Excerpts & Experience from Jack Kornfield’s Labor Day Retreat

Eva and I attended Jack Kornfield’s Labor Day retreat at the Garrison Institute. He focused on the theme of suffering and the question, “How do we deal with our own particular measure of suffering, especially when people around us behave badly, and when our own minds behave badly?” Because that topic is very pertinent to concerns in the aftermath of Trump’s stunning win on election night, I will share highlights from the retreat.

Jack says that there are no glib answers to questions about suffering: “It’s not easy. [Amidst the ten thousand joys and sorrows of life,] we all experience loss, grief and heartache. The suffering of life is not our fault, and it is not a problem to solve or fix. Suffering is not the end of the story. We have the choice to respond with self-pity or with trust in the fundamental dignity of our innate Buddha nature.” According to Buddhist philosophy, we are born pure and innocent—with original goodness instead of original sin.

Jack reminds us of what Buddhist scholars call the “eight worldly winds”— joy and sorrow, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, and gain and loss. Despite the continuously shifting winds that buffet our lives, Booker T. Washington counsels, “Don’t ever let people pull you down so low that you hate them.”

During the retreat, our mantra was, “All we have is the present.” Returning to the present moment represents trust that the universe is unfolding as it should. We practiced watching the breath breathe itself and observing any experiences that arise around the breath. We tried to hold our suffering with compassion. Under Jack’s guidance, we resisted the temptation to grab hold of any “special” meditative experiences. In the process, we noticed that awareness itself acts as a trustworthy witness—or “the one who knows”— for whatever arises and passes away. At one point, Jack asked us to try to stop being aware. [TRY THAT NOW!]

Jack’s good sense of humor helped us not take our personal suffering too seriously. He lightened up the retreat with reminders that, “Meditation is not a grim duty!” and urged us to wear “the half-smile of the Buddha” while walking. Jack joked, “The good news is that we are not our thoughts!” The truth is that our essence consists of emptiness and love. Jack muses that those who are truly wise have suffered and yet know that they are not limited by their history. Our challenge is to live with a free heart while all is changing. Warning us that, “there is no enlightened retirement,” Jack pointed out that even gurus and swamis do not escape dealing with human suffering and incarnation. He quips, “Ram Dass and I are Jewish only on our parents’ side!” and states, “No matter what happens to us, we can choose our identity.”

Those who exemplify lightness of being uplift everyone around them. People are delighted by the Dalai Lama’s joyous laughter as much as they are touched by his capacity to carry the sorrows of all Tibetans. Many witnesses confirm that Norman Cousins laughed so much watching comedy movies for sixteen hours a day that there was no room left in his body for chronic pain and terminal illness.

Regarding the challenges of ongoing physical pain, Jack recommends, “Hold your pain gently as if it were a crying baby. Much of the pain is caused by resistance and contraction.” He stated, “Chronic pain wearies the mind. Learn how to be with it when you must. Otherwise, direct your attention elsewhere to a more wholesome and uplifting focus.” Jack’s advice is, “Just as regularly as you walk your dog, sit for the mind’s health and wellbeing. You don’t walk the dog to perfect the animal. Neither do you meditate to perfect the mind.”

Asked about his opinion regarding drugs and medications, Jack responded, that adventurous representatives from all cultures use intoxicants to stimulate profound insights and healing during non-ordinary states of consciousness. The USA is known for self-medication. Anti-depressants and bipolar meds can be lifesavers. And yet, instead of encouraging active children to run off steam naturally, many parents and teachers give them meds for ADHD. Jack wonders, “How can we treat a disabled child as “able” and as identified with a whole spirit rather than with a handicapped body or mind?”

When one meditator questioned, “Why is there evil in the world?” Jack responded, “To thicken the plot!” As a clinical psychologist, he knows that although trauma does not define us, it lives in the body and in our meditation experiences. He is open about his childhood role as a peacemaker in a family with a wife-beating father. Jack says, “Now I’m a peacemaker for a living!” He quotes the poet Mary Oliver: “For years and years, I struggled just to love my life.”

Since 1988, I have benefited from Jack’s kindness as my principle Dharma teacher. His kindness seems to have deepened over time. During the retreat, he stated, “Your body knows when it’s time to help others and when it’s time to care for yourself.” He reminisced about the now deceased Indian guru Dipa Ma, who gazed at him with a “glance of mercy” and hugged him tenderly when he was drowning in suffering. She loved him into trusting his own capacity to heal his wounded heart.

Jack says, “We have our feet in two worlds—the mundane and the spiritual….Meditation practice gives us a growing capacity to be present with the full range of experience.” Trauma is part of our human experience. When primitive fight, flight or freeze responses do not provide full release, our bodies hold stories and images that are connected to traumas of commission or omission. Often for catharsis and resolution, meditation practice must be supplemented by the healing presence of an experienced therapist. Under careful guidance, adults can feel emotions that were too scary to face in childhood. Without the ground of stability and wellbeing, re-living a trauma can be re-traumatizing. Trauma therapists like Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger, start by helping patients recall a time when they felt safe. Then they can gradually approach traumatic memories, releasing them a little bit at a time, pausing at intervals to reestablish grounding. Jack concludes, “Your trauma does not define you. Your spirit is free no matter what happens to you.”

*Let’s do a guided meditation for dealing with a difficult personal situation:

Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
Visualize or sense the presence of a difficult person sitting and facing you….
Be aware of sensations in your body.

Now excuse yourself for a moment to answer the doorbell.
Imagine a luminous being standing at the threshold. (Jesus, the Buddha, Green Tara, the Virgin of Guadalupe, etc.)
Exchange bodies and accompany the luminous being back to face the difficult person.
Learn from the luminous being how to handle the situation with a wise mind, an open heart, and a relaxed body.

Excuse yourself once again, accompanying the luminous being to the threshold.
Re-exchange bodies.
Receive a parting gift from the luminous being.
Receive words of wisdom.
Bid farewell to the luminous being.

Pause quietly and listen to your heart, connecting with your innate inner wisdom.
Trust that you know how to speak and act from the heart of wisdom.


Let’s close with Jack’s inspirational story of Dante and the transformative power of love: In 1300, the poet fell in love with Beatrice, a beautiful noblewoman whom he glimpsed on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. When she died of the plague soon afterwards, Beatrice became Dante’s muse for creating The Divine Comedy. In World War II, the Germans promised not to bomb the Ponte Vecchio if the Americans would agree not to use the bridge. So it was, out of international respect for Dante’s archetypal love for Beatrice.