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Mindfulness & Medicine

Tuesday, March 23, 2021
6:00pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 04/04/2021, 04/06/2021, 04/07/2021

This event appeared in the series
Conversations on Science & Health: A Miniseries

We've made a recording of this event free to all. Please support our institution and these productions by making a tax-deductible contribution.

A man who has always been in the right place at the right time, Larry Brilliant has engaged with some of the most prominent thought leaders, spiritual masters, heroes, and icons in the world–including Neem Karoli Baba (Maharajji), Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, Mikhail Gorbachev, Wavy Gravy, the Grateful Dead, the Dalai Lama, and Barack Obama. Brilliant’s life’s journey across continents has resulted in the direct involvement of some of the most significant medical, spiritual, and social achievements of the past century: the eradication of smallpox in India, curing blindness in over 4 million people, introducing the teachings of the Maharajji to the Woodstock Generation, launching Google’s philanthropic enterprises, and more. In a new book, Sometimes Brilliant, he reflects on his remarkable life and his extraordinary experiences as a doctor, innovator, philanthropist, and cultural revolutionary.

Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and was one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. After graduating from Dartmouth College in Asian Studies in 1967, he joined the Peace Corps and worked on rural health and tropical medicine teams in northeast Thailand, which is home to several of the world’s oldest Buddhist forest monasteries. After returning to the United States, Kornfield co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. He is also a founding teacher of the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California. Over the past 40 years, Kornfield has taught in centers and universities worldwide, led International Buddhist Teacher meetings with the Dalai Lama, and worked with many of the great teachers of our time. He holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is a father and activist. His many books include The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist PsychologyA Path with Heart, and After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Vente


City Arts & Lectures: Welcome to City Arts & Lectures. A season of talks and onstage conversations with some of the most celebrated writers, artists and thinkers of our day, recorded before an audience at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco.

Our guests offer unique perspectives on life during a pandemic. Larry Brilliant is a renowned epidemiologist. His work with the World Health Organization helped to eradicate smallpox, giving him keen insight into the ways governments and healthcare professionals can tackle global disease. Jack Kornfield was one of the first people to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practices to the West, over 40 years ago.

On March 23rd, 2021, Larry Brilliant and Jack Kornfield joined us for a conversation about mindfulness and medicine. The two talked about our individual and collective responses to the pandemic, what it will take to move beyond this one, and how we might promote wellbeing in this uncertain time. Join us now for a conversation with Larry Brilliant and Jack Kornfield.

Jack Kornfield: Hi there and welcome. I’m Jack Kornfield, and I’m here with my very dear friend, Dr. Larry Brilliant. And it’s a pleasure to be with you tonight. And in the conversation, we don’t know where we’re going to go exactly. It’s a, it’s a surprise to us as well. But we want to talk about where we are at this moment in, you know, being here now as our dear friend, Ramdas would say, we’re also in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of all kinds of other global changes from climate change to the calls for racial and economic justice and all the things that we see in the news. And there’s both the outer understandings that we need of how to navigate these times, and there’s also the inner understandings of the heart. So welcome. Thank you for joining us. And hi, Larry, glad to see you at this moment.

Larry Brilliant: Hi Jack, it’s wonderful to do this again with you and hello to everybody listening in watching. As Jack said, we love City Arts & Lectures and it’s a great privilege to be together with you Jack and share this moment.

Jack Kornfield: So we, we began to talk just a little bit prior to this, and asking, well, what is it that we might say that would be helpful to people who listen, what might be, if I use that metaphor, what might be good medicine for people in this time, outer and inner? Or what do we want to communicate in some fashion? And I’ll let you start. If you have a thought of, or some words from where we are and what people, you know, who are trying to live through this pandemic and through this wild time?

Larry Brilliant: Well, you know, that there’s that apocryphal story of the vizier  who was supposedly the wise counselor to Kubla Khan or one of the Khans. And Khans was having a bad day, trouble I guess, in the war front, and he summoned the vizier and he said to the Vizier, give me something that will make me feel good. And the Vizier said I’ll be back in two days and he left and he came back two days later, he handed him a ring. And the Khan puts the ring on and he said, well, the ring’s not making me feel any good, any better. And the Vizier said, take it off and read what it says.

And he took it off and inside the ring it said, this too shall pass. And then the Vizier said, you know, that works a lot of the time, but there’s some times you’re not going to like that message, because you’ll be in one moment when everything going wonderful and beautiful. And you need to remember that then this too shall pass. I think this pandemic will pass. This moment in time will pass. And then we’ll just be here. Like we were before.

Jack Kornfield: Will we be changed by it? This is something that I’ve noticed in myself. I feel myself both more isolated as we all have been sequestered, and yet in another wild way, changed both by feeling more connected with the world, because it’s not just me, it’s us. And it’s not just you know, local, it’s global. So there’s that that changed. And also I realized that I actually have loved being quieter, even though I know it’s hit people very differently and people have died. There’s some part of me that, you know, I don’t want anyone more to be sick, but I’m not sure I want to see so many people and travel as much again. I want to actually, but what have I learned from this to live in a wise way?

Larry Brilliant: I remember back in 1985, when we started the well, which was the whole earth electronic link, one of the first social media experiments. And what we loved about it was that it flattened the pyramid. You couldn’t tell if the person you were talking to was in Chicago or next door to you or in Zimbabwe . And in those days you couldn’t tell the gender. You couldn’t tell the race of the person because you’re just typing it in with ASCII text. Zoom is a little different than that. We can actually see each other’s face, but this does eliminate the disparity of travel. It is possible now to have a global gathering, that’s filled with people of every religion, every race from all over the world. And my friend, Bill Paygee, who’s sort of the lion of global health, he said global health will forever be changed for the better because of this moment, because we, it’s too expensive to bring people from all over the world to come to a meeting, but their thoughts and their wisdom is as good as anybody else’s. Now we have this and we can have a meeting of the whole world in a small village. And I think that’s going to be a great takeaway from this , When we get through this to the other end.

