Inquiring Mind began thirty-one years ago at the behest of senior vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, who saw the need for a publication about vipassana meditation and the Theravada school of Buddhism. We featured an interview with him in our first issue in 1984 and we return to him for this final issue of the Mind. We suggested that he join in conversation with vipassana teacher Pascal Auclair, who has been immersed in the Dharma since 1997, sitting retreats in Thailand, India and America, and is now a guiding teacher at True North Insight in Ottawa, Ontario. We invited the two together to talk about the evolution of their own practices and to shine some light on the changing nature of vipassana in the West.
Inquiring Mind: How did you know that Buddhism was the right path for you? What was it that first clicked?
Joseph Goldstein: First of all, there was my burning question: “Who am I?” I was twenty-one years old with a lot of angst, searching for the meaning of it all. When I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand, I remember sometimes going to my room and just looking into the mirror and trying to figure out who was behind this appearance. It was a very pressing question. I was going to Buddhist discussion groups and then I began practicing meditation. On one level, the teachings themselves were very clear, but then meditation showed me that there was a way to look into the mind. That was completely revelatory, a systematic way of examining and answering the very question that had been so compelling for me.
Pascal Auclair: I experienced something very similar to what Joseph describes. I was just a little older though, twenty-seven, when I got my first teaching from a master in Thailand. Suddenly it was like “wow,” I had found my home. I’m not even sure I was looking for it, but the practice felt really right. I was invited to put my attention on my nostrils, and there was something surprising and intriguing about it that made me feel content.
What also clicked for me was the First Noble Truth of dukkha. For years I couldn’t understand what was wrong. I’d keep asking if it was my fault or the fault of some god who threw me out in the dukkha. Being a gay man was also underlying my dukkha—some internalized homophobia and the feeling that I didn’t belong.
I could not believe that the truth of suffering had not been named to me before. It was kind of a shock, but a very liberating shock. Then through the practice I began deconstructing my mind, which was very satisfying for me to do.
You know Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund? I read this when I was a young man. I saw myself as both of the characters. One loves the world and life, while the other tends towards the spiritual. There is always a debate between the two, and I saw both of them inside of me. I am still very much like this. So my sense is that I could have made a series of wrong choices out of the confusion I was experiencing. I was very far from being wise. I still have a ways to go, clearly, but there is a little less confusion about what is beneficial and what is not. I was very lucky to have gone to this monastery where there was just enough pleasure for the senses—you know, appreciating the dutiful monks with their naked arms in the jungle. On the other hand, there was a depth of practice and kind of investigation and naming the truth.
IM: What were your aspirations for the Dharma, and to what degree have they been realized?
JG: Well, I took the teachings very literally. The Dharma is really about awakening and freeing your mind, and I never had any doubt that this is a possibility, even from the very beginning. I remember when I first went to Bodh Gaya in 1967, there were just a few Westerners there with Anagarika Munindra, maybe between five and ten people. I remember sitting on the roof of the Burmese vihara as Munindra went around and asked us why we were practicing. People had a whole variety of reasons, but when he came to me I responded that I was really practicing for enlightenment or awakening. I see the whole point of my practice over all these years as going in that direction. I think we can understand enlightenment in very pragmatic terms. It doesn’t have to be some kind of mystical metaphysical something or other. I see it as just weakening and uprooting greed, hatred and delusion in the mind. I think for people who have committed to practice over many years it actually does happen. The Dalai Lama has said that when you look back over five years of your practice, if in the beginning you got angry ten times a day and now you get angry seven or eight times a day, you have made good progress. I find that reassuring.
When I look back to my early years, I remember my mind having judgments about everybody and everything. That has really diminished; at least it has become manageable. Perhaps the most profound deepening has been in regard to selflessness, integrating that insight in more and more complete ways into my life. It’s been very freeing to experience thoughts and feelings less personally, to be less caught up in the movies of the mind, and to realize that the body grows old all by itself—it’s just its nature. All of these are works in progress, but it’s amazing to see the trajectory over these fifty years.
