Senior Western vipassana teacher and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, Joseph Goldstein has harvested his responses to more than twenty years of students’ questions to write a book that hones in on the most frequent issues and quandaries that arise in meditation practice. Woven through his practical advice for meditators are stories from Goldstein’s own experience on the path, as well as appropriate poetry and quotations.
In reading Insight Meditation you might imagine that Goldstein has explored every possible way that the mind can become trapped and every possible way, through mindful awareness and a variety of skillful means, that you can free the mind. Goldstein has a unique ability to step aside, allowing you to feel that you are hearing your own wisdom through his words. Insight Meditation strikes the balance between teaching you how to work skillfully and precisely as you practice, and encouraging you to simply relax into your own natural awareness, letting the unfolding truth reveal itself.
Insight Meditation is divided into short sections which can be browsed at random or read in sequence. In either case, you will find rich rewards, whether you are a beginner or a hardy veteran of intensive retreats. With great clarity and logic, Goldstein takes us step-by-step through various subjects, offering his own accumulated wisdom as well as the tools to discover some for ourselves. Topics covered include the subtleties of karma, psychotherapy and meditation, humor, and the Buddhist teaching of selflessness. One section offers ways to handle negative emotions, from boredom and unworthiness to desire and guilt, while another talks about how to deal with thoughts in meditation. In his chapter on the Four Noble Truths, Goldstein succinctly describes the mechanics of suffering—and somehow takes the suffering out of dukkha, reframing “suffering” as a way of cultivating wisdom.
Throughout the book, Goldstein shares stories of encounters with his own teachers, such as Dipa Ma, a widowed grandmother living in Calcutta. Tiny and unassuming, and a highly accomplished meditator, Dipa Ma once told Joseph he should do an uninterrupted two day sitting. Joseph could only chuckle in amusement at this suggestion because it seemed so far beyond his capacity. Dipa Ma gave him a look of great compassion, and said softly, “Don’t be lazy.”
Joseph Goldstein’s first book, The Experience of Insight, is considered a classic manual on meditation, and Insight Meditation is a worthy follow-up. Even though you always hear admonitions that you shouldn’t read on retreat, this is the book you want to sneak in and peak at by flashlight under the covers. It’s a meditator’s companion, a guidebook through the tangles and dead ends that everyone encounters at some point on the path. But it is more than a meditator’s manual; it is a guidebook for life, inspiring a view which in itself frees the mind.