Joseph Goldstein on insight, happiness, and the power of saying ‘It’s OK’

By Joseph Goldstein, Jan 04 2020

Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Joseph Goldstein, author of The Experience of Insight, One Dharma, and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.

What is mindfulness?

Robert Wright: You're … a very well known teacher, thinker and writer about Buddhism and, I would say, a significant figure in the history of American Buddhism. When you founded the Insight Meditation Society in the early '70s along with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, you played an important role in bringing a particular kind of Buddhist meditative practice into America, what's called Vipassana, and we'll get into that. [Your most recent book] is called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Now, “mindfulness” and “awakening” are both very important words in Buddhism, of course, and I want to talk about both of them. 

Mindfulness has recently infiltrated non-Buddhist circles. You hear it in a lot of places, I've heard Evangelical pastors talk about mindfulness, and there's a lot of purely what you might call secular discussion of it. For starters, is it easy to tell us what the word means?

Joseph Goldstein: Well, it has a nuanced meaning. It's a bit like asking “What is art?” or “What is love?”

I'm hoping you'll cover those as well before we get through, but let's start with mindfulness.

Yeah, we’ll get it all in.

Let me just give you a few dimensions of what mindfulness means and also what it doesn't mean. Very often people [describe] mindfulness [as] living in the present moment: when you're mindful, you're in the moment. But that, although necessary, is really not sufficient to describe what mindfulness is. Because there's a kind of mind that I call Black Lab Consciousness—most people are familiar with black labs…

I have dogs.

Very playful dogs, a joy to watch. When we're watching them, they're very much in the present moment. They're right there with what they're doing, but they don't look very mindful. Mindfulness has to mean something more than simply being in the present moment. But that's the starting place, we connect with what's happening. 

In addition to that, there needs to be a kind of observing power of the mind so [that] we know what the present moment is, it’s kind of meta to the moment. When we're seeing, or smelling, or thinking, or feeling, we actually are aware that these things are happening. That's a further dimension of mindfulness. There's one more dimension that's critical that's often left out in the popular discussion of mindfulness, and it actually ties into the meaning of awakening, and that is the ethical dimension of mindfulness … We can be observing something, we're in the moment, but the question is: What's the filter in the mind through which we're observing it? Is it greed? Is it aversion? Is it love? It is compassion? When mindfulness is present, the mind is always wholesome. If we're in the present and we're observing but it's through the filter of greed, or ill will, then, even though we're observing it, that's not being mindful. This ethical dimension is a really important aspect.

And you often hear “mindfulness” in conjunction with the word “meditation”, to designate a type of meditation, and that's really a lot of what your book is about. And I should say, your book is based on a famous discourse of the Buddha,  Satipatthana Sutta (or Sutra, depending on which ancient language you speak), which is often translated as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is considered a fundamental text for mindfulness generally, but mindfulness meditation in particular, and your book is an exposition of that discourse and an analysis of it. As it applies to meditation, is it particularly associated with Vipassana?

Yes. “Vipassana” comes from the Pali language, the ancient language that the Buddha supposedly taught in. The literal meaning of Vipassana is “to see things clearly.” And so, there are many techniques of Vipassana, which cultivate this ability to see things clearly. The basis for all of them is mindfulness. It's this quality of mind that is in the present, that's observing what's happening, without the filter of greed, or hatred, or delusion. And the Satipatthana Sutta, that discourse on the foundation of mindfulness outlines many different techniques or methods for cultivating mindfulness. It's a very rich, very rich discourses, [there are] many aspects to it. It’s the basis of all the traditions of Insight Meditation or Vipassana.

What is awakening?

We will get to meditation very shortly. First I promised to interrogate you a little further about the word in your subtitle, “awakening”, which is a very important word in Buddhism, of course. You're calling this A Practical Guide to Awakening. What do you mean by awakening in this context?

There's a whole spectrum of awakening, starting with the difference between being lost in our thoughts … and awakening to the fact that we're thinking. That's a very simple, right-in-the-moment kind of awakening. On the other end of the spectrum, “awakening” really means “enlightenment.” In the Buddhist context, the most pragmatic description of enlightenment is that mind which is free of greed, free of hatred, free of ignorance. Those forces have been uprooted from the mind, and that's the goal, really, of mindfulness practice.

