2016-06-30
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path
By Jack Kornfield
Bantam, 2000. 320 pp.

Among American Buddhists, Jack Kornfield has become a household name. After several years of intensive study at monasteries in south Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he returned to the United States and established himself as a Buddhist teacher and practicing psychologist. Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and the Spirit Rock Center in California, he has taught around the world since 1974 and written more than half a dozen books about Buddhism and spiritual practice. His "A Path With Heart," published in 1993, is regarded as a classic guide to meditation and spiritual practice for Western audiences.

Having introduced us to Buddhist practice, his latest book, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry," addresses the difficulties of maintaining spiritual commitment amid the realities of daily life. It's quintessential Kornfield: wise, warm, and encouraging, as inspiring and compassionate as "A Path With Heart." Indeed, it covers so many of the earlier book's themes and uses so many of the same anecdotes and examples that it's almost the same book. It adds little to what Kornfield expressed so well earlier, and on concrete realities like money, consumerism, relationships, and social problems, Kornfield can still be irritatingly vague. His advice to "take the good and leave the rest" and accept the "shadow" in spiritual life, for instance, may sound rather evasive to victims of abuse.

Not that that should necessarily dissuade readers. Kornfield's message, after all, remains as valid and welcome as ever. The truth that life is hard and that enlightenment can't save us from illness, interpersonal conflicts, and other problems bears repeating. Kornfield is admirably honest about difficulties that spiritual practitioners can encounter, including jealousy, vanity, and materialism. He admits that spiritual teachers, as fallible human beings, can sometimes misuse power, money, alcohol and drugs, and sexuality. With characteristic gentleness, Kornfield recommends bringing "discriminating wisdom" to such situations and acknowledging the cultural forces that can contribute to them.

Kornfield brings firsthand experience to his discussion of maintaining spiritual commitment in a secular culture. "To enter life requires a radical understanding that holiness, God, or Nirvana are not found apart from experience," he writes, "but are its essence. What we seek is what we are." He illuminates this central point through stories, anecdotes, and quotes from several (mostly Eastern) spiritual traditions. Often inspiring, these illustrations repeat a simple and reassuring message: You may think you are enlightened, but obstacles are sure to arise. Discouraged as you may be, don't give up. Enlightenment may not last, but it does exist.

Kornfield's facility in dispensing wisdom like this, though reassuring, eventually pales precisely because of the wisdom's transcendence. An anecdote about the transformation of a teenage murderer illustrates this weakness. Kornfield recounts the story of a 14-year-old boy who killed an innocent child to get into a gang. The child's grieving mother vowed to kill the murderer. She began to visit him in jail, treating him kindly and bringing him small gifts. When he was released, she adopted him as her own. Responding to this gentle treatment, the youth became a responsible adult. The woman succeeded in "killing" the young tough who had murdered her son and bringing a whole new person to life.

It's an anecdote of astonishing beauty. But it hardly addresses the experience of the typical reader. It's dramatic and extreme; miraculous rather than typical. As many foster parents can attest, sociopathic adolescents are far more likely to burn down the house or steal the car than to give love back when they receive it. This is not to say that transformation is impossible, but certainly the real lesson of harboring troubled children is that we must learn to love without expecting to see thrilling results. Uplifting as Kornfield's examples are, they risk minimizing this point. "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry" is positive, compassionate, and understanding, but may give readers more of what they want than what they really need.