Joseph Goldstein Podcast
Tami Simon: You're listening to "Insights at the Edge." Today I speak with Joseph Goldstein. Joseph is an author and meditation teacher, and he has been leading insight and loving-kindness meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He's the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the organization's guiding teachers.
He's the author of the Sounds True audio learning course Insight Meditation: A Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate, which is both a home study course and an online course offered through Sounds True, copresented with Sharon Salzberg. And Joseph is also the creator of a new three-volume series called Abiding in Mindfulness: Advanced Teachings and Practical Guidance on the Satipatthana Sutra.
On this episode of "Insights at the Edge," I spoke with Joseph about his study of the Satipatthana Sutra as the central teaching of mindfulness meditation, how his own mindfulness practice has evolved over the past four decades, and what it might mean to live without clinging to any sense of "I," "me," or "mine." Here's my conversation with Joseph Goldstein.
Joseph, you've worked with Sounds True to create a three-volume series on the Satipatthana Sutra, and this three-volume series is something like 36 CDs, lots and lots and lots of teachings. And to begin with, I'd love to know why you picked this particular sutra to spend so much time teaching on in such depth. Why this sutra?
Joseph Goldstein: Well, the Satipatthana Sutta is, I would say, the core discourse of the Buddha in terms of outlining the practice of mindfulness meditation. So it's kind of the central teaching for this kind of meditation. And the Buddha's declaration right in the beginning of the discourse that this is the direct way for the overcoming of suffering and the direct path to liberation, it's a very clear and unambiguous statement of the import of the teaching.
Of course I had read this for many, many years at different times. I was reinspired by a book about this sutta by Venerable Analayo. He's a German monk who had been in Sri Lanka for some time, and he wrote a book called Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, which itself is really a wonderful book. And it reinspired my interest in going back to the text and teaching directly from the text.
My intention in the beginning was to give this series of talks at the Forest Refuge, our long-term practice center [at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts] where I teach for two months every year. And at first I thought there might be a series of three or four or five talks about the sutta, but as I got into it and was just going through it line by line, it was amazing how rich it was. The depth of the teaching and the extent of things covered in it just kept developing more and more. And it turned out, as you know, to be a series of 46 dharma talks. I mean, I had no idea it would turn out that way when I started, but it gives some indication of the richness of the discourse, and the wealth of teachings that it contains.
TS: Now, you mentioned this phrase "the direct path." And that phrase, "This is the direct way, the direct path," is used by a lot of different traditions and teachers. I mean, as you say that I think immediately of the Advaita teachers who say, "The direct path is not to practice anything, and we certainly don't need 46 dharma talks to make our way there." So how would you address that? How is this more direct?
JG: [Laughs] Of course, different traditions emphasize different methods and methodologies. And for different people, certain methods and vocabularies resonate more than with others. I think in the end, it always comes back to practice in one way or another. It's either practicing stabilizing the recognition of awareness, or it could be practicing seeing through the things that obscure the awareness.
But there are very few people who can hear a teaching and have their minds fully liberated in the moment of hearing it. So I think for almost everybody-there may be some extraordinary individuals like that, but I think that for almost everybody, freeing the mind from the tendencies that cause suffering, the deeply rooted tendencies of desire and greed and aversion and ignorance, these are not superficial habit patterns in the mind. And so in one way or another, almost everybody needs some form of practice.
And this particular teaching is just extremely systematic and comprehensive, and contains within it many different approaches. And that's one of the things I appreciate about it so much, that within it we can find many different doorways into understanding.
TS: In just a moment, I want to delve a bit more deeply into this structure of the sutra, but first I want to talk a little bit about how you work with a text, and what you think is possible for somebody in that kind of contemplation, sitting with a text. And how that goes for you-how do you actually contemplate a text, as you came up with these 46 dharma talks?
JG: I think that will be different depending on the level of experience people have in practice. A discourse like this can be read at many different levels.
So I'll just give you one example of how I learned from teaching about it. I've been practicing for a long time; I first went to India when I was 23, and that's quite a few years ago now. And I received the teachings from my first teacher in Bodh Gaya and have been practicing for a long time. And the basic instruction-the basic beginning instruction, it evolves over time-is to sit and feel the breath, and bring the attention to that as a way of developing some concentration and mindfulness.
