Four well-known Buddhist meditation teachers talk about their own experiences of self-discovery through sitting meditation.
By Donna Rockwell
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, the late 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
How old were you when you started meditating?
Charlotte Joko Beck: Thirty-nine, forty, somewhere in there.
Did you have any realization through meditation?
No. Of course we have realizations, but that’s not really what drives practice.
Will you say more about that?
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.
And may I ask you what is?
Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.
There seems to be a payoff, though, because you feel alive instead of dead.
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.
Doing the dishes is a great meditation — especially if you hate it…
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.
Doesn’t sitting meditation prepare the ground to do that?
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.
I read your books.
Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?
Give up reading your books?
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.
How would you describe self-discovery?
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?
How would you define meditation?
Awareness of what is, mentally, physically.
Can you please complete the following sentences for me? “The experience of meditation is…”
“…awareness of what is.”
“Meditative awareness has changed my life in the following way…”
“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.”
“The one thing awareness has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”
I don’t want to share anything with all people.
Who do you want to share with?
Nobody. I just live my life. I don’t go around wanting to share something. That’s extra.
Could you talk about that a little bit?
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.
I think that’s something I need to learn.
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.
Do you think you share yourself?
Yeah, but who’s that?
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.
So Buddhist meditation took you a step beyond philosophy to show you…
To show me a way to observe the workings of the mind, not simply to think about things.
Can you describe for me your early experiences on the cushion?
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.
How does the experience of meditation progress?
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.
What does meditation do for you?
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.
Can you please complete these following sentences: “The experience of meditation is…”
“…developing the quality of awareness and the wisdom and compassion that come from it.” That kind of sums it up.
“The one thing meditation has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”
“…it’s possible to come to a place of peace and happiness in one’s life. Peace, happiness and understanding.”
“The greatest way in which meditation has changed my life is that…”
“…I’ve become more aware of the nature of my mind — how it creates suffering and how it can be free.”
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.
Was there any breakthrough experience in meditation that you can remember?
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.
But it’s not like you wake up one day and everything is lovely for the rest of your life.
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.
Isn’t it the running away that creates the suffering?
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.
Stay with it?
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.
What is the definition of meditation?
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.
“Meditation has changed my life in the following way…”
It changed me from being afraid of being in a life to celebrating it.
“The one thing meditation has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”
“…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.”
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.
You were just a college kid when you started meditating. What happened on the cushion?
It was a struggle. I felt a tremendous amount of physical pain. Emotionally, it was my first real look at myself. I was eighteen-I didn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the workings of my mind. So it was quite tumultuous and at the same time I felt a great sense of homecoming.
Can you describe any moments of breakthrough?
There were lots of things that were exciting and important, though they weren’t always pleasant. I had a lot of physical pain but the teacher I was sitting with asked us not to move, not to change posture in the course of the meditation session. And I always moved. I began to see that I didn’t move when the pain was severe or overwhelming; I moved long before that. I moved with the first moment of discomfort. I moved because at the arising of that first discomfort, I was thinking, “What’s it going to feel like in half an hour? What’s it going to feel like in an hour?” So I was taking the present moment’s worth of discomfort and adding to it this projection of what was yet to come. I felt helpless and overcome, and I moved.
That was important to see because it was my habit that whenever there was any kind of painful experience in my life, I’d imagine how bad it could get, take all that pain on in my mind, and feel defeated by it. Being able to see that habit and relate to painful feelings in a different way was a big change in the quality of my life.
How does sitting meditation short-circuit that sense of defeat?
Basically, it reveals it.
Could you elaborate on your experience of self-discovery through meditation?
As I began to meditate, I saw my mental conditioning much more clearly. And because of that, other possibilities arose. I began to relate to painful experiences in a very different way and discovered capacities within myself that were stronger, more aware and more compassionate than I had imagined. Prior to that, when painful experiences came up, I was busy running from them.
Could you define meditation and self-discovery for me?
Meditation is the practice of concentration and mindfulness leading to insight. Self-discovery is seeing clearly who you are. It’s wisdom. From the meditative point of view, we want to see in a certain way. We want to see with open-mindedness, compassion and so on. So part of the discovery of meditation is not only recognizing the habits we already have but also these other capacities which might be deeper.
“The experience of meditation is…”
“The experience of meditation is one of the most healing things we can do.”
“The one thing that meditation has taught me that I would like to share with all people is that…”
“…we have greater capacities than we can imagine.”
“The most profound way in which meditation has changed my life is…”
“…it has changed my view of who I am.”
Can you say from what to what?
From confusion to clarity.
Donna Rockwell is a psychotherapist and meditation teacher living in Detroit.