Tonight I’ll give the tenth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. The chapter, entitled “The Gift of Authenticity,” begins with a quotation by Martha Graham:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy
Translated through you into action.
Because there is only one of you in all time,
This expression is unique.
If you block it, it will never exist.
When I am with people who are honest, straightforward and open, their presence seems like a gift.
Jack’s chapter includes Erika Trafton’s letter to Sun Magazine in 2010 about a scene with her child:
“Am I gorgeous?” my child asks. “Yes,” I say, “You are.” Pudgy fingers decorated with pink polish trace sequins on the bodice [of a pink and teal dress]…. Little feet dance in sparkly red slippers. “I’m just like a real princess!” “Yes,” I say, “You are.”
Curly hair, joyful smile, flawless skin. This child is the American epitome of beauty. This child, my son. He is four and a half years old and prefers to wear dresses. Maybe it’s just a phase, maybe not. Even as I wonder how I produced such an angelic-looking creature, I wish he would put on some pants and go back to playing with toy tractors—not because it matters to me (it doesn’t)—but because I am already hearing in my head the name-calling he will face in kindergarten. Many adults are already disturbed by the dresses. Strangers utter awkward apologies when they realize he’s not female. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.
He picks up a parasol a neighbor gave him and opens it jauntily over his shoulder. “Am I beautiful?” he asks. I sweep him into my arms and plant a kiss on his cheek, “Always.”
Children have a spirit that is naturally free and that longs to play, dance, and create. So-called “civilized” adults tend to repress this freedom-loving spirit and to act as they are “supposed to.” It can feel challenging to live one’s own life instead of imitating or comparing oneself to others. According to a Zen saying, “Don’t draw another’s bow; don’t ride another’s horse.” The only person you can be true to is yourself.
Jack recounts a delightful story about a seven-year-old boy who accompanies his family to a local restaurant for dinner. When the waitress arrives to take orders, Josh says, “I’d like a hotdog and root beer.” His mother informs the waitress, “He’ll have meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and milk.” The waitress writes down all the orders and then asks Josh, “Do you want ketchup or mustard on your hotdog?” After responding, Josh comments happily, “She thinks I’m real.”
Often our culture suppresses spirit instead of celebrating it. Far too many American school children who are considered “too rambunctious” are on antidepressants, ADHD medication, and anti-anxiety pills. Their ever-busy parents are often addicted to consuming prescription drugs, texting on cell phones, overeating, binge shopping, or drinking alcohol.
Consider when you feel most free to be yourself and when the opposite is true. How do you feel when you are at work… when you are alone… when you’re at a party… when you’re traveling… when you’re out in nature… when you’re playing a sport… when you’re in front of a crowd… when you are with a loved one?
How often do you feel true to yourself? When you speak or write, are you telling your own story or are you imitating someone else? Are you willing to face your habits, fears and conditioning and to show others your vulnerabilities?
As we seek the truth that underlies all our changing roles, we find a fundamental freedom to be present and alive in the moment. Each of us contains paradoxes. Walt Whitman, wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” By becoming faithful to our own vast being and our silent inner nature, we discover fullness and courage inside us. Gradually, we learn to celebrate who we are.
Regardless of our outer circumstances, each of us is the author of our own autobiography. No one else can lead your unique life.
Since I met Jack Kornfield thirty years ago, I have benefited from his teaching at numerous month-long retreats. At first I disconnected from difficult feelings, afraid that I would lose control or be overwhelmed by fear, anger or grief. Gradually I learned to notice and identify a wide range of emotions that flow in what Jack calls an ongoing “river of feelings.” Once I recognized specific feelings, I started to practice feeling them fully. I learned to use loving awareness to experience particular emotions in the body, noting if I felt shaky or rigid, pulsating or still, cool or warm. Jack guided me to notice how each emotion affected my heart and mind: “Was I agitated or calm, tight or open? Did the emotion feel pleasant or unpleasant?” Slowly I began to bring consciousness to the life of feelings. I saw that each feeling had an associated story and different underlying feelings. Little by little, I felt brave enough to face a fuller range of feelings, tasting freedom.
The next step was to learn to express feelings appropriately without reactivity. When I was growing up, I learned to control emotions that were deemed “unacceptable,” especially when my hard-drinking father scared me with unpredictable outbursts. Even today, decades after leaving my childhood home, I feel anxious around people who are drunk.
During chaplaincy training, Koshin Paley Ellison points out my impulse to lash out when people criticize my words or actions. Instead of resorting to conditioned, self-protective reactivity, I am softening my responses. No longer trying to hide my vulnerability, I now admit when I feel hurt. My classmates have been kind and supportive while I practice new ways of expressing emotions. As I mindfully give voice to my feelings, I feel liberated.
Jack rightly points out that one of the most confusing feelings we experience is desire. Some people have the mistaken idea that spiritual life is void of desire. But the human realm is full of desiring. Only by understanding our desires are we free to choose which ones to pursue. There are healthy desires that come from the depths of our being, from a healthy love of life. And there are unhealthy desires based on addictions, grasping greed, fear, inadequacy and imitation.
*Jack suggests an exercise to explore a current desire:
Close your eyes and visualize or sense what you desire.
You might desire a material object, a friend’s approval, a raise at work, an intimate partner, a weight loss, or a trip away from home.
Whatever it is, bring the desire to mind and notice where and how you feel it in your body.
Do you feel it in your stomach, your head, or your heart?
Is it warm or cool, contracted or relaxed, tense or empty?
Is it always the same or does it change?
What stories arise about fulfillment and about how satisfied you could be in the future?
Notice what emotions accompany the desire—such as need, longing, judgment, restlessness, fear or frustration….
Note your impulse to act on desire unconsciously and reflexively.
Be aware of what happens when you become the witness of desire, holding it with loving awareness….
Does it shift, increase, disappear, hide?
Reflect upon whether your desire is healthy or destructive.
With loving awareness, you can step outside of desire.
Because you are no longer identified with it, you become free to choose how to deal with it.
Observe how fleeting desires are, without essence.
Now connect with your breath and open your eyes….
Jack cautions us not to confuse desire with pleasure, which is a natural and blessed part of the human experience. The problem is grasping for one desire after another, endlessly seeking happiness. As George Bernard Shaw quipped, “There are two great disappointments in life—not getting what you want and getting it.”
Jack’s Indian guru, Nisargadatta, taught that humans tend to limit themselves to desires for certain wants, needs, hopes and ideas. He asked, “Why not desire it all? Discover that you are everything and nothing, [and] then your desires will be fulfilled.” Viewed with loving awareness, desire can connect us with all life.
Chapter ten ends with a guided meditation called “Being True” (p. 184), which I have adapted:
Sit quietly with eyes closed and listen inwardly.
Reflect upon how it feels when you are most true to yourself.
What circumstances foster this tendency?
How can you bring this feeling to more of your life?
Sense if your true nature is to collaborate with others or to be creative on your own.
Now reflect upon when you are least true to yourself.
What circumstances foster that tendency?
How does it feel to abandon your true self?
What might be the result of being truer to yourself?
Can you envision being true to yourself and expressing yourself with love?
How might your life change to live this way?
How could you live with more integrity, inside and outside?
Now be aware of breathing in and out, and slowly open your eyes.