After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: A Review

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Jack Kornfield) was published in 2000, the year I turned 13. I ordered the book in January 2021 on Alibris from ThriftBooks, fully intending to read it at some point when I wasn’t reading Platonic commentaries. That never happened — until now.

Here is the description on Goodreads (note: I’m mostly on StoryGraph now):

“Enlightenment does exist,” internationally renowned author and meditation master Jack Kornfield assures us. “Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the divine … these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away.”

But even after achieving such realization — after the ecstasy — we are faced with the day-to-day task of translating that freedom into our imperfect lives. We are faced with the laundry.

Drawing on the experiences and insights of leaders and practitioners within the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Sufi traditions, this book offers a uniquely intimate and honest understanding of how the modern spiritual journey unfolds — and how we can prepare our hearts for awakening.

Through moving personal stories and traditional tales, we learn how the enlightened heart navigates the real world of family relationships, emotional pain, earning a living, sickness, loss, and death.

I think it was the franticness of wanting to be more deeply-read in Platonic topics, of knowing that my limit was essentially my bandwidth for taking in new information. (Merciless for someone with a 9-5 job, yes, but I learned when doing French immersion that the pain of speedy learning leads to better outcomes in the long term, and Platonism is at least as complicated as an entire language.)

Reading this book has been a pressing to-do item looming over me precisely for what it is about — a multifaith discussion of what happens after the peak experiences that many of us have. In modern paganism and polytheism, we often take these experiences to be life-changing, as if we are living in The Matrix or the Harry Potter series, when in fact many of us have ordinary lives — a rhythmic quotidian and a banal life-path. I have seen so much pressure on the one hand from people to turn a spiritual experience into something, claiming authority to teach or to be a leader, and on the other from people pointing out that peak experiences are not meant to be the sole thing on which we base our practice. How do traditions that have a less toxic relationship to peak experiences, with many generations of tradition, handle these things?

My first thought on picking up this book on Saturday was a sense of self-betrayal for having held off from reading it for so long. Already by page 38, I had been given better spiritual advice by someone ossified in 2000 than living people in the 2020s. Due to reading Platonic commentaries instead, though, I had a running commentary in my mind of statements in Damascius’ Phaedo commentary and some earworms of sentences in Platonic dialogues. Reflexively — and here the benefit of immersion comes in — I was able to orient myself with respect to what I actually practice. Kornfield is a Buddhist (Zen, I think) who orients the excerpts from a variety of faith traditions in terms of the terminology and psychological-to-spiritual landscapes he knows from Buddhist teachings, much like how I wrote The Soul’s Inner Statues as a beginner’s guide to prayer, but cannot separate my advice from my Platonizing practice.

People who reviewed this book badly on Amazon (where it has 4.xx stars) often call it unrelatable because most practitioner narratives that Kornfield pulls for case examples involve some form of temporary or long-term asceticism, retreating, or other secluded experience. I spend 30 minutes praying every morning and work a 9-5, and I still had a spiritual experience that pulled the rug out from under me while reading Hermias. Regardless of someone’s lived context, the advice on how to approach experiences and build them into one’s life instead of reifying them, how to live in the world after them, and so on, are important pieces of information for all of us. I read this book very fast, and yet I will hopefully savor it — I’m already finding myself more present in quotidian things that have been challenging for me to value since 2019, and I needed Kornfield’s reality check.

Outdated words are used on occasion — for example, the Inuit are referred to with a term that is now understood to be a pejorative. Thinking back to when I was 13, almost nobody knew that at the time, and the replacement of that term with Inuit, Iñupiat, Yupik, and so on, was gradual in the 2010s. There are, however, some places where we can see striking similarities to the world of today. Kornfield was active in a Buddhist response to racism in the 1990s in California, as just one example. His discussion of how to bring awakened compassion to issues like racism, the climate crisis, gender equality, &c. show just how little has changed in human societies, especially the United States. Those passages could be at home in any current events opinion piece.

With that initial context done, let’s turn to some passages that I appreciated. However, you can’t get the sense of the book from reading these — I am trying to entice you, especially if you are a polytheist who has had deep and meaningful experiences of the Gods. This book is truly worth the read. I even disagree with some elements of the Buddhist worldview, and I am someone who emphatically believes that our ascent to the highest places is best done under the guardianship of our leader-God and their attendant spirits, and I still got a lot out of this.

While we might initially explore several traditions and practices, in the end we must choose one practice and follow it with our whole heart. What matters is the sincerity that we bring to the way we have chosen, a perseverance and willingness to stay with it and see what opens within us. (p. 25)

This underscores much of what I have seen people say about making up one’s mind. It’s okay to experiment early on, but the real benefits come from commitment. “Choose one practice and follow it with our whole heart” is fitting for a philosophical or lifestyle school. It could be modern Hermeticism, a Platonizing or Stoicizing practice, yoga, anything — it is still possible to learn from others outside of the school after doing so, but you will bring your own committed practice to bear on what you learn. Reading this made me think of that section in Damascius’ Philosophical History when he describes how Isidore brought him into Platonism and his 20/20 hindsight about his previous commitment to rhetoric.

