A Humble Quest Stop 1: A Conversation with Joseph Goldstein

By iBme Interns Ben Painter and Jon Luke Tittmann

Tasked with writing articles about mindfulness, two iBme interns, Ben Painter and Jon Luke Tittmann, set out on a humble quest for truth and deeper understanding. In this series, they share what they learn along the way through encounters with leading mindfulness teachers.

We found ourselves on a rainy summer day at the home of Joseph Goldstein, a friend of iBme Executive Director, Jessica Morey, who had agreed to help us on our quest to find out more about what mindfulness really is. Co-founder of Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and author of many books on vipassana, meditation, and mindfulness, Joseph was the perfect person for our first stop in our quest to better understand mindfulness.

The rain had just stopped when we arrived at IMS and the forest surrounding Joseph’s house felt warm and serene. Raindrops gently dripped off the leaves, creating a soothing sound like the backing track of a meditation recording. We were kindly greeted at the door and it did not take long before we had launched into a fruitful discussion about mindfulness.

Joseph tells us that he first discovered meditation in his early twenties when he served in the Peace Corps in Thailand. He had graduated from Columbia University in 1965 with a degree in philosophy and found himself fascinated with Buddhism and Buddhist thought. He had started attending Buddhism discussion groups and described to us how he would ask endless questions: “I’m sure you’ve all been there, where there is one guy that won’t shut up. That was me.”

As his curiosity and interest bloomed into a passion, Joseph spent much of the next few years studying in India and Myanmar with various meditation teachers who taught Vipassana, a particular type of Buddhist meditation. As he puts it, “I was hooked.” In his first meeting with one of his teachers, Munindra Ji, he was offered some simple advice: “If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.” And so he did just that.

“If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.”

 That afternoon in Massachusetts, Joseph shared with us his definition of mindfulness: “a very specific way of paying attention to the present moment experience where we are face to face with what’s arising without clinging, without condemning, without forgetting.” We all acknowledged that it was lot to digest and wanted to break it down.

Paying attention to the present moment

The first part of Joseph’s definition is that mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment. We have all been told to pay attention many times throughout our lives, but have we ever taken a moment to really contemplate what it means to pay attention to our present moment — a moment made up of thoughts and sensations, sounds and smells, moods and emotions? And even when we are paying attention, are we aware of the nature of our attention — the tone of our attention? For Joseph, attention has to do with the part of our present moment experience that our mind is highlighting or focusing on. Thus, mindfulness has to do with the way in which we are directing that highlighting or focusing factor — our attention.

Paying attention in a specific way

The next piece of Joseph’s definition is about paying attention in a specific way. Joseph elaborated that, for him, an important aspect in understanding mindfulness was realizing the difference between recognizing and being mindful: “It is possible to recognize what is present and not be mindful.” That is to say, it is possible to pay attention to the present moment without actually being mindful of what is arising in that moment.

Without clinging, condemning, forgetting

This is where the last part of Joseph’s definition comes into play: “without clinging, without condemning, without forgetting.” Mindfulness is recognizing what is arising with an acceptance that is free of wanting and aversion.

Often times, especially when we are experiencing unpleasant emotions or sensations, we are paying attention to them with a “hidden agenda” of getting rid of them. For example, there could be “aversion mixed in with the recognition” of pain or sadness or anxiety simply because we don’t want to feel that pain or sadness or anxiety. Interestingly, mindfulness actually opens up space for our relationship to whatever is arising to change. Alternatively, we may become attached if we are experiencing a positive emotion such as love or joy because we don’t want them to pass.

Recognition v Mindfulness

We were grateful for the chance to discuss the subtleties of Joseph’s definition of mindfulness, with its roots in the Vipassana lineage. When we asked him if he could further clarify the distinction between recognition vs mindfulness, he shared an example from his personal experience:

“Many years ago the strongest afflictive emotion in my conditioning was fear. That would come up a lot at different times in the practice and sometimes it was just so intense. In periods of intensive practice I could be sitting cross legged on the floor and be afraid to stand up. Completely irrational. But somehow that primal energy was just being released.

For years, at different times, this would come up very strongly, and I would be noting, ‘fear, fear, fear,’ and I definitely recognized it was there and thought I was being mindful. But I was actually not being mindful because I was always with [the fear] in order for it to go away.

That was the hidden agenda—there was aversion mixed in with the recognition. And so the fear kept on coming back in this intense way. After years of working with it, I was doing some walking meditation and something shifted.

The shift was expressed in the thought: ‘If this fear is here for the rest of my life, it’s OK.’ And that was the first moment that I actually accepted it. It was so striking: in that moment, at that time, the whole mass of fear just washed through me.”

It is important to note that the change that Joseph experienced with his fear was not that he no longer felt fear anymore. When we practice mindfulness it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we are able to stop feeling fear or pain or sadness. Unpleasant thoughts, emotions, sensations may still arise, but, Joseph says, our “relationship to [them] has changed completely… The real meditation is about how each of these are being related to. But that’s a hard lesson. That takes years of practice to absorb.”

It is through the practice itself that we can find the clarity we are looking for.

Years of Practice

At this point in the conversation, we felt like we were gaining a pretty good sense of the way that Joseph defines mindfulness. What really stood out as important was the last piece of what Joseph said: “that takes years of practice to absorb.” This got us thinking. While Joseph had given us an incredibly nuanced and clear definition of what mindfulness is, we still had a lot to learn.

This was the most important thing we learned that afternoon. Mindfulness is a simple practice but it requires time and persistence to fully understand. In our hype-fille world, with all of the apps, ads, articles, it is easy to forget this.

Mindfulness was not something that can be understood through a conversation. Perhaps, we began to realize, it is through the practice itself that we can find the clarity we are looking for about what mindfulness really is.

Inspiration for the Journey

As we prepared to take our leave, Joseph left us with an inspiring thought for our quest:

“Our whole life is the expression and manifestation of what is going on in our mind. It’s the root of everything. Knowing that, getting a glimpse of that … makes the whole practice endlessly fascinating, whatever one’s circumstance is. If you want to understand your life, you’ve got to understand your mind.”

We spent the whole drive home talking about the ideas of the afternoon and what stood out for us. We were excited about what we’d heard and learned and wanted to know more. Fortunately, we had a couple of more interviews lined up.


Follow Ben and Jon’s Humble Quest series — Read Quest for Truth: A Conversation with Sharon Salzberg.

Jon Luke Tittmann is a senior majoring in English at Bowdoin college. He began practicing meditation as a highschool student under the guidance of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School.

Ben Painter began practicing mindfulness in his high school years under the direction of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School. Ben, a senior at Bowdoin College studying government and visual arts, is passionate about spreading meditation and is co-founder of the mindfulness club at Bowdoin.