The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield Book Notes & Review

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My Rating: 7/10 Find it On Amazon

Table of Contents

My Bottom Line Thoughts

I enjoyed reading this guide to Buddhist psychology by Jack Kornfield.

I’ve benefited and found truth to Buddhist wisdom which is why I had an interest in diving into this topic in more detail.

Jack spent part of his life living as a Buddhist monk and then went on to get his western education in psychology so he really knows the full range of psychological theory.

This book contains a ton of wisdom and it can really help you if you are looking to improve your mental health or learn more about what Buddhist wisdom teaches.

I thought the book was organized well giving a numerical structure to the main points so that they were easy to grasp after finishing it.

Summary Notes

Part 1: Who Are We Really?

1. See the inner nobility and beauty of all human beings

  • Buddhist psychology begins by deliberately cultivating respect, starting with ourselves. When we learn to rest in our own goodness, we can see the goodness more clearly in others.
  • This starts with a radical vision, one that transforms everyone it touches: a recognition of the innate nobility and freedom of the heart that are available wherever we are

Practice: Wait for a day when your heart feels open and your mood is good. Set a clear intention that you will see the nobility of three people today. Carry this perception as you interact with them. Notice how your interaction goes. Increase this practice as you can.

2. Compassion is our deepest nature. It arises from our interconnection with all things

  • When we clearly realize that the source of disharmony and misery in the world is ignorance, we can open the door of wisdom and compassion
  • We need compassion not anger to help us be tender with our difficulties and not close off to them in fear. This is how healing takes place.
  • Thick layers of ignorance and trauma can obscure our compassion
  • Compassion is natural and it derives from our interconnection with all things
  • We are all connected in consciousness as well as physically
  • Through our mirror neurons, we actually feel the emotions, movements, and intentions of others
  • Aggression and ambition are more often expressions of fear and delusion. The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world
  • Compassion is not foolish. It doesn’t just go along with what others want so they don’t feel bad. There is a yes and a no in compassion, said with the same courage of heart

3. When we shift attention from experience to the spacious consciousness that knows, wisdom arises automatically

  • Unless we grasp the nature and function of consciousness it is impossible to live wisely
  • What we ordinarily call the mind usually refers to the thinking mind, the ceaseless fountain of ideas, images, creativity, evaluation, problems. But when we look closely we discover that the mind is not just its thoughts or images. It also includes a wide range of mind states or qualities around and below the thought process: feelings, moods, intuition, instincts.
  • As with the sky, all kinds of clouds and weather conditions can appear in it, but they have no effect on the sky itself
  • “Develop a mind that is vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle, or harm”
  • Ajahn Chah taught him to relax and feel his breath carefully and then just notice the stream of thoughts and sensations without reacting to them as a problem. He then finally taught him to rest in consciousness itself
  • When we do not understand the difference between the stream of thoughts, images, and emotions we take each of the passing states to be real. When we can rest in awareness and just watch them we will find peace.
  • Detachment is the near enemy of true openness and equanimity. To rest in consciousness, we have to unlearn this defensive detachment and learn to feel everything
  • Salam was a prisoner of war who was being beaten until he felt his consciousness leave his body and float up to the ceiling. It was peaceful. He then described how his consciousness expanded further. He knew it was his body lying below but he felt he was everything. Being everything, he could never die. All his fears vanished. He realized that death was an illusion. A well being and joy beyond description opened in him. Then spontaneous compassion arose for the folly of humans believing that we are separate.
  • Learn to rest in your true nature or spacious awareness which allows all things good and bad come and go.

