Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach: Big Insights: The Power of Awareness to Change Your Life

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge—a special episode that was originally recorded in 2015 as part of the launch of the new Awareness Training Institute with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Jack Kornfield is a bestselling author who holds a PhD in clinical psychology and is widely recognized as one of the first Westerners to integrate the findings of Western psychology with the practice of mindfulness.

Tara Brach has been teaching insight meditation for nearly four decades. She also holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and is the author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge. Jack and Tara have teamed together to create with Sounds True, the Awareness Training Institute; an online institute dedicated to training people worldwide in the practices of mindfulness and compassion.

Together, they’ve created Mindfulness Daily, a 40 day training program that helps listeners establish a lasting meditation practice in less than 15 minutes a day. They’ve also created a version of this 40-day training for the work place called Mindfulness Daily at Work.

In addition, the Awareness Training institute has created an online course called The Power of Awareness, which features more than 15 hours of video teachings and includes a unique online mentoring program in which participants work online in small groups with a certified Awareness Training Institute instructor. If you’re interested in learning more about Mindfulness Daily, Mindfulness Daily at Work, or The Power of Awareness, please visit us at SoundsTrue.com.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Jack, Tara and I spoke about the big insights that underpin the core teachings of the Awareness Training Institute. We also talked about awareness itself, how to begin to distinguish awareness from thinking, what it means to rest in awareness and how awareness can impact the quality of our relationship and be a resource when truly difficult things are happening in our lives.

Finally, we talked about the link between awareness training and the state of our world. Here’s my conversation on the big insights with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.

OK, my first question. Was there a turning point for each of you where your life took, if you will, a left turn or a right turn and suddenly the practice of meditation became the focus and most important thing in your life? Was there a turning point?

Jack Kornfield: It’s fun to think about it and look back because there’s of course a number of important turning points, but mine came really early. I was in a pre-medicine program at Dartmouth College and then I went to a class. I attended a class on Asian philosophy and psychology by this wonderful, old Chinese professor, Dr. Wing-tsit Chan, who would sit sometimes cross-legged on the desk and talk about Buddha and Lao-Tzu. I had come from a family with a lot of pain; my father, who was brilliant in some ways, was also abusive and violent, and there was a lot of suffering I carried.

Nothing in my education taught me how to deal with my grief, my own anger, other people’s—or even to sense the kind of values that I might live my life by. This professor started talking about when you turn your attention inside, you discover as the Buddha taught that there’s suffering and there’s also a relief from it, and there are trainings and practices to live in a different way. My eyes got wide and I said, “I want this,” and I ended up majoring in Asian Studies and getting the Peace Corps to send me to a country where I could train in meditation. I looked around and I read all those books about great Zen masters, and I looked around. Do they still exist?

I was very fortunate to find this quite wonderful old meditation master in the forests of Thailand and learned the practices that really changed my life. It taught me how to quiet my mind, how to deal with the pain and the suffering that I carried—and in some ways to really release it and be a freer person—how to develop compassion and lovingkindness. [It] completely changed my life. When I came back after some years of training and decided then to continue to explore through a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, all that training helped me enormously.

Tara Brach: Well, I was in college—senior year—and I remember very well that at some point I was becoming more and more caught up in a sense of anxiety and depression and just not feeling good about myself. I went off on a camping trip with a very good friend who at one point said, “Well, I’m learning how to be my own best friend.” At which point, in some way, my world cracked open because I realized I was the furthest thing from being my own best friend.

I can see, looking back at my family and the expectations and so on on me that I was always feeling that I was falling short in some way of who I was supposed to be. I came to call this “the trance of unworthiness.quot; That got me really motivated—the sense of, “Well what’s going to help me be more at peace with myself.quot;

I heard about some yoga and meditation classes on campus. So, I began to attend them and found that after 45 minutes, in some way my body and my mind were in the same place, and there was a quality of quietness that felt more like home—which then motivated me to do a retreat and that sold me. It was somewhere in that retreat that I felt such a sense of stillness and open-heartedness that I knew there was a possibility of being at peace with myself. I very quickly after—because I was just graduating from college—moved into an ashram, a spiritual community, and I stayed there for about 10 years practicing yoga and meditation. And then [I] went to a Buddhist meditation retreat and discovered that even dropped it more deeply. But, I was on the path.