So I'd been practicing like this for many years. And then in reading the sutta and beginning to develop the talks from it, the Buddha actually gives some systematic steps for working with the breath. He outlines four different steps, which I had never really done systematically, because it's not how it had been taught.
But in looking at the sutta again from the perspective of organizing talks about it and teaching from it, I thought, "Well, the Buddha laid out these particular steps of working with the breath. Maybe I should try doing it in that way." And it was very illuminating to see, yes, there was some value in that. And I just learned something new about something as simple as being with the breath. That's just one little example.
And as we went through the sutta, there are very practical instructions with regard to different elements of our experience. And so just reading it and applying a particular instruction and bringing it into my own practice, it began to expand my sense of ways of practice. And then finding which aspects were more useful, and then incorporating them.
TS: Now you have me curious about these four different steps to working with the breath. Can you share with us what those are?
JG: Yes. And this is right out of the discourse. It says, "A bhikkhu"-in this case, "a bhikkhu" could refer to all of us who are practicing-with the in-breath, we know we're breathing in, with the out-breath, we know we're breathing out. So it's that simple. It's just a simple knowing of in- and out-breath.
In the second step, it's knowing whether the breath is long or short. Breathe in, knowing whether the in-breath is a long one or a short one, and whether the out-breath is a long one or a short one.
Again, this seems like such a simple thing, but as I actually began to practice it and teach it, and [get] reports back from other meditators, what practicing that step did was to deeply impress the mind with the understanding that it doesn't matter whether the breath is long or short, that one can be equally mindful of any kind of breath. And that counteracts a tendency that some meditators have of wanting to make the breath a certain way, to make it more peaceful or however, to have just long breaths. It's a way of reminding ourselves that mindfulness can be with the breath however it is. It's just kind of a subtlety or a nuance of how we're relating to the breath.
In the third step, there's an interesting change of language, where the Buddha says that instead of simply knowing the in-breath or out-breath, he uses the words "to train the mind." So this implies already a slight intentionality that we're bringing to it. And in the third step, it's training the mind to be with the whole breath body.
Now, this has been interpreted in different ways. Some people interpret it as meaning to be with the entire body of the breath; that is, from the beginning to the middle to the end. Some people interpret it to mean to be with the breath through the whole body. And so I suggest people simply experiment and see which works better for them.
But here there's that kind of slight intentionality, [which is] training the mind to sustain the attention on the breath. So it's a little bit more than the first two steps, which is a simple knowing.
And then in the fourth step, it's again a training of the mind to calm the formations of each in- and out-breath; that is, to calm the body, to calm the mind. And I found this particularly interesting; it's something I had never done. I mean, I thought to myself, "Well, how does one do that?"
And I just started experimenting. And often when I would sit, I would just use the word as I would breathe in and out, I would simply remind the mind; I would repeat the word "calming" or "calm the breath" or "calming the formations." And it was amazing, just that gentle reminder, the immediate effect of it in terms of calming the formations.
So again, these are just very systematic and specific instructions that I had never done systematically before I started actually teaching the text.
TS: That makes a lot of sense. Can you help our listeners understand what you mean by "formations," "calming the formations"?
JG: Yes. "Formations" in a way is a technical Buddhist terminology. It just means the different elements of mind and body. It's the different formations or factors of mind, qualities of mind. So it's calming the qualities of the mind. It's calming the body.
TS: OK. Now just let's learn a little bit more about this sutra. Now, you use the word "sutta" instead of "sutra." Why is that?
JG: "Sutta" is the Pali term; "sutra" is the Sanskrit term. So it's the same word, it's just the difference between Pali and Sanskrit.
TS: OK. And tell us a little bit about the structure of the sutta itself.
JG: The biggest structure, the overarching one-the Buddha starts it with this declaration that this is the direct path to liberation, to freedom. And then he says, "What is the path? Namely, the four foundations of mindfulness." And so the structure of the sutta really is an outline of these four different arenas in which we can apply mindfulness.
And one of the words in Pali used to describe this-it's kind of interesting, the Pali word is gocara, which means "pastures," literally a pasture that cows might be grazing in. And I like that term: these are the four pastures for mindfulness to be applied.
And the Buddha then outlines these four foundations or four pastures: it's mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind, and then the last one is a little hard to translate into English. It's mindfulness of dharmas-it would be "dharma" in Sanskrit, dhamma in Pali, [but] it's the same word.
