BG 107: Joseph Goldstein on the Benefits of Long Term Practice

Episode Description:

Joseph Goldstein–one of the primary figures in the development of the Insight Meditation movement–joins us today to discuss the unique benefits of long-term practice. He touches in on the need the train the mind, and hence the need for long periods of dedicated training. He also shares some of the background and vision behind the long-term retreat facility that he helped start called the Forest Refuge–a place where people can come and do long, self-guided retreat practice.

Finally, we touch in on the future of the insight meditation tradition, and really the development of Western Buddhism in general.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Joseph Goldstein on the Science of Insight.

Episode Links:


Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks listeners! This is Ryan Oelke, and we’re coming to you from our new studio in Boulder. It’s really shiny, it smells a lot like paint, but hopefully we’ll stay conscious and in tune with our special guest that we have today. And, of course, with me is Vince Horn.

Vince: Yeah! I’m here today with Joseph Goldstein. Little introduction is needed for some Buddhist Geeks out there; but, I’ll say a little bit for those that may not have heard of Joseph. He’s one of the founding members of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and he’s one of the original founders of the Insight Meditation Movement along with Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield, and some others. Today we’re going to be talking with Joseph about long term practice, one of the things that he’s really been involved with at the Insight Meditation Society, and now at a retreat facility called The Forest Refuge – long term practice of a month or several weeks or even several months at a time.

Joseph, I was wondering if you could share with us some of the reasons, that in your teaching career, you have emphasized these long periods of unbroken silence and unbroken practice.

Joseph: Well, I think it begins with a couple of basic assumptions, the first being something very simple, which is that we’re all looking to be happy in one way or another. Whether we call it happiness, or we call it peace, or we call it love, or we call it fulfillment, we’re all looking for that sense of some kind of completion in our lives. So, what follows from that is, where do we find it? One of the great gifts, or offerings, of the Buddha’s teachings is that it points out to us that the place to look for this is in our own minds. When we say ‘minds’ here, it’s really important to understand ‘mind’ not so much in the western meaning of it – because we tend to think of the ‘mind’ as being very heady or intellectual – but, when we use ‘mind’ in the Buddhist sense, it really means mind-heart. It means consciousness and everything that’s contained within it: thoughts, and feelings, and emotions, and intuitions, and silence. So, when we say ‘mind’ it’s really that sense of ‘big-mind.’ So, the Buddha pointed out, if we’re looking for happiness or fulfillment, the place to look for it, is in our own minds.

This itself is a tremendous discovery, because I think most people, especially in our culture, are looking for this kind of happiness or fulfillment in things outside. Our culture is quite advanced in providing different ways to distract ourselves in the outside world and we don’t so often turn our attention back to our own minds to look. So that’s the first assumption that we really need to understand: that the practice is about looking in. So, then, once we do that – and this is quite a revolutionary discovery, even within the first few minutes of meditation practice! I remember back when I was in the Peace Corps, in the 1960s, and first getting interested in meditation, the first time I ever sat was just for five minutes and something amazing happened. It wasn’t that I had any great enlightenment experience, but even in those first five minutes, I saw that there was a way to look into the mind, as well as, looking out through it, which was what I had been doing all my life. So it was kind of like turning in place, and turning the attention inward rather than outward. Discovering that there is actually a systematic way to do that was revelatory to me. It was tremendously exciting. I got so excited I started inviting my friends over to watch me meditate [Laughter] because I was just so thrilled by the possibility. Of course, they didn’t come back to often [Laughter] but then I developed a whole career based on that [Laughter]. So that’s kind of the beginning understanding: that if we’re looking for happiness, if we’re looking for peace, or for love, however we describe it to ourselves, the place to look is within ourselves, and that there is a way to do this.

So then comes the second big discovery: that it’s not just a question of recognizing that there is this quality of mind, big-mind, and that we can be aware of it; but, that it has many forces at work within it: forces for good, forces for harm. We’re the creature of many different kinds of habits of mind, some which are onward-leading for us, and some which are destructive. So, we’re all this mix of qualities and tendencies and habits. So then we begin to understand meditation, not only as a recognition of the nature of our minds and the fact that there is an awareness that we can tune into, but also the very important understanding that this mind of ours needs to be trained. And it’s precisely this aspect of training that leads us to the importance – of seeing the importance – of some long term disciplined practice. And it’s not so different than really learning any skill, whether it’s in sports or music. We can know that there is a piano, and hit a few keys, and understand, yeah, we can make music out of this; but, to really become skilled takes discipline, takes an ongoing practice; or learning a sport, whatever it may be. Training our minds is exactly the same way.

So that’s kind of the foundational understanding of why long term practice is important. The shorter retreats help us with understanding the nature of awareness and seeing what’s going on in our minds – beginning to get a little sense of, understanding of, what our patterns are. It’s the longer term practice which, over time, really helps effect the transformation of those habits. So that’s why I really appreciate, both myself and the people I’ve worked with, the value of sustained practice.

