Not sure who to trust or where to start with finding out more about meditation? Read on to learn from people who have walked the path and have a deep understanding – on an intellectual, emotional and physical level –about what meditation is (and isn’t).
I’m a big fan of listening to podcasts, particularly ones that give insight into what makes people tick. It makes complete sense, then, that interviews feature highly on my listen list. I’m also a big fan of mindfulness and meditation practices, so finding great interviews with masters in these fields is a bit of a geek-out of mine.
But which is the best meditation podcast episode out there?
To get you started, here are some of my favourite interviews with highly respected meditation teachers of our current times: Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg and Ram Dass.
Whether you listen to them in the car, while doing the ironing or simply being, find a moment to enjoy them and be inspired. There’s stuff in here about dealing with anger and anxiety, there’s discussion on the many levels of consciousness, on difficult emotions, silent meditation retreats and so much more.
They also touch on the very basic but important questions so many of us might ask about meditation: why meditate, how to meditate and is meditation right for me?
And don’t forget that all of these great teachers are also mere mortals. If they can do it, maybe we can too.
If you think there’s a great meditation podcast that’s missing from this piece, please tell me in the comments below this article. I’m keen to discover more.
1. Why meditate? Sam Harris interviews Joseph Goldstein
Joseph Goldstein talks with Sam Harris about mindfulness, dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, and why certain people should take care when starting to meditate.
Joseph Goldstein is one of a few meditation teachers said to have brought insight meditation (also known as mindfulness meditation and vipassana meditation) to the west. Here he is in conversation with neuroscientist, philosopher and best-selling author Sam Harris, in what is (at the time of writing) one of three recorded exchanges between the pair.1,2
I’d initially wanted to include their first conversation but rather hilariously (and honestly) the blurb on Harris’ site states that the first one (#4: The Path and the Goal) is somewhat ‘esoteric’ and that he suspects that ‘only experienced meditators will find the second half interesting, or even intelligible.’ While this does give you some idea of how deep Harris goes with all things meditation and consciousness in his podcasts, it’s probably not the best way to start, particularly if you’re a beginner or still fairly new to meditation.
So instead I’ve jumped to their most recent conversation (#63: Why Meditate?) as it addresses the question many people have about meditation: why meditate in the first place?
To start to answer this, Goldstein makes reference to his first meditation teacher who told him: ‘If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.’ No frills. No crazy techniques. Just an attempt to understand your own mind. ‘And I just appreciated the simplicity of that’, Goldstein tells Harris. ‘There was nothing to join, no rituals, no ceremony, just the simple understanding that understanding ourselves is possible. It’s very pragmatic and simple, and there’s a methodology for doing it. In that understanding of ourselves, we begin to see what creates suffering in our lives, and what brings greater happiness and peace, and when we see that we can make wiser choices. And as we make wiser choices we become happier. And as we become happier, we make wiser choices in our lives. So it becomes a spiral of greater fulfilment and greater ease.’
And while this episode starts with some more common questions regarding meditation and mindfulness, it does also address a few meatier issues, including who shouldn’t meditate, the ‘sense of self’ and the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. This episode might, then, prepare you for the more in-depth nature of the other interview.
Joseph Goldstein: Why Meditate? (#63)
Making Sense with Sam Harris
2. Just another human being: Tim Ferriss interviews Jack Kornfield
Jack Kornfield talks with Tim Ferriss about different paths to spirituality, meditation retreats and why cultivating compassion is a good way to start a meditation practice
In this long-form podcast interview, super-podcaster Tim Ferriss interviews Jack Kornfield.3,4 On his website, Kornfield is described as an ‘author, Buddhist practitioner and one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West’. Dig a little deeper and you will also discover that he holds a PhD in clinical psychology and that he’s sold over a million books, including After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.5 Not necessarily what you’d expect from someone who had a tricky upbringing and subsequent anger issues, right?
In his interview with Tim, he starts at the start. We hear how unpredictable his dad’s moods were and how that affected the whole family dynamic. We learn how and why he switched up his studies, why he joined the Peace Corps and where it lead to. We discover he has (and retains) an adventurous nature, even now, in his 70s.
What I love about this meditation podcast episode is that not only does it gives some backstory to Kornfield, it teases out personal details that really humanise him. Sure, he’s an experienced meditator and really gets it, and yet he’s not above swearing or getting frustrated or saying it how it is. Somehow, though, he manages to do this all with care.
He’s also not scared to make fun of himself or discuss taboo topics, including how he learnt to deal with his own anger, or referring to a younger version of himself as a ‘card-carrying, LSD-taking hippy’.
