A Path with Heart

January 14, 2008

A Path with Heart is a heart-provoking book by Jack Kornfield, psychologist, author, and teacher/co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Center located in Woodacre, Marin Country, California. The book is wise, warm, funny, inspiring, occasionally frustrating, but it can grab hold of your heart and penetrate right to the core. That said, I had to read the book ever-so-slowly over several months (fortunately, my public library let me renew it several times) and I was tempted more than once to put the book aside and return it to the library unfinished.

Finding the book. I started the book almost by accident. I toyed around with meditation last summer and slowly getting more serious with the encouragement of close friends. One conversation led me to say, half-jokingly, that I didn’t need to get involved with Buddhism (or any other religion) if the main outcome was simply to replace the rituals and constraints of Judaism (which I was comfortable with, but no longer interested in) with another set of rituals and constraints. To which my friend replied, check out Jack Kornfield.

That advice was enough to send me over to Buddhist shelf at the New Renaissance Bookshop. Sitting on the shelf was a copy of Meditation for Beginners with CD inside containing several guided meditations. I took this home, opened the CD right away, and started listening/practicing. Less than one minute into the first session, Kornfield had his group convulsing with laughter over the difference (there is a difference!) between sleeping and meditating. I was hooked. I’ve practiced with the help of this CD on many occasions, but I still haven’t read the book.

So, persuaded that Kornfield might be worthy of a deeper look, I found myself a week or two later looking up his books at the local library. They had several, but A Path with Heart seemed like the one that was best suited for me. After all, here I am trying to practice meditation without a teacher, without a clear sense of my goals, and without any genuine understanding of what returns I could expect. A book that subtitle’s itself A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life should be just the ticket, right?

Getting started. The preface, A Beginning, pulled me right in. Kornfield tells how, after becoming a Buddhist monk in southeast Asia, he returns to the US in 1972 and, wearing full monk regalia, he meets up with his sister-in-law at an upscale beauty salon in Manhattan. Mr. Shaved Head, please meet Mrs. Curlers.

The next set of chapters, The Fundamentals, explores how meditation can unlock many of the emotional problems that we carry, either knowingly or unknowingly, and how skillful understanding of these problems can free us so that we may experience more love, understanding, and compassion, into our lives.

Losing interest. After racing through the first section, I started getting bogged down in the two lengthy sections that followed, Promises and Perils and Widening Our Circle. I think much of this material deals with promises/perils that arise only after one had been meditating for a fairly long time (or intensively). I don’t think my daily 20 minute sessions will get me into either of these realms any time soon. Faced with 200 pages of this material, I began to slow down, leave the book on the shelf, and find other things to do.

I should also mention another problem that I encountered at this point. Many (but certainly not all) of the Promises and Perils involved esoteric spiritual phenomena like “dissolving the body into light”, “experiencing past lives”, and “telekinesis”. Since I am by nature, and by training, hyperskeptical of such claims, I began to think that Buddhist meditation was not the right direction for me after all. Why sit each day if the only goal is to become transformed into something that I consider delusional?

Interest restored. Fortunately, just when all seemed lost and I was on the verge of returning the book to the library, Kornfield turned the wheel again. The ultimate goal of meditation, if I understand him correctly, is not to hunt for esoteric experience but to move one’s awareness of love, compassion, and understanding from the meditation cushion into the world. Many of the chapters in Widening the Circle, and the final section, Spiritual Maturity, deal with this topic, and I would have happily read more material in this vein.

One of the truly lovely things in the book are the instructions for meditations that are inserted throughout the book. They usually appear at the end of a chapter, and they remind me of the end-of-chapter exercises one finds in a science textbook.

Although Kornfield provides many references to Buddhism, its teachers, its writings, and its legends, this is not a book about Buddhism. In fact, there is no formal presentation of religion at all. Kornfield dips frequently into the writings of non-Buddhists: Gandhi, Rumi, various poets and politicians, Mullah Nasrudin, Thomas Merton, Hasidic sages, and on and on. Kornfield insists that every religion, at its best, enables its followers to discover their ability to understand, show compassion, and ultimately love, others. Every religion provides a spiritual path. Two quotes from the final page:

To live a path with heart, a life committed to awakening, we, too, must care for whatever we encounter, however difficult or beautiful, and bring to it our presence, our heart, in a great intimacy.

I hope that this book and the practice of wakefulness, compassion, and intimacy in it will bring blessings to your life, that you will have silence as a blessing, understanding as a blessing, forgiveness as a blessing, and that you, too, will bring your heart and your hands to bless all around you.

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One Response to “A Path with Heart”

  1. […] decided cheap was best, so I left the bookstore for the local library. This led me to A Path With Heart, a wonderful, but rather lengthy, book on “the perils and promises of spiritual life.” […]

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