Retreating from What? to What? (written 2011)
Darkness is falling. The cascades of snow that intermittently throughout the day fell from the roof to the balcony beyond the large window have stopped. Colder then? Wind stirs. It gusts and shushes awhile and then stills. Then all again. A pattern I remember from former visits here to Birken. My stomach rumbles. The first full day is ending. I have found a comfortable way to sit. I am rested, clean and warm. Enough to eat. Retreating from what to what?
When we had the kennel going on retreat was an odd sort of “vacation”. Up early, yes; eating less, yes; no entertainment, absolutely. But a break from the routine of seven days a weeks of dogs, phone and physical labor. Of scheduled days that allowed for no spontaneity. Now at home, no work: Violin. Books. Cooking. Sitting. Turning inward.
So turning more deeply here. Noticing restlessness, noticing boredom, noticing pain and hunger. Walk, sit, read and write a little, sleep. Little else.The breath will do. Even a cluttered mind. Noticing its clutter and mess and wild lack of discipline. Being aware. The gift of retreat right now is that it is cradled in a sense of spaciousness. Not a comma in a run-on sentence, like before. But an empty page in an empty book.
The mind wants entertainment. The Zen teacher in the book I've been reading asks “What is this 'boring'?”, and then he laughs. We are all ADD. Stay with this. What's passing now. What is. Don't follow it. Be still. Then carry the stillnes into the day, off the cushion. Let some underling, the secretary part of the mind, take care of planning but let awareness open and rule.
What am I retreating from? From the easy distractions life offers in the form of not just entertainments but duties and obligations, work and even ease. In day to day life the hours rush by in a river of doing, punctuated by the rapids of exhilaration or pools of lethargy. We can become so exhausted from doing that we fall into a kind of numbness when we hit the end of the day. Dragging ourselves through routines with resentment or inattention. Begrudging the moments and wishing for the next.
In retreat there is little to look forward to. The mind does not have the fuel of imagining some “better” time in the next “event” of the day. The food is simple and seldom. The activities pared down. If we are tired or bored, one of my teachers says, it is because we are tired of and bored with our own thoughts. This can be a good thing. We're having to look at them, deal with them, see what's at work. And eventually, noting how unreal they are, these thoughts that rule us, we let them go and come to what is real: this body, this moment, this breath. The heart responds with an opening and ease that is what we'd thought we were trying to create all along. This is the happiness that eluded all our efforts.
But retreat isn't a special place where this kind of happiness is found. This happiness is something we carry. Retreat clears away the clutter that kept it from being found. I always find, following retreat, that for awhile that open space is easier to maintain. There it is, bright and shiny, the peace and happiness I discovered I had all along. But then I get careless. I let a regret drop here, a resentment there, a longing somewhere else, until it's all a mess again. And in the busyness and doingness of the days it gets away on me again, this inner housework. Until I come on retreat.
Teachers advise retreats several times a year. A breathing space for looking deeply and clearing the mind and heart. There is a cumulative effect. Some of the stuff I jettison each time never comes back. And lately I can always see a little, at least, of the gleam of that possibility I uncover on retreat.