Jack Kornfield: I think about it. I recently was given this passage that was one of the last speeches that Robert Kennedy gave before he was assassinated. And people were asking him about his economic plan and about, you know, the American economy and gross national product, and he said, “gross national product doesn’t include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It allows neither for the justice in our courts, nor for the justice of our dealings with one another. The gross national product measures, neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom or our learning. Neither our compassion, nor our devotion to country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

And I think of it now, because we’ve had to reassess what, what really does matter in this time. And part of it is how do we care for each other? Cause it’s not about whether you wear a mask to protect yourself, but actually there is some gesture in which we’re willing to care for each other in ways that we have needed to learn.

Larry Brilliant: No, that’s, that’s so true. On a practical I guess scale, I remember a conversation with Larry Summers who was treasury secretary, then became president of Harvard. And he was saying that economic theory can solve all the problems in the world. Macro economics can solve all the problems, he said, except for two. And I was there and I said, well, what are the two problems that macro economics cannot solve? And he said, market failures and externalities. Now market failures are things like you can’t get a vaccine because it  isn’t worth it for each individual person to pay the cost of making the vaccine, but it’s really worth it for society as a whole.

And externalities are when a company is burning oil in order to make a product, the the global warming that they do is, is not on their balance sheet. So that’s not taken into account in economics. So externalities and market failures are sort of the economic version of what you just said. It’s the things that really matter: the safety of our schools, the beauty of our playgrounds, the freedom that kids have to play, the way that we can help each other in so many other ways that don’t count on the balance sheet.

Jack Kornfield: So one of the things that, that I know you understand as an epidemiologist, and it’s so funny, because nobody knew what an epidemiologist was like epi–is that like epidermis? Is it some, some, you know, are dermatologist, is it about elephants, but now, you know, epidemiologists, like you, it’s next to Jay Z and Kanye, everybody’s wanting to listen to you. Finally, you’ve got your, your, your place, you know, and it’s, it’s beautiful, but there’s a, there’s a kind of vision that you carry. And you carry it, maybe we’ll talk about that, as a spiritual vision from back in the beginning of the smallpox, campaign to eradicate smallpox. But, but you carry a vision that says we can’t do this in a small way. That we need people to know it’s not about vaccinating us or our community, not to speak of the communities around us that haven’t, and, but that, it’s something global that the virus doesn’t you know, you can’t have a national interest in protecting your people because it’s, the virus doesn’t know boundaries. And what do we need to know? And what do we need to support to, to, to, to do this, right?

Larry Brilliant: I think after the second world war when maybe our parents or grandparents, we saw the skeletons coming out of the, the ovens from the concentration camp or the firebombing over Dresden . We saw the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seemed like all over the world people said enough. Enough of this rampant technology and warfare and hatred of each other. Enough. We’ve looked over the precipice. We don’t want to do that again. Never again. And we sort of all agreed or our predecessors agreed to, you know, part of the United nations was created here in San Francisco, and there was sort of an agreement that we’d all give up a little bit of our sovereignty as a country or as an individual. We created an alphabet soup of acronyms: the FAO, WHO, UNICEF, UNESCO, the UN Security Council, the World Bank, and those, every one of those required giving up a little bit of our sovereignty so that we could be all in it together. And in doing that, we made the world safe. And that structure lasted for 70 years.

Perhaps, now it’s, as they say, long in the tooth. But we need to realize that when a pandemic comes, or when we’re dealing with climate change, or looking at the horror of nuclear weapons, we can’t solve those problems at a national level. Whatever your politics are, how much of Ayn Rand you like, or don’t like, that doesn’t work when you’re dealing on a global level with pretty much existential threats sometimes. And I hope that one of the things that we carry away is that in a pandemic, as in so many of these other existential threats, it’s not sixties kumbaya, but we really are all in it together. And Jack, I would say never in my lifetime have we been at a moment in time where being the most selfish person you could possibly be and being the most altruistic person that you could possibly be, would require you to do exactly the same thing, which is to get vaccination for the poorest, the most vulnerable, the least powerful person in the world, as much as for yourself.

Jack Kornfield: So we need to vaccinate the whole planet basically, or we’re not gonna get through this pandemic in a way that we’re safe.

Larry Brilliant: Well, that’s, that’s one of the theories. That’s, that’s the herd immunity theory. We’ll never get to herd immunity. It’s an aspirational goal. But it’s sure is good to find ways to protect your brothers and your sisters all over the world. And vaccine is one of those ways. But there are other things that we know we can do. Vietnam South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, they all were able to keep their countries free of COVID for months at a time before there was a vaccine. It took just wearing a mask, social distancing, practicing good behavior, and then finding everyone who’d been exposed and stopping the virus when it got started. We can do that again. If we don’t vaccinate everybody, we’ll vaccinate enough people to slow down the virus and then we have to do these other things. But this, this pandemic will end. It may dribble out for many years and it may hit especially those countries that are the poorest and can’t afford the vaccine. We need to be aware of that. And right now, that idea of being selfish and being altruistic being the same thing– we have to share the vaccine that we have with everybody else. The United States has purchased five times as much vaccine as we need. Need to start sharing and not hoarding. This is going to be a test of our politics, as well as our love.

