The Nature of Fear and What You Can Do About It: An Interview with Jack Kornfield

In two earlier interviews, Jack Kornfield shared with us his insights into mindfulness and psychotherapy and the real practical importance of creating connection in everyday life. I am thrilled to have him hear again and today he gets practical with us, talking about the importance of creating connection to life, some ways to go about it, and our innate capacities for understanding, well-being, and joy.

For those who do not know Jack Kornfield, let me introduce him. He is one of the true leaders of our time in respect to the marriage of Eastern and Western Psychology. He stands alongside an esteemed group of elders such as Thich Nhat HanhSharon SalzbergPema Chodron, and Joseph Goldstein in bringing mindfulness to the west. Not only that, he also holds his PhD in clinical Psychology which makes him so relevant to the connection between mindfulness and psychotherapy.

He co-founded Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachussets and is a founding teacher of the well known retreat center Spirit Rock, in Woodacre, Ca. He has taught in Centers and University settings worldwide with teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and theDalai Lama. He is also author of many widely popular books translated in over 20 languages, some of which are, A Path with HeartThe Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and PeaceAfter the Ecstasy, the Laundry and his newest book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.

Today Jack talks with us about the nature of fear and how to work with it to help us live the lives we want.

Elisha: One of the primary emotions that we all struggle with is fear. In your experience, how do you lead people through working with fear? 

Jack: Fear is central to our human life. The poet Rilke says, “Ultimately it is upon your vulnerability that you depend.” In fact we are vulnerable to one another, to the environment and how we treat it and how it affects us, we’re vulnerable to sickness, old age and death, as the Buddha points out in his first teachings. And so the first thing we need to understand is that vulnerability and insecurity are part of the nature of incarnate existence.

Often our fear produces a shell or a closing . Our fear may have come from our personal trauma and wounding that we carry, or from the cultural traumas that we live with. Without understanding fear, we build fortress America, or Gated Communities or walled off relationships, all as attempts to find security or protect ourselves. To want to protect ourselves is an understandable thing. This can help in some situations. But we can’t really protect ourselves fully from insecurity and so we also need the wisdom of insecurity. This ability to relax and live in the face of uncertainty is part of what I teach. I direct people to befriend their fear and uncertainty to begin to  experience it in their body, in their heart and in their mind in ways that are not overwhelming.

You have to do it a little bit at a time. As you befriend your fear, you say, “oh, this is fear.” Sometimes in the Buddhist teaching, the small sense of self is called “the body of fear”. As you turn toward your fear and pay attention you gradually learn to feel what fear is like, the stories it tells, the  bodily experience of fear and after 10, 20, 50 or 100 times of working with it, you start to say, “oh I know you, I know what fear is like, I know what insecurity is like” and you begin to relax. You understand that it is possible to be present and that awareness and compassion are bigger than the fear. So there comes a shift of identity from being lost in the fear to being able to be present with our insecurity and the tenderness of vulnerability. When we accept our genuine vulnerability we open in a way that allows for a wise and much more fully lived life.

Elisha: I don’t know how you do it, but you bring a big smile to my face when you talk and I feel my own vulnerability coming up and a smile coming to my face at the same time.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interactions provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

One Response to “The Nature of Fear and What You Can Do About It: An Interview with Jack Kornfield”

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