Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Joseph Goldstein. Joseph has been leading insight and lovingkindness meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He’s a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Forest Refuge.
With Sounds True, Joseph has published a new book and a new audio program. The book is called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, where he delves deeply into the Satipatthana Sutra. It is also a book in which he shares the wisdom of his four decades of teaching and practice—a book that will serve as a lifelong companion for anyone committed to mindful living and the realization of inner freedom.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Joseph and I spoke about his definition of mindfulness—a definition that goes beyond just being in the present moment. We also talked about the realization of impermanence as it relates to mindfulness—not as a concept, but as a lived experience. Joseph also offered us an overview of the Satipatthana Sutra and its structure and importance. Here’s the first part of my conversation with Joseph Goldstein on the deeper dimensions of mindfulness.
Joseph, to begin with, I’d love to know how you first encountered the practice of mindfulness. Back in the 1960s, when you couldn’t necessarily find mindfulness teachers readily available in the same way that they are today—mindfulness now being introduced in corporate wellness programs and in all kinds of ways—but tell us back in the 1960s when you were in your twenties, I think, and first introduced to the practice of mindfulness.
Joseph Goldstein: I first came into contact with the practice when I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand. I had finished college and ventured to get out and see the world. Initially within the first years of the Peace Corps, they sent me to Thailand. I was teaching English in Bangkok and I started going to some discussion groups led by an Indian monk in English for the Westerners who were living in Bangkok. I had studied philosophy in college, so I had this very inquisitive mind. And in the big discussion groups, I had so many questions that people actually stopped coming because I was there.
There’s always one person like that in the group. Anyway, one of the monks suggested that I try meditating. He gave me a few instructions and also the name of a book by Nyanaponika Thera called The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, which was one of the early books on mindfulness teachings. So I had the instructions and I read the book. It was quite insightful.
I went back to my room and got some paraphernalia together and I sat. I set my alarm clock for five minutes because I didn’t want to sit too long. But something really important happened in that five minutes. I saw that there was a way to look into my mind, just following these various simple instructions. There’s a way to look in as well as a way to look out through it.
I just got very excited. This was a whole new world that was opening up. I was so excited that for a while I was inviting my friends over to watch me meditate.
They didn’t come back too often. But that was the beginning. It was just so exciting for me to come into touch with a methodology for looking at my mind. So that was really the beginning.
TS: As I mentioned, now, here—40, 45, 50 years later—there are so many different ways for people to learn mindfulness. It’s being introduced into the culture in a lot of different ways. I’ve heard different people express concerns. You know, we live in the age of McMindfulness. Like McDonalds, it’s just this speedy delivery and is it really helping people in a deep way or is it just a surface type of mindfulness? I’d be curious to know here at the beginning of our conversation, if you have concerns or it worries you at all about the way mindfulness is being taught and introduced, or if you’re simply pleased with it. What’s your perspective?
JG: I think that it’s helping people—which I gather it is—and that’s why it’s getting so widespread. It’s a good thing. I think there is the tendency, or what will inevitably happen, is that the depth of the practice might not be either understood or taught in those settings. But that’s not a problem for me as long as there is a core group or some number of people who really go into more depth in the practice, and who hold mindfulness or understand mindfulness as the Buddha taught it, as a vehicle for awakening. So as long as that’s preserved, then I think the more general application of it is good. It helps people de-stress and come to a little more ease in their lives. But the purpose of my writing my new book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, was precisely to reclaim the term and be a reminder that its fundamental purpose as the Buddha taught it really was for liberation, for enlightenment.
TS: Do you feel that there are any distortions in the way mindfulness is being presented in the West today that you would want to point out? It’s one thing if it’s just not deep enough, but it’s another thing if it’s actually presented in ways that are considered distortions; that might be concerning.
JG: I don’t really know, because I’m not present for these presentations of it. But, it’s not overly disconcerting. Even in its most basic form, which doesn’t touch the depth and may even not exactly be mindfulness, but it is training peoples’ attention. There’s a difference between attention and mindfulness. Still, it’s a good thing as long as there are people in our culture, in our society, who have a clear understanding of the depth of this meaning and [are] presenting it, whether it’s teaching in book form or retreats. As long as that’s preserved, I don’t think there’s so much harm. That’s my current impression.