Jack Kornfield: A test of our love. And, you know, if I think about it, I listen to you and you know, it really touches my heart, because in some way we might have the ideals of being generous or connected with  brothers and sisters. But now it’s playing out in real time. And that’s the, this is the outer reality that we can stand up for and say, yes, we stand for the, for the children in the, in the poorest country in the world, as we do for the children in you know, our own, our own neighborhood. And I’m well aware like you, that there is this kind of connection, it’s been so for your whole life, of the inner and the outer. That no amount of technology, of vaccines and nano technology and biotech and space technology, and, you know, computers and AI is going to stop continuing warfare and stop climate disrupt disruption and stop continuing racism and tribalism, because all of those are rooted in the human heart and in the misperception that somehow we’re separate or that we’re not connected with one another. In other words, they’re really rooted in, in a distortion of our love. And so what’s needed in this time is both that outer tending, but also we have to somehow take a breath and stop and remember who we are. That in the end, what really matters to us. And there aren’t many questions: did I love well? Have I, you know, brought my gifts as best I can and my care to this life in this world?

And you, you know, when I think back you, you know, you were drafted so to speak by your guru into the, into the extraordinary campaign to end smallpox, which was one of the worst scourges and worst diseases in all of human history. And I don’t know if you would say anything about that, the kind of, the spirit that needs to be brought into the this, this work of transforming ourselves in the world.

Larry Brilliant: Well, I’d say, I say something about it for two reasons. One is that when I tell you how bad smallpox was and that it doesn’t exist anymore, I hope that will lift your spirits and make you realize that human beings, when we gather our wits about ourselves, can do extraordinary things. And the other is because for me, it brought together the inner and the outer life. It brought together my spiritual life with my role now as an epidemiologist. So you and I were traveling in Asia around the same time. It was the career path of the sixties and seventies is we’ll go and find great masters. And you found great masters in Thailand. And I found great masters in India. We all know, it’s all the same thing. Sabec. But my wife Girija and I were in an ashram, think of it as a monastery, in the Himalayas. And we were meditating and reading the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran and the Dhammapada and the Torah and the Old Testament, the New Testament you know, all the different Holy books, even the Iche, and and meditating.

And one day almost would seem like out of the blue, to me, my guru Neem Karoli Baba started throwing apples at me and yelling at me and he said, you have to leave the ashram now. Dr. America, that was the name he gave me. Yes, that’s right. But, but it was like being cut off from this love affair that we had with this great teacher. And And he also, he asked Girija to accompany me and we went down to New Delhi, 15 or 16 times as it turned out. And I came to the World Health Organization, still dressed in my ashram garb. And I walked in the front door and they looked at me like, you can imagine what I looked like, hair down to the middle of my back, a beard down the middle of my chest. And they said, why are you here? I said, I’m here to come work for the World Health Organization. My guru who lives in the Himalayas said smallpox is going to be eradicated. This is God’s gift to humanity. This is proof. Of course, they kicked me out. I kept on coming back and cutting my beard shorter and shorter.

And eventually I, I got to work with the World Health Organization and over a period of almost 10 years, I saw the last case of smallpox. You’d have to know that smallpox killed somewhere between 300 million and 500 million, almost half a billion people in the 20th century. And I got to see the last little girl in the world who had  a major killer smallpox in Bhola Island in Bangladesh. And when her scabs fell off and the sun, hot Bangladeshi sun took those scabs on the ground, that was the end of an unbroken chain of transmission, of that disease scripting all the way back to Pharaoh Ramsey’s the fifth, perhaps one of the biblical plagues. And what Mahaja said was, to me, if he said in, in, in Ahari, this kind of Hindi, he said, this is God’s gift to humanity, to lift this one form of suffering from the backs of people. And he implied that we are capable not of getting rid of all suffering. Certainly not. No one who studied anything about Buddhism, whatever, even pretend that was true. But we are able to work together to minimize unnecessary suffering. And certainly these children dying of smallpox was unnecessary suffering. And we ended it. It doesn’t exist anymore. And it’s a blueprint for how we work on polio eradication and how we work on this pandemic, how we’ve worked on blindness through the Seva foundation.

It’s also a blueprint for how we get together as a world, because in order to conquer smallpox, we had thousands of doctors, from hundreds of countries, speaking dozens of languages, belonging to dozens of different religions and races, come together as one with, to work against the common enemy. And that’s the thing that inspires me in the work that I do, both my inner work and my outer work.

Jack Kornfield: I understand it. I mean I listen to you and I could almost weep, because the notion of seeing the last case of smallpox in the world, and I too remember prior to that how terrifying and terrible it was, extraordinary. And what’s possible. And I know from Buddhist teachings that the first noble truth of the Buddha is that there is suffering in life. Not that life has, not that life is suffering, but that it has suffering. It has loss and illness and all of those things, but it’s not the end of the story. That just as we’re given suffering as part of our human incarnation, we’re also given the great heart of compassion. And the end of the story is that it’s possible for us to awaken this, to this birthright of great heart of compassion and in doing so to look at each other with care and tenderness and to transform ourselves and the world.

I think of my colleague, my friend and mentor ,Maha Ghosananda who is the Gandhi of Cambodia. And he went into the US Congress at one point when they were debating the end of, the bill to end landmines in the world. And he was so worried because there were from the Khmer Rouge, there were so many landmines in Cambodia that he was raising money around the world just to get prosthetic legs for children who’d lost their legs and blown up, terrible things. So he was part of this movement. And he stood up in Congress and he said, yes, I want you to vote to the treaty to end landmines. He said, but what we really have to do is to remove the landmines from our hearts. That we have to find some way to connect with the great heart of compassion that says, yes, we can hold this suffering and we can respond in a different way, which isn’t just out of fear or, you know, separation.

