14 September 2008

Cultivating the Inner Retreat

Going on retreat is an important part of my life. Some would call it excessive, even pathological. Others, who would be very much in the minority, think it's rather normal. At any rate, I am at a retreat, as a retreatant or leader, often. This summer I was on the team leading our summer retreat (1 week), then to a 3-week solitary retreat, then a few days at home and a jaunt to see my family for a week, then to our Order convention for 5 days, which was retreat-like, then was on the team leading a 12-day retreat for women who have requested ordination into our Order...I think it added up to 43 days of retreats this summer.

Why go on retreat? On the last retreat this summer, we saw an absolutely beautiful double rainbow and turned around to see this gorgeous golden light filling the sky. It was magical. Most of the time however it's not magical, most of the time it's what might look like a big drag. You file here and file there like a Marine, and you sit in a cold room in the morning (not that early, we are not of the Early Rising School of Buddhism) focusing on your breath for example. From the point of view of the Average Joe, what we do doesn't sound very good, might even sound like some kind of punishment. Or just boring. For some it is very much an acquired taste.

Truth is, I love life when I am on retreat. Everything is perfect, even pain, even difficulty with someone, or painful emotions or physical feelings coming up during meditation. There is spaciousness around everything. Even being annoyed at something is amusing. No constant chatter. No advertising, no news, no external distractions (plenty of internal ones however.) We live communally, cook communally, live simply. Everything is very simple. Food, meditation, a small job, a walk, sleep - that's all there is to do. People are beautiful, especially after a few days. Clear eyes, smile on the lips or tears in the eyes, simple, nothing to blame. Just a way to notice spontaneous kindnesses when there is literally nothing else to do. You can go down to the little water hole and count 36 rust-colored newts floating around like idiots. You can wonder whether they're newts or salamanders.

But getting home is another matter. Life floods in, fills one up to the gills, and further. The structure is gone. The happy, calm, receptive people are gone. Yummy vegetable-intensive meals no longer appear like clockwork; they are replaced in part by hastily prepared, solitary or greasy restaurant meals. The circus of American politics grinds on. People don't have time to reflect much, living from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction. And I become more like those people; and to do so is painful. I get swept away with work. Not every time. Sometimes I can keep the retreat vibe going for quite a while. This time, I lasted a week or two. After that, I started getting wrapped up in work, skipping meditations, and feeling irritable and anxious.

I started wondering: are retreats really that great? Do they really prepare one for regular life, or are the ignoramuses correct who think they are an escape from life? Honestly, I never seriously entertained these questions. However, sometimes transitioning back from retreat is difficult, and the feeling of contentment does not seem at all transferable. I can't seem to immediately take up personal responsibility and match it up with ACTION. But I wish I could. I wish I could more often achieve "inner retreat" here in the city, and for longer. An inner retreat means being unified. It means fully connecting with the part of me that responds positively to a variety of situations, that simply does what needs to be done, rather than wishing it were otherwise. It means the conditions for retreat are inside my body, my connection with nature is inside myself, no matter where I am. Ah, a dream....

(images: Gabriel Branbury by Gabriel Branbury;
downtown San Francisco at dusk from McLaren park, photo by Suvanna Cullen)

Some References
My video diary from my solitary retreat (part 1 of 13)

(Video #1 is pretty manic compared to the other 12. To see the rest you can search for "solitary retreat" on youtube.)

No comments:

Site Meter