And the best translation that I've come across, which expresses what's contained in that pasture, that domain of mindfulness, is mindfulness of different categories of experience. So that would include things like the hindrances and the senses and the factors of enlightenment and the four noble truths, how different elements of the mind and body function. That's all contained in the fourth foundation.
And then with each of these foundations, the Buddha then gives many different ways of practicing the mindfulness of each of these foundations, the many different ways of practicing mindfulness of the body, or feelings, or of the mind, or of dhammas.
And then there's also a refrain after each section, which is quite interesting, which highlights other ways or particular insights, ways of practicing with each of the foundations and insights that emerge from them. So some of the things included in the refrain are things like noticing that all of these different experiences arise and pass away. And so it highlights the importance of the insight into impermanence.
And there's another aspect of the refrain, which is quite interesting and not often talked about, and it is the Buddha repeating-and it's repeated many times. The refrain happens, I forget the exact number, but it might be like 13 different times in the sutta, where the Buddha says to contemplate all these various aspects internally, externally, and both internally and externally.
So that's a very interesting area to explore, because we usually think of meditation as being very internal, being aware of our processes, and the Buddha says to apply these foundations of mindfulness externally as well. So just to explore different ways of doing that is quite interesting.
TS: Can you say a little bit more about what that would be like? How would I contemplate externally?
JG: There are a few different examples, some which come from stories right from the Buddha's time. I'm thinking particularly there was one nun, her name was Patachara, and she had a lot of tragedy in her life. She ended up becoming a nun, and she relates her story-there's a collection of texts called the Therigatha and the Theragatha, that is, the Songs of the Nuns and the Songs of the Monks. Basically they're enlightenment stories that had been collected, so this comes out of that collection.
And Patachara was describing how she practiced for years, and she didn't feel like she was making any progress at all. And then one day, she overturned a jug of water, and she just watched the water disappear into the ground. So that was an external observation, just seeing the disappearance of the water. Then she said she went into her little hut where a candle was burning, and as she put out the candle, in the moment of the flame going out, she was just watching this whole process, and in the moment of it going out, her mind obliterated.
So I like that story, because it points to the fact that just through a careful mindfulness or observation of these external [things], to the world around us, sometimes those observations can trigger the release of the mind. It came about because-it was all on the foundation of a lot of practice, but the actual moment of liberation came from this external observation.
So that's one example, one that we can all, I think, easily relate to. I've had this experience many times, both when I'm on retreat and when I'm not on retreat. Sometimes if we're simply observing someone who is being very mindful-it may be walking, doing very mindful walking, or eating or whatever-just in watching them be mindful, it induces mindfulness in us. It's just an interesting experience, to see how that external observation actually deepens our own practice.
There are many, many examples. There's a sutta where the Buddha-there's a lot of teaching about right speech. The Buddha in one sutta talked about right listening, how to listen to people speaking. And there's a very, very challenging teaching here, where the Buddha describes how people may speak to us in different ways, either truthfully or untruthfully, harshly or gently, with an intent for our happiness or an intent to harm. So he goes through this long list of different ways people may speak to us, and then he says-and this is the great challenge-regardless of how someone addresses us, we should abide with a heart of loving-kindness, compassionate for their welfare.
So when I read that, I always kind of sit up straight, in the sense of imagining how I or others might react if somebody was speaking to us harshly, lying with an intent to harm, the challenge of abiding with a heart of loving-kindness, compassionate for their welfare, would be a challenge. And the way to practice that is precisely the practice of staying mindful of how the other person is speaking. Just as we can be mindful of the difficult experiences within ourselves, we're mindful of them without reactivity.
In this case, we're mindful externally. We're simply noticing, "Oh, this person is speaking untruthfully with an intent to harm." And that mindfulness of it, rather than being caught up in our own reaction, allows us to abide compassionate for their welfare. Not easy to do, but it's a powerful example of how mindfulness can be applied externally. So these are just a few examples.
TS: Yes, that's very clear. Thank you.
I'm curious, Joseph, when you were preparing these 46 dharma talks, were you working with an English version of the Satipatthana Sutra, or both an English and a Pali version?
JG: Definitely English. I'm not a Pali scholar. And fortunately, there are such good translations now, so it makes it easy to do that.
