The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation

Joseph Goldstein’s 1976 guide to meditation plunges you into the world of a 30-day retreat, something I dream of being able to attend in a non-pandemic future. In the meantime, there is this book with snippets of wisdom taking you from the first evening to the third morning all the way through to the closing session on the thirtieth morning.

Just a few quotes: “Freedom lies in how we relate to what is happening in the moment.”

“We should speak the truth when it is useful.”

As he bids the attendees farewell, he suggests continuing their practice with sitting twice a day for an hour or longer at a time to strengthen concentration and mindfulness. Not sure I can make it to 2 hours daily, but a good goal post.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

I’ve been re-reading this each morning since the beginning of the year—what luck! It has supported my flimsy wandering flabby mind during this panic time by providing calm wisdom and basic guideposts to help train the brain to mindfulness. Three months into this reading, the pandemic swept us all into a new reality, making Goldstein’s words echo ever more helpfully: “Anything can happen anytime.”

I wrote out a few reflections on PostIts by my mirror so that every day I am reminded of the essential facts: that I am subject to old age, illness, death, I’ll be parted from every one and everything dear to me, and that I am the owner and heir of my karma. They are reminders of what is true and what will happen to everyone.

His sections on worry also provide relief in this time when we’re all worrying about the future, making ourselves tense and miserable. “To whatever inconvenience there may or may not be, [when we worry] we’re saying, in effect, ‘Let’s add a little suffering to the mix.'”

I found myself getting angry at the many people (read: joggers) who are not wearing masks when outside. Goldstein counsels: “Although different conditions may prompt different emotions to arise, how we relate to those feelings is up to us.” This is also where lovingkindness comes in, so I’m trying to make it a practice to seek out and relate to the good in each person.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; have joy and the causes of joy; remain free from attachment and aversion.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

This is not the type of book you breeze through in an afternoon. Recommended by a meditation class I took a few years ago, I finally got around to reading it in tiny bites each morning, a great way to start the day. Now that I’m through with one pass of the book, I’m going to keep it on my table and start again, a morning burst of wisdom to set the tone for the day.

While I suppose structure is a necessary component of explaining the Buddha’s teachings, I admit that it makes my head spin to try and keep track of all the things: the 7 factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the 5 techniques for getting rid of distracting thoughts, 5 themes of reflection, and on and on. Will I be quizzed on this? Instead, I tried to focus on the underlying concepts and let the numbers float away.

The personal stories inside are the ones that have the most staying power to stick in your brain, like his tales from meditation retreats or other monks’ experiences.

The Cow in the Parking Lot

Simply existing in the city taxes my sanity and drives me to the brink of rage at times (cars almost hitting me, scooters and bikes zooming past on the sidewalk at high speeds, people drunkenly yelling at 2am when the bars shut them out). There are some helpful tips in this Zen approach to overcoming anger. The story relayed by the title immediately gave my mind something to think about: you’re enraged if a car zooms in to steal a parking spot you were clearly waiting for, but what would your reaction be if instead of a rude driver it was a cow that walked into the space and settled down without budging? How you choose to react to a situation is everything. I’m trying this out by envisioning all the city jerks as cows, mooing behind the wheel, udderly clueless.

The five hypotheses about anger: It’s a destructive emotion; the first person damaged by your anger is you; you act irrationally when you act out of anger; if you choose to, you can reduce the amount of anger in your life; as you reduce anger in your life you’ll be happier and more effective.

Recognizing the physical differences you feel when you are angry vs when you are happy reminds you to observe the feelings in your everyday life; see how you feel when you’re angry without acting on it. Examine the way that suggestion and expectation affect our realities. Pause and ask yourself “what’s really happening here?”

Anger arises when we have unmet demands, e.g. my demand that the world around me act civilly, not like jerks. Turns out this is a pretty irrational demand. Demanding respect from a stranger is something that is never going to happen, so I’m only doing myself harm from expecting this.

Anger isn’t an effective tool for getting what we want but it taps into the lizard brain of the amygdala, leaving our rational brain lagging behind. The cost of anger is paid primarily by you, then everyone around you.

Three methods of working with yourself once anger arises: tolerant patience (sit with your pain, see that it’s impermanent), insightful patience (figure out why it’s happening, what the person’s unmet demand is), forgiving patience (have compassion for yourself, forgive yourself, thank the person for the opportunity to work on anger, trade places with your enemy).

2 books about self-discipline and willpower

After my daily Tarot card continued to present me the same card day after day indicating lack of discipline, projects taken up then abandoned, and inability to channel energy into useful purposes, I took note. My immediate response was predictable—I headed to the library for help.

