Dr Ali’s Book Club: “A Path With Heart” by Jack Kornfield

Soon after moving to San Francisco, I became aware of Spirit Rock, the teaching and insight meditation center just a few miles up the road founded by Jack Kornfield some 30 years ago. Friends spoke highly of it, and your first session was free! With nothing to lose, I made the pleasant pilgrimage to Marin County and sat in on one of Jack’s classes.

Jack turned out to be one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. After years of meditation and study in Asia, not only does he know his stuff very well, but he’s also quite funny. Like a great college professor’s lectures, his discourses range widely and incorporate numerous allusions, stories, quotes, and quips. He had us laughing at a regular clip of once every 5 minutes or so. Don’t you wish more teachers did that?

I later found out that Jack is also a practicing PhD in psychology. It seemed as if his experience with real humans who had real problems allowed him to convey the simplified essence of the teachings to his audience in a way that was accessible to all.

As a result, whenever I see his name on the calendar for a Monday night class or a Saturday workshop, I make a special effort to go to Spirit Rock. If you also live in the Bay Area, you may want to join me for these trips.

But if you do not live nearby, then you should get A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (paperback or Kindle ebook edition or audiobook).

Actually, even if you do live nearby and go to Spirit Rock every week, you should still get yourself a copy of A Path With Heart. Like any good book, it does three essential things to useful information: it concentrates it, speeds up the delivery, and keeps it all in one tidy package where you can revisit it.

Additionally, A Path With Heart is one of the best spiritual manuals I’ve ever read, possessing breadth, depth, humor and practicality in abundance. For example, early on in the book, Jack disabuses us of any prior notions we may have possessed of what spirituality should be:

“The purpose of spiritual life is not to create some special state of mind. A state of mind is always temporary. The purpose is to work directly with the most primary elements of our body and our mind, to see the ways we get trapped by our fears, desires, and anger, to learn directly our capacity for freedom.”

To learn directly our capacity for freedom from this body and mind that we have – this is the at once simple and expansive framework that Kornfield proposes. Then he spends most of the book giving tools for doing exactly that.

At the core of this framework is the emphasis of following a path with heart. This is one of the passages I have underlined and starred in the book:

“The happiness we discover in life is not about possessing or owning or even understanding. Instead it is the discovery of this capacity to love, to have a loving, free, and wise relationship with all of life. Such love is not possessive but arises out of a sense of our well-being in connection with everything. Therefore it is generous and wakeful, and it loves the freedom of all things. Out of love, our path can lead us to learn to use our gifts to heal and serve, to create peace around us, to honor the secret in life, to bless whatever we encounter, and to wish all beings well.” (p.18)

I also delighted in the richness of the book in quotes from Kornfield’s own teachers, from Tibetan lamas to Gautama Buddha himself:

“You live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality, but you do not notice. When you understand this, you will see that you’re nothing, and being nothing you are everything. That is all.” – Kalu Rinpoche

Or this, one of the most famous of the Buddha’s quotes:

“Just as the waters of the great oceans all have one taste, taste of salt, so too, all true teachings of it one taste, taste of liberation.”

Of course, the book would only be so useful if you couldn’t actually use it to solve real-world problems. For example, how do you deal with negative emotions? Kornfield has an extended section on this. One of the techniques he advocates is naming. You basically name the negative emotion as you’re experiencing it, and thereby get some purchase on it:

“At first, name the state softly, saying “anger, anger”, or “hate, hate” as long as it persists. As you name it, note how long it lasts, what it turns into, how it arises again. Name it and notice how anger feels. Where in the body do you sense it? Does your body become hard or soft with anger? Do you notice different kinds of anger? When anger arises, what is its temperature, its effect on the breath, its degree of pain? How does it affect the mind? Smaller, more rigid, tighter? Do you sense tension or contraction? Listen to the voices that come along with it. What do they say? “I’m afraid of this.” “I hate that.” “I don’t want to experience that.” Can we name the demon and make our hearts big enough to allow both the anger and the subject of the anger to show us their dance?”

This is a powerful and effective practice I’ve tried and recommended to students of my own. And it works! Not only that, but recent research by the likes of Prof Dan Siegel of UCLA — author of Mindsight (Kindle version & paperback) – corroborates its effectiveness through imaging studies. Sometimes it only takes science a couple of millennia to catch up with wisdom that some thoughtful and observant guy came up with on the other side of the planet.

There are plenty more practices. At the end of every chapter, there are meditations to instill the principles discussed. Regularly practiced, these meditations can be transformative. They’re also a great reference for a specific meditation you might be interested in – loving-kindness, for example, or transforming sorrow into compassion, or forgiveness.

And what’s the point of all this meditation? To come back to feeling: “The task and meditation is to drop below the model of the repeated recorded message, to sense and feel the energy brings it up.”

I could go on for pages and pages, since there’s a lot more in this book that I liked. I’ll just say that this is a book of extraordinary depth and wisdom from someone who is the genuine article. Jack Kornfield has walked the path himself and helped thousands do the same. If we Americans had a Dalai Lama who was funny and told good stories, it would be someone like him.

The other day I was making a list of things I have never regretted doing. Some of the items on the list: packing a swimsuit; buying a friend a present; sending a thank-you note; having earplugs handy; eating a meal more slowly; and making the 1hr drive to Spirit Rock from my home in San Francisco. If you are interested in making yourself a better person and are open to contemplative practices, A Path With Heart is an indispensable reference. And I bet getting it for yourself or a friend will be one of your decisions you will never regret.


I have two events coming up:

  • Tao of Dating LIVE in San Francisco will be on Wednesday, June 18. If you’re in town, come on down. Topic is The Tao of Bliss: How to Feel Fantastic in Your Body. You will get high. Tell a friend.
  • If you don’t live in San Francisco: I’m going to do Tao of Dating LIVE: Let More Love In via teleconference on Thursday, 19 June 2014 (note date), starting 5.30pm PT/8.30pm ET. It’ll be a 45-min workshop followed by an hour of Q&A. You can call in, and I may figure out how to do it via Google Hangouts for a more interactive experience.

Think of these as cheap therapy – instead of the usual $200-$300 cost of a session with a therapist, this is a mere $20. All proceeds go straight to the birthday champagne fund.

And yes, this Monday is my birthday. To celebrate, I’m going camping with my cousin who’s flying in from Atlanta, whose birthday is Saturday. If you’re wondering what to get for my birthday a Tesla Model S P85 is always a nice thought – especially when you put the giant pink bow on it. So cute! I have enough stuff, but Amazon gift cards are always welcome, since they let me get more of the books that I can read and report the juicy, useful bits back to you. Eeeeverybody wins.

But if the point of a birthday present is to express appreciation, then reviews on Amazon are the best. And I appreciate you! A big thank-you to Lauren Albert, Eva Rankers, Karin Weiri-Kolle, Mk, Vilasi, and Brie for posting your incredibly generous (and insightful!) reviews in the last week. My favorite line, from Karin:

“I am a licensed marriage and family therapist and I recommend that all women read this book regardless of their relationship status.”

And if you’ve read all of this letter so far, %$firstname$%, thanks for your attention!

All the best,

Dr Ali

PS: Got a question? I like questions! I do my best to get back to as many of you as possible. Probability of a quick response goes up significantly if your letter is less than 200 words long (summarize before it hits my eyes!) and has a question in it relating to what you want. Sometimes the really good questions get a whole blog writeup!