PA: Well, I started practicing when I was twenty-seven and now I am forty-five. So it’s been eighteen years. When I started, I didn’t have the capacity to even imagine what was possible for the mind and the heart. I didn’t even consider that the mind could question itself and gain perspective and clarity around its own functioning. And it feels like I am only starting to understand how to practice.
As for progress on the path, like Joseph I believe I have gained the ability to not take so personally the disturbing and entangling patterns of the mind, and at the same time to hold a deep sense of responsibility about what is said, thought and done. I think this comes from the practice of sitting and walking, both in daily practice and long retreats.
Meanwhile, in the last two years I feel that the so-called “progress” for me has come from the role that has been given to me by the community. Being invited to step up and take the Dharma seat as a teacher comes to me with a really strong sense of responsibility, which in turn brings a lot of practice forward. It feels like there is some kind of power that has been given to me, and it is something serious. When I see fifty or more people looking up at me teaching at the front of the room—in that moment I feel that the words that I say are very important. I have to be careful. People have to feel included. They have to feel safe. It happens regularly that a student will say, “When you said that, it didn’t fit very well for me.” So when something like this happens, then I feel like I have to be really attentive. It is my responsibility to make sure that this person is brought back in and feels understood. I have to be very generous here. How can I do something that would make it really clear to this person that there was no intention of harming? Or if there was and it was unseen, then I could actually own it. I was far from owning my mistakes twenty years ago when I was a young adult. So there is a strong transformation there.
I notice a lot of unconsciousness about whether or not people feel included. Western teachers who brought the Dharma to the West have changed the Buddhist world, for instance, by recognizing the attainment of women practitioners and sharing the Dharma seat equally with them. Half of my teachers have been female. And that’s an amazing thing. But there is a long way to go. In my case, for example, in teaching, here I am, this white cisgender male sitting up there—yes, cisgender, meaning not transgender or genderqueer! I am talking from privilege, maybe with very little awareness of the impact of the words I am saying and the fact that my experience does not represent the experience of everyone.
Also, to me, as a teacher, it feels very important that I say to people that this is a messy path. You are going to fall on your face several times. That’s how I traveled the path, you know. The whole path can become very idealized, with the beautiful meditation posture and the Buddhist statues and all this talk about kindness and not having any anger and being full of wisdom. People can easily think that there is something wrong with them because they get worked up with their children and other issues of daily life. I think it’s one of my responsibilities to talk about the Dharma the way I learned it and experienced it. It was a very messy way, a rickety way. It’s not easy. But we can talk about it and own it and look at it together.
IM: What do you think, Joseph? Messy?
JG: I love what Pascal said. I am going to move to Montreal and become his disciple. Yes, messy. Pascal raised this whole question of a greater understanding of diversity and how much we have to learn about our unconscious assumptions and the language we use. That’s a huge new arena for the teachers in the West and I think it’s really important. We keep learning about these issues because otherwise, the mess stays a mess instead of the mess becoming part of our learning.
What is also messy is going through the endless ups and downs of our own practice. It’s clearly not just a linear path upwards to greater and greater clarity and calm. We get caught up again and again. We can be sitting and wondering after thirty years of practice if we have a capacity for it. So all of this is just part of the path. As Trungpa Rinpoche says, “Meditation is one insult after another.”
For me, the times that Pascal calls “messy” are the times of difficulty in our lives, in our practice, in our teaching. Those are the situations when the Four Noble Truths are most alive, because at that time suffering is not theoretical. If we have enough perspective or space in our minds to recognize it, then there is tremendous possibility there. We can actually investigate the causes and say, okay, what’s the release from this? So I see all the messiness as a tremendous time of learning.
And just to echo something Pascal said a little earlier, which I also share, is that no matter how long I practice, it always feels like I am just at the beginning. Because the Dharma is so vast and we’re always just at the forward edge of whatever our understanding may be. That’s what keeps it so vital.
