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True Stories About Sitting Meditation
Four well-known Buddhist meditation teachers — Charlotte Joko Beck, Joseph Goldstein, Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg — talk to DONNA ROCKWELL about their own experiences of self-discovery through sitting meditation.
A decade ago I found myself learning how to meditate. I took to meditation right away, and it transformed my relationship to life. I began to question all sorts of things, including my concept of self. Later, when I enrolled at the Center for Humanistic Studies in Detroit for a graduate degree in humanistic and clinical psychology, I knew the topic I would choose for my thesis: meditation. I read much of the popular dharma literature and felt I came to know many of the authors. Yet I often wondered, what were their meditative journeys like? Had they squirmed in meditation halls like I did when I first began sitting? I decided to investigate by asking four Buddhist meditation teachers, Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck and Insight Meditation Society teachers Joseph Goldstein, Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg my thesis question: “What is the experience of self-discovery through meditation?”—Donna Rockwell
CHARLOTTE JOKO BECK
Donna Rockwell: How old were you when you started meditating?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Thirty-nine, forty, somewhere in there.
Donna Rockwell: Did you have any realization through meditation?
Charlotte Joko Beck: No. Of course we have realizations, but that’s not really what drives practice.
Donna Rockwell: Will you say more about that?
Charlotte Joko Beck: I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, “Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?” Otherwise, they get stuck there. It’s not the important thing in practice.
Donna Rockwell: And may I ask you what is?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.
Donna Rockwell: There seems to be a payoff, though, because you feel alive instead of dead.
Charlotte Joko Beck: I wouldn’t say a payoff. You’re returning to the source, you might say—what you always were, but which was severely covered by your core belief and all its systems. And when those get weaker, you do feel joy. I mean, then it’s no big deal to do the dishes and clean up the house and go to work and things like that.
Donna Rockwell: Doing the dishes is a great meditation—especially if you hate it…
Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, if your mind wanders to other things while you’re doing the dishes, just return it to the dishes. Meditation isn’t something special. It’s not a special way of being. It’s simply being aware of what is going on.
Donna Rockwell: Doesn’t sitting meditation prepare the ground to do that?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Sure. It gives you the strength to face the more complex things in your life. You’re not meeting anything much when you’re sitting except your little mind. That’s relatively easy when compared to some of the complex situations we have to live our way through. Sitting gives you the ability to work with your life.
Donna Rockwell: I read your books.
Charlotte Joko Beck: Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?
Donna Rockwell: Give up reading your books?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, they’re all right. Read them once and that’s enough. Books are useful. But some people read for fifty years, you know. And they haven’t begun their practice.
Donna Rockwell: How would you describe self-discovery?
Charlotte Joko Beck: You’re really just an ongoing set of events: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, one after the other. The awareness is keeping up with those events, seeing your life unfolding as it is, not your ideas of it, not your pictures of it. See what I mean?
Donna Rockwell: How would you define meditation?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Awareness of what is, mentally, physically.
Donna Rockwell: Can you please complete the following sentences for me? “The experience of meditation is…”
Charlotte Joko Beck: “…awareness of what is.”
Donna Rockwell: “Meditative awareness has changed my life in the following way…”
Charlotte Joko Beck: “It has changed my life in the direction of it being more harmonious, more satisfactory, more joyful and more useful probably.” Though I don’t think much in those terms. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m going to be useful. I really think about what I’m going to have for breakfast.”
Donna Rockwell: “The one thing awareness has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”
Charlotte Joko Beck: I don’t want to share anything with all people.
Donna Rockwell: Who do you want to share with?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Nobody. I just live my life. I don’t go around wanting to share something. That’s extra.
Donna Rockwell: Could you talk about that a little bit?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, there’s a little shade of piety that creeps into practice. You know, “I have this wonderful practice, I want to share it with everyone.” There’s an error in that. You could probably figure it out yourself.
Donna Rockwell: I think that’s something I need to learn.
Charlotte Joko Beck: You and I know there’s nothing that’s going to make me run away faster than somebody who comes around and wants to be helpful. You know what I mean? I don’t want people to be helpful to me. I just want to live my own life.
Donna Rockwell: Do you think you share yourself?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Yeah, but who’s that?
Donna Rockwell: When did you start meditating?
Joseph Goldstein: I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand, and I started going to a temple in Bangkok where Western Buddhist monks were leading discussion groups. Finally one of the monks said, "Why don't you try meditating?" I didn't know anything about it, so he just gave me some very simple instructions, like to watch the breath. I tried it, and it was just amazing—not that I was such a good meditator, but the idea that there was a way to look inside in a systematic way was tremendously exciting to me. It was something I'd been looking for without knowing it.
Donna Rockwell: So Buddhist meditation took you a step beyond philosophy to show you...
Joseph Goldstein: To show me a way to observe the workings of the mind, not simply to think about things.
Donna Rockwell: Can you describe for me your early experiences on the cushion?
Joseph Goldstein: I had a hard time doing vipassana meditation in the beginning. I was very enthusiastic about it but my mind wandered all the time. I would sit down and an hour later I would get up having thought the whole hour. But I never had any doubts, even though it was not easy to do. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, so that kept me going.