On a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle editor-in-chief James Shaheen spoke with meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, the cofounder and guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts with whom he had recently completed an online retreat. “I’ve sat with Joseph on retreats before, but what really struck me this time were the repetitive patterns playing out in my mind and body,” Shaheen says. In the episode, Goldstein discusses some of these patterns, and how to break free of them. Find a collection of excerpts from the podcast below, and listen to the full interview here.

On creating energy via investigation

Our usual way of thinking is that we need energy in order to make an effort. But actually, it’s just the opposite: making the effort creates energy. A very simple example, which most people will recognize, is if we’re feeling tired and lethargic, and then we make the effort to go out and exercise, the very making of the effort to exercise brings about energy.

So investigation takes a kind of effort. It’s obviously a more subtle effort than going out to exercise. But it means coming out of our habitual way of being with things. And instead of simply being subsumed by it, we arouse the effort to investigate. And that very effort to investigate brings about energy. And so the whole system wakes up—becomes more alive. So I think that’s really helpful for people to understand—that we don’t have to wait for the energy in order to make an effort, to investigate. That very effort will bring the energy.

On understanding selflessness

Impermanence is easy to understand, even if it’s on the conceptual level. And we’re all familiar with suffering—one form or another—at different times. But the notion of no self—selflessness—is really counterintuitive. It takes time to really absorb the meaning of it.

I found one way of pointing to it in a way that’s much more accessible. If we think of it in terms of lack of self centeredness, I think that’s easier for people to understand. When we’re not self-centered, it’s the deepest meaning of that phrase. It’s a lack of self at the center, but we can approach it in a more ordinary understanding of that phrase. 

On having a sense of humor

For me, over all these years of practice, a sense of humor about my mind has been so helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to access, but we can always come back to it, even if it’s a little after the event, and just look at what the mind was doing. When we’re interested in our minds, we can see the humor of it all.

There’s a book that was popular back in the 1960s and the 1970s, Zorba the Greek by [Nikos] Kazantzakis. And there’s one line in that book—I forget the character who says it—but the line is, “Self-knowledge is always bad news.” From a meditator’s point of view, to understand that with a sense of humor, that, yes, as we pay attention to our minds, we’re going to see the whole show. We’re going to see all the skillful things and we’re going to see those things are not so skillful. But can we hold it lightly?

On easing self-judgement

Self judgment is not uncommon, and sometimes on retreat, it really gets magnified. It feels like all we are is a massive self judgment. So if people come in and are reporting that experience, sometimes I suggest that they spend one day simply counting the self judgments. “One self judgment… 598 self judgments… 5,056… At a certain point, the mind is going to start smiling. When you get up to some ridiculous number, you just see how ridiculous it is and the mind starts smiling. Just the shift of attitude can make a huge difference.

On finding joy

Joy has a lot of different connotations. Sometimes when I think of joy, I think of a very exuberant feeling. That can happen in meditation, and sometimes it does, but there’s a deeper kind of joy that I think is more pervasive. It’s the joy of a deeply flowing river that doesn’t have a lot of ripples on it, or waves, and this is really the joy of peace. 

The Buddha at one time said peace is the greatest happiness. We might call it a quiet joy, and that quiet joy can be underneath all the waves, because there will be waves—the ups and downs, times of exuberance and times when we’re feeling low.

Those waves are just a part of our lives. But I think what the practice brings is a deeper understanding of the dharma. Living it, we really settle into this quiet joy. That’s underneath all of it and is, I think, a very fundamental way to really give meaning to our lives. When we’re experiencing that to some extent, we’re either explicitly or implicitly sharing it with others because the more peaceful we are, even if we don’t say anything about it, that’s what we’re transmitting. So there’s this beautiful flowering of the dharma within ourselves and then, you know, in our relationship with everybody we’re with. For me, that’s the kind of joy that really is emblematic of the Buddhist teachings and of our own meditation practice.

These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. Listen to Joseph Goldstein’s full interview, “Tired of Pretending to Be Me,” on Tricycle Talks here.