With regards to LSD and psychedelics in general, Ferriss and Kornfield explore their connection with the awakening of consciousness, among other things. Kornfield, interestingly enough, is not shy to say that they were helpful in setting him off on a spiritual path.
In terms of that spiritual path and meditation in general, there’s chat about monastic life, his teacher (the Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah), community, compassion and loving-kindness meditation.
The interview also flips somewhat, touching on Tim Ferriss’ own meditation experience at Jack Kornfield’s meditation centre, Spirit Rock, and how Jack’s expert guidance helped divert from what could have otherwise been a very unpleasant experience.
Intrigued? Have a listen.
Jack Kornfield: Finding Freedom, Love and Joy in the Present (#300)
The Tim Ferriss Show
Other recommended listens from The Tim Ferriss Show include his interviews with Sharon Salzberg and Tara Brach. He also has an interesting round-up podcast episode called The Tim Ferriss Radio Hour: Meditation, Mindset, and Mastery (#201)where you can hear from Chase Jarvis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Harris and Rainn Wilson on their personal practices and meditation advice.
3. Scientifically validating mindfulness: Krista Tippett interviews Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn talks with Krista Tippett about the positive and important role that mindfulness can play in our daily life, from parenting through to our use of technology
The On Being with Krista Tippett podcast is a great place to discover the wonderful things people do for the good of humanity and the world at large. Tippett has a way of gently teasing out responses that answer beginner questions while at the same time dig a bit deeper into the issues that make us human. It also has a spiritual lean, but coming at it from the perspective of curiosity rather than anything assertive.
In this episode, Jon Kabat-Zinn – professor and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School – addresses the ‘what is mindfulness’ question, and draws on the accessibility and very practical nature that mindfulness offers.
Kabat-Zinn is a scientist and comes at mindfulness and meditation from that angle, which will appeal to those among you who value all things evidence-based. (Side note for the scientists: Kabat-Zinn has said scientists make the best meditators!)
He’s also the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, an evidence-based 8-week course designed to introduce mindfulness strategies and build positive habits for people living with anxiety and stress. The secular and scientifically validated approach of the MBSR program undoubtedly makes it appealing to more people, particularly those who might have reservations about Buddhism.
Because although mindfulness does have its roots in Buddhism, what Kabat-Zinn outlines is its real-world application, including the need for increased mindfulness and meditation practices as a way to manage the fast-changing technological world that we live in. Despite some digital and developmental references somewhat ageing this podcast episode, the surrounding discussion is as relevant today as ever.
On the necessity of mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn tells Tippett: ‘…we call ourselves homo sapien sapiens… which means “to taste” or ‘to know.’… So that means really awareness and meta-awareness.’ By definition, to be human is to be aware on many levels.
The problem, he adds, is that this is just not true. All too often we are unaware; we lack self-awareness. Meditation, he suggests, can help to bring us to a point of improved awareness. By bringing awareness to everything we do and every decision we make, he says, we can move closer to our namesake and live with a greater sense of ease.
Sounds like another thing to add to your checklist? Fear not.
‘This is getting out of your own way long enough to realize that you already have the potential for tremendous well-being and happiness right here, right now’, he says, ‘nothing else has to change.’
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Opening To Our Lives
On Being with Krista Tippett
4. Can all be healed with metta? Dan Harris interviews Sharon Salzberg
In a very open and honest interview, Dan Harris talks with esteemed meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, on suffering, how to meditate and whether loving-kindness meditation could make you lose your edge.
Sharon Salzberg is one of the Western world’s best-known meditation teachers.9 Together with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, she started the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS). She’s also an author and prolific contributor to some of the best known blogs, websites and podcasts in the world, including On Being, the Huffington Post and the Metta Hour Podcast.10, 11, 12
In this episode we hear Salzberg’s story, starting right back at what was undeniably a difficult childhood.13 During the most formative years of her life, Salzberg’s was exposed to the extremes of family trauma that included multiple deaths, extreme mental health issues and constant change. She talks of being at university and discovering – through an Asian philosophy class – that suffering is universal. We all suffer.
This was her breakthrough moment.
The fact she’s examined her own suffering, worked deeply with it and worked to transform it to a place of deep love for her fellow beings is where she stands out from others. She didn’t just have that a-ha moment at university; she took note and decided to do something about it.
What she decided to do was go India for a year to study meditation before honing in on the Theravada tradition of Buddhism and insight (vipassana) meditation.
Salzberg is now best known for her associations with loving-kindness meditation. She comes from a place of deep compassion for her fellow humans and the wider world.
(If loving-kindness as a phrase sounds a bit too woo for you, try to understand that at its roots is a deep respect and care for others. You could also just use the Pali word metta (mettā) instead. That might feel better.)
Quoting her friend, Salzberg offers the following:
‘It all comes back to don’t be hatin’’
When Harris asks her what place something as saccharine sounding as ‘loving-kindness meditation’ really has in a competitive world, her response is that compassion gets you ahead. It does not impact on your ability to be competitive. So if you thought you had to be a hotheaded sausage to get ahead, here’s your permission to start being nicer. Give it a go and report back.
Alongside the heady topics of enlightenment and awakening, the conversation teases out responses to the burning questions that we all have when beginning our meditation journey: how to start a meditation practice (and what’s a realistic amount of time to meditate for in the beginning), how to evaluate whether meditation is working for you, the importance of community, and who can and can’t meditate.
And they touch on value of a good meditation teacher, which of course Salzberg has proved herself to be. Listen to this episode to discover why Salzberg is so liked and respected.
Sharon Salzberg (#8)
10% Happier with Dan Harris
To dig deeper into metta/loving-kindness meditation, check out Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection by Sharon Salzberg, which is said to be ‘is a creative tool kit of mindfulness exercises and meditation techniques that help you to truly engage with your present experience and create deeper love relationships with yourself, your partner, friends and family, and with life itself’.
5. Presence, openness and not buying into story: Eric Zimmer interviews Tara Brach
With a podcast that attracts over a million downloads a month and a number of highly acclaimed books under her belt, Tara Brach is one of the heavyweights of the modern meditation world. Here she joins Eric Zimmer on The One You Feed podcast.
Like many others on this list, it was during her time at university that Tara Brach started to explore yoga, meditation and Eastern philosophies.14 So strong was the pull, she chose to fully engage with a spiritual path and spent the next ten years living and working in an ashram. It was after this that she discovered insight meditation and met the teacher, Joseph Goldstein.
A long-time teacher herself, Brach also boasts a PhD in Clinical Psychology and has worked as a psychotherapist, apparent as you hear her talk. She has the scientific underpinning to her work, and yet this podcast episode demonstrates just how much emphasis she places on the so-called softer qualities of mindfulness, meditation and the human experience.15
Compassion is key, she says, alongside maintaining an attitude of presence and openness. When it comes to dealing with our primitive conditioning (our fears, our darker and uglier sides), for example, she suggests that we meet those moments with interest, curiosity and care so we don’t identify too heavily with the stories associated with those moments. We should meet those moments, not avoid them.
‘Whenever there’s a strong, sticky, charged emotion’, she says, ‘it’s asking for attention’. Referencing the shamans, she talks about naming your fears. Naming the fears stops them having so much power. It’s a mindfulness strategy you’ll likely come across again and again, in part because it’s so affective.
In this episode, Brach also talks in detail about the importance of bringing awareness to the body so we’re not just living in our heads. This leads to self-awareness; to a deeper awareness per se.
Despite improved self-awareness, she doesn’t hold any illusions that meditation is a cure-all. It doesn’t make us immune to difficulties. Life still hurts. It will throw us curveballs; that is certain. But, she says, meditation can equip us to better process and deal with those experiences.
From this episode, it’s apparent that for Brach, there are definite correlations between a engaging in meditation practice and feeling vibrant and alive.
Refreshingly, she recognises that the best way for anyone to come to meditation practice is by finding something that works for them. Different strokes for different folks. Your gateway isn’t mine, and vice versa.
She recommends experimentation. Try different types of meditation: body scan meditations, compassion and heart and loving-kindness meditations, breathing meditations, sound meditations, open awareness meditations, point-of-focus meditation.
And that is where you’ll start to experience the benefits. Start there.
143: Tara Brach
The One You Feed
6. Harvard professor to psychedelic rebel to gurudom: Oprah Winfrey interviews Ram Dass
The queen of talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, talks with Ram Dass on changing paths when from the outside everything looks to be perfect.
You’ve likely come across some quotes by Ram Dass.16 They seem to fill feeds, from Facebook through to Instragram. But who is this Ram Dass guy? And who is Richard Alpert?
This meditation podcast episode is short and punchy, but gives enough of an overview for us to understand that Richard Alpert was hugely successful, and then hugely rebellious.17 From assistant professor at Harvard through to psychedelic advocate through to his eventual transformation to Ram Dass, this story is full of both the relatable and the esoteric.
For whatever reason, I have a bit of an aversion to anything too mainstream. Nonetheless, Oprah knows what’s she’s doing and further still, managed to land an interview with the ‘cultural icon’ that is Ram Dass. To better understand the journey he’s been on, Oprah starts back to the 1950s and 1960s.