Vince: Gotcha. And I was wondering – I’m just thinking to the Tibetan tradition where they have the 3-year, 3-month, 3-week and so on, retreat – is this also common in the Theravadin tradition, to have long term practice of some sort?

Joseph: In the Theravada tradition, the traditional retreat in Asian countries, countries like Burma or Thailand, generally the monks, or the monastics – the monks and nuns – will go on arranged retreats, which is usually a period of 3 months. So that’s generally the time frame. Of course there are particular practitioners who go off on even longer retreats, but the traditional way of doing it would be to do arranged retreat each year. And, so, we’ve kind of incorporated that idea as we brought the Dharma to the West, when we established our annual 3-month retreat at IMS.

Vince: Yeah, that’s right. And when you’re saying ‘shorter’ retreat, just to clarify, you mean, like, weekend to week…?

Joseph: It could be weekends, yeah, 9-day, 2-week, 3-week. And just as an interesting sideline: while it’s true that long term retreats have this special value and benefit in terms of the training aspect, one of the things I’ve noticed over time is that many people in the West can’t take that amount of time: people are busy with their lives and responsibilities. And, I have also noticed the same development, although it might be a little more gradual, if people do shorter retreats, but regularly. So, that’s another way that people can really deepen their practice.

Vince: And what do you mean by ‘regularly’, just to…

Joseph: Well, that could vary. [For] some people, ‘regularly’ means doing one retreat a year; it might mean doing two or three retreats a year. We have some people coming to the Forest Refuge, which you can talk about a little later, who come for one week every month…

Vince: Hmm, interesting.

Joseph: … and they just do that regularly, and it’s amazing to see how their practice has deepened over time.

Vince: Gotcha, and I’m assuming, for these people, that they probably have a regular daily practice of some sort even between these periods.

Joseph: Yeah, that should go without saying [laughs] …

Vince: Right [laughs].

Joseph: …but it does need to be said because it’s not so easy. It sounds so simple, especially for people committed to Dharma practice: ‘I’ll sit everyday, I’ll practice every day, but as we know it’s not always so easy.

Vince: Yeah, yeah.

Joseph: But it is an important aspect of deepening.

Vince: You just mentioned the Forest Refuge, which on my first retreat, which was actually with you and a couple other teachers of IMS – you had just come out of a 6-week retreat with U Pandita – and the opening of the Forest Refuge. And I was really excited to hear about this long term retreat facility that you helped create that was about self-guided practice and about taking anywhere from a week to, maybe, even up to a year to practice intensively. And I was wondering if you could say a little about the Forest Refuge and your vision behind it, and how it operates, now, here in the world?

Joseph: Well, we first sort of envisioned this facility, the Forest Refuge, back in the late 90s and at that time there was just a tremendous growing interest in Dharma practice and in meditation. The courses were full, and long wait lists, and as an organization IMS was trying to figure out, well, what do we do now? How do we respond to this growing interest in the teachings? We had a weekend meeting, bringing together all the stakeholders in the organization and we were just bouncing around different ideas: do we make the retreat center bigger and hold bigger retreats? Offer different kinds of courses? And in the course of that discussion what rose to the top out of all the different views and opinions was the felt need for a place where people could undertake undisturbed, long-term practice; and this very much resonated with my own practice experience in India.

When I first went to India – this was after I had been in the Peace Corps in Thailand, then I went to India to practice, this was in the mid-60s – there were no meditation courses. I just met my teacher – my first teacher, Munindraji in Bodh Gaya – and I was going to see my teacher once a day, or once every few days when he was in town; but, other than that, I was on my own. I was following my own schedule, just sitting and walking through the day, and I found that I really loved that way of practice. So, when we were creating this vision of the Forest Refuge and a place for people to do longer term practice, I harkened back to those years and realized how much I loved that style of practice …

Vince: Right.

Joseph: … and so we created a facility that’s very beautiful and conducive for people to be in nature and be in silence, where they have the support of some teacher interviews and a couple of talks a week, but other than that, there is no schedule there. People just settle into their own rhythm. There are no bells going on, no group movements from sitting, talking. It’s very conducive to people finding their own rhythm in practice, so in that way I think it fulfills, really, a great need.

I think that it would be important to say that it does require a certain level of experience in practice, a certain level of maturity in practice, to have that kind of self reliance. And so, for people beginning, I think the structure of a retreat is much more important because it’s very supportive. Teachers are there are all the time and there are group sittings, and a walking period and a set schedule. This way of practice at the Forest Refuge is really for people that have done the former for several years perhaps, and then want to move on to a more self reliant kind of practice.

Vince: Gotcha. So there is some sort of development between the more need for structure and the kind of dropping away of that structure.

Joseph: Yeah, and sometimes people go back and forth. People find benefit in both and they’ll do some time at the Forest Refuge, and then come back to a more structured retreat, so it can work that way as well.