IM: Now you are teaching a younger generation of yogis. What is that like?
JG: There is a whole spectrum of what brings younger people to Dharma practice now. On one side there is the mainstreaming of mindfulness in the society at large. That has had a huge impact. We are now seeing people from a wider range of backgrounds who are at least familiar with the term mindfulness and have maybe done a secular mindfulness program. So it’s not as exotic as it was when we first started practicing.
Also, a lot of people are now coming to practice through the doorway of science, which has validated the Dharma in many contexts. So people are seeing the value of meditation for the relief of stress, for health and well-being. Hopefully we can show many of those people that there is even greater potential for mindfulness in terms of awakening or in the possibility of enlightenment. I think this is a really important role for the teachers who have gone through training and who understand to some extent the depth of the practice. It is important to convey this so that the depth is not lost.
IM: Could you both talk about the benefits of long-term intensive practice and the benefits of practice at the Forest Refuge?
JG: One way of deepening practice is through longer periods of intensive meditation. After glimpsing the vast potential of understanding and transforming the mind, many people are inspired to do longer retreats. This was the initial impetus for the annual three-month retreat, beginning with the first one in Bucksport, Maine, and then every year at IMS. We just finished our fortieth three-month course and it is amazing to see the continuing interest in this kind of practice. This great appreciation of what is possible in long-term practice also inspired the creation of the Forest Refuge, a place where people can come and explore their minds and hearts for extended periods of time with the support and guidance of experienced teachers. When we were first envisioning the Forest Refuge I kept having the thought, Can we create an environment that can support the highest aspirations for awakening?
PA: I think that everything I teach, or the essence of my teaching, is based on things that deeply touched me on long retreats, insights that happened at IMS during the three-month retreats, at Spirit Rock during the two-month retreats and at the Forest Refuge. In these amazing laboratories I made discoveries that have transformed my perceptions of the world and transformed my heart. Joseph was there guiding me through many of these discoveries, and that guidance made the others possible. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to him for that. What happened there is what informs my life today. It seems like my practice is about integrating these insights into my life to help me be a worthy friend, family member, neighbor, citizen and inhabitant of this big green-blue damaged planet.
IM: For our final question, we’d like to talk about death. How are each of you preparing?
JG: Aging certainly brings death to the fore. Death has actually been on my mind a lot lately, just the realization that there is not much time left. I’ve been using one of the classic Buddhist reflections, which states: “That which is subject to illness grows ill. That which is subject to aging ages and then dies.” Then there is a tagline that I find very impactful: “And I am not exempt.”
When something hurts a little bit or I don’t feel so well, that line will come to me: “And I am not exempt.” What’s surprising is how it touches that place in the mind where somehow we think we are exempt. Even when it is so obvious that we’re not, it’s revealing to see how deeply we feel that we are. As long as we’re feeling well, it seems so natural to think it will always be like that. And then, of course, for all of us, we come up against the very natural process of the body getting old and getting ill and dying. For me, a great practice has been to take even short periods of time to be with each breath, each step, as if it were the last, and to remind myself of how I would like to be in those dying moments. It has been striking to see how in this very simple remembrance, the mind effortlessly becomes vivid and awake. That would be a good way to die.
PA: For me it’s a little different, partly because I’m only forty-five. There was a time in my life where I was much more in touch with death because of a life-threatening illness. But now my condition is stable and chances are I will die of something other than that illness.
One way that I work with death is just in the practice of sitting, paying attention to how things last for just one moment, and seeing that these present moments are escaping all the time. All of the things we expect to do and become don’t really belong to us. With sitting, it becomes really clear that the sensations are not us. They can’t be owned. I get intimate with death on a daily basis in sitting. It is a very expansive practice. Everything disappears. I don’t know if it’s naïve or what, but I think the best way I can prepare for death is to clarify that there was nothing there that was mine in the first place.