Tag Archives: Jack Kornfield

Starting the year: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” – a favourite book

This book, a timeless spiritual classic,  is a moving and fascinating account of how the contemporary spiritual journey unfolds, with all the difficulties those choosing such a path must face, whatever the depth of their faith, its religious context, or their position in the world.

During my own ‘dark night of the soul’ period of 2001-8 I returned to this book several times, never failing to derive comfort, support and strength from what author and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield had to say. I continue to feel gratitude for his wisdom. Do read my review, let me know what you think, and give yourself a new year treat of acquiring a copy. And by the way, fellow writers reading this, what a brilliant title, don’t you think?!!

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

How the heart grows wise on the spiritual path

My Review:

How’s this for an image of unity and diversity ? “While helicopter gunships flew by and (the Vietnam) war raged around them, Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers….their arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling….”

In his first best-selling book on meditation “A Path with Heart”, American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes the powerful impact of his first sight of two massive sixty-foot tall statues of the Buddha and Jesus on a small island of the Mekong Delta. “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” is its worthy and equally inspiring successor.

Kornfield has a deep well of experience to draw from: a Buddhist monk in the late Sixties in Thailand, he has since lived with and taught with monks, mystics, students and teachers from many religious traditions in different parts of the world. He also holds a PhD in clinical psychology and practises as a psychotherapist and meditation teacher.

The book is a moving and fascinating account of how the contemporary spiritual journey unfolds, with all the difficulties those choosing such a path must face, whatever the depth of their faith, its religious context, or their position in the world.

He accounts for the universality of spiritual longing very simply: “There is a part of each of us that knows eternity as surely as we know our own name. It may be forgotten or covered over, but it is there….there is a pull to wholeness, to being fully alive….as surely as there is a voyage away, there is a journey home”…and (quoting the poet Rumi) “Grapes want to turn to wine”.

He makes it clear that there is no separate territory labelled “spiritual” to which the devout may escape; spirituality is doing the dishes and dealing with difficult relatives, as well as moments of winter sunlight illuminating the beauty of a cathedral’s stained glass windows, evoking joy in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Following the spiritual path means making slow peace with the tedious reliability of human imperfection, as we move through the Great Round of living and dying with its inevitable sorrows – and capricious joys.

Many quotations, illustrating the profoundly personal and moving facets of a wide range of journeys from diverse traditions including Christianity, reveal the author’s deep respect for all paths to the Source.

The case material truly makes this book live, letting us see that however unique our particular route may be, the spiritual journey has core stages common to all seekers of all faiths. In our own strivings, he shows us, we are not alone.

It is so heartening and illuminating to read of different seekers’ experiences of the ecstatic: when grace calls forth that sudden falling into radiance, that recognition of indivisibility from Being, or God, or Ultimate Reality, or Emptiness (or the quantum vacuum, if like me you’ve been reading way too many cosmology books of late!).

But there is always the return to The Laundry, that inevitable and often painful coming down to the ordinary, sometimes grubby and unsatisfactory basics of everyday life.

Importantly, he also points out that for many, ecstasy never comes in a dramatic manner, but as a slow, steady deepening of compassion, wisdom and an increasingly peaceful heart – that which is the eventual fruit of sincere and dedicated spiritual practice.

Kornfield writes beautifully, in an honest, open-hearted, humorous and well-earthed way. His book radiates integrity and is obviously rooted in his own long and at times hard struggle to find the spiritual ground of his own being. Just the right degree of personal disclosure makes clear his lack of illusion that being a priest, or a teacher, or a healer of whatever sort, is any kind of vaccination from the pitfalls of the human condition.

Jack Kornfield comes across as a reflective, wise and humble man. Let’s hope that the worldwide success of his books has not changed that! “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” is a timeless treasure, a wonderful companion along the road.

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800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Order and Chaos – a Buddhist ‘take’ : honouring the late Bo Lozoff

I found out tonight from the Big Island Chronicle (Hawaii) which published a link from my blog yesterday, that the great Buddhist teacher Bo Lozoff  died in a car crash on 29th November 2012. This post featuring Bo’s wisdom, is republished in his honour.

Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my 2001-8 time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:

Pema Chodron’s When things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see  Book Reviews  page for review of this great book) and  Bo Lozoff’s“It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.

Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :

“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.

Bo Lozoff is now in his sixties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits.

Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg  Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”

In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are.

I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen –  bracingly therapeutic during my long period of recovering my energy, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.

Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound.

Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.

How do we cope with this ?

Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa.

Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.

At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!