Vince: Gotcha. I think you have touched on this, but we were kind of wondering in the Insight tradition as a whole, what other kinds of functions, or purposes, that the Forest Refuge is now serving that weren’t met before. What I’m thinking of is: obviously you’d done an annual 3-month retreat, but there wasn’t really an opportunity to do anything longer than that? I’m guessing that’s one…

Joseph: We have had people come for longer than the 3-months, for 4-months, 6-months, even several people have been there for a year at a time, so it provides that possibility. Another aspect that it’s serving that it’s been really wonderful to see, is that it’s a very perfect venue for inviting some of the Asian masters to come and teach for extended times. And that’s really been wonderful: we’ve had many of the great Theravada teachers, particularly from Burma – since that’s the tradition I’m most familiar with – come and teach there for 2-, 3-, 4-months at time.

Vince: What kind of teachers, like some of the examples?

Joseph: Well, Sayadaw U Pandita, who was one of my early teachers, has been there; and Pa Auk Sayadaw, who’s another Burmese master who was just there for 4 months, who was teaching quite a different style of practice: developing the jhanas first, and then deepening insight based on the jhanas or absorptions. We’ve had Vietnamese teachers: Venerable Khippapanno; different teachers…

Vince: I notice that they tend to kind of come in the summer too. Is that because Burma is so hot? [Laughter]

Joseph: I think the winters would be a little hard for them [Laughter], the New England winters. It’s about 10 degrees outside now!

Vince: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.

Joseph: For us, though, for westerners – actually I love being on retreat in the winter. It’s kind of the equivalent, in a way, of arranged retreats because it’s a very inward time here in New England, and it’s easy to settle inside and go inward. In fact, I’m just about to start a 7-week retreat myself.

Vince: Oh, nice! Are you doing that at the Forest Refuge?

Joseph: I’ll actually be doing it at home.

Vince: Oh, cool. As a glowing reference for the Forest Refuge, I’ve been there a couple times, especially in the winter like you’re saying, and it’s just such an amazing place to practice, and I’d definitely encourage anyone listening who is interested in exploring that kind of practice, and feels ready for it, that that’s a great place to do it; the teachers are fantastic as well.

Joseph: Yeah, yeah.

Vince: Great, so moving on to a slightly different topic, just wanted to point out that you’ve had a tremendous influence over the development of what we’re calling the Insight Meditation Tradition now, which, I’m sure, in the beginning there was no such thing. I was wanting to ask since you’ve had such a big influence over how its developed, if you had any sense of how it might evolve in the coming years, given what’s come in the past 30 or so years.

I know that’s a big question, but … [laughs].

Joseph: It is a little hard to predict…

Vince: Yes.

Joseph: …but I guess that I basically see two main strands unfolding, and I think this is true, not only within the Vipassana, or Insight, way of practice, but in most traditions, spiritual traditions. I think in spiritual traditions as well as in other aspects of our lives it seems to me that there is a liberal-conservative spectrum of how we approach things. And in this regard I’m not putting any hierarchy at all on those, as one being better or not: it’s just a different way of approach. So, for example, in spiritual contact I think the conservative approach would be to stay quite closely within the boundaries of one tradition, of one lineage, perhaps even one teacher, and really deepening the practice in that way. On the liberal side of the spectrum, it might be a little more eclectic in the sense that people are drawing from different traditions, based on a foundation of going deep in one, but then being open to influences from other traditions. And I spoke a lot about it in recent books on Dharma, because I saw in the West that there were these two approaches and that they were both important, but that the more liberal approach of synthesizing different aspects of different traditions seems to be something unique in terms of what was happening with Buddhism in the West. Many different traditions were meeting each other for the first time.

Vince: Right.

Joseph: You know in Asia there’s a lot of isolation with regards to the Burmese or the Thai, the Tibetan, the Japanese, the Korean: the teachers from these traditions did not have an opportunity to meet, and talk, and practice; yet, they all come to the West and practitioners here, many of them are getting tapes, and studying the different teachers, so it’s been quite interesting and challenging to see, okay, how do we make of this something that is really onward-leading, rather than have just a big mess? That’s one of the things that has been happening, and will continue to happen, over the years. We have many students in the Vipassana insight practices who also study with Zen masters, they study with Tibetan teachers and the reverse. So it’s interesting just to watch that happening. I think it’s most helpful when it’s held in a spirit of good old American pragmatism, which means we don’t get fixated on, or attached to, views ;but, we really begin to look at our practice, and our minds, and the discipline of meditation, and to see what works.

Vince: What works, right.

Joseph: What works to free our minds from the habits I mentioned earlier that cause suffering. What works to free our minds from greed, from ill-will, and judgment and fear; and, what works to develop the wholesome qualities of love, and compassion, and understanding. And when I saw that, when I saw that the teachings were not so much expressions of metaphysical truths, but that they were really skillful means to liberate the mind, then it became much easier to hold differences of approach in the greater context of unity. If we hold them as metaphysical, absolute truths then differences of expression become sources of conflict: who’s right and who’s wrong. And of course this is the history of religious dialogues for thousands of years, and we see it played out in the world today in tremendous conflict. So I think there’s another way of holding all this that makes for more unity, and greater pragmatism, in terms of our own deepening understanding.


Joseph Goldstein