One of the things that happened as I was using the translations, I was also using Venerable Analayo's book as well, and also Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations of the sutta, and each of them also has many notes and references to other suttas. And so with each talk, as I was studying it and researching it, all their footnotes and references, I began to look them up. And so it just expanded so beautifully to many other suttas the Buddha gave.
TS: And is the idea that these are the actual words of the Buddha? I mean, do you believe that? Or do you believe these were written however many years later?
JG: Yes, that's hard-I think from my understanding of the history and the evolution of Buddhism and the teachings, it seems like these are probably the closest to the original teachings. They were passed down orally for hundreds of years before they were written down. And in my reading and understanding-often people think, "Well, because it was passed down orally, it probably went through a lot of permutations." I'd rather not-again, I'm not an expert in this process, in the historical process of it all. But I have read that in fact the oral tradition can be as accurate as the written one.
TS: How can that be when we can't even play the telephone game correctly?
JG: Right. Because people in those days were much more adept at it, because they weren't as distracted as we are. And there were whole groups of monks who would rehearse these texts together, and each group would rehearse different aspects or different sections of the teachings.
And the comment was made in this regard that when things are written, and especially in those early days, mistakes could often be carried over if there was a mistake in the transcription. You know, somebody writing it down and making a mistake, and then everything that follows from that, that mistake is passed on. So I think it's probably equally-I don't know what the right word is-valid transmissions of the teachings. Undoubtedly not perfect, but as I said, it's probably as close as we can get.
And there's such inner consistency to the teachings. And most important, even aside from all of this, when we apply them, they work! So that's the final measure.
TS: Did you encounter any aspect of the Satipatthana Sutra where you thought, "Wow, this really needs to be updated. We've got new information now here in the twenty-first century, and this could use an update."
JG: I didn't really. Even something that comes to mind that one might think that, and I have thought it at different times, in the section of mindfulness of the body and the elements. So the way the elements are described, and mindfulness of them, are in terms of the ancient system of the earth, air, fire, water elements, and what they represent, the experience of hardness, of softness, of heat, or whatever. And so I would wonder, well, if the Buddha were living today, how would he describe the elements? He probably wouldn't in terms of earth, air, fire, and water; he'd probably have a different description.
So the terminology might be different, but then when you actually are applying the teachings to one's experience, it's not those words that are important. We could use very conventional language for describing how we feel the body, how we describe the sensations that we feel, like hardness or softness or pressure or vibration. So these are very ordinary terms that relate to our actual experience.
So it's in things like that, one might wonder, "Well, would he have used different terms for the elements?" Maybe he would have.
TS: How might a twenty-first-century Buddha describe the elements, are you imagining?
JG: Well, I think you'd have to ask a physicist that!
TS: Oh, OK. So you didn't have something in mind when you thought that?
JG: No, no.
TS: I gotcha.
JG: You know, in terms of different elemental particles or something like that, neutrons and protons and subatomic particles and quarks.
I mean, another interesting aspect, though, is-and this is a little tangential, perhaps, but the way one can experience these elements, I think is quite different if somebody has attained to very high levels of concentration. In the Pali they're called jhanas, or absorptions. And then applying that power of concentration to the experience of the body and the elements. This is not in my own experience; it's about things I've read. One actually has a-there's a very microscopic experience of these elements of the body and how they manifest. So there might be a deeper meaning, even of the terminology the Buddha used than is apparent to our ordinary experience. So I don't know if that was clear or not.
TS: Yes, it is, and it's interesting.
JG: It's just there are different levels of perception, depending on the power of our concentration.
TS: Yes. That makes sense.
I read someplace in an interview with you, Joseph, the following: "Recently my practice has gotten simpler and simpler. It basically comes down to one thing that the Buddha said: Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as "I" or "mine." And what I'd like to know is, within the context of the Satipatthana Sutra, what are some of the key teachings that illuminate this for you: Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as "I" or "mine"?
JG: Well, in a way the whole sutta does, because that's the meaning of mindfulness. Mindfulness as a particular factor or quality of mind means the mind that is aware of what's arising without grasping, without aversion, and without ignorance, without identifying with it.
And so in this respect-and this is an important distinction-mindfulness is different than recognition. We can recognize that something is present and not be mindful. But I think that's often confused. And at different times in my own practice, I've confused that.