4. Recognize the mental states that fill consciousness. Shift from unhealthy states to healthy ones.

  • Pure awareness becomes colored by our thoughts, emotions, and expectations
  • Several difficult states will usually appear together
  • Learn to recognize mental states without judgment and note how they occur, how intense they are, and how they tangle together

5. Our ideas of self are created by identification. The less we cling to ideas of self, the freer and happier we will be

  • What we take to be a self is tentative, fictitious, constructed by clinging, a temporary identification with some parts of experience. 
  • Self arises, solidifying itself, like ice floating in water. Ice is actually made of the same substance as water. Identification and clinging harden the water into ice. In a similar way, we sense ourself as separate.
  • Release from identification with the sense of self brings the highest mental health, freedom, compassion, and joy
  • The Indian guru Sri Nisargadatta used to laugh and tell him “ you identify with everything so easily, with your body, your thoughts, your opinions, your roles and so you suffer.
  • To be wise we need to enter each role in our life fully, with awareness and compassion and let it go when our part is done
  • When we are worried, nervous, filled with fear, it’s a sign that we are identified. We aren’t open to others in this state.
  • We do not have to wait for a stroke to learn to let go of our identification with the body and mind. We can train ourselves to release clinging to the body. Otherwise as our body changes weight, gets sick, or ages, we will suffer. We must care for our body but not grasp to an image of what we think it should look like.
  • “In my mind are only three things: loving-kindness, concentration, and peace.” These are the fruits of selflessness. With selflessness there is less of us and yet presence, connectedness, and freedom come alive.

6. Our life has a universal and personal nature. Both dimensions must be respected if we are to be happy and free

  • We have to understand the big universal picture but also the reality of the physical world and here/now
  • We can’t pretend we are too spiritual for any experience. If we are angry we must admit it, look at its causes, and get to know it well. If we are sad or frightened, this is our human condition a perfect place to practice
  • Buddhist psychology believes that healing occurs as we learn to move from the realm of concepts to the world of direct experience. Our mental concepts are static and unchanging. But the reality of experience is an ever changing river. Direct perception drops beneath the names of things to show us their ephemeral, mysterious nature. When we bring our attention to the direct perception of experience, we become more alive and free.
  • Time is a concept, the past is a memory, the future an image or thought. All our stories about the past and future are only ideas arising in the moment. We are always in the eternal present.

Part 2: Mindfulness: The Great Medicine

7. Mindful Attention to any experience is liberating. Mindfulness brings perspective, balance, and freedom.

  • Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough 
  • Sitting mindfully with our sorrows and fears or with those of another is an act of courage
  • With patience and courage, we can learn how to sit firmly on the earth and sense the contraction and trembling in our body without running away
  • “And being resolved to dispel the hold of that fear and terror, I remained in whatever posture it arose, sitting or standing, walking or lying down. I did not change until I had faced that fear and terror in that very posture, until I was free of its hold upon me…..and having this thought, I did so. By facing the fear and terror I became free.
  • RAIN: recognition, acceptance, investigation, non-identification
  • Four foundations of mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, dharma
  • Buddhist psychology calls non-identification the abode of awakening, the end of clinging, true peace, nirvana. Without identification we can respectfully care for ourselves and others yet we are no longer bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self
  • Mindfulness and fearless presence bring true protection

8. Mindfulness of the body allows us to live fully. It brings healing, wisdom, and freedom

  • Go with the pain, let it take you….open your palms and your body to the pain. It comes in waves like a tide, and you must open as a vessel lying on the beach, letting it fill you up and then, retreating, leaving you empty and clear…..with a deep breath-it has to be as deep as the pain-one reaches a kind of inner freedom from pain, as though the pain were not yours but your body’s. The spirit lays the body on the altar.
  • Sometimes the practices people need who are traumatized require embodiment: walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, gardening, etc

9. Wisdom knows what feelings are present without being lost in them

  • For him it took years of training as a monk, in meditation, in psychotherapy, and in relationships to reclaim his capacity to feel
  • Every moment of our sense experience has a feeling tone
  • We’re always wanting a pleasant feeling and not a painful one when in reality as we become wiser we realize that fixing the flow of feelings doesn’t work….we all have changing feelings each day
  • The masters practice is to accept pleasure, pain and neutral experience in a gracious way
  • We have to learn to become mindful of the unpleasant sensations in our body instead of getting lost in anxious thoughts 
  • We can learn that powerful feelings and emotions are not to be feared. They are simply energy. When they are recognized, acknowledged, investigated, we are liberated from our clinging. And then we can choose. We can act on those that need a response and let others become freed as the energy of life.

