DT-JK-Courage of the Heart

Tonight, as I speak about the heart’s capacity for courage, I will share some insights from my dharma teacher, Jack Kornfield. He points out that our encounters with limitations and challenges often nourish and strengthen our spirit. Jack’s teacher Ajahn Chah called this “practicing against the grain,” or “facing into one’s difficulties.” 

Every one of us has periods and situations that test our resilience. We may face the pain or illness of a child or a parent we love dearly. Sometimes we confront losses in our career or business. Other times we deal with loneliness, confusion or fear. At times we are forced to live with painful circumstances or with difficult people. Yet, as Jack says, through these very difficulties, we can learn the true strength of our practice. 

My nephew Schuyler has been practicing meditation regularly for several years. During the pandemic, he and his wife worked remotely from home while caring for their two young daughters, aged two and three. To add to that stressful situation, the couple became very concerned when their older child, Eleanor, lost a significant amount of weight and complained about belly pain. After numerous medical tests, their pediatrician found that the little girl has celiac disease. Because she cannot digest any gluten, the whole family has radically changed their diet. Schuyler recognizes that meditation has helped him to keep his balance as he learns to accept and adapt to his daughter’s special needs. He is grateful to know what is ailing her and how to alleviate her distress. 

In trying times, the wisdom and lovingkindness that we have cultivated can be our chief resources. As meditating and praying soothe our heartache, we can meet the forces of greed, hatred, fear, and ignorance with the courage of our heart. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe, declared, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” Her bold, dramatic paintings express the courage of her determination. 

Joseph Goldstein points out that before the Buddha’s enlightenment, even he had to confront fear in his mind. He chose to meet this challenge by practicing diligently and systematically in remote jungles:

And while I dwelt there, a wild animal would come up to me, or a peacock would knock off a branch, or the wind would rustle the leaves. I thought, “What now if this is fear and dread coming?… Why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread while keeping the same posture that I am in when it comes upon me? 

While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither stood nor sat nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I stood, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked not sat nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread. While I sat, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked not stood nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread. While I lay down, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked not stood nor sat down until I had subdued that fear and dread.

Freedom is born out of our capacity to work with whatever energy or difficulty that arises. With practice, we can enter wisely into all the realms of this world—pain and beauty, sickness and health, war and peace. In Jack’s words, “We can’t find freedom in some other place or some other time; we must find it here and now in this very life.”

One of my friends sent me a video created by her 10-year-old grandson, Rafi, who exemplifies this kind of freedom. In his introduction, he talks openly about his premature birth, when he weighed only two pounds, and about being the smallest, shortest student in his class at school. Then Rafi speaks enthusiastically about his training in Ninja Warrior Sports. Several film clips document his ability to move with speed and dexterity through very challenging obstacle courses that would be daunting for bigger, slower-moving boys his age. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Rafi is training both his body and his mind. Courageously, he is transforming what could be perceived as a handicap to foster skills that give him confidence and a sense of wellbeing. 

Unless we train the mind, we usually see only two possible ways to deal with our problems. One way is to deny them and to try to fill our lives with only positive feelings and pleasant experiences. We discover that this strategy of “half-living” does not work because anything that we suppress surfaces in some form. The body and mind are so interconnected that they affect each other. Repressed thoughts and worries often lead to physical symptoms like painful ulcers or itchy skin rashes. If I hold my breath and store problems in my body, my mind can become rigid or filled with fear. 

On the other hand, the second strategy—to react by venting feelings about each difficult situation—is equally unsuccessful. If we complain about everything we dislike and express all of our negative opinions, our habitual reactions grow tiresome, painful, confusing and overwhelming. 

A third alternative is to use the power of our wakeful and attentive heart to bring loving awareness to our problems. To illustrate how to approach difficulties in a wise and mature way, Jack refers to the traditional story of a poisoned tree. 

When they first discover the poisoned tree, most people see only its danger. Their immediate reaction is, “Let’s cut down the tree before we are hurt and before anyone eats the poisoned fruit.” This aversive reaction resembles our initial response to difficulties that arise in our lives. We’d rather not deal with stress, loss, conflict, depression, or sorrow. We try to deny aggression, compulsion, greed, or fear in ourselves and others. Our initial tendency is to avoid uncomfortable mental and emotional states. We treat them as if they are poisons that we wish to eradicate.

People who have journeyed further along the spiritual path encounter the poisoned tree without aversion. They realize that openness to life requires a deep and heartfelt compassion for all sentient beings. Sensing their interconnection with the poisoned tree, they decide, “Let us not cut it down. Instead, let’s have compassion for the tree.” Out of kindness, they build a fence around the tree so that it can continue to grow, while other creatures are protected from being poisoned. This approach shows a crucial shift from judgment and fear to compassion.

A person who is spiritually mature greets this same tree with a welcoming attitude: “Oh, a poisoned tree. Perfect! Just what I was looking for.” This wise one picks the poisoned fruit, investigates its properties, mixes it with other ingredients, and uses the poison as a homeopathic medicine to heal the sick and transform the ills of the world.

Jack concludes that our difficulties give us opportunities to develop the seeds of wisdom, peace, and wholeness. Through facing our problems with courage, we learn ways to deepen our practice. We stop defining ourselves according to successes and failures, and we begin to trust our deepest intuition. Tough situations can be the best time to meditate, to steady our hearts, and to practice patience, generosity and compassion. 

Mark Nepo’s poem called “Adrift” points to the paradox of finding beauty amidst pain:

Everything is beautiful, and I am so sad.This is how the heart makes a duet ofwonder and grief. 

The light spraying through the lace of the fern 

is as delicateas the fibers of memory 

forming their webaround the knot in my throat. 

The breezemakes the birds move from branch to branchas this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost,in the next room, in the next song, in the laughof the next stranger. 

In the very center, underit all, 

what we have that no one can takeaway, and all that we’ve lost, face each other.It is there that I’m adrift, 

feeling puncturedby a holiness that exists inside everything.I am so sad, and everything is beautiful.

I’ve adapted a meditation from Jack’s book A Path with Heart to help us reflect upon difficulties in our lives: 

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. 

As you settle down quietly, feel the rhythm of your breathing, and allow yourself to become calm and receptive. 

Then think of a difficulty that you face, in your spiritual practice or in any area of your life. As you contemplate this problem, take your time…. 

Notice how it affects your body, how it feels in the heart, and how its energy impacts the mind…. 

Carefully reviewing your relationship with this difficulty, ask yourself the following questions, listening inwardly for their answers.

How have I approached this difficulty so far?

How have I suffered because of my reactions to it?

What does this problem ask me to release?

Does this difficulty entail some unavoidable suffering? 

Can I accept my measure of suffering in life?

What happens if I bring tender compassion to all aspects of this difficulty?

How can I respond with courage? 

What lesson might the difficulty teach me?

What is the value hidden in this situation?

In using this reflection to consider your difficulties, understanding and insight may arise slowly. Take your time. As with all meditations, it can be helpful to repeat this reflection a number of times, listening each time for deeper answers from your body, heart and spirit.