Jack Kornfield on 9/11: Sprouting compassion again

Jack Kornfield is one of the most popular Buddhist teachers in America. Trained in Thailand in the 1960s, he was in the 1970s vanguard of teachers spreading Eastern spiritual traditions in the West. He is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock, one of the largest Buddhist teaching centers in the West. In September, he will publish a new audio-and-text overview of spiritual practices A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times. This reflection on 9/11 comes from an upcoming ReadTheSpirit interview with Jack Kornfield.

Table of Contents: All of our 9/11 reflections you can use …

9/11/2011: Sprouting Compassion Again

By Jack Kornfield

9/11 brought home to people in the United States our vulnerability and our interconnectedness with the whole world. We are not separate from hopes and suffering and craziness around the world. We are involved in so many ways, even beyond economics and politics. Think of how many people around the world choose to mirror our culture. We are part of developments everywhere.

After 9/11, we were asked to show our resiliency as people. But the important question remains: Can we lead from a place of justice? Can we keep a kind, compassionate heart even in these difficult times? This was difficult for us because 9/11 also ushered in an era of fear that has not been healthy. We became part of something called the war on terror, which is such a strange phrase, because we actually took terror into ourselves as a culture. For a decade, colors like yellow and orange became alerts across our country—as if we turned on the fear center in our collective brain and we didn’t know how to turn it off. Remembering the tragedy of 9/11 calls on us to become more outwardly sensitive to our own strength and courage and the need to play our role wisely in the world.

Helen Keller wrote: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

9/11 reminds us of our impermanence—that everything is subject to change. Life is woven, as Buddhist teachings tell us, with gain and loss, birth and death. This is the fabric of human experience. For us to live wisely, we must not turn away from vulnerability and insecurity. We must discover the wisdom of insecurity. My teacher in the forest monastery of Thailand, a great meditation master, would encounter people who asked about the future. He would say: “It’s uncertain, isn’t it? Can you rest in the truth of uncertainty and live each day going forward?” That is really the question we face. We do not want to turn away from impermanence in fear and confusion—and on the other hand we do not want to become despondent and drown. Impermanence is our nature.

If we try to hold onto what is around us indefinitely, we get rope burn, don’t we? Or we can pilot our boats into the middle of the river and flow in the changes all around us with a wise and compassionate heart. We can take that ride. That is the wisdom of every great culture. We can’t stop the waves, but we can flow with them.

Difficulties are a part of life. When we are born into this human realm, we have both magnificent delights and almost unbearable sorrows. We must not run from what’s painful and seek only that which is pleasurable, because that fills our lives with sorrow and fear. We must trust our heart’s capacity to bear life’s measures of sorrow and extraordinary beauty, because both are woven into life. This is what makes us wise, what fulfills us.

Ten years after 9/11 are you still afraid? Do you fear that somehow you won’t survive? Look back over your shoulder! Look back and you will see a thousand generations of ancestors who survived. They survived loss and the insanity of warfare. They survived migrations and ice ages. We have survival built into the cells of our body and into our spirit.

Our spirit is like the new grass that pushes itself always upward even through the cracks in the sidewalk! When Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison after all those years with courage and compassion—he changed not only South Africa but the vision of the whole world. That spirit is within us, too. Step forward now in courage and compassion.

Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for our complete interview with Jack Kornfield in September. You can order A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times at Amazon.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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