But that we can take a deep breath, even now in COVID, even those of you who are listening, and tend your own body and bring a kind of self compassion for all you’ve been through and say, thank you to your body for carrying you. And let’s see if this body and others can be supported and we can bring that same compassion to our heart. All the fears and hopes and plans, and your heart carries so much. And just take a pause and sort of surround your heart with some tenderness and say, yes, I can hold all this with compassion and say thank you for carrying so much. It’s okay. Thank you for protecting me. You can relax for the moment. I’m okay. Just now we can be here and we can rest in some love for one another, that’s bigger than all the troubles. Something like that. And it feels to me that we need both of those now, because things are so divisive that we need to be able to pause and reconnect with that fundamental goodness. Vertin called it, the secret beauty in each being. And then let that inform our action and our politics.

Larry Brilliant: Yeah. Every, every program, every, every time I worked on any of these global threats, you find great heroism in the quietest and the softest and the smallest places. People who’ve dedicated their life to do what they can do. As Wavy Gravy always says, put your little bit of good where it’ll do the most. And. That’s a call for each of us to put our little bit of good on a, on a pile of good where it’ll do the most good.

Jack Kornfield: I’m also reminded of this story that toward the end of the 50 year Colombian civil war between the FARC and the jungle and the Columbia government, that one of the things as they started to make overture to peace is the government got helicopters, and dropped into the jungle where people had been living, the rebels, dropped photos of their families. Some of them hadn’t seen their family for 10 or 20 years, and there were pictures of their sister or brother who’d gotten older. Of their children who’d grown, of their older parents, as if to remind those who were in the jungle, that they weren’t alone. That in fact, they  were part of something bigger and that their family awaited them. And, you know, it’s a, it’s a story that touches me, but also it’s a kind of archetype of how we need to be reminded of our sisters and brothers. And maybe that’s what you also learned in India from, from your guru.

Larry Brilliant: You know, I’m thinking about a friend of ours, Steve Jones, who I know you’ve met through the Seva foundation and Steve was working on the smallpox program with me in Bihar India. And there were thousands of children who were dying of smallpox and their parents may have been beggars or so poor that they had to go out of their house every day to find food, if not to beg, at least to carry bricks and to get paid enough to live on. But the paradox was if they left their house, they’d carry smallpox out into the broader community. So Steve started with his own money, buying lunch and food and dinner for everybody. Giving food to all the beggars, because this was part of stopping the disease. By feeding people and loving them, which is what Maharshi told us, love everybody and feed them. And that’s exactly what he was doing. And he was doing the most noble of things. And then came the time he had to turn in his expense account. And he had to write on his expense account what he had done to work, to stop smallpox. And he wrote on it, food for beggars. And he gave it to me and I had to sign off on it and I okayed it. And then I was summoned to the director general’s office. You’ve approved food for beggars? WHO doesn’t buy food for people in a nation state. We don’t buy food. But you know, the new stimulus package that has just been approved has food for people who are caught in the vise of trying to decide, as essential workers, will they go out today and work? If they’re feeling like maybe they’re coming down with something? Or will they stay home and isolate themselves? What Steve Jones did that was so rare and seemed like an outlier, is today what our policy is. That the government will provide food and housing for people who need to isolate themselves so they’ll never be torn between I don’t want to bring this disease home to my children. I can be now isolated in another place. I just think that’s a miracle. That passion and action, maybe.

Jack Kornfield: Well, it reminds me of one of the most important and moving periods of my life, when I lived as a as a Buddhist monk, and we would go out at Dawn with our alms bowl. And I was in an area in the Mekong River Valley that was still very poor, on the border of Laos and Thailand in the 1960s and early seventies. And we would walk those little dikes in the rice patties as the sun would come up and there would be these villagers, and they would wait for us, and they were really poor, but they would wait and they would put rice or the curry that they’d made that morning, whatever into our bowls. And I thought, who am I to take this food? I could write home to my mother, who was sort of middle-class and say, I’m in trouble, can you send me a thousand dollars, whatever, and she could do it. And for them $150 was their year annual income. How can I accept this food? And we, you know, you don’t say, thank you. You can’t, you just, you do it silently.

But then I realized that they wanted to give this, because we represented, they’d saw the orange robes and the temple. We represented something that they so valued, even more than food. They, we represented the spirit that animated everything, that there was a possibility of compassion and love for everyone and of awakening. And we will give up the little food we have, because you mean something that nourishes our heart as much as our food. And that’s what it sounds like, you know, Steve Jones, did, he somehow he combined the, the food and the love, like your guru instructed. So what, what did the, what did the, WHO, what did they say at the UN, did they accept that, you know, food for food for the beggers?

Larry Brilliant: Well, the regional director was from Sri Lanka and he was a very, tall man, maybe six foot seven or something like that. And he was a very imperious kind of a leader. He had a red pen. He was the only person the WHO permitted to use a red pen. So if there was any paper that had a red pen mark on it, you knew it came from the regional director. And he wrote many times, he said that he was gonna kick me out of India because of things that I had done. And this was one of them that he wrote with his red pen. But after a while, when we talked about what the alternative was, just as we think about it now, if it, if you have to go out every day and earn your living and you’re exposed to a communicable disease, what do you do? Do you stop going out and earning food? Do you go home and spread it to your children? It’s it’s Sophie’s choice. It’s, it’s an impossible choice. And so that’s when we have to step, in neighbors, friends, government, all, and help and make that choice, make it possible to do both, and, instead of one or the other. I think that’s what Steve saw. And because he’s such a good, wonderful person he saw it sooner than the rest of us did.

Jack Kornfield: So here we are. Some of us still sequestered, some vaccinated, some not. What can we do? I’m thinking of all of those who are listening and many with really tender hearts, also saying, what do I do? How do I help? How do I respond? And I have some thoughts inwardly, but I’d like to hear from you first.