That's one end of the spectrum, that's like touchdown. And is that essentially synonymous with nirvana? Have you obtained nirvana if you've reached true enlightenment?

Yes. The Buddha, in some of the texts, describes nirvana as the uprooting of greed, and hatred, and ignorance. But it's no easy task. But—there is a path to it.

Right, and in fact, just to give a sense of its ambition, isn't it the case that you could translate “greed” and “hatred” more broadly than those two words suggest? We're not just talking about “Don't be greedy” in the sense of money, and we're not just talking about “Don't hate individual people.”


The original Pali words could be translated as broadly as “attraction” and “aversion”, right?

Yeah, I think that's right. The words cover a wide spectrum of mind states. So, “greed” really refers to, as you say, attraction, or clinging, or a kind of addictive wanting; and hatred is aversion, is ill will, is fear, is irritation, is annoyance. It doesn't have to be the full blown experience of hatred. It can be all the minor feelings of aversion or ill will that we might feel just in the course of the day.

Right. But if you truly are enlightened in the extreme sense of the term…

These would not arise.

These things would not arise. Hard to imagine life without them. People who say they've attained this state say it's a very nice place to be. And the Buddha himself emphasized that there's a version of happiness you wind up with, that he would rate more highly than any other happiness. It's not like you're devoid of feeling.

Exactly. The Buddha talked about seven different kinds of happiness, so we could really see the whole path as developing deeper and deeper feelings of happiness all along the way, because we're letting go or weakening the forces in our mind which cause us to suffer, and cause other people to suffer.

So, even if you never achieve full enlightenment, which I think it's safe to say about me, there's a whole spectrum of outcomes…

Yes, positive, all along the way.

...many of which would be better than your life is now—you would hold that view, at least, about the average person’s life, right?


Feelings and emotions

I want to jump to something at the outset because I think people may be able to latch on to this. One of the foundations of mindfulness involves being mindful of feelings. That doesn't necessarily mean to cover all the emotions--“feelings” is defined in a way more narrowly. But the emotions are covered in another of the foundations of mindfulness...  Can you try to give us some sense of... Take emotions like guilt, anxiety, remorse, hatred. When you're immersed in mindfulness meditation, what is the difference in the way you would relate to those feelings compared to the way I might go about it in my ordinary life when I'm in the grips of those feelings?

First, just to emphasize the distinction you made in the beginning of the Buddhist use of the word “feeling.” It refers to something a little different than the emotions which you're just describing. “Feeling” in the particular Buddhist sense refers to the quality in experience of it being pleasant, or unpleasant, or neutral—so it is a more narrowly defined definition of the word “feeling.” 

But now we'll be talking more about what we might more commonly call the emotion.

And you might say that emotions are elaborated forms of feelings, or at least the feelings are at their root—in the sense that anxiety is a kind of negative feeling, and lust is—well, maybe you wouldn't say this, I don't know—but I would say that lust is a kind of positive feeling, right?

I think you’re just confusing two different meanings. This first meaning of feeling is simply how we taste, so to speak, each experience, whether it's an emotion, or a physical sensation, or a sight, or a sound. We taste them in the moment, we feel them as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. And then there is the object experience, and that could be the emotion itself. It could be lust, it could be anger, it could be joy. Each one of them will feel as being pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. The key element of that is that pleasantness, when we're not mindful of it, generally conditions grasping. We like it, we want it to continue. The unpleasant feeling conditions aversion. We don't like it, we want to get rid of something unpleasant. The Buddha gives so much importance to this so that we can become mindful of things being pleasant, of being unpleasant without that reactivity. And that's what brings a great peace of mind, a great ease of mind. 

Working with fear

Can you try to describe to people who haven't done maybe any meditating, how different the experience can be of relating to, say, fear, or sadness, or guilt, or whatever?

Yes, this is a very big part of meditation practice. I'll just give you an example from my own practice for many years, and this goes back quite a way now. I spent many years really working with the emotion of fear. That was the primal, we could say, negative emotion that was arising.