No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline

Brian Tracy’s No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline was on the shelf so it came home with me that day. I have a client who is obsessed with Brian Tracy, constantly referencing his wisdom in her talks, so I felt in good hands. The book is excellent—filled with practical information and each chapter ends with a list of difficult exercises you’re supposed to tackle. He makes you articulate your goals, write them down, and really think about them. If you’re not really into this, you’ll probably find the questions a bit hokey, but I was stumped by my own inability to answer some of them. Naming three people I admire and what quality about them I respect was particularly hard.

Always accept responsibility for how you react to something. You choose whether to let something bother you or not. He cautions you to accept complete responsibility for everything you are now and everything you become.

Achieving your goals is broken into steps which sound easier than they are: decide exactly what you want, write it down, set a deadline, make a list of everything you can do to achieve it, organize your list by both sequence and priority, take action immediately, do something every day that moves you forward. The exercises in this chapter were tough, but some of my brainstorming came up with the idea that I might like to do some 1:1 tutoring with kids?!

Other tips he had were to rewrite your goals every day, plan your day in advance, discipline yourself to concentrate single-mindedly on one thing. Define your biggest problem, ask why it is a problem. For personal interactions, liking, respecting, and being impressed by people is his recommendation. He ends on a very Zen note of practicing letting go, forgiveness.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

This one is by Kelly McGonigal, the instructor of Stanford’s popular course, The Science of Willpower. She suggests to read a chapter a week, which mirrors the 10-week class schedule, but I’m too impatient. There are 3 types of willpower: the “I will” (getting yourself to do something you’ve been putting off, or more of), “I won’t” (trying to give up something), and “I want” (long term goal). Your prefrontal cortex is what helps you do the “harder thing,” helping you keep doing boring or difficult tasks or preventing you from following every impulse.

Week 1: track your choices. Watch how the process of giving into your impulses happens. Notice, catch yourself. For training purposes, start with 5 minute meditation on the breath. What is the harder thing to do? What makes it hard? Describe your competing selves: what does the impulsive version want vs the wiser version of yourself?

Week 2: willpower is a biological instinct like stress evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves (pause & plan vs. fight or flight). What is the threat, the inner impulse? See what happens when stress strikes throughout the week, what happens to willpower. Slow breathing down to 4-6 breaths per minute to shift into self-control. Fill-up on willpower by getting exercise, even a 5 minute walk. Get enough sleep, use relaxation to help gain self-control.

Week 3: self control is a muscle that gets tired from use but regular exercise makes it stronger. Find out when you have the most willpower in the day and arrange your schedule to accommodate that. Eat healthy foods so you don’t need a spike in energy (nuts, beans, grains, fruit, veg). Do small willpower workout: commit to using nondominant hand for task like brushing teeth/eating/opening doors; commit to doing something every day just for practice in building habit, like meditating, cleaning up, doing 10 pushups/situps; formally track something you don’t usually pay close attention to. When looking to make a big change, look for a small way to practice self-control to strengthen willpower without overwhelming it completely. Challenge yourself to go beyond the first feeling of fatigue. Motivations: how will you benefit from succeeding (what’s personal payoff?), who else will benefit from you succeeding, imagine the challenge will get easier over time if you’re willing to do what’s difficult now (not smoking will be a lot easier a year from now so you’re more willing to endure temporary misery).

Week 4: Being good somehow makes your brain get permission to be bad. For better self-control forget “virtue” and focus on goals. Instead of asking how much progress you’re making, ask how committed you feel to your goal. Remember the “why” of your goal, don’t pat yourself on the back for any progress. Reduce the variability of your behavior: don’t pretend that tomorrow will be any different from today; (study that asked smokers to smoke the same # of cigarettes every day actually decrease their amount because they see an unending horizon of cigarette butts ahead of them).

Week 5: your brain lies to you. Dopamine is for action, not happiness. Reward system in brain lights up with anticipation, not pleasure. Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself but uses the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. Desire triggers stress & anxiety. Use this to your advantage and “dopaminize” your projects that you need extra oomph starting/finishing (bring paperwork to a cafe to finish over hot chocolate; scratch-off lottery tickets placed beside procrastinated projects around the house; visualize your reward). Mindfully do something your brain says will make you happy and see if reality matches the brain’s promise.

Week 6: feeling bad leads to giving in. Stress leads to your brain trying to rescue you with something it thinks will make you feel good (quick fixes that usually don’t). Instead: exercise, read, listen to music, walk, yoga, be creative. Real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin, BAGA, oxytocin and shut down brain’s stress response. If/when you fail, don’t self-criticize but forgive; be mindful & think about what you feel, realize everyone is human, say to yourself what you would say to a friend to encourage. Try on the voice of a mentor who believes in you. Imagine yourself failing a willpower challenge, see what that feels like and what you might think, then consider what actions you can take to stick; visualize what you’re doing, see yourself succeed. Planning for failure is self-compassion so you’re ready to put your plan into action.