Examining these examples helps us undo a possible confusion set up by the last chapters. Just as there is danger for a culture that ignores the process of initiation and the experiences of satori, grace, and illumination, there is also a danger in describing them in too much detail. That danger is that they will become too important in our minds, or that we will glamorize these stories and come to believe they are necessary in order to live a spiritual life. But if we hold some special experience as our goal, we may spend years seeking that goal outside of ourselves, grasping after some thing that is here within us all along. Or we may begin to doubt ourselves and our own experiences, and judge our heart and spiritual life as inadequate and insufficient. (p. 96)

Kornfield structures the book by looking at pre-awakening, awakenings/peak experiences (spoiler: it’s not just one-and-done), pitfalls on the spiritual path, the importance of community, family, and a reverence for the world, and so on. He even makes space for the non-explosive experiences — some people just sort of slide into spiritual awareness without any special moment of clarity. What Kornfield says is echoed by a Greek acquaintance who is critical of Western Neopaganisms for the reliance and elevation of peak experiences to markers of broad religious authority. It took me some time to understand what he was getting at, and Kornfield’s entire approach from his Buddhist background — rooted in a long-standing Buddhist tradition — helped me wrap my head around this even more, even though I had previously thought I had come into a place of understanding. If we take Kornfield’s word, many human beings will have at least one peak experience in their lifetime. Zen students apparently have many of them, and having them does not instantly make each of them the leader of a Zen center. Rather, that type of authority is conferred based on training. Orienting oneself away from grasping at a peak experience and towards using it to open oneself up to the possibility of an awakened life is a better approach.

This map of the Elders explains how it is possible that a person who has experienced an obvious and deep enlightenment can still be caught in greed, anger, and delusion. After stream entry, a person can give genuinely inspired teachings on realization and illumination, yet still not be living them. That is why further stages of awakening are essential. (p. 111)

The map Kornfield is referring to is a four/five-stage diagram for levels of awakenings. The first awakening in that one is called “stream entry.” (Tangent: I kept thinking about the streams flowing from the Gods and about nymphs and the Phaedrus.) It’s the first experience that puts us in the water. We can leave the water, or we can be self-disciplined and develop a practice that brings us to higher states. These remind me a lot of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, except a spiritual version.

The second principle for awakening to wholeness is that consciousness in one area does not necessarily transfer to other parts of our lives. We know that Olympic-level athletes, however highly tuned and aware physically, may be quite emotionally immature or mentally undeveloped. Conversely, certain brilliant intellectuals may suffer from ignorance and disregard of their bodies or their emotions. Other people, quite conscious of their feelings and expert in human relationships, may be utterly unconscious of the thought constructs and beliefs that limit them.

It is no different in spiritual life. Meditation masters skilled in navigating expansive states of consciousness may be confused in the realm of emotions or relationships. Devoted nuns or monks with a close relationship to God may have troubled or even destructive relationships with their families — or with their own bodies. Yogis and gurus who have amazing physical dexterity and breath and thought control may have unexamined beliefs and opinions that cause those around them to suffer. Most mature monks and nuns, meditation masters, and spiritual adepts eventually discover whole areas of life about which they were unconscious. For many teachers, their spiritual training itself may have taught them to neglect or to deny their basic human needs. Yet until these dimensions are included in their practice, they may suffer unnecessarily with everything from poor health to emotional problems. Any area that is still unconscious brings with it suffering, conflict, and limitation. (p. 163)

This is an astute observation of human dynamics. I present it because I think it needs to be seen. We are all flawed.

Awakening to the emotions means to feel them — nothing less, nothing more. It does not require changing our feelings — feelings change all the time on their own. Nor does it mean changing our temperament. If we are intuitive or philosophical, sanguine or melancholic, that will likely remain the same. Our range may expand, but our temperament and personality will likely continue. One Buddhist teacher said that he had expected awakening to bring a “personal transformation,” only to be surprised that it was actually an “impersonal transformation.” The transformation is the opening of the heart and not a personality change. (p. 199)

This comes from a chapter that is about embracing (not avoiding) emotions, as many people who want to “be spiritual” have a hard time expressing their emotions — especially the negative ones — because they are seen as “unenlightened.” Even Proclus, who was a fabulously prolific Head of the Platonic Academy and the leader of his entire philosophical community, was noted for his temper.

I agree with Kornfield — many go into spiritual practice trying to escape from themselves, and paradoxically, the path forces us to deal with our desires and emotions head-on. It forces us to be aware and to accept the parts of our personalities that we like and dislike, except with compassion and not blame. I get very self-conscious about my excitability and talkativeness and my naïvité about life dynamics I never learned about as an isolated child and had to wade through on my own as an adult. These are just the circumstances I am in, and there’s no sense in blaming the landscape of my lived experience.