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600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Order and Chaos – a Buddhist ‘take’

Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my 2001-8 time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:

Pema Chodron’s When things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see  Book Reviews  page for review of this great book) and  Bo Lozoff’s“It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.

Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :

“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.

Bo Lozoff is now in his sixties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits.

Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg  Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”

In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are.

I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen –  bracingly therapeutic during my long period of recovering my energy, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.

Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound.

Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.

How do we cope with this ?

Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa.

Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.

At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!

*******************

600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Sea as Church

There must be many in church congregations whose paths have followed the same trajectory as mine: Christianity is the starting point, at a stage in life where choice is not an option. Rebellion soon rears its head. (One of my methods of silent teenage protest was to go to church with hair rollers secretly in place under the detested Sunday hat.)

Then unfolds the long, possibly very varied route culminating eventually in a return to the ground where the journey began. In the summer of 2005 my husband and I began attending our local Episcopal church – now it feels very much like home territory.

For this entirely unexpected turn of events, I hold the Dalai Lama at least partly responsible!

In the process of extensively reading and benefiting from Buddhist wisdom, via inspirational Buddhist teachers including Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Pema Chodron, I came across a comment from His Holiness to the effect that if one could find a corner in one’s own tradition, why adopt anyone else’s? After reflecting on this observation for a long while, I concluded that the Dalai Lama was right.

Thus, after a lengthy and complex spiritual quest, I found a spiritual home – open enough to accommodate my belief that all Gods are One – a mere fifteen minutes’ walk from our house.

Since this return to Christian roots, I have been reflecting on whether, over the years, there has been a particular setting to which my soul usually returned to find peace and sustenance. In the absence of Church, what provided a context for the longing for the Sacred? For me it was the sea.

Sea as Church - the Outer Hebrides

Sea as Church - the Outer Hebrides

I was born by the sea. The stripped-down Presbyterianism of my native Hebridean island certainly spoke eloquently to many, but did not speak to my Romantic temperament: it was a form of worship too spare and verbal for a soul whose longing for the Divine needs the engagement of all the senses.

Since attending the Episcopal church, I have often been struck by the evocatory similarities which exist between experiences of Church and of the sea.

The most obvious is the stimulation of the five senses, opening one up to a feeling of union. The serene grace of the ‘liturgical dance’ within a beautiful, atmospheric building saturated with prayer and flooded (on a good day!) with colour from vibrant stained glass windows, can be quite overwhelming. Then there is the heady scent of incense, the rich sound of choir and organ, the physicality and friendship of touching others familiar and unknown through the sharing of the peace and the sharing of the Eucharist.

The remote beaches of the Hebrides are also perfect for communing. In some places no mark of human hand can be seen anywhere. You could be in any epoch.

The endless ebb and flow which soothes your spirit is millions of years old. With the cries of wild birds, and the sound of the wind ( no shortage of that !) the sea weaves music which carries you beyond time. The rich smell of ozone, salt and bladder-wrack is overlaid with a delicate scent of wild flowers. Sea splashes leave salt tastes on your skin. Sunlight on the sea’s surface creates diamond sparks. God is right here.

Natural beauty calls to us, confirming that the Holy Spirit which we sense in nature includes us all. Sand, sea, sun and solitude evoke a sense of our infinite smallness in relation to the vastness before us. Yet there could be no sea without each drop of water, no beach without each grain of sand.

Church on the face of it is very different, being a contained space. But it is a space charged up with collective worship, where the cadences of liturgy and participatory ritual also evoke a feeling of God’s vast presence in relation to our precious smallness.

The mind-calming, meditative facets of sea, and centuries-old church ritual, can lull us into peace, calming the heart and uplifting the spirit. Both sea and Church in their differing ways can restore a sense of the balance and interweaving of matter and spirit – “spirit is a lighter form of matter, matter is a denser form of spirit” –  and provide a reminder that the small, limited, mundane world which we inhabit is set to the compass of Eternity.

(the slightly edited version of an article published in Magnificat magazine(UK) Issue 10 Summer 2006 )

750 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2009
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

The lazy reviewer confesses….

….that I haven’t quite got around to writing that book review I promised for December!

Today could have been the day, but after the hectic excitement and rush towards Christmas and the inertia following, my husband Ian and I took some time out on this beautifully sunny, frosty, slightly hazy day, to go walking around the Isle of Cumbrae.

Cumbrae is a small island some fifteen miles in circumference, a quarter hour’s ferry ride across from the coastal town of Largs which lies an hour’s scenic drive from where we live in Glasgow in Scotland.