JK: You know, Tami, also the question you asked is such an important one because there’s a turning point in so many people’s lives that I watch who come to the classes and retreats I’ve taught. Sometimes it’s because of difficulty, as I had—difficulty in family or illness or some big loss. Sometimes it’s just a sense of something’s missing—the outer culture doesn’t nourish or some types of busyness, and people want to refine themselves.

So, I love the question because I see it in the eyes of people who come. “I need something that can really change my life. Do you have something to offer that will really make a difference?quot; The beautiful thing is watching to see the flowering that happens with people when they do discover the practices of mindfulness and compassion really can change everything.

TS: Which is what I want to talk to you about—this flowering. What are the insights, if you will; the discoveries from all of the time that you’ve spent engaging in awareness training and teaching awareness training? What are the big insights?

TB: For me, one of the deepest and earliest was that I wasn’t who I thought I was. I remember when I was most struggling, I had this sense of a self that was deficient and limited and threatened in different ways. With the practice of presence, of simply arriving in the body and in my heart, I started sensing a quality of awareness and love that felt more like home than any of the stories I was telling myself.

One of the big insights was that who I am is more than this, and I think that’s what has kept me motivated on the path—just coming to know more and more. I watch other people and I find a very similar thing—that there’s a kind of widening of the sense of who we are. That’s one of the big ones.

Another one that I can say is that I started discovering that the more I tried to control my experience, the more that I was in that prison of a small, limited self—and that in the moments that instead of controlling what was going on, there was a quality of kindness. When I put my hand on my heart, it’s if in some way I could pause and offer some compassion inward and if in some way I could just rest in what was actually happening, things would open up.

So, there was the movement—the insight that controlling keeps me suffering; kindness and letting be relaxes me open.

JK: So many insights and really important ones, for me and for lots of people who come to practice. It’s an amazing insight to discover that you don’t have to believe your thoughts. We live in a kind of storytelling in which we’re lost in thoughts, many of them kind of unconscious about ourselves or other people or the world. The discovery that you can be mindful of thought and then thought becomes a good servant rather than a bad master in some way. You can see whether the thoughts are true, whether they have a good intent, or whether they’re old habits and conditioning.

My friend Anne Lamott, the humorist, puts it this way—she said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.” And so when people start to meditate or train in these practices of mindful awareness, they see whether it’s doubt or confusion or the different thought patterns that are all conditioned to the habits that we have. The deep insight is that it’s possible to step back from those to rest in awareness and compassion to kind of center yourself and realize that you can guide yourself as much from your heart and from your deeper values than those habitual patterns.

Another really important insight that I learned and that’s very much part of the training course that we’re offering is that compassion, love, forgiveness can be nurtured and cultivated. We usually think we have a good day and we’re loving and we have a bad day and we’re depressed or it’s difficult. But, from the trainings that I’ve undertaken and the wonderful teachers that I’ve had; I’ve had teachers who somehow radiated or embodied this lovingkindness. I learned these practices that you can nurture and cultivate forgiveness, lovingkindness, a care for yourself, and for another that change the whole inner atmosphere of heart and mind—and that grow as you move through your life. The possibility of working with our minds and heart and returning to who we really are—as Tara says—rather than just the habits and conditioning—that kind of possibility of greater inner freedom is one of the great insights and gifts.

TS: Of course, you can share with people the insights that you’ve both found from the practice, but what I think is really interesting—and I’d love for you both to comment on it—is how you’ve baked in, if you will, to the design of the Awareness Training Institute the opportunity [and] the invitation for people to have their own insights. How is that, would you say, baked in to the very way in which you lay out the teachings and practices?

JK: Well, one of the kind of important things that you say in your question is that insight from another person’s experience is really secondhand.

TS: Yes.

JK: So, the whole training that we’re offering is really accompanying people, giving them practices and the kind of simple and best outline of the disciplines that they can use to develop their own insights of what’s going on in their own mind—ways they get caught, ways they can release the unhealthy patterns, ways that they can find a greater sense of presence, or courage, or dignity in their life; Ways that they can pay attention to their heart and what nurtures well-being; ways that they can pay attention to their own body so that the insights really become their own.

For insight to make a difference it both has to come out of our own direct experience and be something that’s lived. The systematic training in this, from one class to another of the foundations of mindfulness of breath and body, of how to work with emotions and thoughts, how to develop the capacity to have an attentive relationship that’s wise with another person—all of these are laid out step by step in ways that we think people can really use and practice and discover for themselves.