Larry Brilliant: Well, we have to lay on over that the divisiveness that we’ve been through, not just over the past four years, but through the past decades. For some of us being isolated is being in a leafy suburb where we have computer, and we can be on zoom, we can do our work and hardly notice. Our income doesn’t alter. We still feel like we have something to do and make a contribution. But for the vast majority, that’s not true. And this has been devastating. It’s been economically devastating. One out of three Americans know someone in their family or a friend who has died or been on a ventilator. We’ve passed over 550,000 deaths. We will certainly crest 600, 700, maybe a million. Worldwide, we will crest five, maybe 10 million people who’ve died. Each of those have families.

First thing we have to realize is that, if we’ve been fortunate enough that we haven’t had that rough time, we should look at everybody and remember what’s a attributed to Goethe, although I once did a little research, maybe this wasn’t really something Goethe said, but I’d like to believe it was Goethe. He said, be kind to everybody that you meet, because each in their own way is fighting a great and a noble battle. You may not know what is their battle, just as they may not know what yours are, but they are equal of importance, each of the other. And I think that that’s lesson number one, we really are all in it together. That’s not, as I said earlier, it’s not corny or kumbaya or sixties. We’re really all in it together. Some of us have had an easier path of it, a high percentage of us have PTSD, depression, feelings of worthlessness, fear. Be kind to everybody that you meet, because each is fighting a great and a noble battle. And the moment you believe that, then I think what you do in this pandemic will help everybody.

Jack Kornfield: You know, there’s, it’s, there’s also this kind of dance that we’re all doing in this culture and in this time, because we’ve inherited some noble values, both within the body politic and certainly in the kind of spiritual history that we share, wherever, whatever Muslim, Jewish doesn’t matter, intellectually it’s, there’s something that’s there. And I think about my great-grandparents and my grandparents, who I know, well, I know my great-grandparents who came over in ships in the 1890s from Ukraine and Turkey and Russia. Fleeing pogroms, fleeing, you know, they lived in these places where the Cossacks or the whoever it was, would come through and roundup all the Jews and beat them or shoot them or kill them or whatever. And so, you know, they were teenagers, 17, 18 they’d walk, take the last money they had to get a boat and come to the US, leave everything behind. And my grandparents told me that at their wedding, my grandfather, after the first world war, he came back to fight in the trenches in France. They, then he got married in 1918. And at the wedding, part of the ceremony was everyone stood up and sang the Star Spangled Banner. You know, and now of course there’s people kneeling and there’s the history of the Star Spangled Banner, but they stood up because they believed, like you know, when you come in New York Harbor and there’s that torch, you know, being held for give me your poor and huddled masses from the Statue of Liberty, they believed in certain values that underlie at least the hopes, as Langston Hughes said, let America become America, again, the America, she never was. That there’s some dream that’s possible.

And the Buddhist texts start, they say, Oh nobly born. Remember who you really are. Remember this great heart of compassion and connection that is your true nature. And if you forget, quiet yourself, meditate, walk in the forest, listen to sacred music, get quiet enough to remember that depth of what you really care about, and let your actions come from that. So there’s some way in which it feels like we need to reclaim, if you will, something that’s, that’s been lost in this divisiveness.

Larry Brilliant: Yeah. I had a friend in, living in India, and his family had a big sign out in front of their house, like a poster. And it said, God is not a noun. God is a verb. I think of that about America, the dream of America. We are not one village. We are not one religion. We are not one race. We are not from one place. E pluribus unum, not e unum pluribus. Unum: any one. Not out of one, break it in half and cut it into little pieces and pit one against the other. E pluribus Unum. Before I could work for the United Nations, as a hippie, living in a monastery and wearing a white gown and a long beard, I had to go through something that was called the loyalty court. All of my papers had to be sent back to the United States. And I had marched with Martin Luther King. I’d been arrested with Martin Luther King. I had been an activist against the war in Vietnam, as many of my generation were. And there were a lot of people on the loyalty guilty court who didn’t think that I was loyal. My wife, who I loved so much was wearing ankle bracelets. Can you imagine? And they had bells that when she walked. And and some of the data in my security clearance file says, how could he possibly be a loyal American? His wife wears ankle bracelets. But I was adjudicated loyal. It was a split decision, but I tried to count, I think it was eight to two or nine to one.

I think that the dream of America holds us together. The reality has a whole different story. And for a lot of people, it has been pain as well as it has been honor, as well as it has been freedom. But, you know, we, what do they say? They say, you can go to France. You can live in France, but you can’t become French. You can come to America. And now that we’re beginning to take a more rational view of immigration, you can come to America, you can become American. That’s really, that’s what’s exceptional. Is that whatever we are aspiring to have, we, we can share this. That’s our aspiration. I think Jack, that’s the moment in time when we can be as selfish as we want and as altruistic as we can be and come to the same conclusion about the America that we need to have again.