TS: Can you take that a little slower? Help me there with that.
JG: Well, I'll give you an example. There was one time in my practice-this goes back many years now-but when I was experiencing a lot of fear, and that was the primary emotion coming up. And it was very primal; it wasn't fear about anything in particular, it was just opening to that deep, deep pattern, that emotional pattern. And I was practicing and noting it and noticing it, "Fear, fear." This was over a period of many months, where this would be a predominant quality. But it still stayed very-it felt like it stayed very locked in.
And then at one point, I remember I was doing some walking meditation, and something shifted. And the shift was expressed in the thought, "If this fear is here for the rest of my life, it's OK." And what happened was, it was in that moment, there was the first moment that I genuinely accepted it. All the time before I had recognized it, I knew the fear was there, and I was even noting it, noticing it, but contained within the noticing was aversion. I didn't like it; I was noticing it in order for it to go away. But I hadn't realized that until that shift into acceptance happened.
And as soon as that happened, as soon as I thought, "If this is here for the rest of my life, it's OK," it was quite amazing. In that moment of acceptance where there was true mindfulness, then that whole mass of fear just washed through, and the thing that had felt so locked in, it just became another part of the passing show. And even when it arises, has arisen since, it's much easier just to be aware of it and to let it arise and pass away without that identification.
So this is the very meaning of mindfulness. So every time the Buddha is talking about being mindful of these various domains of the body or feelings or the mind, it's implying being aware of it without clinging to it as "I" or "mine."
TS: So what you're saying is that in genuine mindfulness, there is not the sense of "I," "me," or "mine"?
TS: I can imagine that that might be stunning for some of our listeners to hear.
JG: Well, it is pretty stunning!
TS: Yes, that their experience of mindfulness might be, "Oh, I'm aware, I'm aware of the feeling of my foot touching the ground right now as I walk mindfully."
JG: Well, this process is going on moment to moment, very, very rapidly. So for example, we might be mindful, truly mindful, of the sensation of the foot touching the ground. You know, just feeling with sensation, being mindful of it, not being identified with the sensation, but we might be identified with the knowing. And that's why part of the instructions of the sutta, including the sutta, especially when we get to mindfulness of the mind and of the dharmas, we really begin to see and to practice being mindful of the knowing aspect as well, so that we're not identified even with that.
But that can be quite subtle. It's easier, for example, to see thoughts come and go, or sensations come and go, or even emotions, and not be identified with them, after some point. But this identification with the knowing in which there's a creation of a knower, of an observer, that we could say is the last holdout of self. That's where we back into the corner from which we're observing everything.
So there are just different ways of practicing not identifying with consciousness itself. Not identifying with awareness. But this goes into just greater and greater subtleties of practice.
TS: There's one section that you address that I'm particularly curious about, which is the experience of volition, or choice, and how as we're "abiding in mindfulness," volition or choice happens without this sense of "I," "me," or "mine." Could you talk about that?
JG: Well, I think "choice" and "volition" are actually two different qualities. That "volition" within the Buddhist framework has a very specific meaning, and that is, it's almost like the spark that initiates an action. So it's not intention in the sense of motivation or even choice; it's just that energetic impulse.
So in other words, before we reach for something, there's an intention to reach. The choice may have been made previously: I'm going to reach for the door, I'm going to reach for whatever. So that choice may have already been made, but what actually initiates the physical action is this factor of intention. So it's more like an energetic impulse that initiates an action.
And one can just see, we can become mindful of that intention arising. And we see it just like anything else. We can see it, we can experience it in the same way we would experience a sound or another sensation in the body. It's just that impulse arising, initiating an action.
Choice is another factor. And choices arise in the mind, conditioned by a lot of different factors in the mind. Sometimes choices are conditioned by greed, or by love, or by compassion, or by anger. And just as we see the conditioned nature of choice, we're able to see it and experience it as something arising in the mind, but also as an impersonal process. It's arising out of certain conditions.
And when we're mindful-and this is the great gift of mindfulness-when we can be mindful of this process, whether it's coming in at the moment of a choice arising in the mind, whether it's coming in in the moment of the actual intention that initiates the action, when we're mindful, then there's the space, we have the opportunity to have wisdom arise, discerning, "Is this skillful, or is it unskillful? Is this worth doing, or is it not worth doing? Is its helpful, or not helpful?" And without mindfulness, then we're simply acting out all of our own particular habit patterns of conditioning.