JG: We’ll see [in a few] years. Encouraging people to be more attentive in their lives, even in a very simple way, I think is a good thing.
TS: OK, so you’re drawing a distinction between the practice of attention and the definition of mindfulness that you offer in your work. Help our listeners understand that distinction and really how you’re defining the use of the term “mindfulness.”
JG: Well this is diving right into the heart in a way. Somebody once asked me to define “mindfulness” in a few words, and it’s not that easy to do. It’s a bit like asking, “What is art?” or “What is love?” The most common definition, I think, and one that really needs expanding—I think most people would say, in a general way, being mindful means living in the present—being in the present moment. That’s the beginning. That’s like a foundation or the first step. But being in the present by itself is not yet mindfulness. I’d like to give a few examples.
One of my favorites is that of watching black Labs running around. They’re one of my favorite dogs. They’re very playful, very friendly, and very in the present moment. They’re completely in the present, but they don’t seem to be very mindful. They’re literally being led around by the nose. So, mindfulness has to mean something more than being present.
Again, being present is the first step, it’s the foundation, but what else is mindfulness? Unlike a black Lab, we might say that mindfulness is recognizing what is happening in the present moment. It’s kind of meta-awareness—kind of a stepping back and knowing what we're observing or what our experience is. But that recognition is still not quite mindfulness, because we can recognize what’s happening either in the world outside, our own bodies, or our own minds, but the recognizing is through a filter of different attitudes of the mind, some of which may be unwholesome.
For example, we may be recognizing a pain in the body. We notice the pain, so in the present, we recognize what it is, but we may be viewing it or experiencing it with the filter of aversion, of not liking [it] or wanting to get rid of it. In that case, we’re in the present, there’s recognition, but it’s still not mindfulness.
This points to the greater understanding of what this faculty of mind is. If mindfulness means being aware, understanding what the experience is with a mind that’s free of greed, free of attachment, free of aversion or ill-will, free of collusion. This is really the ethical dimension of mindfulness, which I think is sometimes lost in the popular iteration of mindfulness.
You might say, going back to your first question, it’s not so much a danger as a severe limitation if it’s taught without this ethical dimension—mainly that mindfulness is always wholesome. It’s always a skillful state of mind.
TS: And then if you were to put all of that into a definition, do you have a working definition? It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue here.
JG: [Laughs.] It’s all of that. You could say—I’m trying this out on you for the first time. You could say mindfulness is being aware of the present moment experience without greed, without attachment, without aversion, without delusion. So we’re in the present moment with a greater deal of clarity, of understanding.
TS: For your new book on Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, you focus on this one particular sutra, the Satipatthana Sutta. Tell us a little bit about how you encountered that sutra. It seems to me that you sort of fell in love with this text. That’s what I feel from the book. You spend so much detailed attention unpacking every word in it. Tell us a little bit about how you first encountered this text.
JG: I actually first encountered it in that book I mentioned a little earlier on that I read in the Peace Corps. It’s this sutta, the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness, that was the center of that book, which gave me the first instructions in how to practice. From the very beginning, I understood it—and it is generally understood—as the basic methodology the Buddha gave for putting his teachings into practice in terms of the meditative discipline. This is how to do it.
Even in the beginning of the discourse, the Buddha makes a very bold declaration. He says, “This is the direct way for the overcoming of sorrow, of grief, of limitation—a direct path to awakening.” So the Buddha himself is saying this course is at the center of putting these teachings into practice.
Over the years, as I studied with different teachers, all of them referenced this text. It is the source for all of the many methods of insight meditation or Vipassana meditation. They all draw from this particular discourse.
In recent years, I also read a book by a German, Bhikkhu Analayo, who wrote his PhD thesis in Sri Lanka on this discourse, the Satipatthana Sutta. There’s a wonderful book that he wrote called Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. And in reading that—and this was just a few years ago—I was inspired by the level of detail that he brought to the analysis of the discourse. That inspired me to begin giving talks at our Forest Refuge retreat center on the sutta. Initially, I just thought I’d be giving four or five or six talks on it, but as I went through it line by line and appreciated the wealth of dharma in these few pages of texts, it ended up being 47 talks, hour-long talks. It unfolded as I went into it and explored it in that level of detail.