Jack Kornfield: Yeah. I’m thinking now a little bit about trauma and the fact that, you know, we’re also carrying the, the ocean of tears. Those 550,000 people who’ve died here with 10 people in their families, and the millions around the world. And all of that and how easy it is to be frightened and then to separate ourselves. But that’s what we’re talking about. James Baldwin said, I imagine one of the reasons that people cling to their hate and prejudice so stubbornly is that they’re afraid that once hate is gone, they’ll be forced to deal with their own pain. And I think there’s a certain act of bravery that’s also needed to open our eyes, or an act of courage to, to trust that our heart can hold the tears. You know, they’re called the tears of the way, the tears of the Dharma. They’re the tears of the, of mother Mary, they’re the tiers of Guanyin, the goddess of infinite compassion, that says, these are all my children. I can hold these tears. And not only can I open to them that I can do this and not be so frightened, but then in some way by doing so it redeems me and it redeems them. Because then all of a sudden we realize that we’re not alone, that we’re in it, then that we’re survivors, we’ve done this for generations. Maybe you can talk about that. We’ve been through pandemics and earthquakes and tsunamis, and your ancestors knew how to do it, and they’re in your DNA. And let us find that that’s possible, that we, instead of separation and fear, to quiet ourselves, to listen deeply, ask well, what matters? What’s my deepest intention? And then find in that somehow that what matters is that kind of love? What have you seen?

Larry Brilliant: Well, you, you and I are old enough that we knew America when words like yoga and Dharma were not everyday words. The word yoga doesn’t mean how to get to thin thighs by doing exercises in a hot room or a cold room for that matter. Yoga means something like E pluribus Unum. It means the Unum. It means yoking, tying the bullock cart that is always prevalent everywhere in India. Bullock cart that’s bringing a plow. You yoke it like you yoke your horses with a cart. And in, in, in Hinduism, it is you yoke the Atman, the small soul to the large soul, Ahpram. You tie yourself more firmly to God and you can tie yourself to God in so many different ways. Through love, Bhakti yoga, to knowledge, Jnana yoga, you know, the King’s way, Raja yoga. Ashtanga yoga, the eight limb yoga.

But the yoga that my guru taught me, Neem Karoli Baba gave me this path. It’s called Nishkam karma yoga. And it, it, it, those who are Jewish and are familiar with the term Tikun, Olam. I think that’s a different translation of Nishkam karma yoga. It’s the yoga of binding yourself closer to God by doing selfless work for the betterment of everyone, without taking credit. And it’s, it has a kind of twist to it. It’s one thing to say the word selfless service, but there’s another meaning of this work without attachment, which is what Nishkam means. You’re supposed to not be attached to the results of your work. Not only let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing, but your job is the work, not the outcome. And that’s the hardest part for me. That’s what this makes, makes us the hardest yoga for me. They’re all hard, but the idea that you could work with children in a smallpox outbreak or COVID outbreak, and there’ll be people who die and that you can’t control that, you can’t help that. And you have to trust that somehow faith is greater than, you’re, greater than what you can possibly understand or achieve. And that’s what I take away from working every day.

I have had some of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had. A doctor in Southern California who works in a hospital that is a magnet hospital for bad cases of COVID. He had 80 patients in a row in the CP, in the intensive care unit, and all of them died. I get calls in Northern Italy when the, when the disease first went there from the parents and families of the 500 doctors who died from COVID. It’s, it’s a hard time. And we need to appreciate that for other people, maybe not you and me, this has been a terrifying time, a frightening time. But it is still our job Tikun, Olam. To heal the broken world. To stop the pandemic. To stop the hatred, the divisiveness, to bring the world back together and make America what we aspire and dream it to be. And to make the world, the globe, work together better. We can’t continue to have these centrifugal forces pulling us apart. We have to, each of us in our own way, do everything we possibly can  to make the world safe and free and just for all of us. That’s our assignment.

Jack Kornfield: And that profound teaching that’s there in the Bhagavad Gita, but in so many places, which says the secret is to act beautifully, to plant beautiful seeds, without attachment to the fruits of the action. That you can’t know how it will turn out, but if you plant beautiful seeds, you can trust in the long run that something, something good will come. I think it was Thoreau who said, I don’t believe that anything will good will grow if there isn’t a seed, but convince me you have a seed there and I’m prepared to expect miracles. And somehow it feels like even in this hard time, maybe all the more so, we also need to find some deeper well of trust that what’s given to us is to act as beautifully as we can. And yes, people will get sick. Some will die. There will be loss. Pablo Neruda, the great poet, said, you can pick all the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.

And now we are one of the first days of spring, and somehow, you know, we get to plant the seeds. Whether we see them bloom right away or not, our gift  is to plant and water what’s beautiful with that, with the best intention. And trust somehow. And I, I want those who are listening to pause and take a breath and feel the renewal that life wants. It’s always renewing itself even after death or pandemic or disasters. There’s something else that wants to come new. And that’s, what’s asked of us. And maybe we can make it a little better and a little more connected. And a little more beautiful out of it.

And I mean, one of the things that I, the images that I hold, you know, when that great hurricane hit hit Texas, and there was all that, those floods in Houston, and so many people were up on the roofs of their houses and there were dogs. And then the Cajun Navy came. This is Mr. Roger’s mother sang to him. Don’t look at the disaster, look at the helpers. And you started to see, you know, cars and Jeeps, towing air boats, and boats from Louisiana and Alabama and so forth. And all of these people came and they said, we’re going to help. We’re going to get these people off the roofs. We’re going to bring them somewhere. And there’s something that this, that the difficulty also brings out of our hearts. And we need to align ourselves with that sense of trust and renewal. As much as anything else.

Larry Brilliant: I’m in Mill Valley and eight o’clock in Mill Valley was howling time. We,  howled, every day to say thank you to the first responders who put their life on the line. I think we did that cause we probably couldn’t sing as well as they did an Italy. When from the rooftops they sang to celebrate all of the first responders. The gratitude that went around the world. Let’s not forget that. If the case count goes down and if it stays down, let’s not forget the first responders, the doctors, the lawyers, sanitation workers, the people who kept it all going while we, we, we stayed home. We were isolated. People who survived, survived because of those people. Let’s not, if we get back to normal, let’s not get back to normal and seeing invisible people again.

