Saturday, December 21, 2013

Want to Watch Me Think About What to Have for Dinner?

Last Saturday evening, my meditation friend Lesley and I went to hear Joseph Goldstein speak at the church at Geary and Franklin, the occasion being the publication of his new book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. I had planned to take a cab over there, but per my pedometer, decided to walk, first going by Modern Times to pick up a birthday present for Lesley (Joseph Goldstein’s book Insight Meditation, a marvelous collection of short essays).

Modern Times doesn’t do gift wrapping, but they provide paper and ribbons if you want to do it yourself. By the time I’d paid for the book and wrapped it, it was getting dark, and I was starting to wonder if it would be wise to walk all that way alone. I took the precaution of transferring my wallet and keys to my coat pockets in case I was mugged and my backpack was taken, but as I walked north on Harrison St., the most ominous thing I saw was a fancy butcher shop for the new type of neighbor. At 22nd and Harrison are the lofts that used to catch my eye when I was walking back from the hospital many nights last spring: absolutely enormous and hugely ostentatious, particularly in that mostly humble area.

When Harrison started to seem too deserted, I switched to Folsom and then to South Van Ness. I couldn’t quite picture how South Van Ness was going to connect to Van Ness, and indeed it got darker and emptier and creepier, and then voila! Market St., with a million lights and people.

Lesley and I both arrived early, so we got to sit in the very front row, near four other people from Howie’s group. Joseph gave a talk, and led us in a brief guided meditation, and then he answered questions. It was a tremendous pleasure to see him in person and hear his exceedingly lucid and helpful thoughts. He is a treasure.

He said that when he was in his 20s, in Asia, just learning to meditate, he was so enchanted by how you could use the mind to investigate the mind that he would invite his friends over to watch him meditate, though he said they didn’t necessarily always want to come back after the first time.

One woman asked how to work with her negative self-judgments and Joseph said that such judgments are only a problem if we believe them or if we try to get rid of them; what we resist gains strength. He advised remembering that such thoughts are not true, and we don’t have to identify with them: they are not I, me, or mine. They’re just thoughts, arising from past conditioning. We can accept that such a thought has arisen and investigate: what is it like to have this thought or this feeling? To be worried or full of self-hatred or judging ourselves or someone else? He described a period where he was wrestling with a particular emotion, often getting lost in long streams of thought. After observing closely, he was able to identify the precise thought that would initiate the whole train of unhelpful rumination, and once he was on the lookout for that thought, determined not to let it slip by, he no longer had to take the whole ride.

He advised periodically asking, “What is my attitude of mind?” and noticing what is motivating our speech or actions. Is there grasping or aversion? He reminded us that it is impossible to achieve liberation from suffering while there is greed or hatred in the mind.

Another person asked what he thought about mindfulness being so prevalent these days, and he said he thinks it’s great. What I understood him to be saying was that he thinks the more mindfulness the better, and that if it brings calm or relief or is helpful in dealing with pain or a medical condition, that is wonderful, but that it can do more than that, that it has the potential to liberate us from suffering completely. He said he used the word for the title of his book to “reclaim it for awakening,” I think were his words. A prominent blurb is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, which is a nice touch, since Kabat-Zinn is the originator of mindfulness-based stress reduction and therefore pretty much the father of the mindfulness movement. (His son, Will, is a marvelous Bay Area Buddhist teacher.)
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