TS: Now you defined the sutra when you talked about it as “the four ways of establishing mindfulness.” Often when people refer to the Satipatthana Sutta, they call it the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In the beginning of your book, you make the distinction that there’s this shift in language by thinking about it as the four ways of establishing mindfulness. That this is an important, subtle distinction to make, versus the four foundations of mindfulness. Can you help us understand why this slight shift in translation is important?
JG: Well, let me say this from a scholarly point of view, [though] I am not a scholar. But in reading about it in the translations, both of those translations are valid. I think either one could be used. The case could be made for translating the Satipatthana either as the four foundations or the four ways of establishing mindfulness.
I appreciated the latter because it seemed to make it a little more vital and vibrant and not quite so static—not so [much] emphasizing the object of meditation, but actually the understanding that these are the four fields—in fact, the Pali word is “pastures.” These are the four pastures in which we can learn to establish awareness of mindfulness. There’s a little more emphasis, for me, to the practice side, the active side, rather than simply seeing it as “OK, this is the object of meditation.”
It felt a little more alive to me, translating it as the four ways of establishing mindfulness. But as I said, I think either one is correct. It’s just a slight difference in translation.
TS: Joseph, how is it that you feel a sense of confidence that this is really a teaching that comes directly from the Buddha? Maybe it’s a little taboo to ask that, but I always wonder when someone says, “These were some of the first teachings of the Buddha, the words of the Buddha.” I just think, “Really? Maybe.”
JG: [Laughs.] Well, of course, one doesn’t really know. But as far as we can tell and as far as Buddha scholars who are investigating this question can tell, it’s a fairly common understanding that the texts in the Pali language that have been preserved are among the earliest teachings of the Buddha.
Originally the teachings were preserved in an oral tradition. Then—I forget the date exactly—but at some point some hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death, they were first written down, I believe, in Sri Lanka. So as far as we know and as far as the scholarly inquiry suggests, these texts really do go back to the earliest times.
Sometimes people raise the question, “Well, if for hundreds of years it was just an oral tradition, might not a lot have been changed or altered or gotten lost?” Again, from people who are really experts in this field is a greater appreciation of the accuracy of the oral tradition in those times, because whole groups of monks and perhaps nuns as well, recited and committed to memory certain parts of the text.
So there was group reinforcement of the teachings and the on-going corrections of mistakes. I’ve heard some people say that actually there’s more liability to error in written form than in the oral tradition, which struck me as quite interesting. They’re saying that once something is written down and if it’s an error, then the error just gets passed on.
So, again, this is not my field of expertise, but it’s my understanding that as far as we know, these teachings do go back to the earliest times.
TS: OK, so can you give us an overview of the Satipatthana Sutta for someone who’s brand new to them? Give us an introduction to what’s covered.
JG: OK, but before I do this, [I have] one other comment to your last question. When you [asked] what gives me confidence that these are the teachings of the Buddha, I gave a long, perhaps rambling answer. The more succinct answer is that they work. Having put them into practice and then seeing for myself, as many people have done over the centuries, as we practice in this way, they bring the desired results. So that’s the best affirmation. The very pragmatic one. They really do help to free the mind. That’s an overview.
JG: Basically, the Buddha said in his discourse that there are these four fields, four pastures, four ways of establishing mindfulness and [the first is] being mindful of the body. Then he lists quite a few different specific techniques, you could say, or methods for investigating the body.
Then he says the second field of awareness is mindfulness of feeling. Now this is an interesting area to explore, because “feeling” means something quite specific in the Buddha’s teachings, which is a bit different than how we use the term in English. In the Buddha’s teachings, “feeling” is the translation of a Pali word, vedanā, which means “the experience of an object being either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.” So it’s that quality in the mind or in the heart that you could say tastes the pleasantness or unpleasantness or neutrality of each moment’s experience.This is given such importance in the discourse and it’s something we learn about a lot in our meditation practice. These feelings—we say “feeling tongues,” perhaps that’s a more specific translation— are so important because it’s these feelings, these vedanā that, when we’re not mindful of them, condition desire in the mind, aversion, and delusion. Just a very common sense.