TB: One of the things that really supports it is that we’ll offer a practice and guide people through it. Perhaps, it could be a practice on self-forgiveness or a practice on in some way opening your heart to other people—and then guide people through it and then offer the opportunity to do some journaling, which allows the understandings to begin to drop deeper and unfold themselves. We find that’s a component that really is rich.

TS: Now, let’s talk some about awareness. It’s an interesting word, and I think people have a lot of different associations with what it really means. Is it a mental process? Awareness? Is it different from thinking? I’d love to hear from both of you on this.

TB: I’m glad to begin and maybe just to invite you to check something out and all those that are listening, which is—and if you want to close your eyes, it’s fine—but to just for this next 10 seconds try not to be aware. OK, that’s enough. And what did you find?

TS: Was not very successful.

TB: That’s what I was going to ask. If I asked any of you who are listening, “Were you successful?” for most of us, what we start finding is that awareness is just there. [It’s] not like we have to go somewhere to find it. You can’t grab it. It’s actually an ongoing process of wakefulness, of knowing what’s happening. And with thoughts, you might have a thought [and] you can be aware of the thought. There’s something more prior, more fundamental to thinking—or you might hear a sound, but then there’s that which knows the sound. Awareness is the silence that’s listening to the thoughts or listening to the sound; it’s more prior to any of the felt experiences through our senses.

Often I’ll invite people to notice what’s going on through their senses. It may be listening to a sound and then simply ask the question, “What is knowing that?” Just a gentle—just check it out. What’s knowing that? And you can begin to intuit that there is a space of knowing that is always here and we’re not always aware of it, but it’s here. And that is, in this training, the systematic way that we explore being with the different layers or dimensions of experience help us to start resting more and more in that open and tender presence that is here.

JK: Understanding and connecting with this ever-present sense of awareness is liberating because as you do, you start to be able to be present for your body in ways that you hadn’t before that are not just habitual—really to listen. You start to notice the play of feelings and emotions with a greater understanding or wisdom because you can actually be present rather than just lost in them and the story they’re telling. As we talked about, the same for the mind and all the different images and patterns and beliefs. There’s something so freeing about recognizing, “Oh, this is a mind filled with doubt,” or, “This is what fear is like,” or, “This is what joy feels like. Let me inhabit this. This is what my body’s asking for.”

There comes a natural and intuitive wisdom that’s different than thinking about; it’s a kind of deeper knowing that arises out of the resting and awareness, out of the stabilizing of awareness that we learn and practice in all these very systematic ways in the training and you can then use it in all different parts of your life. To be more aware in that way also allows you to, as a creative artist, to be more freely creative; as a business person, to be more attentive to the contract you’re making; as somebody who’s working making code and working in information technology; when you’re making love, it allows you to be more fully present in a way that enhances and brings your life more alive.

TS: Now, this idea of resting in awareness, as you say, sounds fabulous. What I’m curious about—to know if you’re willing to share quite personally—is what’s it like when really hard stuff is happening in your life? Maybe an illness or receiving bad news of some kind or some real challenge—and then if you can share personally how awareness [has] been available to you as a resource when the pressure’s on.

JK: It’s been absolutely critical for me, and I can think of a lot of circumstances. The first that comes to mind is I think about when my father was dying. He was a very complicated and difficult figure in my life because he was abusive and violent, and those ways—but he was also my father. I did a lot of inner work of understanding him and what had happened to him and coming to forgiveness. But when he was in the ICU at the end of his life, he was really terrified. He was biophysicist and he kept looking over at the monitors—some of which he had helped design—to see if he had died yet or not.

He thought—it isn’t in great fear. And because I had sat with my own fear, because I had sat with my own images of dying, because I’d sat with other people in doing hospice work, I could hold his hand, I could breathe with him, and even late at night when I was exhausted—I’d been with him for 15, 18 hours—and I said, “I’m going to go rest,” and he would say, “Please don’t go, please don’t go.” And for the first time in probably since I was five years old, we would hold hands. I could be present for him in that way.

Similarly, in these past years there was a period where I passed out a couple of times onstage with all of these people around and I was quite dramatic actually. I was unconscious for a while and when I came to, there were all of these doctors peering down at me and I got all the requisite MRIs and scans and things, and got misdiagnosed with something like ALS—it’s going to happen quickly and you’re going to lose your capacities and also, dementia’s going to come with it—the particular diagnosis I got.