10. Thoughts are often one-sided and untrue. Learn to be mindful of thought instead of being lost in it.

  • We see how our ridiculous, repetitive thought stream continually constructs our limited sense of self, with judgements, defenses, ambitions, and compensations. When they are unexamined, we believe them. But if someone were to follow us close by and repeatedly whisper our own thoughts, we would quickly become bored with their words. If they continued, we would be dismayed by their constant criticisms and fears, then angry that they wouldn’t ever shut up.
  • When the judging mind appears we simply acknowledge it with an inward bow
  • Most of our mental suffering comes from how tightly we hold our beliefs
  • The mind creates the abyss the heart crosses it
  • When thinking for work purposes just think then when you are done let go of the thoughts

11. There is a personal and universal unconscious. Turning awareness to the unconscious brings understanding and freedom.

  • Stories and traumas still operate from our childhoods unconsciously 
  • Unconscious matter is generally not available to conscious awareness but with mindfulness this material can gradually be made conscious and transformed
  • Every experience we have plants a seed or sanskara. This seed holds the potential to activate in a future situation. The more often we repeat a pattern the stronger the seed.
  • Through profound insight and deep meditation, these deep roots can be released, bringing successive degrees of freedom, called stages of enlightenment

Part 3: Transforming the Roots of Suffering

12. The unhealthy patterns of our personality can be recognized and transformed into a healthy expression of our natural temperament

  •  There are grasping, aversive, and deluded temperaments 
  • When people sit with themselves their personality types become magnified
  • Aversive types become aware of hundreds of judgements 
  • As long as you are trying to be something other than what you are, your mind wears itself out. But if you say, this is what I am, it is a fact that I am going to investigate and understand, then you can go beyond

13. There are both healthy desires and unhealthy desires. Know the difference. Then find freedom in their midst.

  • We need desire. The main thing is understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy desire.
  • A dream or powerful goal can be pursued in different ways. If the goal exists to prove that we are worthy, to cover our insecurity, or to conquer others, it will ultimately prove unfulfilling and come to an end. Yet the very same activity can be done in a healthy way with dedication, commitment, and love.

 14. If we cling to anger or hatred, we will suffer. It is possible to respond strongly, wisely, and compassionately, without hatred.

  • Usually we believe outer problems attack us. Things are wrong and people misbehave, causing our hatred and suffering to arise. But however painful our experiences may be, they are just painful experiences until we add the response of aversion or hatred. Only then does suffering arise. If we react with hatred and aversion, these qualities become habitual 
  • When fear arises, anger and aversion function as strategies to help us feel safe, to declare our strength and security. In fact, we actually feel insecure and vulnerable, but we cover this fear and vulnerability with anger and aggression.
  • Most people discover that when hate is gone, they will have to deal with their own pain
  • There are two arrows. The first is the painful event itself. The second arrow is the one we shoot into ourselves. We cannot avoid the first one but we can transform the second.
  • “I can accept pain and loss, but i will not live a life of bitterness and fear”

15. Delusion misunderstands the world and forgets who we are. Delusion gives rise to all unhealthy states. Free yourself from delusion and see with wisdom.

  • Our habitual perception can be horribly wrong
  • At the root of delusion is the sense of a separate limited sense of self
  • Delusion is the ridgepole that holds up the rafters of clinging, anger, fear, and sorrow
  • Whole periods of our lives disappear in the trance of delusion
  • 3 forms of delusion: 1. Lack of attention, 2. Denial of reality infront of us 3. Misperception of reality
  • As we open to reality, feel, and trust awareness our sense of suffering can increase. We can feel the suffering of everything around us more deeply than ever before
  • The sense of liberation from an illusory difference is such a relief and joy that we will almost laugh out loud at our previous perception when it happens

Part 4: Finding Freedom

16. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not. Suffering arises from grasping. Release grasping and be free of suffering.