For example, when we experience something as being pleasant, generally, conventionally in our ordinary lives, we like it. We want more of it. We like to hold onto the pleasantness. And if something is unpleasant or painful, we try to avoid it or push it away. When something is neutral, we often tend to space out, not pay attention.
So, by not being mindful of these feelings, unknowingly we’re often strengthening these unwholesome states of mind—of greed, clinging, ill-will, irritation, annoyance, or the dullness of mind. This is the second field of mindfulness. This becomes very liberating, as we become more mindful of these feelings.
The third foundation of mindfulness, the Buddha called “mindfulness of mind.” That is again very interesting. It turns our attention—turns the mindfulness back onto the mind itself, to notice whether the mind is filled with greed, aversion, and delusion, or not, and be simply mindful of it. So there’s not a reactive judgment to it; it’s simply us turning the awareness, becoming aware, waking up to what is actually going on in our mind.
Mindfulness of the mind is also noticing whether the mind is distracted or restless or contracted in dullness. This is the third field of mindfulness [where] we begin to observe the quality of our mind.
The last or the fourth field of establishing mindfulness is very broad. It’s the largest section of the discourse and it’s very hard to translate into English. It’s called “mindfulness of dharmas.” Dharma is a Sanskrit word that has many meanings depending on the context. It could mean truth; it could mean natural law, natural law; it could mean specific teachings of the Buddha. Mindfulness of dharma I think is best translated as mindfulness of categories of experience. For example, included in this is being mindful when the hindrances are present—of desire or a variant of sloth, restlessness, doubt. It’s being mindful of the factors of awakening when they’re present. Mindful of the six senses. Mindfulness of the five aggregates. These are all conceptual frameworks that the Buddha used to highlight different aspects of our experience.
This section of the sutta concludes with mindfulness of the Four Noble Truths, which is at the very heart of his teaching—the truth of the unsatisfying nature of suffering, the cause of his suffering, the end, and the path to liberation.
In going through this—and that’s a lengthy explanation—you can see just how rich the sutta is. It just includes—in some way I think it includes the totality of the Buddha’s teaching. There’s so much to explore and so many ways to explore it. So that’s kind of a reasonable overview of a very rich—there’s just a wealth of dharma in these few pages.
TS: Joseph, I want to make sure I understand something. In your opening attempt at a working definition of “mindfulness,” you introduced this idea that there’s an ethical dimension. That when we’re mindful, we would be free in those moments of greed, aversion, and delusion, if I understood you correctly.
What happens when we’re feeling something? Let’s say I totally hate something or other that’s happening in my experience. Can’t I be mindful of how much I hate this thing? Aren’t I being mindful?
JG: [Laughs.] Well, it’s really interesting and this would be a good experiment for you or other listeners to explore. Suppose there’s hate or anger in the mind, whatever what we call the unwholesome state may be. In the moment that we’re actually being mindful of the hate, being mindful of the anger, in that moment of mindfulness, we are actually not hating and not angry. In that moment, we’re not identified with that state, so you could say it’s settling back or resting back in the awareness of it rather than being in it. So it’s a very different experience.
For a practical way of exploring this, one of the techniques for strengthening mindfulness—and this is is one tool of a particular tradition of meditation, but it has proved very effective for many people. That is to make a soft mental note of whatever the object is. For example, if there’s anger or there’s hate, one might note “anger, anger,” “hate, hate,” “desire,” whatever it may be. It’s interesting to turn the attention to the noting mind and to see that in that moment of noting or noticing in a mindful way, the mind is not caught up in that particular unwholesome state. Of course, we have to check this out in our own experience, but this is what makes mindfulness so freeing.
TS: One of the things that’s really interesting to me—and there’s so much here—but when I hear you talk about something like anger—and it’s clear to me from my experience how anger can often obscure what’s going on in a situation and how it can also be so harmful when expressed unskillfully. But I also have really discovered something that I might call “healthy anger”—a healthy experience of drawing a boundary in a situation, that kind of thing.
I’m curious, in this teaching, what about something like healthy anger? How does that fit in? Does it?