It was your big issue.

Right. Exactly. My big issue. The fear was coming up, and it wasn't particularly related to any specific situation, it was more just some primal conditioning that was arising in the meditation. I could feel it. And fear is quite unpleasant, we don't like it. A few different things happened. At first, I would be totally lost in some story I was making up about the fear, about myself. I would be thinking, "Oh, I'm such a fearful person. This is going to take years to unwind.” I was building a whole superstructure of self on top of the fear. It took a while for me to actually see that I was doing that. Then there was a process of really recognizing and investigating the nature of fear. I would be feeling these sensations in the body, and certain different qualities in the mind, and would be as if I were saying, "Oh, fear is like this." I was bringing that mindful investigation to the experience rather than getting lost in the story about it. But then, even then, I still felt caught by it. I was still quite lost in it. And it took me quite a while to realize that, even though I thought I was being mindful and I thought I was investigating, it was all with an attitude or a wish for it to go away. I was actually observing it with aversion, even though I thought I was being mindful. And that points out a really critical difference between recognition and mindfulness. We can recognize something and still be wanting it to go away. That's not yet mindfulness.

And it doesn't liberate you from it.

Exactly. Just the opposite, if fact, it further binds us to it. The more we resist something, the more it feeds it. And so the real turning point, and this took some time, was when I could be with the fear and investigate it. And the moment of acceptance came when I realized: “This fear can be here for the rest of my life. It's okay.” And so, “It's okay” became my mantra of acceptance, and it was amazing. As soon as my mind actually relaxed into that level of acceptance, that whole mass of fear washed through. It was amazing.

Did it disappear immediately, or were you observing it, and yet observing it just in a purely objective way?

In that moment, it actually released. It actually disappeared. It doesn't mean that fear never rose again. But from understanding that relationship of acceptance to it, then, as it arose again, I was able to be with it and observe it in a much more relaxed way. And I would remind myself, "It's okay. It's okay to feel this." And that's what gives the ease. That's what gives the spaciousness.

And when you say “being with it” and “observing it,” that's the opposite of what our instinct is, right? Fear is something we want to get away from, and you're saying that in meditation you would focus on it.

Exactly. This goes against our conditioning because fear—like many other experiences, whether it's pain in the body or other painful emotions—we do want to get away from. And so this is really the practice of mindfulness, of changing that conditioning so that instead of running away, we relax. Relaxation is an important part of meditation, relaxing and opening into the emotion or whatever the experience is—and in that we stop being afraid of the fear, or afraid of whatever the other emotion might be. There's a tremendous vibrancy there.

Craving and aversion

This whole discussion of aversion leads to a question I have. The Four Noble Truths are thought of as the fundamental exposition of Buddhism. The second of them identifies the cause of suffering as fundamentally craving or thirst, trying to hang on to things that are not permanent, trying to hang on to pleasure that is going to evaporate, and so on. And it's put strictly, in the Four Noble Truths per se, in terms of this grasping attraction, this thirst, this craving. And yet it seems to me that aversion, the opposite, is as much of a problem—and elsewhere in Buddhist scripture is emphasized as much. It's often put on par with attraction, with the thirsting.


It just seems curious to me that aversion is not mentioned in the Four Noble Truths.

Well, in the second of these truths—that craving is the cause of this unsatisfactoriness—I think, implied in is that aversion is really wanting something other than what we have. Aversion is the flip side of craving and always embedded in it. …

So you crave non-anxiety, you crave non-fear. And it's also true—and this is a little different, I guess—that fear often derives from a fear of losing something you want to hang onto.

Yes. Very often, I think, that's the case. And this takes repeated seeing the changing nature of every element of our experience, in our bodies, in our minds, in our emotions, in our environment, in our relationships. When we open our eyes, we can see really clearly that things are literally changing moment to moment. It's so obvious that we overlook it. And it becomes really clear that, if we're holding on or wanting something to stay a certain way, if it's nature is to change, then we're going to struggle when it does change. And so it's much more easeful to open to the truth of change—without grasping, without holding on, but still connected to the moment's experience.

Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.

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