I don’t think most working people even dream of going on an extended retreat. Vacations, if they’re taken at all, are more to recover energy, or to see someplace new. The idea of stepping out of society for weeks or months at a time is not thought about, or seen as desirable to most, but only because they don’t know the advantages of it.
For the most part, we accept our lives in the City, and try to make the best of them. A few people add a spiritual dimension to their living, and that can help tremendously. But what to make of those few who don’t just get away for a weekend, or a week, but who decide to go off to a monastery, or to the mountains somewhere for months or years at a time? Why would a person even think to do such a thing? Any retreat time we can do will help our time with others. We can become more stable, grounded, and clear minded – qualities which are universally helpful. What’s more, when we step back from our involvements, we can take whatever study we’re doing deeper, and make connections we didn’t notice before.
The idea of a longer retreat is something else though. It comes from a feeling of restless dissatisfaction that doesn’t let up – that there is more to our study or spiritual practice than we’re able to access when we’re just living in the world. There’s an intuition that greater clarity, health and peace is available, and that it’s what we need the most to help ourselves and others. There’s no alternative. If it were enough to just take this course, or read that book, that would be fantastic. Lots of book titles promise we can have both our full, active lives, and profound awakening, but that’s just a lot of …marketing.
How to say this? I remember the first time I met my teacher in San Francisco, Lama Lodro Rinpoche. One of the things I can remember him telling me was that a scholar dies with a pile of books on his chest, when you only need one verse to get enlightened. We rely so much on the intellect in our culture, that consciously or unconsciously we associate book learning with wisdom. But what’s the result? One of the things I appreciate most about Buddhism is that it’s so practical. It says, ‘try this and see for yourself if it works’, and, ‘the results of an effective practice is that suffering will lessen, until it is uprooted altogether’. As Lama Yeshe said, ‘Check up!’ See for yourself if it’s true.
This is not a common concept here, that sufferings of greed, anger, jealousy, fear, and sadness are rooted in ignorance, and that we can become free of these. I’m more sure than ever now that we put up with oceans of dissatisfaction because of not knowing this. Not to say it’s at all easy to get fully liberated, but we will not accept the avoidable sufferings in our lives and in our world if we have an intimation of freedom. And this is where retreat comes in. When the dissatisfaction with what we are able to do for ourselves and others is strong, and we can sense that there are real advantages in transforming the mind and heart, it’s natural to want to go and devote ourselves to cultivating our practice, as much as we need to.
In America, in the first part of the 21st century, that fact is that longer retreats are not a part of our culture. When I first set out to find a place to do a longer retreat here, what I found is that all the centers charge way too much for the average person. What most people end up doing is going to Asia, to either Nepal, India, Burma, Thailand or Sri Lanka, and retreating there, which is what I did in the late 1990’s. I eventually found a place in the mountains of Washington State where I could stay and practice, but this experience really impressed on me the need for more affordable centers here in the States. It could happen, but not before more of us here see the real need for longer, more substantial retreats. By this I mean retreats that are more than a weekend, or a week, or even few weeks, helpful as those may be.
I spent the first few months there just focusing on settling down, and adjusting to a different rhythm of living, and I mostly cultivated calm meditation in that time, because I knew that having a deeper experience of what I was going to study would depend on it. I had read enough over the years, and seen the results vary with how much of what I read I could actually put into practice. I remembered how, a few months into traveling in Asia, my energy shifted, and how I slowed down, and I knew something like that would happen there as well. What surprised me though was to find myself feeling like I was still hurrying, even after a couple of months of being away. I became aware of a sense of hurry, and of tensions I carried, unconsciously. I remember walking on the long, quiet back roads, and thinking of how it’s been this way for so long, and feeling compassion both for myself and others, that we often don’t know the suffering we carry with us, and that we can set down.
Most of our life in the world is the mind directed outwards. For most of us, this is how it needs to be, but we know there is this whole inner world of ours that is the foundation for the quality of our entire life, and all our relationships. If that inner life is thriving, healthy, enriched, liberated, illumined, then everything we do gets that benefit. But we’re not born with saintly qualities in full bloom, at least not most of us. Instead, the ground experience is more likely the common one of fears and self doubt, aggression, comparison, and so on, all of what are called in Buddhism the kilesas, or defilements. These can be attenuated somewhat through aiming to live a kind and ethical life, but the root causes remain intact until they are dealt with more substantially through meditation.
Most people take up a religious or spiritual practice because of the suffering in their lives, and to help make sense of the world. At some point though, we can see how our practice is the best gift we can offer ourselves, our family and this earth. The positive side of it comes though. What then would an ideal life look like, that balances work, family and social obligations, with time away in retreat? It’s surely a personal question, but I think it’s one we should all be asking. Even if we are not able to live that way yet, to have an ideal in mind, over time, is a powerful, creative force. Some things are what they call self-revealing, and I think long retreats are in that category. The most we could know about the experience from our home and work life is a glimpse of the benefits that could come from it, and what we may hear of it. We seldom, if ever, talk about this, and so I offer these few words.
I hope other people who’ve had the chance to retreat for months or longer, and who have returned to society will also tell of their experiences, and encourage others to aim to take as much time as they need on retreat to live with the greatest possible freedom and ease, joy and resourcefulness. So much is at stake here, for all our sakes.
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