Fortunately it was wrong. But though that process—that was scary, there’s no question about it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this is fine.quot; It actually touched all kinds of things in me. The practice of mindfulness and coming back to rest and awareness and saying, “This is what’s happening now. This is fear. This is your body changing.” Being able to hold this with attention and also with some—without self-judgment, with some sense of tenderness. We’re all so vulnerable, especially when we go through hard times. [This] gave me a kind of steadiness and a courage to go through it.

Fortunately, the diagnosis was wrong, but it really showed me how important this kind of practice is. I see it for so many people, whether it’s in their immediate personal difficulties—or, I think of a friend who’s a CEO of one of the top ten companies in America. During the financial crises when, as he said, “The company was about to go down the tubes and it was on my watch.” And he could hardly sleep at night and he would call and he’d say, “I need a practice to help me get through this,” and later on said, “This is what saved my life.”

TB: About 10 years ago, I started getting increasingly sick and I have a genetic disorder with loose connective tissue, which means that I can easily injure myself. I’m somewhat better now, but for about eight years I was getting progressively worse and I lost many capacities. I was no longer able to hike or bike or swim—some of the things I most, most made me feel alive on planet Earth.

I remember a particular occasion when my family was gathered on Cape Cod and two carloads of friends and family went to the beach, and I couldn’t go with them because at that point I could no longer walk on sand. I remember after they left, I found a place to sit and the feelings of the grief coming up and I knew that all that I needed to do was fully let be the experience that was here.

As it unfolded itself—as the grieving became as big as it could be—within it I felt this longing just to love life no matter what. It was like a prayer; it was a deep longing—”just no matter how it is.quot; Even underneath that was a love for life. It was in those moments I got another one of those experiences of profound gratitude of what this practice has allowed, which is really if we can learn to stay.

This is the training. It’s learning to stay with the life that’s here, with a quality of an open heart, clearly being with—what unfolds is that we come open into a presence that can be with what’s here. I often think of it—and Jack and I teach with a metaphor of—an ocean and waves; that for each of us, we’re going to continually have different waves of experience arise and there’s going to be waves of obsessive thinking and there’s going to be waves of fear and waves of excitement and sorrow.

If we can really be dedicated to just opening to the changing play of waves, we start discovering our ocean-ness and when we’re not afraid—let me say that again. And when we remember we’re the ocean, we’re not afraid of the waves. There’s room for them.

So, that’s one of the blessings I’ve found over and over again in this practice is that I might have a reactivity to different difficult circumstances and, without too much lag time now, there’s this remembrance of, “Oh, just stay. Just meet this with these two wings of noticing what’s happening and kindness, and in time—it’s not always right away—there’ll be a relaxing back open into a real space of presence and a feeling of, “There’s room for this.quot;

I’ve watched other people in probably as difficult circumstances as I can imagine finding their way to this space of, “It’s OK. One woman I’m thinking of had fourth stage breast cancer, and one of the practices we teach is how to—when we’re really, really stuck, how do we resource? How do we find our way to some sense of belonging or strength?

So, in the midst of her fear, she found her way of resourcing was just simply to remember what loved her—to remember that her mother, her friends, the trees—and as she would just let in the love, she found the sense of belonging that allowed her to spend her last months in a place of real, loving presence and not tensing against the process she was in. It’s an amazing gift when we can sense that ocean-ness and let the waves move through.

TS: Now, for many people, what matters the most is the quality of our relationships—intimate relationships, friendships, work relationships—and I’m curious, in your own lives, how training and awareness has transformed (if it has) the quality of your relationship life.

JK: Oh, it’s transformed it a lot. One of the things that we teach in this course and in this training is the ability to be aware of intention—to bring mindfulness to intention—so that I notice if I’m in a conflict with my partner and we’re upset about something, in that conversation, if I go into the state that I want to be right, I want to defend myself, I want to be the person who wins and so forth, it doesn’t go very well and we kind of tumble into a way of conflict and suffering. But when I pause even for a moment, or three breaths, bring in the quality of both mindful awareness and compassion or kindness, and then ask myself, “What’s my best intention at this conversation? What do I really want?” That pause lets me remember, “I really want to stay connected. I really want to love. I really want us to find a way through this. I want to find some harmony,” and my whole tone of voice changes. The whole way I approach the difficulty changes.

Even if I have much of the same thing to say or to talk about, it comes from a place where I feel connected to my own well-being and heart, and where I can be open in that vulnerability to the vulnerability of my partner or the person that I’m with.

