Joseph Goldstein on Causes of Happiness (Notes by Steve Goldman)

Steve Goldman’s Almost TravelBlogue


During my travels across the U.S. last summer and fall, I happened to be in Massachusetts when Joseph Goldstein, an exceptionally gifted American Buddhist teacher, was offering a rare one-day teaching . . . precursor of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin, County. . .
I attended this one-day teaching and found Joseph’s guidance on how to live a happier life exceptionally helpful.. . .
I recently went through my notes from the teaching [For complete Goldman introduction send an \e-mail to and I’ll copy you: G.] and typed them into my computer to refresh and preserve the lessons. Since I believe these teachings could be helpful to others, and because I value connection, I wanted to share them with some of the people on my e-mail list. I recognize that most of the people receiving this message are followers of faiths other than Buddhism, and may not be familiar with Buddhist teachings. Nevertheless, I believe that the information presented here can be useful to anyone. If you find this information of value, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts[]

Depth and Breadth: Liberating Practice in Daily Life

A one-day teaching by Joseph Goldstein

Barre Center for Buddhist Studies

Barre, Massachusetts

September 9, 2007

Finding happiness

If you ask people “What do you want in life?”, they will say they want happiness. To find happiness, or any result that you want, always know the causes and conditions that will lead to that result.

The Tibetan Buddhist sage Shantideva said: “We shrink from suffering but love its causes.”

1. The first cause of happiness: practice generosity.

Generosity gladdens the heart. It always feels good. (Joseph said that whenever he has the thought of doing something generous, he goes ahead and does it.)

2. Practice giving to someone you are having difficulty with. It changes the energy of the interaction. Things shift. Experiment and see what happens.

Kinds of generosity:

* an act of kindness
* being patient

(The Dalai Lama said: “Value you enemies because they teach you patience.)

One measure of the quality of our generosity: Are you getting happier when asked to do something? Are you making generosity a practice in your life?

3. Look at your craving. Is it a cause or condition for suffering or happiness?

4. Don’t say what isn’t true. Not even little lies.

5. Don’t use harsh speech. Venting may feel good in the moment, but it’s not a wise strategy for finding happiness.

6. Don’t gossip. Eliminate speech about someone who isn’t there. If you stop doing it, the need to criticize will diminish. We have endless opportunities to practice speech and not speaking.

7. Take joy in seeing your own patterns.

Question from audience: Often when I give attention to an elderly parent or an adolescent, I don’t feel good afterwards. Why is this?

Joseph: Did you give your attention in the right way? Look at whether there was an expectation in your mind, a wanting of something.

Example: Joseph gave an orange to a beggar boy in Bodh Gaya, India. The boy took the orange and walked away without a smile or a thank you. Joseph felt a twinge of disappointment. He realized in that moment that he gave with the expectation of a small reward.

Attitude and right effort

* Relax into the moment, in doing what you’re doing.

* Be aware of your attitude of being present in this moment.

– Check your attitude. Let that become a mantra.

– Example: In meditating today, what’s your attitude about being with the breath?

Are you wanting something? What’s your attitude about walking?

– Something that can remind us to check our attitude is a sense of struggle.

Struggle always signifies that something is going on that we’re not accepting.

Struggling means non-acceptance.

* What does rushing mean?

Rushing means the mind is ahead of itself–an inner feeling of anticipation.

The best tennis players are just there, in this moment.


We tend to associate the pleasant with either good or bad (i.e., a pleasant experience is a good experience, and an unpleasant experience is a bad one.) But the pleasantness of an experience is neither good nor bad.

Example: How was your sitting today?

If you were in pain and had difficulty staying focused on your meditation, you would probably say you had a bad sitting. But this characterization is not necessarily correct.


When the Buddha speaks of self, he means the idea and belief that there is an unchanging reference point–a being to whom it’s all happening.

A Sri Lankan monk put it this way: “No self, no problem.”

We create our concept of self based on a superficial understanding–not looking deeply enough. Example: What is a rainbow? Answer: It is an appearance based on sunshine, moisture, and an observer.

How much of our concept of “self” comes from a superficial perception of the body? For example, how many would say: “My gall bladder is me.” We wrap all the pieces of our body up in skin, and call it “me.”


FDR: an example of a poor self-perception

In 1928, Franklin Roosevelt was asked to go on stage at the Democratic Convention to nominate Alfred Langdon for President. He resisted, saying to his wife Eleanor, “They’ll never see beyond my legs.” Eleanor responded: “They’ll never see beyond your legs until you do.” (from the film Warm Springs)


When we become identified with thoughts and emotions, we get attached to “self.” The CNN crawl at the bottom of a TV screen is like an inner commentary in our heads. The problem is never the thought. The problem is that we take the thought to be “self.”

Are you condemning yourself for having a thought? When we are lost in thoughts, the thoughts can torment us. By being aware, we can discern which thoughts are helpful and worthy of acting on. (See the book Thoughts Without Thinking.)

Awareness can be helpful in another way. With awareness, we can hold this question in mind: what is a thought? When we look at a thought directly, we see that there is not much there. It’s very ephemeral and without substance. The thought process is like the the scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz, where the Wizard is standing behind a curtain pulling a bunch of levers that blow smoke and make noise. Awareness is when Toto pulls back the curtain.

Discernment re self

The Korean master Sunsani said: “There is no right and no wrong. Yet right is right and wrong is wrong.”

We get identified with our emotions, such as when we are feeling angry. We take the emotions to be self (e.g., “I’m an angry person”). It’s like saying to a cloud that we see in the sky, “Cloud, you shouldn’t be here.” We are, in effect, identifying that cloud as “me” and rooting it away.

Emotions arise out of conditions. When conditions change, emotions change too.

Seeing selflessness

The Buddha taught that being able to see impermanence is to be selfless. I.e., if you can clearly see that everything is always changing, you can see that “self” too is always changing. Thus, how can there be a self?

Question: Where does intention arise, if not from the self?

Joseph: Intention arises out of conditions. It is a function of the mind. Watch how intention arises in the mind. Intention is arising in each moment.

Separation and nonseparation

A sense of separation is created by being a witness, such as by seeing an emotion or a thought or the thought thinker. Separation is caused by seeing “self” as the observer. In actuality, there is no separation. Instead, see “observing is going on.” As you walk, see sensations arising and being known. Ask yourself: being known by what?

An example of separation: You look up at the night sky and see the Big Dipper. When you see Big Dipper, you are separating those stars out of the rest of the stars in the sky. In reality, those stars are not separate. A concept like “Big Dipper” can be useful, such as by pointing to the North Star. Concepts, however, cause separation.

In regard to concepts like “self,” it is important to recognize that we still need to operate in the world. For example, if we look at a bell under an electron microscope, it does not exist, but we can still ring it.


Joseph told us he was once fearful of going from sitting to standing. Then he told himself: “If this fear is with me for the rest of my life, it’s okay.” “That’s acceptance,” he said.

Final thought: Ask yourself: “Is the way I’m relating leading to more suffering or less suffering?”

(Note: Joseph mentioned at the end of the retreat that he had just written a new, small book entitled “A Heart Full of Peace,” which was scheduled to be released around the end of the year.)

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