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Donna Rockwell: How does the experience of meditation progress?
Joseph Goldstein: I think you could describe it in different phases. The first phase is just seeing that there is a technique—even one as simple as coming back to the breath—and practicing doing that. That's the hard work of meditation, coming back again and again and again.
The second phase is when the mind develops some concentration and there is stillness and steadiness and ease. It all flows by itself; there's not that same effort. That's a wonderful opening, because the meditation gets to be very enjoyable and is not a chore anymore. The mind/body feels very light and fluid and the thoughts are no longer predominant. They still come and go, but they don’t have the same power to drag you away.
The third phase is building on that concentration and using it, developing insight into the actual workings of the mind. So it’s not just abiding in the calm, but seeing and observing. You see the unsatisfying nature of arising phenomena, because they just all pass away, very momentarily. And you begin to see what in Buddhism is called the emptiness of self. Those are insights you begin to see with greater and greater clarity.
Donna Rockwell: What does meditation do for you?
Joseph Goldstein: Usually we're imprisoned by the things we identify with. We all have well-established habits of thought, emotion, reaction and judgement, and without the keen awareness of practice, we're just acting out these patterns. When they arise, we're not aware they've arisen. We get lost in them, identify with them, act on them—so much of our life is just acting out patterns.
Bringing awareness to bear on what's arising opens up an incredible space of simply seeing the thoughts come and go. That allows us to make wise choices—which ones to act on, which ones to let go of. When we do that, we get tremendously more creative with our lives.
Donna Rockwell: Can you please complete these following sentences: “The experience of meditation is...”
Joseph Goldstein: “...developing the quality of awareness and the wisdom and compassion that come from it.” That kind of sums it up.
Donna Rockwell: “The one thing meditation has taught me that I want to share with all people is that..."
Joseph Goldstein: “...it's possible to come to a place of peace and happiness in one's life. Peace, happiness and understanding."
Donna Rockwell: "The greatest way in which meditation has changed my life is that..."
Joseph Goldstein: “...I've become more aware of the nature of my mind—how it creates suffering and how it can be free.”
Donna Rockwell: What brought you to the path of meditation?
Sylvia Boorstein: My husband went off to do a retreat and came home and said, “Syl, this is great. You should try it.” I did a two-week retreat and I did not have amazing meditation states. Mainly, I had a headache and my body hurt a lot. But my headache finally went away and I calmed down a little bit.
Two amazing things happened on that retreat. One was that I got tremendously buoyed by the dharma I heard. It was such good news to hear that as challenging as life inevitably is, it is possible to live with a peaceful and benevolent heart. That was one event: I was inspired by dharma, fell in love with it, actually.
Then, at the end of the two weeks when I called home, I found out from my husband that my father had been diagnosed with untreatable cancer. I felt a terrible sadness, but I didn’t fall through the floor like you usually do when you hear news like that. I realized that, one way or another, I was going to have to do the next several years with my father and it would be a practice. And we did do it. We paid attention to it, he and I, not in denial about it. It was difficult a lot, but not extra difficult. Just as difficult as it was.
Even at the time I don’t think I articulated in my mind, “Aha! This is the great potential of practice!” I didn’t think it through that way. It was only years down the road when I thought, “Look what happened.” But after that I began to practice and go on a lot of retreats.
Donna Rockwell: Was there any breakthrough experience in meditation that you can remember?
Sylvia Boorstein: I’ve had periods that were very dramatic with all kinds of energetic events that were not so plain as the experience of “peace.” But the paradigmatic event of my life and of my understanding is the experience of peace, which is at the same time sublime and quite plain.
Donna Rockwell: But it’s not like you wake up one day and everything is lovely for the rest of your life.
Sylvia Boorstein: No. No. No. I still get caught. But I stay caught less—not because I’m such a brilliant person, but because I’m aware sooner of the pain of caught-ness and I just won’t do it.
Donna Rockwell: Isn’t it the running away that creates the suffering?
Sylvia Boorstein: Yes. I think it’s running away or hiding, rather than saying, “This is the truth: I am in pain. Period.” In a certain way it’s easier if you name it and you stay with it.
Donna Rockwell: Stay with it?
Sylvia Boorstein: Well, you don’t duck. My instruction for meditation practice is much the same as my instruction for psychotherapy: “Don’t duck.” Maybe it’s a little cavalier to say, because sometimes you have to duck or you get blown away. But if I say to myself, “This is painful, but it’s O.K.,” and I stay there, then it’s just what it is and then it changes. But when I run away from it or I push it away or pretend that it’s something else, that is the suffering. All those maneuvers that we do to avoid saying, “This is true. This is what’s happening”—the maneuvers themselves are the suffering.
Donna Rockwell: What is the definition of meditation?
Sylvia Boorstein: The practice of mindfulness is the practice of knowing what’s happening in the moment, externally and within oneself. It’s knowing the feeling tone that’s accompanying what’s happening, knowing the state of mind that’s accompanying what’s happening, knowing what the kindest, most compassionate, most wholesome response to the moment would be and making that response.
Donna Rockwell: “Meditation has changed my life in the following way…”
Sylvia Boorstein: It changed me from being afraid of being in a life to celebrating it.
Donna Rockwell: “The one thing meditation has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”
Sylvia Boorstein: “…it is within the possibility of the human being to discover that one’s basic nature is peaceful. That discovery carries with it the end of suffering, a desire to change the world, and the ability to do it.”
Donna Rockwell: How did you start meditating?
Sharon Salzberg: From the first time I heard about Buddhist practice, I had a very strong feeling that if I could learn how to meditate, I could really do something about my state of mind. I had a very strong conviction that the methods of Buddhist meditation could bring me peace of mind and clarity.