The following discussion of practice is excerpted from “Question-Answer” sessions with Joseph Goldstein at the 1983 Three-Month Course in Barre, Mass. Inquiring Mind will include a regular practice column culled from discussions with various vipassana teachers.
Question: How does one get rid of desire?
Joseph: There are two ways. One is by simply being aware. What is a desire? It manifests as a thought in the mind, usually. I want something. If we can be mindful enough to see that it is just a thought, just words in the mind or certain sensations in the body, and we can be mindful simply of what’s there without even a desire to get rid of it, just to see it for what it is, we are less and less identified with that thought. We are not biting on the hook of it. It’s like these thoughts have hooks; they pass through and we’re fish. Some of them have very appetizing worms. The thoughts come through and carry us away. When we get a little savvy about the process we learn we don’t have to bite. We can just notice, “There’s a little thought hook going by.” Let it come and go. You didn’t invite it. By itself it will go away. The mind gets very peaceful, very relaxed, just watching all this stuff coming and going.
The other way to get rid of desire has to do with seeing at a very basic level that we are choosing to bite. It’s not just happening. It’s tremendously opening and fascinating to look at that place underneath the desire. That place is the place where we’re choosing to desire. Usually we’re not aware of that place of choice and so we think that the wanting is inevitable. We’re filled with wanting and that’s just something we have to deal with. When we trace it back to see that behind the wanting is a choosing to want, then there’s a tremendous possibility to look at it with discriminating wisdom.
The inspiration for doing this will come when we understand that our actions are not happening independently of everything else, that our actions actually have consequences. That becomes the inspiration for taking some responsibility—for saying, “Yes, this is skillful,” or “No, this simply creates suffering.”
Question: I’ve been looking at a characteristic choice, and it has been possible when a desire drama is playing out in the mind to see there is a choosing to want. As soon as that happens the desire tends to dissipate—it is very useful. The tricky thing is that choosing not to want, a wholesome action, is very close to its near enemy, repression of desire, which is unwholesome. It’s forcibly pushing down desire, using aversion as an antidote for greed. It seems easy for the wholesome to become the unwholesome. Please talk about how to work with that.
Joseph: You’re quite right. It’s often misunderstood and misapplied. It has to do with understanding restraint. One aspect of restraint involves a letting go of desires which are in themselves suffering, or which lead to suffering—being able to let go of a desire if it’s unskillful—saying no to the mind. What’s important is that we don’t add to that no feelings of self-judgment, of aversion, of suppression or repression because all of those qualities or characteristics are totally extra to the very loving no that we can employ. We have to learn to say no gently because we start to do this and the mind throws a temper tantrum. It doesn’t like hearing no. And so it takes some practice. It takes a gentle, firm, loving discipline.
Question: Could you give a practical example of how mindfulness can become investigation?
Joseph: Mindfulness has the noticing function. Investigation has a kind of active looking-carefully function. When the mindfulness is really strong, you will find that the investigation is there as well. An image that I’ve been playing with in working with people in the last week or so is that of a robot. Just imagine a robot, walking around and doing different things, all the different things it’s been programmed to do. Does a robot know what it’s doing? It doesn’t know. It’s doing it, it’s programmed in a particular way, but there’s no knowing, there’s no consciousness involved in it. The body is like a robot. The body is just material elements. It’s different material—it’s not made out of metal. It has the same characteristics of materiality to it. The body doesn’t know anything, just as the robot doesn’t know anything. One of the things you can do as you walk around is just play, keep a lightness of mind about it, just play with observing the body being a robot. The eating robot . . . The reason this may be helpful to you is that it’s quite easy to understand that the robot itself has no knowing. It’s just matter; it’s mechanical.
The body is like a robot, but there’s also something else going on: As this Joseph robot moves, in addition to the mechanical movement there is also a parallel or concurrent stream of consciousness with it. There are two things going on: there’s the robot moving, the robot acting, and along with the movement there’s also the knowing of it. That’s what makes us different from an IBM robot. The going into each moment’s experience and separating out these strands—the material and the concurrent strand of consciousness—is a very important insight. It’s a doorway to much deeper levels of understanding. For most of us these strands have become intertwined, and out of that intertwining the sense of self, the sense of I, becomes strong. As you go into the experience and separate these strands it becomes clear that the robot is not self, it’s just matter. As we see the strand of materiality, of matter, and likewise we see the strand of consciousness, of knowing, exactly at the same time, not before, not after, we begin to see very clearly that this thing we call self, I, is just these parallel concurrent processes going on. We begin to disentangle, to separate out the confusion. That’s a kind of investigation. It’s like turning the mind to be mindful in a particular way.
Question: Is it helpful to watch the watcher, to meditate on the knowing?
Joseph: It is helpful, in terms of watching the breath, or in being mindful of the knowing of it; that’s the same exercise as moving about and watching the robot move. You can do the same thing with the breath. The breath is just matter. The breath entering the body is just matter, it doesn’t know anything. The sensations don’t know anything. It’s just material elements, just like you would have a machine breathing in and out. In addition to the machine breathing in and out, simultaneous with it, is this concurrent process of knowing. It’s helpful to be mindful of that.