I was lucky enough to do my first meditation retreat—back in 2003—at a landmark of American Buddhism: the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. As much as any institution, IMS was responsible for bringing to America a kind of meditation known as vipassana—which is usually translated as “insight” and can be thought of, for practical purposes, as roughly the same thing as mindfulness. I was also lucky to have already met, at this point, two of IMS’s co-founders—Joseph Goldstein (who has previously appeared in the newsletter) and Sharon Salzberg, who is now world-famous for her teachings not only on mindfulness but also on lovingkindness meditation. Recently I had a conversation on The Wright Show podcast with Sharon about her latest book, Real Change, and we wound up talking both about the book and about the 1970s, when she and Joseph and Jack Kornfield co-founded IMS after sojourns in Asia.
BOB: I'm so glad I'm going to get to talk to you. We're old friends, for one thing. But also, you've got a new book out. It's the latest in a series of Real books. You've written a book called Real Happiness, you've written a book called Real Love, and this book is called Real Change.
SHARON: That's right. I somehow got on the Real train. I don't know how that happened. People are teasing me, like "maybe your next book is Real Life."
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It's something I call NPMs, Noticings Per Minute. In the beginning, our NPMs are pretty low, maybe 10 or 20. But as we cultivate awareness and mindfulness, the NPMs go way up and we see within a breath, or within a step, so many different changing sensations happening.
And we also see the changing nature in our minds, the rapidity of thoughts arising and passing.
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.
ROBERT WRIGHT: [Spinoza] kind of fascinates me… There's a phrase that's common now, people will say they're “spiritual but not religious.” And Spinoza strikes me as… maybe one of the first prominent philosophers you could call “spiritual but not religious.” He did use the word God, but not in a way that a lot of religious people would recognize, right?
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Right. Pretty eccentric use of the word God.
By way of background, he was Jewish. His family had fled the Spanish Inquisition. They had been forced to pretend they were Christians. They went to Holland where they didn't have to pretend they were Christians and they could practice Judaism. And wouldn't you know it, their son almost immediately becomes a heretic and is excommunicated [from the Jewish community] at a very young age, in his early 20s, because his views on God and on Judaism are so radical, right?
So what was the problem? Where did he depart from orthodoxy? (Almost everywhere, I guess.)
He was put into—actually, in Hebrew it's called “herem”, and it's translated as excommunication, but it really means separation from the community—and usually there was … a term of separation, then you were allowed back in to the community. You did your penance and you came back in. Spinoza's is the only case on record in the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam where it was just “Get out, don't come back, we don't want you.”
And the thing is that he was, as you say, very young—23, 24. And so, he had not yet published the great work for which we know him, The Ethics. Scholars have speculated for a long time what exactly had he done to so infuriate people. And I have a theory about what he had done, which was that it didn't really matter to him to be part of that community. The one thing about Judaism—and I think it's still quite true—is that the community, the identity with the community, is extremely important.
Spinoza is radical in many, many ways. One way, which really predates the Enlightenment by 100 years and, I think, really pushes us toward the Enlightenment, [is that] he thinks that the identity you're born into is not the important thing. That it's just a matter of the accidents of one's birth. We make our identity by becoming rational. And to the extent we're rational, we all partake of the same identity.
Robert Wright: Hi Steven.
Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob.
How are you doing?
Good. You should be, you're in France, living an enviable life there, i gather.
Well, unfortunately, human life, wherever you are...
Ah. That brings us directly to our subject, which is Buddhism. … You’re very well known as a writer on Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk yourself, still a practicing Buddhist. Now, some people might contend that description because you are famously a proponent of secular Buddhism and there are people who don't think that secular Buddhism should be called Buddhism, I guess. But we'll get into all of this, into what we mean by secular Buddhism. One interesting thing about your worldview is that you don't view the terms "secular" and "religious" as mutually exclusive. You think something can be secular, but religious. So, yeah, we'll get into this.
In the previous issue of NZN, we ran excerpts from a podcast conversation I had with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. This week we bring you a part of the conversation that’s a bit more self-helpy than last week’s selection.
This part of our chat draws on an advice column Massimo was writing at the time (in 2018), in which he answered people’s questions about how to stoically handle problems they face. Looking back at our exchange made me wonder if I should take a shot at offering advice from a Buddhist perspective (as informed by modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology). So let’s try it! If you have any practical questions you’d like me to answer, just write me at email@example.com.
I’ll respond to some of the questions in future issues of the newsletter. And, meanwhile, if you want to watch the entire conversation between me and Massimo, it’s here.
WRIGHT: So the idea is to look at a few questions that people have written, and, after we talk about the kind of Stoic guidance you’ve given them, see if I have anything to add from a Buddhist perspective. And maybe we’ll get a chance to elaborate a little on the differences in meditative practice, because I know there are varieties of meditative practice in both traditions. [...]
Let's take a question that you have answered already. Someone writes in:
I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I've had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I'm working hard, but I just can't seem to catch a break. I mean, I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It's like I'm just being rejected...
He goes on to talk about how, where many of his peers have succeeded, he has failed. It's a failure narrative.
You want to talk a little about how you thought about that?
For my money, one of the most valuable things about a mindfulness practice is that it can give you a more objective view of the world. A bit of critical distance from your feelings can let you see other people with less of the distortion that feelings often bring.
And the people you see more objectively can include you. When mindfulness works well, it can help you reflect on decisions you face and give yourself the kind of guidance you’d get from a wise counselor—someone not caught up in your internal struggles, someone viewing you from the outside.
If you’ve tried mindfulness practice and failed to get such benefits, there may be another way to give yourself counsel with some measure of detachment. A study published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature a few months ago reports on the use of virtual reality to let people see themselves, almost literally, from the outside—and advise themselves from that vantage point.
I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’ go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person.
Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).
But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep — so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved — sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life — yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs.
On his Scientific American blog, Scott recently posted an interesting piece about what kinds of things give people’s lives meaning.
It turns out people say they derive meaning from (among other things) extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The death of a close relative is an intensely negative emotional experience, one you wish you’d been able to avoid—but you certainly wouldn’t call it meaningless.