JG: Well, it’s interesting. You could say that the positive side of the energy of anger is discerning wisdom. Usually, anger arises when we’re seeing something—hopefully clearly, [but] sometimes we’re misperceiving—but very often we’re seeing something clearly that may be harmful in one way or another. Out of that discernment, our first response may be anger.
The skillful understanding, I think, would be to take the message that the anger is bringing to us. A boundary needs to be set. There’s injustice here. We take the message of the anger and act on the message without getting caught up or lost in the negativity of the emotion. Anger is a burden.
I’ll give you a practical example of how I saw this work. Years ago I taught retreats almost every year for about ten years to environmental activists who were really in the front line of environmental work. It was very interesting. Many of them came to retreats and what came up a lot was that for many people, the motivation for their work was anger at the harm being done. But it was also clear that the anger was not a sustaining motivation. That’s why so many people who are doing that work and are caught up in anger as the response get burned out. Because it can’t be sustained. It’s ultimately harmful to oneself.
The challenge is to really see what’s the aim, what’s the message of the anger. The message is, some harm is being done. I want to change it in some way. I want to take action. But can we transform the motivation, for example, from anger to compassion? Can compassion be the motivation for taking action—compassion for the suffering that those harmful actions are causing? Compassion is a much more sustainable and ennobling quality of the heart.
This is just an example of how, yes, there is an element of anger which is helping us see something clearly, but it’s not a skillful energy with which to motivate the action.
I’ll give you another example. Suppose we’re the recipient of angry energy. Even if perhaps we’ve done something that was harmful in a certain way and somebody gets angry at us. How do we typically respond to the energy of anger coming at us? I think very often, we may experience it as being hurtful and we get defensive in trying to protect ourselves, because it’s a kind of violence coming at us. We might get defensive, set up some kind of protection, and maybe even get angry back.
It’s not a very fertile field for communication. It would be much more skillful if whatever the person had to say to us was said in a way that we could more easily hear. On a very pragmatic level, anger may catch our attention right away, but it’s not a skillful field for accomplishing our aim. And it’s damaging to ourselves.
Again, we can definitely take what the messages are, because very often strong action does need to be taken. But we can do it really with a compassionate heart.
TS: Joseph, I thought one of the things that might be an interesting way for us to structure our conversation would be to take one teaching from each of the Four Pastures, four fields that are focused on in this text and find one teaching within each that we could highlight as a way of introduction to our listeners, knowing that the actual full book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, covers so much more in each section.
I thought we could start with the body. I’d love to have you talk us through the section of the text that talks about how we can be mindful of a corpse in decay as part of our way of practicing mindfulness of the body.
JG: [Laughs.] Of all the many sections.
TS: That was section that drew me.
JG: In ancient India, and even to some extent today, it was a lot easier to do this. In my time in India, one could go to the [unintelligible] and go see the death and the burning of the corpses. Death is more out in the open in that culture. Here it’s a little harder to see.
Just a few suggestions—people may have to be creative in how to apply this. One group of our teacher trainees—out on the West coast, there’s an arrangement—this is not in fact a corpse in decay, but it’s a kind of decay—went to a hospital and observed an autopsy. So they really were seeing the face of death and the nature of the body as it was opened up. They could see all of the organs and what was the beginning of decay. That was a very powerful experience for the people who did that. It’s not always so easy to arrange. We don’t often have the opportunity. But for people interested, they might explore that.
A common way—which probably wouldn’t be so available in the city, but living in the country, it’s readily available—would be to see the decaying corpses of animals killed on the road. Often it might be a squirrel, a rabbit, or some animal that was killed by a car. It’s very interesting to watch one’s reaction—or for me to watch my own reaction—because it’s very unpleasant. It takes an act of will to actually stop and see and look at this corpse of an animal which has been killed and often mangled and squashed and not pleasant. But it does reveal in a very immediate way just the nature of this body. This is what the body is subject to—the essential vulnerability of it—the extreme vulnerability of death.
I use that as a modern day possibility for applying this contemplation. I think in the time of the Buddha it was probably much more accessible.
TS: Can you help people have a bit of a context? Why would contemplating whether it’s “roadkill,” as it’s normally called, or a corpse in decay—help us understand what kinds of insights could come from that.
