"Not Me" on Retreat (written 2016)
Soon now I leave for retreat. This is, I suppose, a pattern, a habit in my life. To set aside periods of time for this step into an alternate universe. A place where all the things that ordinarily tug at me, brush up against me, tease, taunt or tempt me, are temporarily set aside. Walking through the mirror.
I've always felt this in retreat. Even at the very beginning when I had trepidation and took some of my armor with me. Going off to a retreat at a lay centre, I'd pack good spiritual books, journals, even sketch books and pencils. External aids when the stillness might be too much. And at the beginning, given unstructured time, I'd often turn to these, not yet aware of how I shielded myself from real stillness when I did so. There is an image in the suttas offered by the Buddha of someone trying to start a fire, using a bow arrangement to rub two sticks together. And then periodically becoming weary and taking a break. The tiny bit of heat that had been building, dissipated and so the work had to begin again. Retreats then were like that. Sitting and walking, sitting and walking. Listening to the teacher. Sitting and walking. Then a break from the structure and I'd set down the bow and read or write or draw. Falling back into the familiar. The Buddha instructs us that it is important to keep the effort going.
In ordinary life, this effort is the work involved in not allowing mindfulness to lapse off the cushion. Tough sometimes in the momentum of acting, speaking, doing. And there's a little of that on retreat. But mostly in the silence and dedicated space of retreat, the effort is in keeping the stillness. Noble silence, my teacher says, is not the refraining from speech outside, but the maintaining of silence inside. Refraining from the constant chatter of the mind.
An interesting thing happens when one does this. Not reading. Not writing. Not doing more than the little needed. That is, not seeking distraction and entertainment, the mind continues to quieten even off the cushion. The quiet, associated in daily practice with the formal aspects of sitting or walking meditation, grows. The quieter the mind, the more clear, beautiful and simple the body's needs. On retreat I find myself sitting with hands around a tea mug, not even drinking as minute after minute slides by. A minute, an hour, a day becomes more abstract.
Anticipating retreat these days, I plan my packing differently. Soft, friendly clothes, toothbrush, medications, I tuck into the bag. But I deliberately leave behind books. I allow myself a single journal and one window a day just before sleep each evening to record perhaps those highlights of the day's Dhamma talks or interview with the teacher that I want to re-visit and reflect on later. The rest I will revisit in memory and perhaps record later at home. Here I want to retain the momentum, not set down the bow, allow the heat to grow, perhaps produce smoke or even flame. So along with books, I try to leave behind habits of craving mind, habits of selfing. As much as possible I tuck these into drawers and closets, discouraging them from following me on this journey.
Our practice is a process and it is interesting, arresting to me, to notice how suddenly an image I'd heard so many times becomes relevant. My teacher talks about what can come from being “not you” for a time. I am “not me” when I don't spend hours of every day reading. I am “not me” when I banish anxiety and planning and thinking things over (and over, and over, and over). If retreating several times a year is a habit now, it is one I chose to cultivate. Many of my other habits seemed to choose me and I too often let them carry me. We are reinforced in this, my teacher says, by others as well as ourselves, for we count on people to be the person we think they are. We expect it. On retreat, we let this go. Each of us is allowed for a time a space where we can be “not me”, acting in ways that feel unfamiliar, even artificial.
Noticing how my awareness heightens in these times, I see the relevance of being “not me” for awhile. Walk slowly. Keep silent. Don't make eye contact. Don't seek entertainment. Don't snack. Sit. Walk. Sit. Walk. Do the few chores assigned. Silently. Carefully. No hurry. When the time for chore doing is over, stop. Sit. Walk.
These days, a couple of decades of retreats have created a groove of their own. Is this an alternate “me”? Smiling, “not me” simply sets aside this question that the familiar “me” would never let go. I feel the peeling away from the ordinary begin even as I fold clothes into my bag.