Week 7: we can’t see the future clearly, so we give into temptation and procrastination. Make yourself wait 10 minutes before giving in and during that time bring to mind your overall goal. Or work on something for 10 minutes then you can quit. When tempted to work against your best interest, frame the choice as giving up your best long term reward to take the short term gratification ($100 you were going to get vs the $50 you can take now, you’ll value the original reward more). Precommit to your future self; create a new default, make choices in advance, make it easier to act on rational preference.

Week 8: self-control influenced by social proof, so willpower and temptation are contagious. To avoid catching someone’s willpower sickness, boost your immune system by thinking about your goals at the beginning of each day. Who are you most likely to “catch” something from—is that a good thing? You may need to find a new tribe to reinforce your new habits.

Week 9: trying to suppress thoughts actually makes them come back stronger because you’re giving your reptilian brain monitor something to obsess over (“Don’t do x” makes the monitor constantly ask if you’re doing x or not). Surf the urge as it hits you, watch how you feel, notice. Imagine the craving dissolving. Note: can you turn the ironic boomerang to your favor? So say something like “Don’t exercise and eat healthy” so your monitor is constantly thinking about exercise?

The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness

Why yes, this library book was a great resource to help sort through the low moods and depression wrapped up with grief and tangled in the muck of general life in late capitalism. For anyone familiar with meditation, Zen, mindfulness, it’s a welcome refresher of the common sense way of dealing with your thoughts, to strip them of the power to control your actions/reactions. Depression is a war we wage against ourselves and we seem to relish fighting ourselves by feeding our brain with constant negative propaganda. What happens when we feel sad? We don’t like it, so we ask our brain to focus on the difference between what IS and what SHOULD BE, further spiraling ourselves because we can’t fix sadness by wishing ourselves happy. Instead of getting caught up in this sucking whirlpool of negative thought, we can simply be more aware of what’s happening instead of just reacting.

“Intentionally separating an unpleasant experience into thoughts, feelings, and body sensations allows the mind to respond more creatively than it would to the perception of an event as monolithic, impenetrable, and overwhelming.”

When things are tough, the task is to focus on each moment and to handle it as best you can. If you can shift your perspective even a tiny bit, that affects the next moment and the next and can have a huge impact.

Be aware, be aware, be aware.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English

This is actually the third book by Bhante  Gunaratana I’ve gobbled up, but perhaps the best was his first. For some reason I rebel against the highly structured format that he tries to hammer into you, with the 4 foundations of mindfulness (body, feelings, mind, dhamma) which include the 5 hindrances (desire, ill will, laziness, restlessness/worry, doubt), the 5 aggregates of clinging (material form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), 6 internal & external senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), 7 factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation of dhamma, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity), 4 noble truths (suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path that leads to cessation), and the noble 8-fold path (skillful understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Overwhelmed yet?

Most helpful to me as always are the sections on anger. Buddha abandoned thoughts of anger by thinking of compassion and loving friendliness/kindness. It’s useless to dwell on things in the past that you’ve done wrong, a waste of time and energy. Mindfulness “suffocates anger by taking away the fuel it needs to keep burning. When hate fills our minds, we should think: Hate makes me sick. My thinking is confused. A sick mind defeats the purpose of my meditation.”

How to deal with anger when it arises:

  • Practice mindfulness of breathing. Take a few deep breaths, counting up to ten then down to one.
  • Practice restraint. Stop talking if the conversation is leading to argument. During the pause, investigate what’s causing your heated words.
  • Replace the hatef by thinking kind thoughts.
  • Avoid angry people.
  • Make a commitment in the morning to be mindful about not getting angry.

He also cautions that every kind of ill will arises from the wish to be physically separated from something that causes discomfort or pain. The ill will & its causes are impermanent.


Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

I probably should have more appreciation for this collection of teachings from Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the Zen Center down the street that I’m learning meditation from. But I’m not attached to them, preferring to focus on his statement that our understanding of Buddhism “should not be just gathering many pieces of information, seeking to gain knowledge. Instead, you should clear your mind.” I am sweeping away his teaching from my mind as I tidy it. Just sit. Just breathe. That is all there is.

This collection is a bit tedious, and I like Suzuki’s own reaction in 1970 to seeing the book for the first time: “Looks like a good book. But I didn’t write it.” It’s the summary and cleanup work of some of his disciples, putting pen to paper and smoothing out his English. Instead of reading it, I recommend meditating instead.

