Buddhist Recovery Network book review
“A Path With Heart: The classic guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life”
Rider, Random House, London, 2002. (Revised edition, first published 1993)
Paperback. 352 pages.
School/perspective: Theravada Buddhist practice and Vipassana meditation. Also a psychologist and psychotherapist
- Part I – A Path with Heart: The Fundamentals
- A Beginning
- 1. Did I Love Well?
- 2. Stopping the War
- 3. Take the One Seat
- 4. Necessary Healing
- 5. Training the Puppy: Mindfulness of Breathing
- Part II – Promises and Perils
- 6. Turning Straw into Gold
- 7. Naming the Demons
- 8. Difficult Problems and Insistent Visitors
- 9. The Spiritual Roller Coaster: Kundalini and Other Side Effects
- 10. Expanding and Dissolving the Self: Dark Night and Rebirth
- 11. Searching for the Buddha: A Lamp Unto Ourselves
- Part III – Widening Our Circle
- 12. Accepting the Cycles of Spiritual Life
- 13. No Boundaries to the Sacred
- 14. No Self or True Self?
- 15. Generosity, Codependence, and Fearless Compassion
- 16. You Can’t Do It Alone: Finding and Working with a Teacher
- 17. Psychotherapy and Meditation
- 18. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Problems with Teachers
- 19. Karma: The Heart Is Our Garden
- 20. Expanding Our Circle: An Undivided Heart
- Part IV – Spiritual Maturity
- 21. Spiritual Maturity
- 22. The Great Song
- 23. Enlightenment is Intimacy with All Things
- Appendix Insight Meditation Teachers Code of Ethics
- A Treasury of Books
“Repeated thoughts and stories are almost always fueled by an unacknowledged emotion or feeling underneath. These unsensed feelings are part of what brings the thought back time and again. Future planning is usually fueled by anxiety. Remembering of the past is often fueled by regret, or guilt, or grief. Many fantasies arise as a response to pain or emptiness. The task in meditation is to drop below the level of the repeated recorded message, to sense and feel the energy that brings it up. When we can do this, and truly come to terms with the feeling, the thought will no longer need to arise, and the pattern will naturally fade away.” (p. 106)
“We must see that spirituality is a continual movement away from compartmentalization and separation and toward embracing all of life. We must especially learn the art of directing mindfulness into the closed areas of our life. When we do, we will face the patterns from personal history, the conditioning that shields us from the pains of the past. To be free is not to rise above these patterns – that would only make new compartments – but to go into and through them, to bring them into our hearts. We must find in ourselves a willingness to go into the dark, to feel the holes and deficiencies, the weakness, rage, or insecurity that we have walled off in ourselves. We must bring a deep attention to the stories we tell about these shadows, to see what is the underlying truth. Then, as we willingly enter each place of fear, each place of deficiency and insecurity in ourselves, we will discover that its walls are made of untruths, of old images of ourselves, of ancient fears, of false ideas of what is pure and what is not. We will see that each is made from a lack of trust in ourselves, our hearts, and the world. As we see through them, our world expands. As the light of awareness illuminates these stories and ideas and the pain, fear, or emptiness that underlies them, a deeper truth can show itself. By accepting and feeling each of these areas, a genuine wholeness, sense of well-being, and strength can be discovered.” (p. 194)
© 1994, 2002 Jack Kornfield
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Jack Kornfield is a very wise man, and this book is a deep examination of Buddhist practice that sheds a great deal of light on the many misunderstandings that can arise. He possesses a keen sense of humour, conveyed through numerous anecdotes, both ancient and modern, which make this book a delight to read. I think the influence of psychotherapy on his writings perhaps makes it even more relevant for those in recovery, and some of his writing is outstanding (a chapter like “Searching for the Buddha: A Lamp Unto Ourselves” is a mini masterpiece.) It should be made clear though for people new to Buddhism that Kornfield represents a vision of Buddhism, not the vision. For instance his core belief that ‘we do not have to improve ourselves, we just need to let go of what blocks our heart’ (p. 209), is a simplification of what in other visions is a dual issue. The understanding that we are consciously trying to improve ourselves is clearly seen in other schools (for examples see Destructive Emotions with The Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman, or some of Sangharakshita’s writing, who is the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). Related to this is Kornfield’s use of ‘idealism’ as a dirty word, actually listing ‘nonidealism’ as one of the hallmarks of spiritual maturity. This would be queried by many Buddhists of other schools. Isn’t ‘truth’ an ideal? How can one lead a Buddhist life without upholding certain ideals? Kornfield is correct to point out that idealism has many perils and pitfalls, and someone of his maturity would no doubt feel quite jaded seeing the disillusionment and damage that can be wrought by naïve idealism. They can also be seen as a means to an end (the end being Enlightenment). However many of us would stress idealism’s positive side. It may even have been part of the vision that motivated us to practice Buddhism in the first place. I believe that where ideals are inspirational, and motivate us to summon the Effort to transform ourselves, they are to be celebrated. Where they turn ugly and become fascist taskmasters that make us lose touch with our (imperfect) humanity, then we perhaps should be cultivating a more healthy relationship with them. Take ‘mindfulness’. There is no question that the starting point of mindfulness is just letting go and being present. But this does not stop mindfulness being an ideal! The key issue in determining the weight you place on the ‘self-development’ or ‘self-surrender’ perspectives of Buddhist practice, is what works for you?
Jack Kornfield, an ex Therevadan Buddhist monk, psychologist, and now popular Western teacher, writes in a clear and flowing style that is immediately accessible to all levels of seekers. As Natalie Goldberg writes on the back cover, "A Path with Heart brings alive the possibilities of inner peace, wholeness and the achievement of a happiness that is not dependent on external conditions". With an ease and humour he blends his strength of spiritual practice and knowledge of psychology. By use of personal stories from his own experience he explains the path, and, it must be said, entertains us along the way. This book provides a universal guide for anyone seeking guidance on their spiritual journey, and he provides invaluable lessons in both how to stay with engaged practice on the path as well as avoid the many pitfalls and traps of the spiritual life.
Although clearly written from a Buddhist perspective, I nonetheless feel that this book is one of those rare gems that would appeal to anyone who is trying to live an authentic life, irrespective of their tradition or beliefs. Although, as stated above, this book has certainly not been written expressly for those of us in recovery, he touches on so many common aspects of recovery that it could easily have been. From his opening chapters of ‘Did I Love Well?’ and ‘Stopping the War’, he embarks upon a journey that is as pertinent to those of us in recovery as it is to anyone else. From healing to meditation, demons and difficulties, seeking and self, generosity and psychotherapy, teachers and community, forgiveness and service, and ethics to enlightenment, he covers a broad range of topics that will immediately speak to the heart of all of us in recovery from addiction. Maybe because of where I am at with my own journey, one of the chapters that spoke deepest to me was the one on Spiritual Maturity (Chapter 21). Kornfield lists ten areas that he believes are signs of such maturity, and these include non-idealism, kindness, patience, immediacy, integrated, questioning, flexibility, embracing opposites, relationship and ordinariness. Great stuff indeed, it certainly provides me a clearer clarity and framework of where I am at, as well as giving me plenty to further work upon. For all of us who wish to deepen and make more genuine their own journey, Jack Kornfield provides an illumination that lights up the path before us. I strongly recommend this book.
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