JG: What the point is. [Laughs.]
JG: Why would one want to do this? That’s a fair question. One of the things that we see both in meditation and also just in life if we’re at all self-reflective, we begin to see very clearly the strong identification most of us have with the body. We take the physical body to be Self, to be [who we are]. And we get very attached to our own body. We get attached to the bodies of others. We’re often not seeing or not looking deeply into the nature of this body and what is it that we call “the body.”
One of the things from the autopsy or we could just know from books [is that] if we could see the internal organs of the body, the circulatory system, and the skeletal system, if we could see on that level, there probably wouldn’t be as much attachment to it. We wouldn’t say, “I’m the liver.” Or “I’m the gallbladder.”
But when you wrap it up all nicely in skin—it’s like we create a nice little package that’s wrapped up nicely in skin—and we don’t really see or reflect on what’s contained within it, maybe it’s very easy to become identified with it and attached to it. And the more attachment we have to it, the more we suffer as it does decay, as it inevitably will. [Indecipherable.] As the corpse decays.
So, it’s just a way of helping us see the nature of the body—the impersonal, vulnerable nature of it. Then, we can actually live in bodies with much less attachment, with much less clinging. It’s not that we push it away. We can really honor the body and take care of it—and we need to take care of it—but also at the same time understand its essential nature so we don’t get caught up in attachment and clinging, which can only—can only—lead to suffering. The body will get older and it will decay and we will die. These things are not a mistake. This is just nature at work. So it helps us to really get in tune with nature.
TS: Now I do want to go through these four different areas of establishing mindfulness. But before we move on, I think it might be helpful to introduce what you refer to as “the refrain” in the Satipatthana Sutta that there’s a section that occurs thirteen times in the sutta. It made me think that it’s like the chorus in a song, if you will. Do you think it’s fair to call it the chorus?
JG: Yes. The Greek call it “the poly-chorus.”
TS: So, in this chorus which we would hear after something like the teaching on contemplating a corpse, there are these different calls to contemplate. I thought it might be helpful for you to really unpack this for our listeners.
The first one is to contemplate our experience internally, externally, and also both internally and externally. Can you explain that—how we’re mindful?
JG: Yes, but before I do, I feel obliged to point out that in the section “Mindfulness in the Body,” there are much more accessible ways of being mindful, like being mindful of the grass and its sensations, our movements, and our daily activities. I wouldn’t want people to be put off by this notion that somehow the contemplation of the decaying corpse is the heart of it.
TS: Fair enough. You’re portraying my eccentricity here. Thank you, Joseph. Please be true.
JG: In fact, it’s not one that we emphasize very much, precisely because it’s not that easily accessible these days and more of the contemplation has to do with the everyday aspects of our physical experience.
So, internally, externally, and both really is exactly just the literal meaning of it. That we contemplate all of these aspects within ourselves, within our own bodies, whatever is the decaying aspect or something as simple as the breath, or different sensations that we feel or walking. There’s different postures along with the contemplations of the body, so we’re mindful as we’re walking, as we’re standing, or as we’re sitting. We’re mindful of our own daily activities and also mindful of all of these things as other people are doing them.
So, we see somebody walking and we’re mindful that they’re walking, how they’re walking. It’s quite interesting, the effect that this mindfulness externally has on our own minds. I had two interesting experiences of this and they’re both really different aspects of the same thing.
One was in being part of a Japanese tea ceremony. The other was watching the performance of a particular Japanese classical dance. In both situations, the people performing the actions and the discipline of those particular activities involved such a degree of mindful precision. Every movement was done with tremendous care and grace. Simply being aware of other people being that mindful created a very strong mindfulness and concentration in myself. That’s just an example of how being mindful externally can affect us.
If we’re not mindful externally, on the other side, and we’re around very agitated people, if we are mindful externally, then we’re aware that this person is just agitated. If we’re not mindful in that way, then their agitation often becomes contagious. When we’re around very agitated people, we may find ourselves getting agitated. So the mindfulness externally really is a great protection. It allows us to stay at ease with whatever the circumstances are externally. Then it’s just being mindful of both. So, at times we turn our attention towards ourselves, sometimes others, and to both.
