April 27, 2023

Glimpses of Non-Self

Joseph Goldstein reflects on the “tides of conceiving” and other insights he gleaned during his recent three-month retreat.

By John Spalding

In recent years, IMS co-founder Joseph Goldstein has scaled back on teaching to devote more time to his practice. As part of this commitment, Joseph clears a large block of his calendar at the beginning of each year to go on self-retreat at his home in Barre, Massachusetts. This year, he began his retreat on January 3 and emerged from silence in late March to attend an IMS board meeting.

What might a seasoned meditator and renowned teacher like Joseph, who has some six decades of practice under his belt, take from an extended retreat? Curious, I checked in with Joseph, who was still processing the eighty or so days he’d just spent on the cushion.

You’ve done a lot of self-retreats. Did you try anything different this time, or gain any fresh insights you’re willing to share?

Well, there was something that emerged that felt quite significant. As you know, every retreat at IMS includes evening dharma talks. So, during my self-retreat, I was listening to The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, an Audible recording of the Majjhima Nikaya [translated by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli and edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi]. It was like having the Buddha give the dharma talk each evening.

The Buddha’s words go right to the heart of it all, and sometimes they really challenge our conventional understanding of things. One of the teachings that may seem counter-intuitive is the insight into selflessness. While impermanence and suffering are easy for us to understand, non-self is not immediately obvious. And even when we do develop a deepening insight and experience of non-self, still the feeling of subjectivity is so strong that even well along the path, there’s still exists that underlying subjective sense of experience.

How does the Buddha convey that teaching in the Majjhima?

One of the things that really struck me was in the very first sutta, which is called “The Root of All Existence”. Bhikkhu Bodhi says that it’s one of the most difficult suttas to unpack. First, though, just an interesting little sidebar: One of the stock phrases at the end of almost every sutta is, “The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Buddha’s words.” But this particular discourse ended with, “This is what the Blessed One said, but those bhikkhus did not delight in the Buddha’s words.” [Laughs] In a footnote, Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that the bhikkhus’ response really underscores how tightly they were holding to this feeling of subjectivity. In other words, what the Buddha said freaked them out!

As I was listening to the sutta and trying to understand the teaching, there was one phrase that really unlocked the meaning for me. It then became very interesting to see how I could apply it in my practice.

Oh? Do tell. What was the phrase?

Well, the sutta is quite technical, and the language somewhat opaque. [Pauses] …Let me back up a minute to provide a little context for the language and the subtle implications for our practice and our lives. Buddhist texts often use the phrase, “tides of conceiving,” and conceiving in Buddhism has a very special meaning. Here, “conceiving” means “subjectively tinged cognition,” and this subjectivity exists pre-thought. It is a cognitive distortion—a form of distortional perception. So, in the sutta, the Buddha explains how this conceiving comes about, this subjectively tinged cognition. The way it is written can be difficult to relate to, because the Buddha talks about how we view or become aware of the elements—in viewing the earth element, in viewing the water element, etc. But when we read or hear those lines, it may puzzle us because we don’t usually perceive the world in those terms.

It may be helpful, then, to simply use the term “body” to refer to all of those elements. Remembering that conceiving is pre-thought, the text says that with regard to the body we can conceive of the self in four ways: one conceives oneself as the body, or in the body, or apart from the body, or the body belongs to me. It was one of those phrases that really stood out for me and resonated in a completely unexpected way. I remembered that in walking practice, as I was feeling and being mindful of the elements, of the body, it was as if there was a mental stance apart from the body knowing I was feeling it. I then understood what “subjectively tinged cognition” meant because even though I have a pretty good understanding of selflessness, until one is fully enlightened this subjective distortion can still take place. It was so interesting to have the Buddha point to this directly, because I could then see that I was being mindful of the body from a stance apart from it. And that was the realization of a very subtle emergence of a sense of self.

Basically, the sutta is about letting go of these kinds of pre-verbal conceptions that create this feeling of subjectivity. So, when I got glimpses of this in my practice, I would say, just as a prompt to myself, “No conception,” “Drop the conception,” “Drop the conceiving.” And just as I said these words, my mind would drop it for a few moments, and all there was, all that remained, were the elements, with no subjective stance outside of them.

It reminded me of the well-known Bāhiya Sutta: “In the seen let there be only the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the thought only the thought, in the sensed [smell, taste, and touch], only the sensed.”

I found this to be very illuminating—clearly seeing the difference between being mindful of the body with that distortional subjectivity involved and being mindful of the body without it. For me, at this stage in my development, it is extremely subtle, and I would just get glimpses of what it was like without any subjective sense at all. So, that’s what I was playing with on retreat.

Wow. It’s amazing how on a retreat the most subtle awareness can be so profound…

Yes, it was extremely interesting to me, although I would sometimes wonder, “Am I just making all this up?” [Laughs] But there was definitely something there, and I’m going to continue to explore it. It is a profound teaching because it highlights what the Buddha meant when he said that all he teaches is Dukkha and the end of Dukkha—namely, that there is no one there in the first place. It’s all an act of conceiving. And to even have a glimpse of the experience where there is no subjectivity at all, no “I am”—it’s like you said, wow.

From Tuesday, May 9 through Wednesday, May 17, 2023, Joseph Goldstein will be leading The Path to Awakening, a hybrid onsite/online retreat with Winnie Nazarko, Bart van Melik, Cara Lai, and Roxanne Dault. The onsite and online programs are full, but IMS is now offering an audit version.  For more information and to register for the audit version, visit here.