It’s really made a huge difference. People somehow think when they hear about spiritual practice or these kind of trainings that it can somehow remove you from life, but actually it allows for a kind of love and care and dedication, or commitment, that’s different than the grasping or the fears. It allows me to see those fears—or needs and so forth—in a good way, and to realize what really matters is that in this moment [is whether I can] rest in a place of presence and love and that changes everything.

TB: We’ve titled the retreat that we teach Intimacy with Life and there is a beautiful saying that, “To be free—to really be enlightened—is to be intimate with all things.quot;

I really think of this training that we’re offering—as much as it’s intimacy with our inner life, it’s how to be real and honest and caring with each other. I know for myself, one of the pieces that has felt so powerful is knowing that whenever I’m feeling separation, whenever I’m in reactivity, it’s a kind of trance. It’s like I’m not seeing everything, I’m in fight-flight-freeze and my view is narrowed. There’s actually trainings on how to widen out again and see who’s here, to begin to see past the mask to who’s here. I know as a mother, my trance was always to be worrying about might be wrong, what might go wrong, how my son needed to be different.

I started training myself just in that simple practice of seeing the goodness, seeing his strength, seeing what I trusted—what I really thought was beautiful—and my son’s now 20-some some years later—is that to the degree he has confidence in himself and he’s at home with himself, that mirroring of his goodness was really a key part of it. Part of the trance is not only looking to see what’s wrong, but really sensing ourselves as threatened by another person. So, the other training that is really powerful is to see the vulnerability that’s there in all these.

I remember when I was getting divorced from my first husband, that he’d behave in ways and I’d behave in ways that neither of us were very proud of. If I could pause enough to sense, “OK, what’s behind this behaviors in me? Why am I acting so armored and defended and aggressive? Oh OK, I’m scared. I’m scared of what’s going to happen.quot; Then, if I can begin to look at him and see his feelings of hurt and disappointment and fear, the activity and behavior that came out of that seeing was of a whole different quality.

The trainings are really inseparable—becoming more compassionate and in touch with our own being and our capacity to really connect and be authentic and open to others.

TS: Now, I want you to tell this to me straight here as I ask you this next question, which is about happiness. If someone engages deeply in awareness training, will they just be at peace with their happiness and unhappiness as it arises as waves in the ocean, or will they actually get happy?

TB: The latter.

JK: You get happier. The point of it is to be happy. And we get unhappy really when we’re caught or when we shrink into what’s called “the body of fearquot; —when we believe that that’s the reality, when there isn’t that kind of trust or openness—and you know how much of an icon the Dalai Lama has become worldwide these days as a wonderful and beautiful figure of spirituality. He’ll teach and there’ll be tens of thousands of people who come to see him. I don’t think they go so much for the Tibetan Buddhist meditations—although those are wonderful; they’re quite fantastic. I really think people go to hear him laugh. I think people want to see a man who carries the weight of the tragedies in Tibet that have happened, the loss of their culture and freedom in certain ways, and who cares so much about the world and engages in the difficulties of the world still have a joyful heart. He does. He has this great laugh—as if to say—and he says it. He said, “So much has been taken from me. Why should I also let them take my joy?”

These practices and trainings are really an invitation to allow not only well-being, but the innate happiness that appreciates the sunset and the reflected colors in the windows as the sun goes down, or in the puddles there on the street and the splashes and the smiles of the children as they stomp in their boots in the water and the mystery of life. There’s some way in which we awaken in that capacity [that] brings a deep happiness. Not the happiness of having everything go the way you want, but the happiness of resting in love and resting in your heart that says, “Life is beautiful and precious, even with the measure of sorrows, even with the measure of tears and going through hard times.” There we open a channel of well-being and happiness and that’s really the point. Would you say?

TB: I agree. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, and it doesn’t mean that I have more pleasantness. I mean, there are different kinds of happiness. There’s a phrase, “Happy for no reason.” One of my favorite stories about the Dalai Lama came out right after he published his book on happiness, and he was asked the question [to] tell the happiest moment of his life. And he thought for a moment and then he got this really mischievous look and he said, “I think now.” That’s what it’s really about—it’s the aliveness that comes from, really, presence—from that quality of now-ness.

There’s a wonderful saying that, “Happiness is when you can be on a detour and enjoy the scenery.” It’s that it doesn’t have to be going according to our plans.

One of the understandings that’s grown in me is our evolutionary kind of rigging—which is, as it’s described, that we have a kind of negativity bias, where the habit is to look for what’s wrong. If we had a thousand encounters with a dog and one of them was a dog bite, that’s what we’ll keep remembering.

