How to Calm Anxiety in Uncertain Times, According to This Famous Buddhist

The only way the furies are stopped is by “giving them a place of honor.” 


Jack Kornfield originally studied Buddhism in Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), and India, in order to become a monk. Today, he is an award-winning writer, public speaker, and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Mass., and the Spirit Rock Center of Calif.

At the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, recently held in San Francisco, Kornfield talked about the current socio-political atmosphere and the anger, distress, and anxiety many feel surrounding it. He shared insights on how to calm these feelings and supplant them with courage, compassion, and wisdom.

Kornfield began by polling the room. He asked how many people were feeling anxiety over the current political environment. A large swath of attendees raised their hands. In Greek mythology, he explained, the furies were unleashed upon the Earth when oaths or rules were broken, or the vulnerable or the populous had been offended. These were monstrous harpies named jealousy, hatred, and vengeance.

The results of the last US election and the social and political turmoil that erupted in its aftermath, is bringing to the surface a tempest of negative emotions. But the problem is, “The furies can’t be stopped when they’re released.” Only Athena, the goddess of wisdom could neutralize them. How?

By inviting them into her temple and “giving them a place of honor.” So too, do we have to invite negative emotions into our own hearts. We don’t have to embrace them, but instead listen and give them the attention they deserve.

The Parthenon. Athens, Greece. Getty Images.

Kornfield reminded attendees of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, in 1963, after his Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, had been bombed by clansmen. Four girls were killed and many more congregants were injured.

King’s response, “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but cannot in all good conscious observe your unjust laws. And we will soon wear you down with our capacity to suffer and to love you anyway.”

Next Kornfield defined politics, which he calls “ritualized warfare.” Paraphrasing early 20th century commentator H.L. Mencken, he said the point of politics is to “put the populace in a state of alarm and keep them fearful so that they will vote for safety.” In this way, politicians and pundits “hijack your limbic system.”

Lodged in this state of heightened anxiety, we tend to engage our emotions instead of our intellect. Kornfield reminded that with the Bosnian crisis, Northern Ireland, and the Rwandan genocide, angry propaganda on the radio was used to move the people toward bloodshed. “We have to stop the war. And the place where the battle stops is in ourselves, every day.”

He suggests only a small dose of news daily. “You don’t need a lot of it. You know the plot,” he said. The endless commentary from talking heads seems to inflame rather than inform. 

Hyper-connectedness immerses us in issues, solidifying enmity towards the other. Getty Images.

He also said we should change our approach. Instead of seeking wisdom from others, Kornfield suggests we sit quietly with our own thoughts within the serenity of nature. “Hike. Swim. Step outside. See the vastness of the sky and the mystery of life. It’s just a much bigger scene going on here.” Meditating outside he says, can help us connect to our inner truths.

Rather than focusing on the latest news story and how it makes you feel, stop and connect with something larger, something that speaks to deeper places inside. When you find the inner truth speaking to you, take up its call. “Let yourself become the temple of wisdom you would want for the world.” 

He cautions however, not to stand up in a heroic way, but a dedicated one. “When you listen deeply, the universal values are really clear. Hatred never ends by hatred, but by love alone is healed.” It's true that all the world religions (and secular humanism) by and large, have the same values. So we have more in common than we realize.

That said, how can we heal the rift between ideologies and social groups? “You have to turn toward the difficulties,” Kornfield said. But this isn’t getting immersed or re-traumatized. It's trying to see it for what it is. However, approaching serious issues without getting bogged down in an ideological morass, is exceedingly difficult. 

To keep your footing, “Turn toward the difficulty from a quiet place," he said. "The election or whatever is really a symptom. Like in family therapy they identify the patient. But it’s really a symptom of the family. And you begin to name the suffering that you see shared. It’s a shared suffering.”

Turning toward the US specifically, he paraphrased Langston Hughes saying, “Let America be America again. The America she never was.” Kornfield believes the US is divided under similar lines as during the Civil War. “We haven’t yet come to terms with Native American genocide and with slavery in the kind of truth and reconciliation that happened in South Africa, where we are honest about the suffering that’s been caused, and then come together in an honorable way.”

Kornfield suggests we meditate in nature to overcome anxiety and find our path. Pixababy.

So how can we be more compassionate and yet not grip too strongly? “You have to be willing to open your heart and hold the sorrows not just of you but of everybody.” No matter which side of the divide you're on, suffering is what we all have in common. And most times, we don’t know what the other person has gone through, which drives them to take the stance that they do.

“James Baldwin writes, ‘I believe one of the reasons that people cling to their hate and prejudice so stubbornly, is they sense that once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.’” Instead of standing up and blaming the other, Kornfield asks us to recognize the pain we all share. Besides that, we must also take in the magnificence and beauty we also share and not forget it. After all, "America the Beautiful," isn't merely a song, is it? 

What we really need to do it quiet our minds, according to Kornfield, reconnect with those deep, universal values and personal, inner truths. These should tell us what path we're meant to be on. Then find others who share your mission or vision. Get moving, motivated, and active.

Plant seeds, become an ally for those who require one, protect what’s important, get involved, donate or volunteer, be it with an organization that deals with immigration, social justice, climate change, or what-have-you. You can even help retrain those left behind so they can reenter the workforce. Make a vow to use your own unique talents and capacities to heal yourself and help the world. But be sure your actions are motivated at all times by loving kindness and always hold the other in your heart. 

To learn more about Jack Kornfield, click here.  

To see his speech for yourself, click here: 

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.