  • There are two kinds of suffering. There is suffering you run away from which follows you everywhere. And there is suffering you face directly, and in doing so become free.
  • Suffering is our reaction to the inevitable pain of life.
  • The first noble truth is that there is suffering
  • The second noble truth tells us that when we grasp, we create suffering (we hold on too tight)
  • If you let go a little you will have a little peace. If you let go more you will have more peace. And if you let go completely, whatever happens  your heart will be free. Eventually even in great pain we will have learned to let go.
  • When we let go of being the one who suffers we are free to bring blessings wherever we go
  • The images and feelings may come back many times, yet as you continue to practice, they will eventually fade. Gradually the mind will come to trust the space of letting go. Gradually the heart will be easy and you will be free

17. Be mindful of intention. Intention is the seed that creates our future.

  • Our repeated patterns of thought and action actually change our nervous system. Each time we focus our attention and follow our intentions our nerves fire and the patterns are strengthened.
  • The seed of a magnolia or redwood tree contains the whole life pattern of the plant, which will respond when suitable conditions of water, earth, and sunlight arise. This is the same for the seeds we plant in our mind.
  • Setting a long term intention is like setting the compass of our heart. No matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to backtrack around obstacles, our direction is clear
  • The basic psychological law: what is past is over. It cannot be changed. We will inevitably receive the result of our past intentions and actions. Our freedom lies in how we respond to these results. Our response creates new karma, new patterns that will eventually bear fruit. By creating a healthier future we can redeem the past.

18. What we repeatedly visualize changes our body and consciousness. Visualize freedom and compassion.

  • Practice visualizing images that calm, strengthen, and purify you.

19. What we repeatedly think shapes our world. Out of compassion, substitute healthy thoughts for unhealthy ones.

  • Challenge panicky, depressive thoughts telling yourself not to believe them. Act positively and do what you are afraid of anyway.
  • Never allow states to make you lose your peace of mind
  • When we become mindful of fearful thoughts we see that fear is just a story with dramatic feelings. We don’t have to take it as truth. See it and transform it over time.

20. The power of concentration can be developed through inner training. Concentration opens consciousness to profound dimensions of healing and understanding

  • Any state of consciousness no matter how glorious is not the goal. What matters is how the revelation manifests here and now in our daily round, when we are conversing or cooking dinner
  • Training concentration calms and purifies the mind 

Part 5: Embodying the Wise Heart

21. Virtue and integrity are necessary for genuine happiness. Guard your integrity with care.

  • Mindfulness requires a suspension of judgment. It is an open inquiry into what is painful, pleasant, joyful, or shameful, without judging anything as right or wrong. This is the first step in healing, a clear seeing and deep acceptance of what is. But this acceptance is only the first step in the transformation of human experience.
  • A study at a mental hospital used a camera to record who paid and who didn’t. Then they looked at the hospital record of healed and discharged patients. He discovered  that the patients who paid their tolls got better more quickly than the patients of those who did not pay

22. Forgiveness is both necessary and possible. It is never too late to find forgiveness and start again.

  • Forgiveness if for ourselves just as much as for the other person. When we hold onto grudges we are only damaging ourselves.

23. There is no separation between inner and outer, self and other. Tending ourselves, we tend the world. Tending the world, we tend ourselves.

  • The problem with the world is we draw our family circle too small

24. The middle way is found between all opposites. Rest in the middle and find well-being wherever you are

  • Don’t get stuck in your views or rigidity on one side of the equation. Flow and peace happens when you can relax and release into the mystery and equanimity of the middle way

25. Release opinions, free yourself from views. Be open to mystery.

  • Practice resting in the don’t know mind or meditate when you are in a position where things are uncertain and they aren’t moving along well
  • Remember impermanence and that things are always in motion even when you don’t realize it

26. A peaceful heart gives birth to love. When love meets suffering, it turns to compassion. When love meets happiness, it turns to joy.

  • When you can keep your heart open it can touch suffering and happiness with love and transform them into compassion, nurturing, and joy
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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.