The training that we’re doing in this course in a way counter-conditions that. It helps to release that negativity bias and one of the most basic ways is the moment of presence itself when we’re open opens up our hearts to what’s here—and there are direct ways that we can practice with feeling our gratitude and feeling our love and our appreciation that actually retrain our neural pathways. The happiness set-point that so many of us stay on for decades shifts and there’s a lot more freedom to enjoy the moments. We’re not tensing against what’s around the corner so much. There’s a sense that it’s workable, whatever’s here. Rather than, as many of us live, worrying about what’s to come, we’re actually freed to play and celebrate and enjoy just what’s happening.

TS: So, as a listener, I’m getting quite excited about the Awareness Training Institute and its programs, but I have a fear. I have a fear that I’m not going to be able to do it—that I’m not going to have the time or the discipline or that somehow I will be deficient in some way. Let’s just start with the time and the discipline. How am I going to do it?

JK: You know, first of all, the fear is a natural thing. In a way, you could also call it “doubtquot; —doubt in yourself or, “Do I have the capacity or the time?quot; It turns out that it’s easier than you think. Yes, you have to set aside some time, but the way that we’ve designed the program, you can do it in little bits—45 minutes twice a week—of the teachings, and then your own meditation practice that fits into your schedule or your own mindfulness or compassion training that we’re offering.

We also offer—it’s quite robust actually—we offer as well a whole series of guided meditations that people can use and use both during the time of the course and afterward. You can find in your life a rhythm where it works for you. Most people find when they start, “Well, I don’t know,quot; or, “How can I do this thing myself?quot; or, “Do I have this ability?quot; It’s like coming home. At first, you start to practice mindfulness or compassion or forgiveness meditation, and there are these questions. Then as you start to get it you realize, “Oh, I can live this way. I can release these things that I’ve held for a long time with this practice of forgiveness. I can hold the struggles I have in my life or something else with compassion.quot; And you really start to feel how it works. Part of the kind of learning cycle—that neuroscience also would talk about the kind of feedback—is that you start to inhabit within your own body and nervous system what 3,000 studies now have shown in the last couple of decades from neuroscientists of mindfulness and compassion—that when you tune that part, you awaken dimensions of yourself that come online, that become capacities.

So, mostly I just would say to give it a try. We’ve put together a really systematic training bit by bit so you really understand it.

TB: I really am appreciating the question because so many of us, when we’re about to enter into something that could be life changing, it naturally brings up fear. Fear is almost like this signal of, “Oh, this might be outside of my comfort zone.quot; So, exciting but scared.

We bring into trainings and programs all of our patterning of doubts and fears. One of the really beautiful symmetries in this is that the very things that you come in with—and it may be that you think, “Oh great, I’ll do this, this will be wonderful,” and then as soon as you start doing it, you think, “Oh, I’m not doing this right. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But, the very nature of the program is that becomes a patterning you get to begin to pay attention to and wake up from.

I would say, yes, you’ll probably bring in all the stuff of your life—anybody that does it well—and it’s an amazing opportunity to step out of some patterning that’s kept us from being all we can be.

TS: Now, tell me a little bit about the background here—how the two of you decided to team up together to launch the Awareness Training Institute.

JK: Well, we have been colleagues for decades now and we have a lot of affection for one another and a lot of respect for each other. I know how Tara teaches and there’s a way that it inspires me as it inspires lots of other folks who come to see her over these years. We’re quite aware that the world of learning and education is now wildly going online. We’ve been doing trainings for so long, and we realize that there were lots of invitations we get from Romania or South Africa or places we just don’t have the time to go around the world—or people who would like to do this who can’t come to the retreats that we offer. We thought, “Let’s create something that really uses the best of the online capacities and has a very robust ability for people to watch teachings, get online mentoring, hear audio, meditations,”—all the things that are going to part of a group and discussion and so forth. Let’s put all of this together as a package and as we do it, let’s put in the teachings that we found the most important.

In addition to the trainings and mindful awareness of body and heart and mind and compassion and forgiveness, we also do a part of the training on trauma and how to do inner healing. We do, as you asked, a part of the training on using these in mindful relationships or in extending these in different dimensions of your work and the world around you. We want to make something comprehensive enough that people could take this and really understand not only how to use it in themselves, but also how to bring it into the other parts of their life.