TS: What I thought was so interesting about this is that often when I hear people talk about mindfulness, it seems like they’re talking about some attention they’re paying to their own internal experience. I don’t often hear people talking about being mindful of what’s happening with other people or in the room or what might be happening more broadly. This external component isn’t something that I normally hear pointed out in teachings on mindfulness.
JG: Well, it very often isn’t, and that’s why I wanted to highlight in the book this particular aspect, because I think, generally speaking, it’s not taught that often. The emphasis is on mindfulness internally, which of course is the foundation. Our internal experience is very accessible to us. There could be the liability if we try to be mindful externally before we’ve really established a certain strength of mindfulness that we might tend to more distraction. We might more easily get lost. But in the end, as it says in the discourse, we really want to be mindful of both. It just provides a wealth of both opportunity to be mindful of the world around us and a way of staying in balance as we experience the external world.
TS: The second part of the refrain here that you underscore is the idea that we contemplate the nature of impermanence, not as a concept, but as a known experience. I wonder if you could talk about the deep appreciate of impermanence as part of the practice of mindfulness.
JG: Really, this is one of the very essential pieces. Because what’s the point of being mindful? The point is, can we learn something from what we’re mindful of? What we learn is the wisdom aspect. As we pay attention to every aspect of our experience, we can’t help but see—and this is another line from many discourses of the Buddha wherein he says, “Whatever has the nature to arise will also pass away.”
That’s a very profound teaching. In fact, very often people would hear that one line and get enlightened. Because if we could really, deeply realize that everything that has the nature to arise will also pass away, if we could see that deeply, then we wouldn’t be clinging; we wouldn’t be attached. We could know in such a profound way that things have a nature to arise and pass away. This is not a mistake. This is just how things are in nature.
There’s a story [from] Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. There was one student who had listened to his lectures for years. It is said that this student came up to him one day and said, “I’ve been listening to your lectures for so long and I still don’t understand them. Can you put the Buddhist teachings in a nutshell?” And Suzuki Roshi thought for a moment and he said, “Everything changes.”That’s expressive of the same teaching. It’s of core importance. Because when we see that every single element of the body, of the mind, of our emotions, of thoughts, of our senses of the world, on every level from the subatomic particle level to clusters of galaxies—on every level of experience—things are in a state of constant flux and change.
What’s surprising about this and why it’s emphasized so much in both the discourse Satipatthana and in our teaching, is that although we all know this conceptually—this is not an esoteric teaching—everything changes; everything arises and passes away. We can go up to anybody on the street and ask them if things change and everybody would say yes. But somehow we are not often perceiving it directly.
So, we know it conceptually, but we’re so caught up in the story of our lives that we’re not paying attention in the moment to experience, to the realization of things arising and passing away. That’s what our meditation practice really highlights. It’s only the direct experience of it which has transformative value. It really de-conditions grasping of the mind. That’s why it’s given such importance in this refrain, in this chorus after each section.
TS: Joseph, how do you think you can help people bridge that gap between saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything changes. I get it. Of course I know that. Come on. Move on. Tell me something interesting.” How do we bridge that gap so that it becomes this, as you say, lived realization?
JG: It’s really very simple, because it’s not a hidden truth. It’s remembering to pay attention to that aspect. A lot of us might, to start with, just take a few very simple experiences as a way into the realization of this. For example, we might practice remembering to be mindful, for a period of time, of all sounds that are arising. We’re hearing things all day long. Well, sounds are arising and passing away.
Even the sound, for example, on retreats, because we’re often ringing bells to end the sittings or begin some activity. Even within the sound of one striking of the bell, if we’re really paying careful attention, we see even within that minute or two that [as] the sound reverberates, there’s constant change within that sound itself. We begin to hear the nuances, the vibrations.
Or we might see the arising and passing away, the changing nature right with each breath. There’s an in-breath. It begins and it ends. Then there’s an out-breath. And it begins and it ends. Even within an in-breath, there are many changing sensations.
Or within a step, with any movement that we make, or the change of postures—all of the very ordinary activities of our lives reveal or show us this truth of change. It’s really not hard to do. It’s just remembering to do it and to extricate ourselves from the momentum of our lives where we kind of settle back for a moment and actually observe the nature of our experience.
