The Experience of Insight came from a series of talks I gave in 1974 at the first residential vipassana retreat I taught in this country. It was a monthlong retreat at a camp in the Sequoia National Forest in California. Around fifty yogis were there. The battered old pickup we were using to carry all the food to the camp caught on fire, but somehow we saved the food, put the fire out, and proceeded on our way. We all slept in tents, and there was one building with a kitchen and a central room for meditation. People did walking meditation among the giant sequoias. Although the retreat was more than thirty years ago now and many details are fading, these images of the place remain quite vivid.
It has been thirty years since I met Joseph Goldstein and attended my first retreat with him in Mendocino, California. We first met in San Francisco when he instructed a small group of us in meditation as part of the Lomi bodywork training program developed by Robert Hall, M.D., and others. Goldstein had recently returned from Asia where, in 1965 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, he had first become interested in Buddhism. He had studied and practiced different forms of Buddhist meditation under many eminent teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and S. N. Goenka and had been leading insight meditation retreats since 1974. I was immediately struck by his calm presence and radiant warmth and can remember thinking, “Here is a man who embodies his teaching.”
The Experience of Insight is arguably one of the best and most easily accessible modern meditation instruction manuals available. As Goldstein notes, “The watchwords of our time are ‘be here now’—living in the present moment. The challenge is how to do it.” Three decades after its original publication, Goldstein’s work remains a fresh and alive guidebook for any student of meditation. Like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi, it is a wise and insightful book on the actual dynamics of meditation practice and the incorporation of the meditative mind into daily life. But Goldstein’s book contains more detailed instructions than Suzuki’s and is also a lucid primer in Buddhist philosophy.
One of Goldstein’s great gifts is to take the ancient practice of Buddhist meditation and make it adaptable for modern Western dharma students, particularly those who conjure up rigid images of mystical yogis sitting in a lotus position on Himalayan mountaintops. Goldstein calmly suggests a more practical method: “Assume any posture that is comfortable to you, keeping the back reasonably straight, without being stiff or strained. . . . You can sit in a chair if you like.” He reassures us that we don’t have to go off to a cave to experience insight but that it is available within each moment of mindfulness.
The book also offers a basic introduction to Buddhist teachings in chapters such as “The Noble Eightfold Path,” “The Three Pillars of Dharma,” and “Karma.” Goldstein explains these complex topics with compelling stories and examples. To help illustrate bare attention he tells the story of two monks who were returning to their temple on slippery and muddy roads after the rains. At an intersection, there was a beautiful girl unable to cross the muddy street. The first monk picked her up in his arms and carried her through the mud to the other side. The monks continued on their way. Later that night the second monk said to the first, “How could you do that?! We monks shouldn’t even look at females, much less touch them.” “I left the girl there,” the first monk said. “Why are you still carrying her?”
Samples from the 1974 retreat’s daily question-and-answer period show Goldstein’s ability to translate dharma into practical advice. A student asks, “What about when you recognize fear and try to figure out where it comes from?” Goldstein responds, “You can do that, but it’s an endless process. Analyzing the cause is not letting go. . . . We don’t have to figure out the cause of our problems, we have to let go of them. . . . It just takes mindfulness, awareness of what is happening in the moment. . . . There is nothing mystical about it.”
Three decades later, and with more than 50,000 copies in print, this book reveals timeless insights from a trusted teacher who is a living example of the “experience of insight.”