The Purpose and Potency of Retreat
Why go on retreat – what’s the deal?
Good questions, they deserve thoughtful reflection and answer.
To be clear there are many kinds and forms of retreat. My reflections here refer to the structure and purpose of Buddhist retreat, with which I am most familiar.
Buddhist meditation and study employs a tradition of retreat from the beginning of our path to the end. I’ve been on many of them, from half day retreats to 3 month retreats. Retreat is simply an invitation to see what’s going on for us. On every level. We get to see what’s going on in our mind and what we’re thinking about and feeling on an emotional level. What’s it feels like to inhabit our body. What attracts us or creates agitation. We see our habits, our preoccupations, our comfort zones. We get to bring our attention here and see what’s happening here, in our experience.
Most of the time we are living our life never really tuning into our experience. Our engagement with family, work, chores, or pastimes most often distracts us. We can be in our life and not be fully conscious of what’s going on.
Retreat provides the ideal container to get to know ourselves. Meditation retreat engages this process through the simple act of sitting quietly and looking at the experience of our body and mind. It sounds simple, but is entirely radical.
In meditation we quickly discover that our body is restless and our mind is an endless stream of thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings communicate both how we think we are and how we think the world is. The more we sit in meditation, the more we realize our mind is capable of becoming settled. In fact, it has the capacity to be stable, strong, and insightful. Likewise, our body settles. We relax.
As this happens we discover in many, many, many ways we are not what we thought we were and the world is also not what we thought it was. This is the beginning of our journey of coming to know how things really are. We wake up. Meditation is an invitation to wake up.
While retreat employs meditation, it is much more than meditation. Retreat provides the ideal structure – or container – to grow. In Buddhist terms, it provides the opportunity to ‘move along our path’ of waking up to how things really are. In retreat we limit or eliminate engagement with the outer world to focus on what’s going on here. No phones, computers, cars, mail, or anything other than what we need to further the object of our retreat. In most cases what we need is simply healthy food to eat, a warm, dry bed to sleep in, a simple choice of practical clothes, room and materials to meditate and study, connection with someone who supports us in our effort, and exercise outside. That’s it.
Further, we learn that to succeed in retreat, we must engage and maintain six essential aspects of experience: generosity, effort, patience, discipline, meditation, and wisdom. If we don’t employ one or another of these, retreat simply doesn’t go well. Through the experience of retreat, we discover that these six factors make our life outside of retreat go well altogether. In the Buddhist tradition, we go into the simplicity of retreat to discover more about ourselves and the world. We move back into the much more complicated, sophisticated, and nuanced realities of life bringing what we’ve learned to bear on the choices and decisions we make.
I’ve landed here in Puget Sound. My daughter, son-in-law, and their children live here, a five-minute walk from the place I’ve found to house sit during this 3 month writing retreat. Along with my husband far away, they are to be my people through this process, where I’ll go during breaks to play and share meals and enjoy conversation.
Upon arrival, I’ve learned that I’m not able to get into my place for another two weeks. And so my retreat has begun in a numinous fashion: walking with backpack to the library to write, balancing discipline and generosity in a household with a two and four-year-old who love their Nana, letting go of expectations and riding the patient and delightful flow of reality. This is not the beginning I’d imagined, it’s the one that’s happening.
My intention for this retreat is: To bring to bear on this profoundly challenging writing project the strength, clarity, and stability of mind that deepens in meditation. To continue to navigate the tricky waters of discipline while remaining open to the opportunity to search for beach glass on a sunny morning with my grandson and granddaughter on the rare winter days when the tide is low. To employ some modicum of balance between effort and patience while my house-sitting hosts attend to unexpected life circumstances. And most importantly and altogether, to remember that my intention for doing this at all is a profound desire to simply help people grow.