Reflections on Retreat


We’ve just completed a 7-day retreat at Empty Cloud, our first long retreat since I arrived and preparation for the two month winter retreat starting in January. Not until the third day, when the background chatter of the mind started to fade in a familiar way, did it start feeling somehow very Right, and I realized – this was the first retreat I’ve been on in two and a half years.

There wasn’t just one thing that kept me away. Primarily it was health reasons and the ever-shifting symptoms of Lymes disease. But there were also emotional blocks to going on retreat. I felt profoundly unsettled after disrobing, and struggled to get some foundation externally to allow for the internal peace of retreat. But the more I worked the more tired I was, and the further away retreat seemed. Getting back to it after all this time feels like an incredible victory.

Life builds up, adding ever more layers of complexity, and it seems like the only way out at times is to turn it all off and go on retreat. But I found myself reflecting – What is retreat?

My answer: Simply, it is everything that isn’t your life. That might sound absurd, but consider: What do you identify with? What are your struggles? What is your pride and joy in life? What is this overarching story you are part of?

Now, set all that aside. Turn off your phone; stop answering emails. In fact, stop talking altogether. If it feels contrived, it is. This is not meant to be enduringly feasible or a long-term approach to life. Just do it anyway, because it has worked and continues to work.

By Day 3 on the cushion, it’ll start to work as you realize it’s just a body sitting there. Breathing in, breathing out. You’re aware of the digestion. Aches call out from previously-ignored places. There is some mental chatter, but whereas before it was an incessant drone, now there are enough gaps to see the individual lines of thought. Here, a mental conversation on some annoyance, there, the replaying of a pleasant memory. Now, though, it’s all very present and clearly the nature of a human being, just being.

In this moment, in this awareness, you’ve stepped out of ‘Your Life’ and into just ‘Life.’ You’ve stopped having a very individual experience and story, and joined the rest of the human race in the universal story of being born, growing up, and then passing away.

In Majjhima Nikaya 119 the Buddha describes Mindfulness of the Body, and even if we set out to explore some other theme during our retreat we inevitably return to this mainstay. Nothing is more in the present moment than the body we have carried since our conception. When we stay with the experience of the body, the Buddha says, “the memories and associations related to the household life begin to fade.” It’s a natural process. We just have to give ourselves to it.

Soon our sense of presence is not just on the cushion. The mind becomes even quieter, and it seems like the whole world is reverberating at a higher volume. Every movement, every change in posture, every sip of tea, is suddenly thrown into contrast. This is the actual stuff of our lives. A body in space, living and breathing and eating, moving from one posture to the next. All of the story, which was previously so vital and demanding of attention, seems like an illusion.

We stay in that space for a day, or a few, or even weeks or months. Time doesn’t seem to matter. There is just the now.

Then, just as gradually as we started, there is the coming back out. Whether eagerly anticipated or inwardly dreaded, a familiar burden begins to settle on the mind as we retake the mantle of our worldly duties. Chores need to be tended to, things need to be planned, words need to be spoken. A very individual existence emerges again. But for now, at least, there is still that space in the mind, and a knowledge that ‘This is not real’. Of course, it’s real, but not a solid real like the body or the breeze or the ticking of a clock. Not real like the dhamma. This life is transient, ever shifting, and for awhile we get to see that it need not be taken so seriously, that it really is still a body in space, drinking tea.

The knowledge will fade in time, but if we value the experience we will return again and again. That, too, is a natural process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *