Airport luggage carousel with people waiting for bags

Insomniac Nights with Joseph Goldstein

In the anxious hours of the night, I took a bath, pouring a capful of lavender bubble bath into the running water. I hoped the scent and the warmth would finally lull me to sleep. I’d felt tired when I went to bed at 10. Now, at 2, I was wide awake and exhausted.

I soaked for a while, a warm washcloth over my face. The water felt good, and then less good as it cooled. Eventually, with some effort, I rose into the cold air and pulled the rubber plug. Water rushed noisily down the drain.

iPhone showing Joseph Goldstein podcast on screenBack in bed, I picked up my phone, found a Buddhist podcast, and hit play. I placed the phone where another pillow would have been, had there been anyone else in bed. After the familiar throat-clearing sound, Joseph Goldstein began to speak in his deep, nasal, New York voice. He spoke slowly, with space between each word. I curled in, listening to what would either be a thoughtful dharma talk or a doorway to sleep.

Another insomniac night with Joseph Goldstein. The next thing I remembered was the sound of the morning alarm.

The first time I did not meet Joseph Goldstein was in 2008, at a retreat at the Insight Mediation Society in rural Massachusetts.

When the teachers entered the hall that first night, Joseph took center stage on the dais. He was tall and lanky in a balding, Abraham Lincoln sort of way.

I was one of a hundred meditators who would be sitting and walking together over the next ten days. We were all assigned to small groups to meet with teachers who would answer questions and offer advice. My group met with three of the four teachers, but we weren’t on Joseph’s rotation. The more savvy meditators specifically requested to meet with Joseph, but I didn’t know that back then.

Every evening, one of the teachers gave an hour-long dharma talk on something to do with something the Buddha once said. Listening to Joseph was how I came to admire him as a teacher. His talks were well thought out and well delivered. He spoke at a deliberate pace, allowing time for his words to be absorbed before he moved on to the next thought.

I learned from him.

The second time I did not meet Joseph Goldstein was on a Wednesday night a few years later, when he spoke at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. I’d intended to arrive early, knowing the hall would quickly fill up.

As luck would have it, work kept me late. I arrived just before the talk and rushed up the steps. The woman at the check-in table was apologetic. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We just reached capacity. If you like, you can listen to the audio feed in the basement.”

The basement was empty, though eventually a dozen other latecomers arrived. There weren’t any chairs or cushions, so we sat on the carpet and made ourselves comfortable. I was certain there would be problems with the audio feed, but after a glitch or two, it worked. We all settled in, while three floors above, Joseph Goldstein sat in a packed-to-capacity dharma hall and held forth on something to do with something the Buddha once said.

A half hour into the talk, I was glad not to be in the hall. I missed the in-person excitement, but down in the basement, I could stretch out and relax. I may have even dozed.

After the talk, tea was ladled out on the first floor, but I didn’t stick around to meet Joseph Goldstein. I’m too much of an introvert to suffer crowds and small talk. It was another near miss.

Over the years, Joseph Goldstein and I continued not to meet, though we sometimes crossed paths. Most years, I returned to the Insight Meditation Society for a retreat. Joseph, now in his 70s, teaches less frequently. The retreats he does teach have become so popular, participants are selected through a lottery. As luck would have it, my name has not been chosen, but I’ve found other good teachers.

When I’m on retreat, I often walk the four-mile loop on the roads surrounding the center. Joseph lives nearby and sometimes I pass him walking in the opposite direction. Being so tall and upright, he’s impossible to miss. He doesn’t acknowledge my presence, nor I his. Retreat etiquette discourages social interaction, even a nodding hello. Though he’s a celebrity in the community he helped to create, Joseph, I imagine, would prefer to walk unaccosted.

I don’t have a teacher.

Is that true?

Is Siddhārtha Gautama—the Buddha, the guy who set the wheel in motion—my teacher? What about Dōgen or Basho or the Zen poets I so love? What about Dilgo Khyentse, whose face in photographs makes me smile?

His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, photo by Wonderlane

Teachers no longer here.

What about the living?

Maybe I’ve had a hundred good teachers through the books I’ve read and the teachings I’ve heard on a phone. An embarrassment of teachers. Am I too greedy to recognize my good luck?

I’ve tried to find a teacher.

I joined the local dharma center, paid the dues, helped with the garden chores, cooked with others in the kitchen. When I needed help, I asked to meet with a teacher. Though none of the three seemed quite right, I would have loved to talk with any of them.

No one reached out. After a few months, I inquired again. Several weeks later, I was offered an interview in the middle of the workday. I called to explain and reschedule. “We’ll get back to you.” They didn’t. I called again. No one picked up. I left a message. No response. I waited. I gave up. I stopped going.

Later, I learned that the year I sought a teacher was a tumultuous time at the center, which helped to explain things, but I’d lost any desire to return.

If I were more tenacious, surely I would have found a teacher by now. It doesn’t seem that difficult. These days there are lots of teachers with lots students who communicate over lots of different technologies.

Is it that I don’t know how to be a good student? My general ambivalence to authority? I’ve never had a mentor or someone to guide me. At school, it never occurred to me to show up for a professor’s office hours. I figured it out on my own or with help from friends, and later, the internet. I was middle-aged before I understood how helpful a mentor would have been.

I’m not searching for the perfect teacher. What I’d like is someone who knows my name. A man or woman—flawed, kind, playful—to advise and encourage me.

A spiritual friend, Kalyāṇa-mittatā, seems spot on. Not some ideal being; just someone a bit further along.

With all my late-night listening to Joseph Goldstein, it was inevitable that he’d show up in a dream.

A cold winter night in Boston. I’m at Logan Airport after a long flight, waiting for my suitcase to appear on the carousel. My trip began the day before in Africa. The bags have just begun dropping down. I’m still optimistic mine will appear.

A crowd of people circles the carousel. Some passengers lean against empty luggage carts. Others are talking on phones or hugging the people who have come to collect them. It’s close to midnight. Most of us look rumpled and weary. I’m skimming through texts while looking out for my bag. When I glance up, I see the tall figure of Joseph Goldstein standing on the other side of the carousel.

It’s definitely him, though he wasn’t on the plane or at the gate before boarding. Maybe he arrived on a different flight, possibly from Finland. He’s standing alone. Should I walk over and introduce myself. Does my hair look horrible after the long day of travel?

I’d like to tell him how grateful I am for the hours of talks when I couldn’t sleep. For the way he framed and phrased things so the meaning came through. Equally valuable, I’d tell him, were the nights when his slow, low voice put me to sleep, when sleep was what I so desperately needed.

The alarm sounded. I remembered the dream up to till that point. I didn’t remember walking around the carousel to meet Joseph Goldstein. Another miss.

There’s the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Who knows if it’s true?

I’ve been ready for a while.

Feature image courtesy of Prayitno; photo of  His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche courtesy of Wonderlane, both via Wikimedia Commons.