The following discussion of practice is excerpted from a Question-Answer session with Joseph Goldstein at a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Question: What is the relationship between nirvana and the experience of selflessness?
Answer: The understanding of anatta, the emptiness of self, the emptiness of “I,” is an insight that grows progressively in the practice. It’s not something that we either understand completely or don’t understand at all. Rather, there’s a developing sense of this understanding of anatta.
Sometimes you can get a sense of phenomena just rolling on by themselves: the thoughts, the sensations, the breath. You can get a sense that a process is going on without any control; it’s not governable; it’s going along according to its own laws. One of my teachers used a phrase which comes back often in my sitting. He said, “Empty phenomena rolling on.” It’s just that sense of empty phenomena rolling on and on and on and on, endlessly. We can have that sense very strongly as we’re sitting. That’s an experience of a taste of anatta.
Another experience that people sometimes have is a sense that things are happening to someone else, a very strong sense of things not happening to anybody we can call “me.” It’s as if things are happening to a stranger. That also is a taste, an insight into anatta.
Sometimes people ask the question, “Where do thoughts come from?” It may be helpful if you think of thoughts as coming from the person behind you. In that way you wouldn’t be bothered so much. We don’t invite them. We’re just sitting and these thoughts appear. There are times that it becomes clear that they don’t belong to a self, to an “I”; they’re just arising and passing, arising and passing.
At different times these insights into impersonality get very strong; we have a clear sense, and then we lose it again. Throughout our practice it comes and goes.
It’s in the experience of the unconditioned that the insight into selflessness becomes crystal clear and unshakeable. As I was thinking about this question, an image came to mind. Imagine that it is somewhat overcast but it is still quite light. We’re aware of the light; we see the light and we have an experience of it being light as opposed to it being nighttime. We have an understanding that there is something which is causing the light. Then, if the clouds part, and, all of a sudden, there’s a direct experience of the sun, that experience makes so clear what the whole phenomenon of life is about. We really have a very direct, immediate sense of it.
Analogously, we can have a sense of anatta or selflessness throughout our practice, and then the moment of experiencing the unconditioned is like opening to the sunlight. We directly see the depth of anatta. It’s confirmed in a very deep way. So the experience of nirvana confirms the insight into selflessness that has been building all along throughout our practice.
Question: How does one work with boredom and loss of interest in the practice?
Answer: It is important to understand that the cause of boredom, or lack of interest, does not have to do with the object itself. It has to do with the quality of attention.
Fritz Perls, who was the creator of Gestalt Therapy, said, “Boredom is lack of attention” and I think he hits right on it. When we’re bored, it’s a signal for us that is saying that our attention is half-hearted. So, rather than taking boredom as a state that we wallow in, we can take boredom as feedback. “Thank you, boredom.” Then we can pay more attention, get very close, very precise. Closeness arouses the interest factor.
Marcel Marceau, the French mime, does an act where he goes from standing to either sitting or lying down. He changes positions, but the increments of movement are so small that you never see any movement. Now he’s standing; now he’s sitting. Try doing that and see if you’re bored. Impossible. It demands such close attention.
What often happens is that we frame our intention in the wrong way. For example, we come in to sit or we start a walking session and we think, ”I’m going to be interested and pay careful attention for this forty-five minutes.” That is too long. We can’t do it. And after two minutes the mind starts wandering. So then we get frustrated, we get bored, we lose interest.
Try an experiment. Instead of starting the sitting thinking that you’re going to be mindful for that whole time, see if you can be totally mindful for one breath, just one breath. And if one breath is too long, try just an in-breath. Probably you’ll find that you have the capacity to be impeccably aware for one breath. That’s all you need, because you only take one breath at a time.
So we all have what it takes. It’s just a question of framing our intention in the right way so that we don’t try to do too much, then get disappointed, lose interest and stop making effort. Do one breath, do one breath, do one breath, one step, one step, one step, and you will see that the mind develops the habit of that kind of awareness, that kind of closeness.