated spirit, and an inner sense of freedom among the vicissitudes of life.
Modern neuroscience confirms that we can learn to steady our attention, quiet our minds, and open our hearts in a systematic way. Simple practices of mindfulness, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, and compassion positively affect our health and well-being, and beneficially affect all those that we touch. These states are our birthright; they are possible for us as human beings.
JS: But there must be challenges to living more joyfully. How can we overcome them?
JK: Part of what may get in the way is that we feel it’s wrong to have an inner happiness. When there’s ongoing injustice in the world—grain elevators full of food while children are starving; conflicts and fears of terrorism, while we continue to sell billions of dollars of weapons and spread them around the globe—we all know something’s wrong with this picture.
The world doesn’t need more food—we have plenty to share—and it doesn’t need more weapons. It needs more care and connection, it needs more love. We know this as surely as we know our own name. And yet, because we can’t change all of this at once, we feel overwhelmed, guilty, or ashamed, or that it’s not right for us to have a measure of happiness.
In a remarkable poem by poet Jack Gilbert called “A Brief for the Defense,” he says: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the devil.”
It doesn’t mean that we don’t do all we can to make a difference—to stretch our arms and mend the places we can with our own given capacities, to plant good seeds, to stand up for justice, to heal what is broken. This is part of what gives us meaning and well-being. But to do so with a joyful heart is a very different thing than to act out of anger, guilt, fear, or despair.
JS: Is there a role for gratitude in finding happiness during hard times?
JK: Gratitude and appreciation are a deep dimension of happiness. Our media and our news tend to focus on the problems—a bombing, an earthquake, a murder, or a conflict—but these are actually anomalies. Each time there is a bad piece of news that gets publicized, there are 100 million acts of goodness that happen in that same hour—people putting a plate of cooked spaghetti in front of their child, people stopping at a red light so you can safely pass on the green, people planting gardens and designing new homes, millions of acts of goodness. Then there’s the beauty of life itself, where even after a rainstorm, we see the lavender reflections of the sunset in the puddles in the street.
If we pay attention with a tender heart, we can see the eyes of passersby—sometimes weary, sometimes hurried—with all of their humanity on display. There are always birds in the sky, and the dazzling display of clouds, weather, blueness, and stars that meets our uplifted eyes. How can we not see the mystery of incarnation and appreciate life?
If you step into the street, and a car comes rushing by, you jump onto the curb to save your life—you care about your life. Every cell of your body carries this appreciation. Gratitude is loving attention that brings into the heart the sense that we belong here in this life. And, with each step, each smile, each gesture, we can add our gift and add our part in small and large ways.
JS: People sometimes have trouble accessing gratitude, though, right?
JK: The mind has a million channels. We can tune into the channels of depression and fear, or we can tune into the channels of connection and love. Our brain is wired this way. We have a primitive brain that is easily activated into a fight, flight, or freeze response. Much of the modern news cycle works to capture our attention by trying to scare us. This is the aim of modern politics, too. We can all feel the growing level of anxiety in our culture and globally.
But there are other channels. In that same moment, we can see the fiction and the manipulation that often accompanies politics and the media’s attempt to scare us and capture our attention through our fears. We can also look around and see that there is enormous beauty in the world and zillions of acts of kindness at the very same time. Depending on what seeds we water and where we direct our attention, we can live in fear and confusion or we can activate many other powerful dimensions of our own heart and mind—of caring, confidence, equanimity, and well-being. These are innate in us and with care can be enhanced and awakened.
In my decades of working as a Buddhist teacher and psychologist, I’ve seen how even a little training in compassion, gratitude, generosity, mindfulness, and loving awareness can change a difficult situation in moments. Whatever seeds we water will grow in our minds and hearts.
JS: Do you think that individuals practicing gratitude impacts those around them? If so, how?
JK: How could it not? It’s a joy to spread well-being, but it’s also a moral force. When the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explained this, he said that when the crowded refugee boats met with storms and pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person in the boat remained centered and calm, it was enough to show the way for everyone to survive. We become that person on the boat of the world when we center ourselves with a peaceful heart, with a spirit of care and well-being. This affects all those around us.
Though gratitude is a beautiful quality, I don’t know if it’s the right word. I think caring is what we’re looking for—caring for yourself, for this life, the human community, the earth, for one another. Caring has love, awareness, gratitude, and appreciation all in it.
“Wherever we go, we can be a beacon of well-being, love, and care that not only touches but uplifts those whom we encounter.”
You ask, can changing your inner life make a difference in the troubles of the world? Nothing else can! No amount of technology, computers, Internet, artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotechnology, or space technology is going to stop continuing racism, warfare, environmental destruction, and tribalism. These all have their source in the human heart.
The outer developments that are so remarkable in our human world now need to be matched by the inner developments of humanity. These inner developments can awaken compassion for ourselves and others. They grow from loving attention and awareness, they develop a deep sense of interconnection, of care and social and emotional wisdom. This is the great task of modern times. To bring the inner level of human consciousness up to the level of our outer development. Nothing else will really make a difference.
JS: Do you ever find yourself despairing?
JK: Underneath it all, I have a deep sense of trust. As Dr. King stated, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Of course, like everyone, I have different moods, and certain events I find discouraging and terribly painful. When leaders in the world act in ways that are tragic—in the great sense of the Greek word tragedy, where you see the course of human events set in motion so that they will bring suffering to many people, and there isn’t an easy way to turn it around—my heart breaks and I weep.
But tragedy and comedy, and joy and sorrow, make up this human life. Tragedy is not the end of the story. Suffering is only the first of the Buddha’s Noble Truths: There is suffering in life. Then the second and third Noble Truths go on to teach its causes and, most beautifully, its end. There are things we can do, in every circumstance, even the most terrible ones, that alleviate suffering and turn us in a different direction. There is always a ground for human nobility and love. And that’s what gives me hope and energy.