Time Out (written 2018)
This morning I'm reminded, viscerally, of the value of retreat. I am not on retreat in any “official”way but it's Sunday, there are no appointments, meetings, classes, pharmacy pick ups or necessary errands marked on the calendar. Yesterday marked the end of a weeks long stretch when there were large numbers of all of these, usually several in each day. Because it is my habit of mind anymore, I have managed, mostly, to be in each moment and with each event or activity as it arose, but there has always been that forward momentum. When you are skiing down hill, you keep moving, your job being to stay keenly aware of each nano-second of the journey, the obstacles, the best path of descent. Much of this happens in a way that is so close to automatic it feels magical. Yet the senses are wide open and the beauty and exhilaration of each moment is felt, as is the heart-stopping possibility of danger when it arises. It's been a bit like that. What periods like this make clear to me is that it is not essential to get away from it all, to go to the mountain top, into isolation or silent retreat to maintain mindfulness. But it takes a lot of energy to stay alert, to avoid the rocks and cliffs and not just to lie down in the snow and give up. Sometimes, it's all happening a little too fast to be as skillful in the adjustments needed as you might wish. This is also the case in daily mindfulness practice.
Today then, opens like a retreat. A friend of mine recently described a solitary retreat of hers as “creative quietude”. What a beautiful and evocative phrase. Today is a taste of that. I didn't sleep in or laze about, but I am conscious of each moment opening up into a larger space. I sit and I do yin and I read, both Dhamma and news. I don't check lists. I am unperturbed by the slowness of the internet and turn to this fresh page to write, even noting a gurgley bubble of gratitude that lifts my heart at finding an unchosen, unscheduled time that opens to writing and contemplation.
Because of the circumstances of this period in our life marked by my husband's illness and treatments, I have not stepped out of the “world” into retreat for nearly six months. But today, without the context of retreat centre or monastery, without bells and long sitting periods, without meals in silence and gatherings with other silent, breathing bodies in meditation halls, there is still a sense of the spacious, the protected and the sacred. A reminder of what it is to stand at the bottom or the top of the hill and notice the more intimate, minute, and inevitable changes, the texture of the snow and breath. This is vastly different from the rushing journey between still points, even when the speed is handled with grace and skill. Today, I'm given the gift of time with nothing to do and nowhere to be. It is more precious than a vacation, which is underscored by a sense of bracketing from real life and all too often has doing and going as part of its own agenda. It is just this: an unexpected period of space. A time out. Not to be squandered by filling it up.
Waking to this this morning, I remember when these times were bruised and ruined by fear of boredom. When I believed that doing and going were what it took to achieve happiness. So long into practice I know that boredom is a form of aversion and something I created before I learned to rest here. I note the arising of wishing for more time like this, and let that be too, dissolving. Take this gift and hold it, gently, my hands and heart open, for experience teaches that these moments of stillness are no more lasting than those that move swiftly by in the busy times. Yet, whatever grace and skill I manage then is the product of clear knowing now. This, I am reminded, is the value of retreat.