Book Review of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to love The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. In this truly wise book, clinical psychologist and Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield weaves together real-life stories with spiritual insights to show how to live with greater love, happiness, and equanimity.
The essential teaching of The Wise Heart is mindfulness. Kornfield describes mindfulness as attention, a non-judging and respectful awareness, and he invites us to bring mindfulness to our own thoughts and emotions.
Being mindful of our thoughts means “stepping aside” internally, just slightly, and “watching” our thoughts, rather than being lost in them. The more we observe, the more we realize that a great deal of our thinking is chatter–repetitive, anxious, judgmental, and self-critical. In fact, if our own thoughts were being whispered in our ear by someone else, Kornfield says, we would be angry at the constant stream of negativity. But we do it to ourselves!
Kornfield is not advising us to try to banish habitual, unconstructive thoughts from our minds. It’s impossible. Rather, awareness is the goal. When we observe our thoughts with compassion and a little distance, we don’t get caught up in them. We no longer believe everything we think.
Kornfield is not putting down the brain; it is a very important tool. But unless observed consciously, the brain does not serve us well. As one of Kornfield’s teachers put it, “thoughts make a good servant but a poor master.”
The development of mindfulness requires effort–the kind of effort that is gentle, not harshly judgmental. When we observe our thoughts without judgment, explains Kornfield, we more deeply accept ourselves.
For example, I may notice in a group that I yearn for recognition, or I might see that I’m trying to persuade myself that I was right and my colleague was wrong, or I might observe that I am anxiously wondering whether I can complete all I want to get done today.
With mindfulness, I can gently remind myself, “Oh, there I am, wanting to see myself as special,” or “Yes, I have a hard time accepting myself when I screw up,” or “Sometimes I really believe that my worth depends on my accomplishments.”
By observing such thoughts, and countless others, with compassion and acceptance, rather than with frustration or irritation, we treat ourselves with love. And of course, the more we treat ourselves with love and kindness, the more we naturally extend such treatment to others.
Acceptance of ourselves, Kornfield explains, does not mean we don’t try to improve ourselves. In fact, the first step toward positive change is clearly seeing and accepting aspects of ourselves that we dislike. Feelings of hatred and shame do not produce positive change. In fact, they can get in the way of real change.
The self-acceptance that grows as mindfulness develops extends to emotions, as well as to thoughts. When we are angry, afraid, grieving, or depressed, mindfulness means that we do not resist our feelings. Instead, we fully feel them, with awareness. While we may want to turn away from uncomfortable feelings, resistance only intensifies their hold over us. But when we let in each feeling, fully, with awareness, we can watch each one arise and then pass away. We experience all of our feelings, but we are not in their grip.
For example, when we observe our anger mindfully, we admit the fullness of the feeling. But we do not mindlessly lash out. The situation may, in fact, call for an angry response, but when mindfulness is present, our expression of anger is likely to be constructive, not harmful.
When we think and feel with awareness, Kornfield explains, we observe and accept all that is within us. And with such acceptance comes equanimity and happiness—equanimity because we are not fighting inside, happiness because we are experiencing life fully in each moment.
Kornfield presents mindfulness in terms anyone can understand. He makes it tangible and provides exercises that can help us develop mindfulness in our own lives.
Try it. You just may find that it works.
My thanks to April Moore for her contribution of this book review. April is a gifted writer, a committed environmentalist, and creator of TheEarthConnection.org, a website (unfortunately no longer available) to nourish and inspire people who love nature. Click here to see an earlier post about April. Please share your own thoughts about this book or its subject matter in the Comments section below. EHC
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