TB: Yes, so Jack has said much of what I would say. Our sense of appreciation and the balance and what the symmetry and what we bring together—the synergy of what we would bring together would be really valuable. Just as people for quite a while now have gotten it that exercise makes us healthy physically, it’s now in the cultural psyche that training the heart and mind is part of well-being. We felt the sense of the potential to offer something to large numbers of people that would really have a depth and dimension in that. It’s not so easy. It’s easy to turn it into a technique, and there’s more than a technique here. There’s really a way of being with our lives and each other that’s radically transformative. We felt a lot of passion about having that available.

TS: Now, tell me a little bit about the mentoring function and why you included this very unique mentoring program as part of the Awareness Training Institute.

TB: I know for myself, if I think of how I’ve learned over the years, some of the most powerful waking up has occurred in the relational field when I’ve had somebody giving me feedback, somebody guiding me when I’ve worked with others, and I’ve had peers where we could exchange what’s really happening for us. I’ve noticed two things that have gone on when there’s been that kind of relational activity: one is that if I’m not feeling as inspired, seeing how others are becoming more light and free and spontaneous and balanced—it’s incredibly inspiring. It’s what helped motivate me at times.

The other piece is that when I’ve practiced and learned with other people and noticed that, “Oh, the same ways I’m getting stuck, other people are getting stuck,quot; and I see this in groups that I work with when we do mentoring groups here in Washington—that if there’s one person that says, “You know, I’m getting so much obsession, my mind just will not stop thinking,” then others that were having the same thing go on and realize, “Oh, this isn’t so personal.” Or if one person says, “I can’t really feel my body so much, you keep saying come into the body,” and then somebody else says, “Oh, I feel a lot of numbness,” or, “I can’t really get in touch with my body,” we so quickly make ourselves wrong. To find out that the challenges are pretty universal, that we all get restless and we all get sleepy and we all get caught in desire or fear; if it’s less personal, we can relate to it with more compassion, more humor, more ease. There’s a real value in being part of a process with other people and we very much wanted that to be a key feature of the training.

JK: And I’ll just add that it’s also a place to ask questions because when you do something new—if you’re trying to teach yourself to play piano or become good at tennis—to have somebody who knows how to do that, who’s been there and made their mistakes and so forth, and have a place where you can be in connection with someone and say, “What do I do with this pain in my body? How do I work with physical pain?” or, “How do I work with the doubting mind and these kind of repetitive thoughts?” And someone says, “Here’s two or three very simple, systematic ways that you can experiment with and you can try,” and then the person realizes, “Oh, there’s a map. This is not being made up on the spot,” but there’s actually a whole body of rich human experience for these kind of trainings and having a mentor and a mentoring group that you’re a part of is critical for supporting you. We’re so glad that we’ve been able to build it in. It seems like it’s going to make the course and what people learn really immediate and personal for them so that it really works in their lives.

TS: Now, for a final question. I know that both of you, in a sense—I might say that you’re global activists, if you will—that you both care a lot about the state of our world and how much suffering there is all over the world. I’d love to know what you see as the link between training in awareness and the state of the world.

JK: Tami, it’s critical. It’s like breathing in and breathing out. You can’t take half a breath.

So, one part of our task as human beings is to learn some way to quiet our minds, open our hearts, feel a sense of deep connection with ourselves and with the world around us. The meditations and the trainings we do allow that. The second half of the breath is to get up from your seat and look around in the world now that you’re present. And it becomes so obvious the places that need your attention; whether it’s in family, community, in politics or business or art or education. All of those are places that these tools and practices of mindfulness and compassion—and so forth—can make a difference.

Underneath it, there’s a very deep understanding that at this point in history all the outer developments of internet and nanotechnology and biotechnology and all the kind of wild and creative things we’ve been able to do as human beings have not stopped continuing warfare. They haven’t stopped continuing racism, continuing environment destruction, tribalism; all the things that create so much human suffering. The outer developments of humanity have to be matched at this time with the inner developments that shift us from that sense of separateness and the sense of blaming others or walling ourself off—whether it’s an individual or a community or a tribe or a nation, we have to have a different consciousness as humanity to live on this earth.