When a society has lost its ability to feel its grief, the dead of its battles, the wasted lives of youth in its ghettos, the loss of pristine forests and noble values, the racist warehousing of men in its vast prisons, it closes some part of its heart to hope. If we cannot grieve, we cannot take the lessons of the past and use them to open our hearts to new love. (p. 202)

This passage cut me when I read it. It instantly brought the elementary school shootings like the one this week to the front of my mind, and I felt such grief for all of us and this world. 💔

Human differences are enormous: our rhythms, what our bodies like, our aesthetic sense, our emotions, our fears, the way we move and speak and love and rest. There are vast differences of race, culture, class, and values. Without tolerance there is no ground for relationship, no possibility of intimacy. Without tolerance, family life can be unbearable. Temperament and personality all differ dramatically. Without tolerance we would have a society of perpetual conflict, a world of sectarianism and tribalism, of warfare and genocide.

We don’t have to like, let alone love those we tolerate. The truth is that even spiritual teachers do not always like one another; nor do they necessarily get along. Many respected Zen masters and swamis, ajahns and sheikhs, lamas and rabbis have powerful disagreements. Some have a distaste for one another’s teaching or style. Yet the wise among them embody a genuine tolerance, knowing that another person’s reasons may be invisible to us, that another person’s way is as worthy of respect as our own. (p. 221-222)

TL;DR true spiritual community is impossible on Twitter or in places where people are trained to be hypervigilant about making mistakes.

If we expect community relationships to be ideal, spiritual, friendly, and enlightened, we are seeking what we can’t even expect of our own minds. To want the company of others without suffering is unrealistic. But if we avoid close relationships, we will also suffer. In a wise spiritual community we acknowledge our difficulties and choose to help one another anyway. Sometimes we will be the one to carry the blessings of spaciousness and love. Sometimes it is we who will carry conflict and trouble to the group. This too is a gift others can learn from. We play both roles in this plot, switching periodically. (p. 243)

This entire section on community — but especially this — had me thinking about behavior I have seen in the community. There are a few I’ve met over the years who do not know how to relax and leave lecture/teaching mode to actually be in presence and equal community with others, and while some of this is likely personality (remember: I am an excitable and talkative person), I do wonder if part of it is just the toxic side of being in a new religious movement and not having many models for what a healthy spiritual community looks like.

In one way, our most radical political act is a change of heart. If we want to overcome greed, racism, exploitation, and hatred, to end suffering and bring our lives into harmony with the earth, we must see that the fundamental crisis is in human consciousness. If the world is to be healed, it cannot happen by political and economic means alone. We have seen how the revolutionaries of one generation can turn into the oppressors of the next, and how political power can beget greed and delusion. We have to face the forces of separation, of greed, of hate directly, and learn to live peacefully, with a free heart. If we cannot do this, how can we expect it of others? (p. 274)

This is one of the passages that brought me back to contemporary issues.

Our gifts are blessings from the ancestors, the gods, the creative intelligence of life. If we are open, our gifts will choose us as much as we choose them. To begin we must only listen. If we quiet ourselves from the clamor and greed of modern consumer culture, we will find the intimate whisperings of what we are to do. That voice will tell us whether we are to start a garden project, write a letter for Amnesty International, comfort a crying child, or contribute a stone to the great cathedral, though we may never live to see its completion. (p. 279)

Towards the end of the book, Kornfield starts mentioning Gods (there were a few previous instances).

The point about consumer culture nearly started my inner monologue rant about how home design people have decided that the 2020s are “embracing maximalism” after the folly years of Millennial minimalism (um, some of the big-name minimalists are Gen X) when 90% of what people buy will end up in Goodwill or contribute to worsening a dust mite allergy and our planet is on fire and flooded at the same time due to overconsumption.

In the mandala of wholeness we have discovered the awakened heart’s willingness to open to all the dimensions of life. But over the years what happens to the practices of prayer, contemplation, and devotion, the daily rituals of yoga, chanting, or meditation? In one way, nothing happens. We continue the same practices, often with even more care and dedication; they remain important ingredients in a sacred life. However, we do them in a radically different way.

With spiritual maturity the basis for these practices shifts away from ambition, idealism, and desire for self-transformation. It is as if the wind has changed, and a weather vane — still centered in the same spot — now points in a different direction: back to this moment. We are no longer striving after a spiritual destination, grasping for another world different from the one we have. We are home. And being home, we sweep the floor, make nourishing meals, and care for our guests. When we have realized the everlasting truths of life, what else is there to do but continue our practice? (p. 290)

We continue prayer, we continue to embrace the Gods, we continue to grow and move where their streams and guiding winds lead us. ☀️

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