The following discussion of PRACTICE is excerpted from Question-Answer sessions with Joseph Goldstein at the 1983 Three-Month Course in Barre, Massachusetts.
Question: It seems that one can have differing intentions for practicing: either to process thoughts and sensations, or to develop concentration. Do we need to be clear about our intentions in practice?
Answer: It is important to understand why one is practicing. Then one can practice in alignment with that purpose. Keep in mind that as one practices the intent can change, and often does. One might start out with a rather modest intention: “I practice to let my mind calm down a bit, to relax, to de-stress the body.” These are totally legitimate aspirations. They are a letting go of suffering to some extent. As we all begin to examine and investigate the nature of the mind, the horizons get much bigger. We begin to see there are other possibilities. So, in our paths of practice the intentions we have, the motivations that we have, may change along the way. All along the way it is helpful to have a sense of what we are doing and why.
Question: Could you explain the meaning of bare attention, and whether it is preferable to direct bare attention on the breath, or to allow it to focus on whatever arises in each moment.
Answer: Bare attention means being aware of the object without judgment, without analysis, without interpretation, without any particular cultural overlay, just the direct experience. So, for example, (rings the bell) just hearing. If I ask you what you are hearing and you say, “bell,” that’s no longer bare attention. That’s a concept or thought which we put into the experience of hearing. So bare attention is just that moment of direct perception without the concept. The eyes see color, ears hear sounds. You experience smells, tastes, sensation, without interpretation at all. The bare attention is applied in two ways. It’s applied in a directed way—whether it’s directed on the breath or on bodily sensations—you’re directing the attention to a particular object. This is very useful for the development of steadiness and stability of mind.
When the mind has come to some level of stability, it’s no longer necessary to direct the attention, and you can simply be with the whole change and flow of phenomena, in each moment being steady, being stable, being aware of whatever arises: a breath, a sound, a thought, an image. Moment after moment bare attention is being applied. The problem in opening the field prematurely is that there is a tendency to get lost. The mind gets seduced into various objects and thoughts. And so you use the breath to develop enough centeredness in order to sustain the bare attention in that open, choiceless way. The practice is really an alternation, or a back and forth. You can work with the breath a lot; you can give strong emphasis to it. Then, after a while—you will know intuitively—the attention will open up and you will be able to watch the show of passing phenomena. But in both cases, it will be with bare attention, which means the simple perception of what is.
Question: Sometimes the feeling of fear is easy to identify and strong. But I have found that frequently I realize at some point later that I was afraid, but in the moment I couldn’t identify it. How can I learn to identify an emotion as it arises?
Answer: At whatever point you become aware that fear is present take a very careful look at what it is. Get very familiar—get very intimate—with the experience of fear. The more intimate you become with it, the more you understand it, you can begin to recognize the symptoms much earlier on. Mostly we don’t look so closely at an emotion. We are swept away by it or we push it down and repress it. That’s why we don’t recognize it when it comes. Bring the same precision, sensitivity and clarity to observing emotions that you bring to observing the breath and bodily sensations.
Question: How do you work with the objects of fear when you’re not really sure what you are afraid of?
Answer: You don’t work so much with the objects of fear, but with the experience itself. In fact, the starting place for working with a fearful situation is always to open to the experience itself, the feeling that one is having. It’s tangible and available. Whether the object is clear or not hardly matters. And sometimes, as you accept the fear, you can see the object more clearly because your energy is not so bound up in pushing the fear down. Sometimes the entire situation opens up and becomes clear. Sometimes it might not. There is a time in practice that has nothing to do with particular situations. It has to do with awareness alone. At a certain stage of practice your awareness of the insecurity of existence is so strong that your predominant experience is of your own fragility. The first response of the mind is tremendous fear. It’s not the fear of anything in particular. It’s the fear which arises from seeing the total impermanence of phenomena. Like everything else, this fear is impermanent; it’s just a stage you go through.