‘The sixties were just ecstatic,’ says Ram Dass. But the fifties?’
The fifties, he says, were very straight thinking. ‘Everything was so in the boxes,’ he tells Oprah. His fellow academics, he found, were all about living in their head. Life was intellectualised.
This view was seemingly enhanced when he found psychedelics, which is seemingly also when he found his heart. That is, he started to see things differently. He got his first glimpses of what god might be or mean. He realised the limitations of all the slick stuff he owned, of his status and his life at Harvard.
Ram Dass and Oprah’s discussions turn to life in India, when Richard Alpert, as he was then known, went off to discover ‘who had a map for my plans of consciousness’. And the plan, he realised, didn’t involve psychedelics.
The plan involved love; unconditional love.
Before you stop reading, consider this: imagine that you meet someone for the first time and they really get you. They see you. You don’t have to explain yourself, you don’t have to justify anything; you’re just accepted and understood.
It was this kind of experience that changed it all for Richard Alpert. If psychedelics had started to make him question the dominant focus of materialism and status, it was his time in India that cemented his changed views. When he returned to the US, it was as Ram Dass, ‘servant of god’.
This podcast covers some discussion on the words ‘guru’ and ‘god’, the key differences between belief and faith, and the meaning of living a spiritual life. Compared to the others on this list, it conveys a sense of mystery and mysticism, and in doing so provides a bit of balance.
Listen to start to understand why people sometimes ‘throw it all in’, seemingly on a whim.
Ram Dass: The Life of a Spiritual Teacher
Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations
As it’s a short interview, the following documentaries are well worth a watch to learn more about Ram Dass: Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, which tracks over half a decade of interviews of these two controversial Harvard professors and estranged friends, and Ram Dass, Going Home as he reflects on life, love and dying.
Which is your favourite of these meditation podcast episodes? Have we missed any that should be included on this list? Please comment below.
Do you know anyone who needs to listen to these TODAY? Please share this post with them.
References & further resources
- Insight Meditation Society. IMS Teacher: Joseph Goldstein. https://www.dharma.org/teacher/joseph-goldstein. Accessed 22 March 2019.
- Making Sense Podcast. Why meditate? A conversation with Joseph Goldstein. 2017. https://samharris.org/podcasts/why-meditate. Accessed 22 March 2019.
- The Tim Ferriss Show. Jack Kornfield: Finding Freedom, Love and Joy in the Present (#300). 2018. https://tim.blog/guest/jack-kornfield. Accessed 24 March 2019.
- Jack Kornfield (official website). https://jackkornfield.com. Accessed 24 March 2019.
- Kornfield J. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. 1sted. Bantam; 2000. Buy on Amazon
- On Being with Krista Tippett. Jon Kabat-Zinn: Opening To Our Lives. 2012. https://onbeing.org/programs/jon-kabat-zinn-opening-to-our-lives. Accessed 1 April 2019.
- Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society (University of MassachusettsMedical School). History of MBSR. https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mindfulness-based-programs/mbsr-courses/about-mbsr/history-of-mbsr. Accessed 1 April 2019.
- Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society (University of MassachusettsMedical School). Jon Kabat-Zinn: Founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness. https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/about-us/people/2-meet-our-faculty/kabat-zinn-profile. Accessed 1 April 2019.
- Sharon Salzberg (official website). https://www.sharonsalzberg.com. Accessed 1 April 2019.
- On Being. Author: Sharon Salzberg. https://onbeing.org/author/sharon-salzberg. Accessed 1 April 2019.
- Huffington Post. Sharon Salzberg: Meditation Teacher & Author. https://www.huffpost.com/author/sharon-salzberg. Accessed 2 April 2019.
- Metta Hour Podcast. https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/metta-hour-podcast. Accessed 2 April 2019.
- 10% Happier with Dan Harris. Sharon Salzberg (#8). https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/8-sharon-salzberg/id1087147821?i=1000366736275. 2016. Accessed 2 April 2019.
- Tara Brach (official website). https://www.tarabrach.com. Accessed 4 April 2019.
- The One You Feed. 153: Tara Brach. 2016. https://www.oneyoufeed.net/tara-brach. Accessed 4 April 2019.
- Ram Dass (official website). https://www.ramdass.org. Accessed 7 April 2019.
- Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. Ram Dass: The Life of a Spiritual Teacher. https://podtail.com/en/podcast/oprah-s-supersoul-conversations/ram-dass-the-life-of-a-spiritual-teacher. Accessed 7 April 2019.