Jack Kornfield: Yeah, let’s not be normal. Let’s be better than normal. What is it? Garrison Keillor has a phrase, you know, all, all the children were above average. I think we can do better now. That in some way, the pandemic calls for us to become those, become what we can in noble way. So we’re getting some questions in the chat and let me switch and, and take some of them.  For Larry. Do you anticipate where we’ll ever get back to what’s considered quote normal, and if so, how do think it’s going to take?, I’ve never been normal myself, but…

Larry Brilliant: Well, you know, and when I worked in Bangladesh we, we, we didn’t have any other kind of communications. So we just had walkie  talkies. So we did code talk. We would say a word that represented a letter. And the word that most often we were saying was whisky, echo, India, Roger, Delta. Which is weird.  This is weird. I think we’re all in our own unique way weird. Whiskey echo India, Roger Delta, you know, we, we don’t want to get back to normal. That’s what Jack was saying. And Jack has, you have this wonderful way of catching the moment and illuminating it and spilling it. We don’t want to get back to normal. We want to get back to what we aspire to. And, and every pandemic in history has changed the world. It’s changed languages. It’s changed countries. Some people say there wouldn’t be a Canada if there hadn’t been a vaccination against smallpox. There was a smallpox outbreak and the American soldiers were not vaccinated. The French soldiers in Quebec and Montreal were vaccinated. Therefore there’s a border. But rivers and pandemics together rewrite history and give us a fresh slate in some ways. We can do so much better now.  We’ve learned to do with less, we’ve learned to feel more longing for each other.  Let’s not get back to the normal when when those things were not part of our vocabulary in our life.

Jack Kornfield: So here’s another question. This is for Jack. Or whoever he is. Yes. Mindfulness feels like a very private act. How do you recommend sharing it with others who could benefit, but don’t know how to approach?

So I think, I mean, it’s a beautiful question. I think, especially they’re talking about meditation and how do you get other people to meditate? That’s a very hard thing to do. Mostly you don’t want to do that. I think the best way you do it is that it’s contagious. If you meditate and you get yourself a little bit quiet, and a little kinder and they say, Hey, you seem a little bit better these days, what’s happened? Maybe it, maybe it will rub off.

But there’s something else important in this question, in addition to that,  and that is that the word mindfulness in Sanskrit or Pali, the ancient language, has two parts. Sati and Satipatthana. It means mindful presence and mindful response. And we tend to think of it as passive, but in fact, it’s described in Zen this way: they say in Zen, there are only two things. You sit and you sweep the garden and it doesn’t matter how big the garden is. That is, you find a way to quiet yourself and tend  the heart and quiet the mind and come to a place of some wellbeing, some love, some great compassion in yourself. And then you get up to the garden of the world. And the second half of it is mindful response. Then if someone’s hungry, you feed them. And if someone’s cold, you’d give them a blanket. And you know, if the neighbors are in trouble, they’re your family. And mindfulness has both of these. It’s–our friend Ramdas called it mindful loving awareness. It’s the awareness that’s permeated by love.

So here’s a question for you, Larry. I’m in Mexico, despite the lack of available vaccines, people in general are generous with one another. I’m struck by the contrast people in the US hoarding supplies. How do we promote generosity?

Larry Brilliant: Well, I think if we all meditate a little bit more, that will promote generosity. If we all open ourselves up to people of faith and and live in a world that’s filled with faith, that’ll promote generosity. One of the things I love to do in the middle of this pandemic isn’t talking to the scientists and all the other media stuff. It’s in speaking at Grace Cathedral or with the rabbis or speaking in Sufi communities, wherever I can. Because that feeds me to remember that in a, in a community of faith, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s still a safe place. It’s still a place where people will help you and support you. I can’t speak to the difference between American generosity and other countries. I think we’re superficially very generous in the United States. After the tsunami, Americans gave more money than the rest of the world together. But I’m not so sure that that’s the kind of generosity that the questioner is speaking about. Certainly I’ve seen phenomenal acts of generosity in this pandemic. All of us have. We just need to keep those in our hearts and in our head.

Jack Kornfield: I think there’s also something really important about joy. There’s this beautiful book, The Book of Joy that’s a conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, both of whom have amazing laughs and they were brought together for a week for his 80th birthday. And they were asked, how, how can you be joyful after apartheid? And you see so many people killed or the Dalai Lama, you’ve lost the freedom of the people of Tibet on your watch and you know, the monasteries destroyed and how can you laugh? And the Dalai Lama said something, they were holding hands and teasing each other, you know? And he said, they’ve taken so much, they’ve taken the right of our people to say their prayers. They burned our our sacred texts. They’ve taken so much of our culture. Why should I let them take my happiness? You know, that that joy becomes the instructions from the Buddha. He says, live in joy and love even among those who hate. Hatred never ends by hatred. Live in joy and health even when those around are afflicted. Live in joy and peace, even among the troubled. Become that. Look within, quiet the mind, tend to heart free from fear and grasping. Know the sweet joy of living in this mysterious world in this way. And it is so mysterious and we, that’s the thing we have as a human being. You know, with what all we’ve lived through, we have the possibility to choose our spirit, no matter what that circumstance. There’s, you know, Nelson Mandela walking on a 27 years in Robben Island prison with so much magnanimity and graciousness that he changed the consciousness of Africa and the world. And we have that in, in each of us.

