Articles December 10, 2022

A Lamp in the Darkness

Jack Kornfield

"If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice?" —Maha Ghosananda, the Gandhi of Cambodia

The practices and teachings of Insight invite a beautiful movement of heart, a return to dignity, to the wise and gracious spirit that can be found within you always. When you learn to navigate your difficulties with compassion and grace, you will also discover that joy will return. Yes, life is trouble, as Zorba declares, and yet your difficulties and sorrows do not define you. They do not limit who you are. Sometimes, during periods when your struggles overwhelm you or last for a long time, you can mistake them for your life. You become used to difficulty, you become loyal to your suffering. You don’t know who you would be without it. But your difficulties are not the end of the story, they are one part of it—they are part of your path to great love and understanding, a part of the dance of humanity.

When Siddhartha sat by the river at the end of the story by Herman Hesse that many of us read in high school, he finally learned to listen. He realized that all the many voices in the river comprise the music of life: the good and evil, the pleasures and the sorrows, the grief and the laughter, the yearnings and the love. His spirit was no longer in contention with all of life. He found that along with the struggles was also an unshakable joy. This joy can be yours as well. Maha Ghosananda taught all those he met—including in Cambodia, where almost every family suffered unimaginable losses during the genocide—that in spite of our difficulties, love can return. He taught how to meet sorrows with compassion and understanding, how to honor them, and, finally, how to transform them. It is important not to let your sorrows become your whole life. “When you go to a garden,” asks Rumi, “do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.”

A Buddhist teacher and colleague, Debra Chamberlin-Taylor, tells the story of a community activist who participated in her year-long training group for people of color. This woman had experienced a childhood of poverty, trauma, and abuse. She had faced the death of a parent, illness, divorce from a painful marriage, racism, and the single parenting of two children. She talked about her years of struggle to educate herself, to stand up for what she believed. She described how she had become a radical to fight for justice in local and national politics. Finally, at the last meeting this woman announced, “After all the struggles and troubles I’ve lived through, I’ve decided to do something really radical! I am going to be happy.”

No matter what you have faced, joy and renewal await your return. When you remember this, you can open your eyes to the mystery of life around you. Sense the blessings of the earth in the perfect arc of a ripe tangerine, the taste of warm, fresh bread, the circling flight of birds, the lavender color of the sky shining in a late afternoon rain puddle, the million times we pass other beings, in our cars and shops and out among the trees without crashing, conflict, or harm.

Spiritual practice should not be confused with grim duty. It is the laughter of the Dalai Lama and the wonder born with every child. Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, depicts this spirit in the story of a boy who wrote to him. “He sent me a charming card with a drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters—sometimes very hastily—but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim, I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

Yes, we need to carefully navigate through hard times. But the whole world is also our temple, to be tended with love and dignity no matter what.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. exhorted us all, “If a person sweeps streets for a living, he should sweep them as Michelangelo painted, as Beethoven composed music, as Shakespeare wrote his plays.”

The world offers perennial renewal, in the grass that pushes itself up between the cracks in the sidewalk, in the end of every torrential rainstorm and in every newly planted windowbox, in every unexpected revolution, with each new morning’s light. This unstoppable spirit of renewal is in you. Trust it. Learn that it flows through you and all of life.

The ultimate gift of our suffering is to teach us how to properly grieve, heal, and learn compassion. But finally we come to the realization that in any moment we can step out of the body of fear and feel the great winds that carry us, to awaken the eternal present. It is within our power to experience the liberation of the heart offered to all by the Buddha in these words:

Live in joy,

In love,

Even among those who hate.

Live in joy,

In health,

Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy,

In peace,

Even among the troubled.

Look within.

Be still.

Free from fear and attachment,

Know the sweet joy of living in the way.

Excerpted from A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times by Jack Kornfield