So one of the ways, for example, of understanding the selfless nature of things even like choice or intention, one of the doorways opening to the insight of selflessness is by seeing the momentary arising and passing of all these phenomena. So impermanence becomes the doorway to selflessness. And so as we just observe this over and over again, we see it's just an unfolding process, one moment conditioning the next, conditioning the next.
So I don't know if that exactly answered your question.
TS: What's so radical, I think, about what you're saying, the experience I'm having listening, is that this idea of being mindful of something that's been absorbed, I think, into contemporary culture with a sense of self intact.
TS: I think that's how most people use it. And even, I think, a lot of mindfulness teachers. And so by listening to this deconstruction, and hearing you really talk about [how] in mindfulness, there is no clinging to "I," "me," or "mine" if you're truly being mindful, I think it clarifies what genuine mindfulness is in a way that is, I'm experiencing, is extremely illuminating.
JG: Yes, I think it is. And I think it points to the depths of the teaching and why this sutta is so important, and why the Buddha could say in the beginning, "This is the direct path to liberation." If mindfulness were simply the recognition of what was happening, but without these deeper implications, it wouldn't particularly be a path to freedom, to ultimate freedom or awakening.
And so I think mindfulness is being used or understood on many levels. And probably all of them are helpful on their own level. I think the only danger would be that if people assume that a more conventional level of understanding mindfulness is the whole show, and they don't actually explore the deeper meaning and application of it. But at whatever level it's being practiced or understood is probably helpful.
TS: And here you are, talking about not clinging to any sense of "I," "me," or "mine," in terms of the sort of simple essence of your current practice. But I'm curious if you feel some sense of individuality, personalness, human uniqueness, some kind of Joseph Goldsteiny-ness. And how do you make sense out of that?
JG: Definitely! You know, personality doesn't go away. And I also still have lots of work to do in this regard.
TS: But what is personality?
JG: Personality is just the pattern. It's the pattern of our thoughts and emotions. So the pattern is there, and we each have a unique pattern that's quite recognizable. So that's there.
But we can begin to understand that-it gets a little hard to talk about. The pattern doesn't belong to anyone; it's not as if there is a self to whom the pattern refers. But it's what we are, is this flow of changing phenomena, but this flow or current of changing phenomena of mind and body is not occurring randomly or haphazardly or chaotically. It's unfolding, and our lives unfold with continuity, revealing certain patterns. So they're there, and that's why there is a sense and a recognition of individuality. But it's understanding on another level that there's no abiding self to whom it all belongs.
Another way of talking about this is just the understanding,-which is not expressed in this sutta per se, but I think is very relevant-just the understanding in Buddhism of the levels of relative and ultimate truth.
So just one simple example, which I've used many times to illustrate the union of these two truths is our experience, for example, of seeing a rainbow. We look up into the sky, we see a rainbow, it's beautiful, we're pleased and we're happy to see it. And yet, the rainbow is not a thing in and of itself. When we look more deeply, we see really all that's there-there's air and light and moisture, and conditions come together in a certain way, and there's an appearance of a rainbow.
And so this is just an example of the relative and ultimate levels. On the relative level, the rainbow is there, and we see it and we enjoy it. So it's not to deny that appearances arise. The ultimate level would be to see that it is an appearance arising out of changing conditions. And then we get to the, on the more ultimate level, we begin to see the elements out of which the appearance comes. And on that level, there's no rainbow: it's just the moisture and the light and the air.
And so self is like the rainbow. Joseph is like a rainbow. Tami is a rainbow. There's an appearance, and on that level it's real, and we relate to it. But when we look more carefully, we see there's no thing called "rainbow" or "Joseph" or "Tami" or "self."
TS: Now, you mentioned that this process of "abiding in mindfulness" is something that is a growing realization, not like perfectly, moment to moment, every moment. And as somebody who's been practicing now for four decades, practicing seriously, deeply, I'd be curious to know a little bit about what that trajectory has been for you, the progression for you.
JG: Well, in the beginning decades, it felt much more effortful. It felt that I needed a strong effort to be mindful. And the practice, when I was practicing, [it was] often with that feeling. Although many times in the course of intensive practice, it would come to a place of real effortlessness, but then applying it in my life and in the world, it would take-I would feel like it took a lot of effort.