So I was at the airport some years ago, four years ago, as a matter of fact, after that first Presidential edict to prevent people from the majority Muslim countries from coming in. And so I was part of the demonstration. And my daughter, who is a lawyer trained at Berkeley and kind of doing human rights law and law for people whose lives are in danger. She and a  group, a group of hot shot young lawyers came down and they sent out a thing. Anybody who needs help, who’s an immigrant, they so forth. So there, there was 2000 people in that, in the San Francisco airport protesting. And at our gate, there were like four or 500 people. Okay. And everybody had their signs and chanting, no ban, no fear, refugees welcome here. Was the usual thing with the signs and the, you know, protest, which is, it’s kind of an old form. I’m not sure it’s really all that good anymore. Although I still go out on the streets often. But in the middle of our group, there was a New Orleans jazz band. They found their way in the middle and set up, and we were chanting, no ban, no fear. And then the drummer lays a little, you know, beat underneath it. And the trumpet comes in and plays a melody and the sax. And pretty soon there’s this whole no ban, no fear, refugees welcome here. And everybody’s singing and dancing and the cops were there and the guards are, they’re all smiling. We were there. We were not going away. We were, but we did it with art and with love. And all of a sudden, instead of it becoming a protest, it became an expression of joy to say, we are in this and we’re with you and come and join us, because that’s really what we want. It’s not like you should join us, but  let’s do it in joy. If you can’t do it in joy it’s not the right part.

And so here’s the question for you, Larry, that comes in the chat.  Will we get back to a time when we can be in the same space with others, dancing and sweating and breathing with each other? And when?

Larry Brilliant: Yes. Now the second half is harder. The, when part is harder. I mean, we will go through a process where we will have islands.

We’ll have bubbles. The NBA bubble,  the Seattle Seahawks. I know we’re from San Francisco. We’re not supposed to like the Seattle Seahawks, but I love the bubble that they had. They kept their team safe from COVID, more so than anybody else, because they were careful. And there are places that have bubbles and those bubbles will get larger. Right now it’s islands, it’s Taiwan, it’s Iceland, it’s New Zealand. And these are three islands that are run by women. And that’s the bubble, the bubble of safety that we’ve seen in this pandemic. And then those bubbles will get a little bigger. Maybe it will include Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand. Cause they’re all doing a great job in dealing with this pandemic. Maybe there’ll be a San Francisco bubble, as there has been, because the Bay area has done a really good job. Maybe that bubble will increase and it will include  two thirds of California. And over the next few months, you’ll see these bubbles get larger. And in each one of the bubbles, those who have been vaccinated will be able to dance and hug and sing. And let’s hope that that bubble can get bigger. I don’t know if we’ll ever get Texas in that bubble, but we damn sure have got to try. But we will find a way to get through this. It will take longer than you think. We will not reach herd immunity. We will find other ways of doing it.

But there’ve been hundreds of pandemics in recent history. They always end. This too will pass. Just like the Vizier’s ring. This too shall pass. And those bubbles would get bigger and we will be able again, to dance and sing. But each of us can help get there. We can do our part, when it’s the right time to wear masks, to socially distance, to get vaccinated, to help others who need help getting vaccinated, to help others to be reminded of how best to behave at this time. Because the virus doesn’t know anything about us. It doesn’t know who’s black and white, who’s rich and poor. Who’s tall and short. Any gender. The virus doesn’t know that. We have to all do our part. But to the person who’s asked that question, I sense  your longing. We all share it.  That’s one thing we have in common. And we will certainly get there again.

Jack Kornfield: So one more little thing I want to say as we start to kind of wind down. There’s a professor at MIT named Francis  Lam. You might know him. And he works in part at the MIT visionary, agricultural lab, trying to figure out how to grow genetically and otherwise more fruitful crops to feed the world, to tend and so forth. Anyway, his graduate students at some point came and said, Hey, we heard that plants grow better if they hear music, can we play some music for our plants? And he, being a scientist like you, Larry, said, well, you could play music, but we need to do science with it. How about this? He said we’ll separate our plants in three, in three batches. One batch will be no music at all. It’s just going to sit there. He said, one batch, what do you want to play? And they said, Oh, let’s play Mozart. Alright, we’ll play Mozart. Third batch of plants, he said,  play Tupac and let’s see how they do. So there they are the plants and it’s like three or four weeks. These little sprouts growing up, and they’re taking their notes as good graduate students must do. And guess what at the end, it turns out? That the plants that did best were Tupac’s plants. The reason, very simple, is that the beat from that rap, the beat from Tupac, pushed those plants and moved them around. And they grew stronger roots and stronger stems.

It’s like in Arizona when those people went into the dome for a year to, to model what it would be like on Mars, you know, and they put some trees in there. And by the end of the year, the trees were all like drooping. Because there was no wind to move them. Somehow we have had this pandemic that pushes us and forces us, and yes, there’s been grief and loss there is, and we carry it in our heart, but there’s also something that asks us to feel stronger from it. That there’s some way in which what we’ve done now, if we take it to really be something of value to transform us. That we, you know, that that’s Tupac for us. And that somehow we’ve had to root ourselves and say, all right, this is what I care about. This is how I take care of myself. These are the lessons I’ve learned from this. And I won’t forget.

Larry Brilliant: Thank you so much, Jack. It’s so wonderful to hang out with you again.

Jack Kornfield: You know, I love you. It’s just so great. It’s really, really, really a pleasure and City Arts and Lectures is  part of what, you know, makes San Francisco great. Thank you to Sydney and Kate and all those who created it and onward for all of us in some beautiful way. We have an opportunity to make the world a more magnificent place, this mystery of our life. And the fact that we get to even have this conversation, that’s pretty mysterious and amazing. And we’re so happy to share our hearts with you. So thank you.

Larry Brilliant: Thank you. Thank you everybody. Thank you for coming and listening. Thank you for sharing this wonderful space with Jack. Thank you.

City Arts & Lectures: You’ve been listening to Larry Brilliant in conversation with Jack Kornfield. This program was recorded on March 23rd, 2021.