It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness

Sylvia Boorstein serves up a very snackable book about mindfulness and living a good life, along with her pal Atla’s recipe for marinated mushrooms (2/3 cup oil seems extreme for 1 lb of mushrooms, to be honest). Very conversational tone to the book, very readable. Her approach is to let you know that you don’t have to be a weirdo when you become a meditator and establish “equanimity.” Normal folks incorporate these basic rules into their lives and go on living, but are just happier and nicer people. You, too, can achieve this once you realize that the mind sets up various traps to enrage you or cause desire.

Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life

I actually really appreciate Sylvia Boorstein’s chatty and informal style of discussing meditation and Buddhist thought/philosophy/religion. This means wading through several pages of stories about airport/airplane encounters since she seems to always be traveling from San Francisco to the east coast or to France (where she lives for several months each year). She’s one of the founding teachers of Spirit Rock in Marin County.

Some helpful tips from the book- if something bad happens, tell yourself “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” Bad feelings aren’t good for you. Buddha taught oh so many millennia ago that anger is “a toxin in the veins.” Let it go.

Her prayer for metta/lovingkindness is: May I feel contented and safe. May I feel protected and pleased. May my physical body support me with strength. May my life unfold smoothly with ease.

Another of her favorite prayers: May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.

The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation

“Another book about meditation?” you groan. Yes, grasshopper. Only this one wasn’t nearly as good as Mindfulness in Plain English—clunkier, interspersed with tedious personal reflections by each of the authors, and much more concerned that I learn the 5 Hindrances, the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. Too structured!

The one tip I picked up was around turning your regular walking into a meditative practice by counting the steps. When you take the first step, that’s 1. On the next 2 steps, 1, 2. Next 3 steps are 1, 2, 3. Etc up to 10. Upon reaching 10, it’s 10 for the first step, 10, 9 for steps 1 & 2, etc.

Otherwise, there’s an extensive list of books for further reading that I’ll probably hit up. But this one is a waste of time and energy. It’s ok, I’m observing that negative thought from outside myself and watching my reaction. Om.

Mindfulness in Plain English

Living a few blocks from the Zen Center is decidedly a perk of life in San Francisco. I have zero excuses to prevent me from skipping down the street to join others in meditation training, which is where I discovered this book.

Tremendously useful as you are developing your own meditation practice, or refining an existing one. Gunaratana breaks down the monkey mind into its various parts; we categorize experiences as good/bad/neutral and either obsessively grasp for the good, obsessively reject the bad, or ignore the neutral. Most of life exists in that neutral zone, so start paying attention and enjoy it.

The book teaches insight meditation, cultivating mindfulness by using the tool of concentration. Real peace comes when you stop chasing it. Vipassana meditation shows you how to be detached as you watch your thoughts rise up, see yourself reacting without getting caught up in your reaction, escape the obsessive nature of thought, examine the process of perception.

As you sit and watch your breath, the book offers great tips on counting: when breathing in, “one, one, one, one…” and breathing out “two, two, two, two…” up to 10, repeat; count rapidly up to 10 with each inhale and exhale (this worked wonders for me, keeping my mind busy with numbers); joining inhale and exhale as one count, up to five then back to one. Pro-tip: if you’re sleepy, taking a deep breath and holding it will help warm your body up and banish sleepiness.

Something I’m in desperate need of: cultivating a feeling of “universal loving friendliness.” Start by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and condemnation, then work outward to direct a flow of good intention to your family, friends, enemies, and strangers. He recommends setting this intention before each meditation session (and continuing throughout the day, especially right before bed because it helps you “sleep well and to prevent nightmares. It also makes it easier to get up in the morning. And it makes you more friendly and open toward everybody, friend or foe, human or otherwise.”)

So whaddya do about all those distractions? Anyone who’s attempted to meditate knows how easily thoughts slip in and hijack you. He recommends asking about the distraction: what is it, how strong is it, how long does it last. This enables you to divorce yourself from the distraction, step back, view it objectively. You’ll note the distraction, note its qualities, then return to your breath.

Besides sitting mediation, there’s also walking meditation, and during longer retreats you switch between the two. Walking meditation is slow, hands either in front or in back or at sides (whatever’s most comfortable), breathe in lift heel of one foot, breathe out rest foot on toes, breath in lift foot, carry forward, breathe out foot down to floor, repeat.

To practice loving friendliness:

May my mind be filled with the thoughts of loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. May I be generous. May I be gentle. May I be relaxed. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy. May my heart become soft. May my words be pleasing to others. May my actions be kind.

May all that I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think help me to cultivate loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May all these experiences help me to cultivate thoughts of generosity and gentleness. May they all help me to relax. May they inspire friendly behavior. May these experiences be a source of peace and happiness. May they help me be free from fear, tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.

No matter where I go in the world, in any direction, may I greet people with happiness, peace, and friendliness. May I be protected in all directions from greed, anger, aversion, hatred, jealousy, and fear.