It’s not just a personal practice that we’re doing. It’s also really a practice of world transformation. As we talk about in the course, Gandhi used to take a day a week in silence to quiet himself and listen to how he could best serve the world from the deepest and most authentic and skillful place. I’ve worked both as an activist and with lots of activists. It’s easy to get burned out if you don’t have a way to resource and stabilize yourself to keep tending your own heart, to put your own oxygen mask on before you tend to the others in the plane. When you bring these together, when you bring together the ability to stay steady—to bring a sense of dignity and awareness and compassion deeply in yourself—it gives you the resources and the vision to make that transformation—to engage in all these parts of the world that so much call for our hearts and our action.

TB: One thing I think of when I start reflecting on the kind of consciousness that then brings forth different kinds of action is I remember when the United States was about to enter into a war with Iraq. I would be reading the newspapers, and every time I’d read the newspapers I’d go into feelings of outrage and I’d have targets of certain people in the administration that were “the bad guysquot; and so on.

So, I said, “OK, let’s bring this practice right here,” and I’d begin. I’d read something and then I would breathe and be with what was there. And I’d find that underneath the rage—if I could open—underneath that anger was a feeling of fear. Then I’d open—and this is how we do it in the training—I’d name it, I’d feel it, I’d open to it, and underneath the fear was a sense of real grieving of what was going to happen and what already has been happening. Underneath the grieving was a sense of real care—care about the lives of all beings.

I remember joining with a large number of spiritual and religious leaders and parents on a demonstration protest at the White House. [They] were all likeminded [and] all really wanted to not flail or fist as much as say, “But what about the Iraqi children that will be left without parents? What about the young people from our country that are going over?quot; You know: caring about all of us. It created such an energy.

I remember when we got arrested—and we did get arrested—the police were so friendly. Some of them were joking about white collar crime, you know—that they’re putting these religious leaders into the paddy wagon, and in my paddy wagon there were two Nobel laureates. There was such heart there that I could feel if there was going to be peace, it’s not going to come from making the other the enemy; it’s going to be from feeling this love for all that are involved.

One of the things that I’ve become increasingly aware of in the last decade is that it really needs to be this next generation, the young people, that are trained in these ways of paying attention, trained in these qualities of heart and presence so that they can impact our world. I’m so aware of the addiction to video games and computers and cutting off from our bodies and from the earth and, “How will this next generation love this earth—our larger body—and steward it well if they don’t feel that sense of their own embodiment?quot;

In Washington, Congressman Tim Ryan and I have teamed up several times to speak with parents and teachers and staff at the different—two actually large—counties in our area. There are quite a number of classes now that are bringing mindfulness and awareness training, emotional resilience training there, and it’s happening all over the country.

So, my sense is that one of the most hope giving things we can point to is that there is an increasing value being placed not just learning, but learning how to learn and learning how to be intelligent with our own emotions and intelligent with our bodies—listening to our bodies and then in relationship.

I’m fortunate to know a number of the young people that are taking some of these courses and some of them doing retreats also. The reports they bring back, when they have just a little bit of practice on how to pause, how to connect with themselves, and what it allows them to bring forward in relationship just moves my heart so much. They’re feeling more confident in themselves, they’re more able to concentrate and to center and to ground themselves, their relationships are more spontaneous and fluid—it’s quite a powerful thing to behold.

When I see what’s possible for these young people, it just more than ever makes me realize this is for all of us. Each one of us has this amazing potential to live fully and to love without holding back—to serve, to savor. It doesn’t take much more than a sincere intention to begin to pay attention in a way that really wakes up those capacities.

JK: Tami, I too am really happy that we’ve made this program. It takes the very best of the teachings and the trainings that Tara and I have been doing for years that changed both of our lives and remarkably change the lives of people all over the world who come to practice with us, and now makes them really available to people anywhere. They’re so transformative and so immediate that I hope those who are listening or people everywhere who can benefit by this really give it a try, take it to heart. I’m so glad that we’re able to make it available. I thank you and Sounds True for helping us do this.

TS: You’ve been listening to Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach on “The Big Insights: The Power of Awareness to Change Your Life.quot; Jack and Tara are founders of the new Awareness Training Institute and together they’ve created Mindfulness Daily, a 40-day training program that helps listeners establish a lasting meditation practice in less than 15 minutes a day, and also a version for the workplace called Mindfulness Daily at Work. In addition, the Awareness Training Institute has created an online course called The Power of Awareness, which features more than 15 hours of video teachings and includes a unique online mentoring program in which participants work online in small groups with a certified Awareness Training Institute instructor. If you’re interested in learning more about Mindfulness Daily, Mindfulness Daily at Work, or The Power of Awareness, please visit SoundsTrue.com.

SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.

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