Over the years, there's been a shift more into a quality of relaxing into mindfulness, rather than trying to generate it. And so it really is a settling back into remembering, rather than a trying to get something. So that's been a big shift. The practice itself has gotten much more easeful in that way. And in the teaching, the way I'm teaching now, also it's trying to remind people that the mindfulness can come about through relaxation, that it's really a settling back into the moment, rather than reaching for something.
But this is something that everybody needs to learn for themselves and experience for themselves. But especially in our Western culture, there's so much unhelpful striving, so this is an important element of the teaching, I think. How to be, in the words of the sutta, "ardent," aware, ardent, clearly comprehending what's going on, but doing it from a place of relaxation.
TS: I know 2011 is a sabbatical year for you, and one in which you'll be doing some intensive retreat practice. And I'm curious how retreat practice plays into your life, and what you see as the unique value of intensive retreat?
JG: I love being on retreat, and from the very beginning I've so benefitted from retreat practice. Although I did ordain many years very briefly as a monk-in the Theravada tradition, you can have a temporary ordination, and I did do that once, sort of at the behest of one of my teachers, Dipa Ma, who really urged me to do it. But for me, I was never particularly drawn for myself to become a monk.
And so I find that as a layperson, living a life engaged with the world, it's like going on retreat in a way is-it provides a monastic-type lifestyle and environment, where there's a certain level of renunciation of the usual distractions of one's life, and there's a tremendous power in that. And so for me, it's a way of incorporating into a lay life [set] periods of greater renunciation, as well as an environment where you can really develop a momentum of practice, both the development of concentration, of mindfulness, of all the factors, all the qualities of mind that are strengthened by an uninterrupted time of practice.
So the retreat time has just always felt incredibly rich, and opens up possibilities of understanding, simply because of the simplicity and nondistractedness of that lifestyle. So taking periods of time to do that has just always been exceedingly valuable.
TS: Do you think that people need to be trained to a certain level before they can really take advantage of being on a solitary retreat?
JG: I think that for most people, it's good to have a good foundation in practice. If they're in contact with a teacher, then I think it's possible to do it quite early on, although a retreat with other people is very supportive, so I think that is valuable for people.
But to do a personal retreat without a teacher, I think it's very helpful to be fairly experienced in practice so there's a good understanding of what one is doing, and how to work with difficulties when they arise. Because they always do, in one way or another.
TS: Honestly, Joseph, I could talk to you for many, many hours, but I think that what I need to do is go on a retreat with the 36 CDs of Abiding in Mindfulness, and take some time to really sit deeply with the series. I feel so grateful to you for your own dedication and your scholarship, and your devotion to practice and mindfulness, and that you've taken the time to deliver these 46 dharma talks on the Satipatthana Sutra. I think it's a real gift. So thank you so, so, so, so much.
JG: You're very welcome. It certainly was a learning experience for me as well. It was a rich endeavor.
TS: And now I'm just going to ask you one final question. Our program is called "Insights at the Edge," and one of the things I'm always curious about is what people's current edge is, what's sort of the current challenge or evolutionary task you see in your own life that you're currently working with, what that is for you.
JG: There are so many edges! One edge is trying to explore what renunciation means as a layperson. Renunciation is one of the paramis of a buddha, and as a monastic, the whole form is set up for renunciation. As a layperson, it's quite the opposite. And so just to see, OK, what could this mean, and how can I practice it? And where is the edge, where is my edge in that? So that's always an interesting exploration.
And maybe another edge would be learning more and more deeply about the power of relaxation in the service of mindfulness and concentration. The mind of doing and getting is so strongly conditioned, and so just that edge of letting go of that is very fascinating to me.
TS: Wonderful! May you have a very relaxing time in retreat.
JG: Thank you!
TS: I've been speaking with Joseph Goldstein, quite a priviledge, about a new 36-CD series, volume 1, 2, and 3 on Abiding in Mindfulness: Advanced Teaching and Practical Guidance on the Satipatthana Sutra. Joseph has also created, along with his teaching partner Sharon Salzberg, Insight Meditation: A Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate, which is available at Sounds True both as an online course and as a home study course.
Thank you again, Joseph. Thanks everyone for listening. SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.