It was a beautiful afternoon – walking in crisp, cold air, enjoying hazy sea and coastal views, the curlews’ cries and the honking throaty calls of migrating wild geese. Carpe diem! We all need moments of peace and retreat from the challenges of our personal and collective lives – I do hope you readers have also been able to have some contemplative space as this year ends.

In the meantime, let me direct you to the Personal Book Reviews page, where there is   a recently published review to enjoy until I post a new book review come January 2009.  I returned to this spiritual journey classic over and over again in my long sojourn in the Underworld of loss of energy and extreme fragility. It never failed to offer me comfort, strength of spirit, hope and inspiration.

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

How the heart grows wise on the spiritual path

by Jack Kornfield

How’s this for an image of unity and diversity ? “While helicopter gunships flew by and (the Vietnam) war raged around them, Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers….their arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling….”

In his first best-selling book on meditation “A Path with Heart”, American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes the powerful impact of his first sight of two massive sixty-foot tall statues of the Buddha and Jesus on a small island of the Mekong Delta. “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” is its worthy and equally inspiring successor.

Now read on!……

Personal Book Reviews

Seize the Day!

 

This article was first published in Connections magazine, August 2006,  as

“Order, Chaos and Carpe Diem”

“ Today I walked to my office, in pouring rain, and got soaked. Here I sit writing, my jeans  steaming dry on the heater, feeling really joyful. ‘Why?’ you may ask. “Is she mad? What’s good about getting frozen and soaked in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of May?”

I’ll tell you why. Because normal and ordinary and energetic feel like gifts. Having a normal body, doing ordinary things, having the good health and energy to be able to walk in the rain, feel precious to me now. For years, whilst making the best of the circumstances in which I found myself, I couldn’t help longing at times for normal and ordinary as my body, mind and spirit went through apparently endless bouts of turbulence.

My five year odyssey in the underworld of burnout and retreat, which some of you will have read about in the first two issues of this column, now feels as though it is coming to an end. Quite suddenly, in recent weeks, my energy has sprung back and various unpleasant symptoms have largely gone.

Yes, order seems to have returned. I celebrate that, and give thanks daily.

However – having survived a prolonged period of chaos where most of my familiar landscapes simply disappeared and the usual strategies for managing life ceased to be of any use – a few things are much, much clearer than they ever were before.

Someone observed that life should be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. How right they were! One of the many advantages of growing older is that we have more life to look back on. Surviving until middle age and beyond – something our remote ancestors rarely did – offers us an opportunity fully to understand and accept the essential precariousness of the human condition. With this acceptance can come a greater degree of letting-go, and consequent inner peace, than is possible in youth.

Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:

Pema Chodron’sWhen things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see Personal Book Reviews page for review of this great book) and Bo Lozoff’s “It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.

Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :

“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.

Bo Lozoff is now in his late fifties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits. Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg  “Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”

In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are. I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen –  bracingly therapeutic, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.

Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound. Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.

How do we cope with this ?

The Buddha

The Buddha

Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.

At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also wise to remember that the scientific materialism which has come to dominate our view of life is very recent – a shallow surface layer of a couple of hundred years or so. For many milennia, at every stage of cultural and religious evolution, human beings across the world have perceived the whole of life as sacred, saturated with meaning.

Our distant ancestors realised that humankind could not survive alone. In coping with the often brutal buffetings of life they needed one another, and connection with the divine spirit which vitiates all creatures. Communal social and religious rituals were a vital tool in affirming connection with a greater Order. Despite the unprecedented materialism and self-obsession of our age, which seems to be bringing humanity increased levels of disorder and unhappiness, as a species we remain ‘wired for God’.

It doesn’t matter whether Ultimate Reality is perceived as transcendental unity, Emptiness or the Void in Buddhist terminology, the quantum vacuum of contemporary cosmology, or God of  the traditional theistic religions. There is now much research supporting the fact that the happiest individuals are those who believe that there is a greater Order which embraces everything known, unknown and unknowable, and who are part of a faith community with shared values centred on the Golden Rule : “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The great psychologist Carl Jung observed that he had never treated a patient in mid life for whom their spiritual need was not part of the crisis….so here, in conclusion, is a prescription for happy ageing:

“ Hold lightly to order, embrace chaos, realise that suffering arises from the desire that things be different than they are, live in the moment, and find the God of your understanding to honour and serve in the company of  fellow spirits.”

There, my jeans are dry now and the sun has come out. Time to seize the moment and go sit in the park ! ”

1200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page