By Dana Gornall
In 1976 I watched Nadia Comaneci gracefully scale the balance beam in the Summer Olympics.
I sat wide-eyed, at four years old, watching her complete each spin, each tumble, and I decided right then I was going to be a gymnast. I begged my mother to sign me up for gymnastics and by age 5, I was standing on a balance beam, learning to dip my toes on each side, tucking my head to my chest and forward rolling across the narrow edge. It didn’t last long. I never became a gymnast; I later signed up for ballet and did that for a number of years but never became a ballerina either.
There have been many times when I have wished I would be one thing and not quite reaching it. I suppose we all have that, and there are times when we get there.
Seeing images of people meditating—on cushions, in retreats, in yoga classes—has always made me want to be the epitome of that. Just like that four year old me sitting and watching Nadia Comaneci gracefully tip toe across that beam, I have taken aim and thrown missed darts at a regular meditation practice. I’ve started, gotten so far with a daily practice, tracked my sessions on a few apps, followed along with a habit journal, and each time skid, and ran off track, only to start back up again later on. I suppose that’s why its called a practice.
When I had the opportunity to review The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation by Joseph Goldstein I was thrilled. The title said it all. Simple. Direct. Just what I needed.
At 175 pages, it feels fairly like light reading. Don’t let that fool you. Thinking I would knock this book out in a couple of weeks, I dove in…screech, halt. This book is like you were participating in a 30 day retreat. It was originally published in 1976—ironically the same exact year I sat wide-eyed watching Nadia Comaneci take the balance beam—and re-printed for 2020. Yes, 2020, the year of the pandemic. The year of social distancing and canceled plans, closed movie theaters and zoom meetings. How incredibly perfect to be able to follow along on a 30 day retreat with Goldstein in a book.
The chapters are divided in each each day, sometimes words for the morning, sometimes afternoons, but mostly evenings. Each chapter is thick with dharma teachings—so thick at times I re-read them. I began highlighting in the passages, making notes in my planner, writing down quotes. Words such as these:
“If we was to get to the top of the mountain, and just sit at the bottom thinking about it, it’s not going to happen. It is through effort, the actual climbing of the mountain, the taking of one step after another, that the summit is reached.” ~second evening
Boom. Isn’t that what a lot of us struggle with? Wanting to reach a specific goal—a place or point in life—and wanting that but not doing the work to get there? Whether it be becoming a gymnast, a successful career, or a meditation practice, nothing comes from wanting.
Goldstein also covers many other Buddhist principles like The Five Hindrances, Karma, Nirvana, Dependent Origin, Death, Loving Kindness, in ways that are broken down into relatable concepts and stories.
“There is a story by Mark Twain about a man going to heaven. When he arrived, he was given a pair of wings and a harp, and for a few days he used the wings as a way of moving about, and plucked on the strings of the harp trying to get some celestial music out of it. Both were pretty much a bother, and finally he realized that in heaven you don’t actually need wings to go anyplace; and simply by desiring heavenly music, the celestial musicians appear and commence to play. So he put down the wings and the harp and began to enjoy himself.
Similarly, we sometimes limit ourselves by preconceptions of purity and happiness. We burden ourselves with unnecessary wings or halos or harps, thinking that happiness consists of having certain things or acting an certain way. When we leave aside our limited views it is possible to open to deeper experiences of joy.” ~ eighteenth evening
Working my way through this book took time. It took longer than 30 days, because I stopped and started and stopped again. I re-read parts, I highlighted parts. Life got in the way, so I fell away from consistency, as my book sat by my bedside at times. But as I kept coming back, I would read another chapter and let each thought unfold, bit by bit, finding myself return again and again, just like focus when thoughts keep whizzing by in seated meditation or when one slips and falls off a beam and brushes herself off to climb back up again.
The Experience of Insight is a lovely book, filled with so much wisdom packed into a pretty concise package. They weren’t kidding when they said it was direct.
If you are wishing you could be on retreat, if you always wish you could have gone on a retreat, or if you are just looking for some understanding to Insight, to meditation, or to this complex thing we call life, I’d tell you to check out this book. Goldstein is clear, relatable, easy to read and gets right to the point in this text.
We all find ourselves slipping from time to time, and 2020 has been a challenging year to say the least. Are you looking to get back on the beam? As Joseph Goldstein tells us, we don’t get to the top of that mountain by looking at it….
“Friend, no one ever accomplishes your dreams for you, regardless of tears, fits, or any other means of manipulation. They can give you ideas and direction, but in the end, you have to do it alone. You must figure out your own destination and the best route to get there because no one else knows the way.”
Photo: Shambhala Publications
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