A meditation practice cannot be successful without following a wise teaching from Joseph Goldstein. Bold? Yes. But I stand it by that statement 100 percent.
First, who is this guy? Joseph Goldstein is one of the pioneers of meditation in America, along with Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Jon Kabat Zinn. In 1975 he, Kornfield and Salzberg founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where the Theravada version of Buddhism is taught. Suffice to say that Goldstein has been one of the preeminent meditation teachers in America for fifty years.
So, what about this brilliant teaching of his? I learned it six years ago while taking Kabat Zinn’s eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course in Los Angeles.
Goldstein’s pivotal story
In week two of the class, we read a one-page essay by Goldstein titled Feeling Good, Feeling Bad: Progress in Meditation. In it, Goldstein relates a story from his life that captures the teaching.
In the late 60’s he traveled to India for a few months of intensive meditation. It was an earth-shattering experience for him. Here’s how he described the meditations he had during those months:
“…my whole body dissolved into radiant vibrations of light. Every time I sat down, as soon as I closed my eyes, this energy field of light pervaded my whole body. It was wonderful, it felt terrific. ‘Ah, I got it!’”
He returned to America for a while then went back to India, excited for round two of meditation nirvana. He was sorely disappointed. As he put it:
“My body felt like a painful mass of twisted steel. As I sat and tried to move my attention through that tight and twisted block, there was so much pressure and tension, so many unpleasant sensations.”
The next two years were brutal. All twisted steel. Until he finally broke through with the realization that is the focal point of this article. Again, his words:
“It took me two years to finally realize that the idea in practice is not to get anything back, no matter how wonderful it might be…We practice to open up to what is present, whatever it happens to be. Tingles. Light. Twisted steel. It doesn’t matter…Simply be open, be soft, be mindful with whatever is present itself.”
This is so vital to understand if we want to develop a regular, growing meditation practice. Goldstein’s bottom line is this: If you’re meditating to achieve some other-worldly, awesome high state, you are doomed. That’s not the purpose of meditation.
Meditation is about honoring the moment
The purpose is to be present with whatever’s going on in the moment. Sometimes those moments will be characterized by blissful feelings. Sometimes those moments will be filled with tension and anxiety.
Our quest is to do our best to treat both of those states the same way. Just being present with them. Simply witnessing them from a place of nonjudgment.
And as is always the case, meditation is a microcosm for the larger, non-meditation part of our lives. How so? Because it’s also the quest of our lives to be present with the good and bad moments, without judgment.
That’s what mindfulness is. Being fully present for the moments of our lives.
When teaching my meditation classes, I place great emphasis on this concept. We don’t meditate to ‘get anywhere.’ We do it to practice being present, in the moment.
My go-to meditation cue
In most of my meditation sessions, early on I’ll say to myself,
“Not trying to get anywhere special or achieve some high state…Just sitting here, letting everything in this moment be exactlyas it is…”
It’s a cue I picked up from another fantastic meditation teacher, Peter Russell. I highly recommend using it early on in your sessions.
The reason I emphasize this so strongly is that the trap Joseph Goldstein fell into over fifty years ago is extremely common, especially among those just beginning to practice. People try to reach a high place and when that doesn’t materialize, they get frustrated. So much so that they give up meditation entirely.
Save yourself a ton of twisted steel. Meditate to practice presence. Ironically, you vastly increase your chances of reaching divine states when you approach it this way.
If you want to begin meditating and are looking for a place to start, go to my website at davidgerken.net where I have a free program available. It’s designed to be as easy as possible.
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