Don’t Wait to Be Happy!

A heartfelt message to us all, from Jack Kornfield.

Jack Kornfield
3 August 2017
Photo by Roald Sundal / Millennium Images, UK.

Dear friends, after more than forty years teaching mindfulness and compassion to thousands on the spiritual path, the most important message I can offer is this: You don’t have to wait to be free. You don’t need to postpone being happy.

All too often these beautiful spiritual practices of mindfulness and compassion become entwined with a vision of self-discipline and duty. We see them as taking us through a long road of obstacles that leads eventually to distant benefits.

Freedom is not reserved for exceptional people. No one can imprison your spirit.

Yes, there is hard work of the heart and there are demanding cycles in our lives. Yet wherever you are on your journey, there is another wonderful truth called “living the fruit” or “starting with the result.” The fruits of well-being and the experience of joy, freedom, and love are available now, whatever your circumstance!

When Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island prison after twenty-seven years of incarceration, he did so with such dignity, magnanimity, and forgiveness that his spirit transformed South Africa and inspired the world. Like Mandela, you can be free and dignified wherever you find yourself. However difficult your circumstances, however uncertain the times, remember, freedom is not reserved for exceptional people. No one can imprison your spirit.

When your boss calls and you feel fear or anxiety, when someone in your family is in conflict or duress, when you feel overwhelmed by the growing problems of the world, you have choices. You can be bound and constricted or you can use this difficulty to open and discover how to respond wisely in this unfolding journey.

Sometimes life gives us ease, sometimes it is challenging, and sometimes it is profoundly painful. Sometimes the whole society around you is in upheaval. Whatever your circumstances, you can take a breath, soften your gaze, and remember that courage and freedom are within, waiting to awaken and to offer to others.

Even under the direst conditions, freedom of spirit is available. Freedom of spirit is mysterious, magnificent, and simple. We are free and able to love in this life—no matter what.

Deep down we know this is true. We know it whenever we feel a part of something greater—listening to music, making love, walking in the mountains or swimming in the sea, sitting at the mystery of a dying loved one as her spirit leaves her body silently as a falling star, or witnessing the miraculous birth of a child. At times like these, a joyful openness swells through our body and our heart is surrounded by peace.

Freedom starts where we are. Sara, a single mom with two kids, found out that her eight-year-old daughter, Alicia, had leukemia. Sara was terrified, anxious, grieving the loss of her child’s health, scared that she would lose her.

For the first year, Alicia went through long rounds of chemotherapy, hospital stays, and doctors. A fearful sadness filled the house and anxiety colored Sara’s days. Then, one afternoon when they were out on a walk, Alicia said, “Mama, I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but I want them to be happy days.”

Her words were a splash of cold water on her mother’s face. Sara realized that she had to step out of the fearful melodrama to meet her daughter’s freedom of mind with her own, to return to a trusting spirit. Sara grabbed her daughter and did a little waltz, holding her tight. Her fear dissipated. And in time, Alicia healed. She is now twenty-two and just graduated from college.

But even if she hadn’t healed, what kind of days would you have had her choose? You can’t do much with your life if you’re miserable. You might as well be happy.

When I was eight years old, on an especially bitter windy winter day, my brothers and I dressed in jackets and scarves and gloves and went out to play in the snow. I was skinny as a rail and shivering with cold. My twin brother, Irv, stronger, wilder, and more robust, looked at me, contracted and fearful, and laughed. Then he began to remove layers of clothing—first the gloves, his coat, then a sweater, his shirt, undershirt, all the while laughing. He danced and paraded around half-naked in the snow, the icy wind whipping around us. We were all wide-eyed, laughing hysterically.

Finding freedom is an active process that engages your intellect, your heart, and your whole spirit.

In that moment, my brother taught me about choosing freedom, manifesting a spirit that to this day I still remember. Whether we’re in a wildly blowing snowstorm or feeling the cold wind of loss, blame, or our collective insecurity, we want to be free. We want to be released from fear and worry, not confined by judgments. We can. We can learn to trust love, express ourselves, and be happy.

As we discover trust and freedom in ourselves, we will then find our way to share them with the world. Barbara Wiedner, who founded Grandmothers for Peace, explains, “I began to question the kind of a world I am leaving for my grandchildren. So I got a sign, ‘A Grandmother for Peace,’ and stood on a street corner. Then I joined others kneeling as a human barrier at a munitions factory. I was taken to prison, strip-searched, and thrown into a cell. Something happened to me. I realized they couldn’t do anything more. I was free!” Now Barbara and her organization, Grandmothers for Peace, works in dozens of countries around the world.

This freedom is here for you as well. You can begin personally, with freedom of spirit, freedom to start over, freedom beyond fear, and freedom to be yourself, and then discover freedom to love, freedom to stand up for what matters, and freedom to be happy. Finding freedom is an active process that engages your intellect, your heart, and your whole spirit. The means and the goal are one—be yourself, dream, trust, and act.

You can choose your spirit. Freedom, love, and joy are yours, in your very life, your exact circumstance. They are your birthright.


From No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom and Joy Right Where You Are, by Jack Kornfield, PhD. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Jack Kornfield

Jack Kornfield

Jack Kornfield is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Center and one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He is a former Buddhist monk, a clinical psychologist, and a husband and father.