Lessons on Buddhist Psychology from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart

Jack Kornfield has a PhD in clinical psychology; trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, India, and Burma; and has taught mindfulness and meditation for more than 35 years. In his book, The Wise Heart, Kornfield explores Buddhism not as a religion or a set of spiritual practices but as a scientific psychology, including its intersections, affirmations, and conflicts with psychology as practiced in the West.

Buddhist Psychology Cultivates Well-being

Where Western psychiatry has focused largely on mental illness, Buddhism focuses on the cultivation of a healthy state of mind through mindfulness, training in compassion, and so on.

Jack Kornfield in Tricycle Magazine

Buddhist psychology practices can certainly be helpful with those struggling and experiencing acute suffering, however, these practices are most helpful in cultivating a baseline of well-being and tools to navigate the challenges of the human experience.

Kornfield’s use of “cultivating” reminds me of Barbara Fredrickson’s work on cultivating a 3:1 positivity ratio of genuine and heartfelt positive emotions to negative emotions. I continue, years later, to remind myself (often) and practice (less often) her advice of “less ruminating, and more reminiscing.”

The Four Noble Truths

These four truths are the cornerstones of Buddhism and Buddhist psychology.

  1. Suffering – Suffering is real and part of the human experience.
  2. Its Causes – There are causes to this suffering that we can discover.
  3. Its End – It is possible to stop suffering.
  4. The Means to that End – How do we stop suffering?

The Eight Fold Path

The Eight Fold Path is the way to extinguishing suffering (the 4th Noble Truth). This includes:

  1. Right views
  2. Right resolve/aspiration
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action/conduct
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Practicing Buddhist Psychology for Well-being through RAIN

Kornfield recommends the acronym RAIN (Recognition, Acceptance, Investiation, & Non-identifcation) as a tool and process to help put Buddhist psychology into practice.

Recognition – Recognize what is happening and what you are experiencing. Others might describe this as noticing. For example, “I am angry.” or “I am angry because this feels unfair.”

Acceptance – Accepting what is real in the world as well as your experience. Others might describe this as allowing. Allowing the anger to be felt (as emotions in the body) without resistance or judgement. This might mean allowing the anger, allowing it to transform into frustration at unfairness, allowing this to transform into hurt. For a deep dive on this practice explore Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, a regular collaborator with Kornfield.

Investigation – Investigating what is happening. This means getting genuinely curious and not seeking to justify, rationalize, defend, or dispute your experience. Others might call this inquiry. “Was it really unfair?” “Why is this decision that seems unfair leaving me so angry?” “What does this remind me of or bring up for me?” “Is the person making this decision trying to be unfair?” “What might be going on for them?”

Kornfield identifies four critical areas of experience to explore in this investigation stage; body, feelings, mind, and the Dharma (truth, teaching, or principles).

Non-Identification – Not identifying with the emotions or your feeling of them in your body. This is a thing you are experiencing, it is not who you are. This non-identification is not about ignoring the feelings or the issue at hand, but it is about helping you engage (or not) in a way that is in alignment with you and your values.

Forgiveness in Buddhist Psychology

This was not a big focus of the book, but I found it powerful. Long ago, I was told that forgiveness was not about releasing the other person, it was about releasing yourself. Kornfield highlights the power of releasing yourself from others transgressions against you (or others). This isn’t about avoiding accountability but it means letting go of what you cannot change so you can focus on where you have agency.

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.

Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
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