TS: So Joseph, before we leave the refrain here, this part of the text that occurs 13 times, is there anything else besides contemplating our experience internally, externally, and both, and this contemplation on the nature of impermanence that you think is important to emphasize that’s brought forward in the refrain?
JG: There are just a couple of things. One is [that] there is a line in the refrain that I found particularly helpful. It was actually quite transformative for my practice. It’s a line that I had read many times but had not really reflected on deeply. I hadn’t put it into actual practice until a retreat that I did a couple of years ago. Suddenly, that line jumped out at me. It says, “Be mindful. ‘There is a body,’ to the extent necessary for clear mindfulness, for clear knowing, and continuous mindfulness.”
Just within that one sentence, there are some very interesting aspects. First, the mindful quote, “There is a body.” The fact that that phrase is in quotes suggests that we can use it almost as a mental note or a mental reminder either in sitting, walking, or moving about. This is how I put it into practice. I started saying, in walking meditation, just reminding myself that there is a body. There is a body. It helped me to settle back into a general felt sense of the body walking.
Then, “to the extent necessary for clear knowing.” Usually in our practice, or very often, we’re over-efforting. We think mindfulness takes this huge exertion. The Buddha is saying in this line, “Be mindful. ‘There is a body,’ to the extent necessary for clear knowing.” What I discovered was: it didn’t take much effort at all. It was so simple and so relaxed. I would be walking [and thinking,] “There is a body. There is a body,” and using that as a reminder to settle into the felt sense of the body as it walked.
It helped me realize more of the effortless quality of awareness once we remember to be aware. That was really helpful. “Be mindful. ‘There is a body,’ to the extent necessary for clear knowing.” Just the very simple awareness of what’s happening, and “in continuous mindfulness,” which suggests the exhortation that we don’t do this just for a moment or two, but we practice to remember as continuously as we can. That’s one aspect of the teaching which proved to be very helpful.
Another phrase from the refrain: “Living free from desire and discontent, not clinging to anything in the world.” That being with experience free from desire and discontent really means free from clinging or attachment and aversion. The underlying meaning of it—is that it suggests a mind that is concentrated. It’s when these hindrances are not present that the mind settles into a natural concentration. And out of that concentrated, calm state, we can live in the world not clinging to anything. And of course, in that, we experience a great ease.
TS: You said this phrase, “continuous mindfulness.” I think often people think, “I’m mindful during this 20-minute period and now I’m going to be particularly mindful with this difficult person or this experience. But continuous mindfulness?”
JG: Yes, that’s why people come on retreats—to actually get a taste of the possibility. I wouldn’t say that—continuous mindfulness really is mindfulness brought to perfection and we’re all on the path, so we’re all—we may be somewhat short of absolute continuity, but one of the things that develops both in our daily practice and also when people do come on meditation retreats, the instruction and the practice is to be mindful throughout the day, from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep.
One of the things that’s very striking is that it’s not hard to be mindful. It’s hard to remember to be mindful. So, really we are practicing remembering. It is also interesting that one of the meanings of the Pali word sati, which is in Satipatthana, and is usually translated as “mindfulness.” But the literal meaning of “sati” is “to remember.” That’s really a very important part of it. We’re practicing remembering to be aware.
TS: I’m talking with Joseph Goldstein and this is the first half of our conversation about a new book that he’s published called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. It’s a 460-page book in which he takes the Satipatthana Sutta and unpacks it in quite a bit of detail and, I will say, depth. It’s fabulous.
Joseph, you mentioned in the beginning of this first part of our conversation how important it is for there to be practitioners who are keeping the depth of the tradition alive and I really feel that in you and I’m grateful to you for your deep work and practice. Joseph Goldstein’s book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, and an audio program, Mindfulness: Six Guided Practices for Awakening.
Joseph has also made available through Sounds True the complete 47-session, 38-hour audio series called Abiding in Mindfulness in three volumes in which he teaches on this sutta in quite a bit of detail.
We’ll be back with part two of our conversation with Joseph Goldstein on the next episode of Insights at the Edge.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.