Too many books are forgotten as soon as they're published—that doesn't mean they're not worth reading, writing, or talking about. My reading list is generated by interest, whim, and chance—and by what's available at the Brooklyn Public Library.
When writing my reviews, I don’t Google anything about the book or author. To draw my impressions, I rely only on the book itself.
Spiritual freedom is the antidote, and the book’s guiding principle: defining it, identifying obstacles to it, recognizing and achieving it, and establishing and maintaining the practices that safeguard it. The cumulative effect is a subtle call to action. “Meditation and contemplation, in themselves, are not the fulfillment of the path of freedom,” Kornfield writes; rather “standing up for basic human principles—moral action and the prevention of harm.” Kornfield points out, “Our lives are unpredictable, but we always have choices. We are free to respond, moment by moment. Even though you may be anxious, fear is often excitement holding its breath.”
One way Kornfield sees people getting stuck and suffering is through traumatic events. “You, too, can be haunted by the unfinished traumas of your life until you find a way to come to terms with them,” he writes, suggesting various mindfulness exercises (breathing, paying attention to the breath, noticing your surroundings, heightening your senses), all with the intention of expanding perception—a new way to look at things. “The traumas change from a locked-in response or fearful habit to a tender, instructive memory,” Kornfield writes, later reminding us that “whatever perspective you hold, it is just that—one view among many, seen from a limited angle.”
A baseline practice Kornfield recommends is called “lovingkindness,” which seems to function as a kind of prayer to direct “traditional good wishes” towards others, and yourself:
“May you be filled with lovingkindess.
May you be safe.
May you be well.
May you be at ease and happy.”
“During hard times,” Kornfield writes, “trust demands a shift from the small self, the body of fear, to a connection with that which is vast, sacred, holy. It is a trust in the greatness of the human spirit.” No Time Like the Present draws on spiritual teachings from Buddha to Nelson Mandela, and includes a poem by Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for Defense,” that outlines a picture of the world’s suffering (“If babies / are not starving someplace, they are starving / somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils”), while philosophically concluding “We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
Kornfield, who trained as a Buddhist monk and holds a PhD in clinical psychology, sometimes uses composite portraits of the people he’s worked with to illustrate his ideas, but often he draws on his own personal history. After almost thirty years, his marriage went belly up. His twin brother (to whom the book is dedicated) “has a rare blood cancer and is in the middle of a difficult treatment program.” The brothers come from “a family of scientists,” most notably a difficult father “who worked in space medicine” and was “violent and abusive, a wife batterer who dominated all of our family with unpredictable outburst of rage and paranoia.” Kornfield writes, “Emotional pain registers in the same areas of the brain as physical pain.”
Science seems to be the foundation on which Kornfield’s lifetime of inquiry is built, and one can easily imagine his heightened interest in the kind of research he cites here: “Scientists estimate that there is more information in one day’s New York Times than the average sixteenth-century person would hear in a lifetime.” But Kornfield is especially attuned to the suffering such an overwhelm of information carries with it. There is a kind of mirroring of this idea in a scene where Kornfield sits in the hospital at the end of his father’s life, an atheist who is afraid of dying and keenly aware of the functioning of the equipment monitoring his struggling heart to the point where he won’t sleep. Seeing he’s agitated, Kornfield tries and fails to teach him to meditate, but “[f]or the first time since I was a little boy, he let me hold his hand.”
No Time Like the Present values responding over reacting, creating space to understand and contextualize feelings. Its tone is wondering, compassionate, encouraging, and kind. It is also slyly political. Kornfield writes, “Politicians and media feed our fears…Yes, there are big problems…If you only worry, you’ll feel overwhelmed. What is indisputable is that you are here, now, and you can contribute…You are free to contribute to this world—every moment, every day.” This bugle call is the charge that all the drumbeats of the book seem to herald. Yet as Kornfield points out, “hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
Like his father, Kornfield “didn’t used to believe in anything. Now, after a lifetime of experiences, I pretty much believe in everything.” No Time Like the Present draws on those experiences, beautifully, and invites the reader to reflect on his own, to discover the beauty and mystery within. Like a Zen koan, a kind of riddle Kornfield struggled with in seminary school, Kornfield writes, “To become wise, you must become comfortable with not knowing.”