Yogi, go on retreat! Notes from stillness.
Retreat, day 3: Meditating is like being with a toddler having a tantrum. My mind is incorrigible, throwing fits, constantly launching off into fantasy, blame, judgement (usually self-), and despair. I feel besieged, at wits end, and a very familiar sense of failure begins to arise. I catch myself thinking about the scene in the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie, where Mary Queen of Scots is walking through the cathedral toward the execution block, her long white neck exposed, and doomed, above her fabulous dress. And I hear myself say, “You know, that [getting my head chopped off] wouldn’t be so bad. At least this would be over.”
Retreat, day 5: Stillness wraps the body like neoprene. Spine long, breath soft and quiet, mind alert and amazingly stable. I relax into the vibrating body, breath like a baby’s, fast and tiny, and notice that with just a brush of effort, I can clear the decks of my mind of anything but the breath, sense of space, and energy. As I rest into this new space, my sense of my body morphs into a broad field of vibration without discernible edges, mind tethered by the slimmest thread to the curl of the breath. Energy starts to build, filling the whole field of my awareness with little tingles and pressure, and I notice I could relax even further. My mind says, “calm”, and drops in another inch, letting go of some flickers of tension in my arms. And continues to unfold.
Retreat, day 7: Mind feels ordinary, calm, half quiet, half busy. I think about things, then draw my attention back to the breath, and for a few moments touch a vast space, then lose the thread and wander again. How many retreats has it been? Dozens? This is just part of how I live my life. These weeks of silence, ghosting between cushion and walking path, bed and table, distraction and focus. I think of a poem by Gary Snyder called “Why log truck drivers rise earlier than students of Zen”:
In the high seat, before dawn dark,
Polished hubs gleam
And the shiny diesel stack
Warms and flutters
Up the Tyler Road grade
To the logging in Poorman creek.
Thirty miles of dust.
There is no other life.
(from Turtle Island, 1974)
“There is no other life.” This line rings in me over and over through the rounds of sitting, walking, breathing this past week on retreat. Not that there is no other life than formal practice – I do all sorts of things besides this – but that of course there is No Other Life than this exact one that I have. Not the one I think I should have, or should have had, or might someday have, but this one, sitting, walking. Logging in Poor Man Creek. Thirty miles of dust. Sure feels like that some mornings, in the high seat, before dawn, dark.
In the early Pali texts, the monastic followers of the Buddha – the men and women who devoted their lives to the practice of Dharma, of waking up to reality – were called bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. The word literally means “homeless beggar”, and refers to the primal act of the monastic life: leaving of the comforts of the household life with all its possessions, and receiving one’s sustenance and support completely from others. The word reflects the phrase used in the texts to describe the act of beginning this new life: Going Forth. And for both the monastics and the many lay followers of the Buddha, the life of formal practice began with another ritual: “going for refuge” in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which can mean Teacher, Teachings, and Community, as well as Your Own True Nature, Reality, and Interconnectedness.
“Refuge” is not just a dramatic word to use in a declaration of faith, but a precise and poignant reminder of the deep unreliability of the various things we cling to in an uncertain world: we try to take refuge in property or place, identity, views and opinions, our various relationships, and worldly power and resources of many kinds. All of these are important elements of a wisely crafted life, but the recognition couched in the act of Going For Refuge and held in the word bhikkhu is that none of them can provide reliably lasting happiness or safety. The Buddha asserted that there was one refuge that was reliable, and called it nibbana, or Unbound – that which is not dependent on conditions. We go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha because they are the supports for the realization – the becoming real – of Unbinding.
This deep recognition of the unreliability of all the conditions of our lives is one of the sparks that blazes into a lifetime of dedicated spiritual practice, and the slow untangling of the heart through persistent intimate attention. And it is persistent attention that turns a casual practice into a transformative one. Why is persistence, or continuity, one of the most valuable supports for transformative practice?
First, because our habits of mind are so entrenched, our complaints, preferences, and opinions (otherwise known as “personality”) so burned into the flow of experience, that they are very difficult to even notice, much less uproot, or Unbind. The mind, even with the best intentions, slips so easily into stories about ourselves and the world that are more rooted in fear and fantasy than in discernment and kindness.
And second, because even when we do get a moment’s respite from the waves of emotion and spinning thought (what Patañjali called citta vrtti, or instability of mind), it’s very difficult to rest there. We’re skittish, restless, hungry, afraid, easily startled. It takes time, energy, and vast reserves of patience to slowly train the mind to rest, relaxed and calm, intimate with the flow of present moment experience. But this resting is the only way to see the situation – the infinite, ongoing dance of self, things, other people, and all the ways we relate to being here – clearly enough to be able to shift the habits of mind that keep us bound.
For many people, formal spiritual practice becomes so important that it is the only thing that makes sense anymore to do. Some of these people Go Forth, joining an order of monastics like the Buddhist Sangha, which is the oldest continuously functioning institution in the world. They are then supported by the generosity of the whole Buddhist community to devote themselves to practice and teaching, both keeping alive the subtle practices that require decades of dedication to master, and making themselves available as guides to the wider community. For those of us in the household life, as it’s called, the presence of monastics can be deeply inspiring and supportive for our own practice.
(We are blessed to have in SF a small community of Theravada Buddhist nuns, or bhikkhuni, who are establishing a center here, Saranaloka. They’re inspiring and wonderful to spend time with, and we can join in the ancient practice of interweaving the lay and ordained communities by helping support them in their life here. There’s a traditional alms-giving ceremony on Saturday morning, Sept 8, with a shared meal, ceremony, and Dharma teachings. Here’s more info.)
As lay practitioners, we can also Leave Home, at least temporarily, sheltering ourselves from the tumult of household life to cultivate persistence, intimacy, and deep rest for the heart and mind, by going on retreat. Extended retreat is one of the most amazing and for many yogis necessary ways to practice, because daily life can be so chaotic, even if creative and exciting. The silence, repetition, and simplicity of life on retreat, where our day is devoted entirely to practice and as many of our challenges and distractions as possible are removed, are all learned by the mind, and support the continuity of attention that is necessary for profound Unbinding.
Retreat is common in my Buddhist world, where many serious practitioners I know regularly go on retreats from a week or two to several months at a time, cultivating a balanced and powerful mind and the radiant heart that can arise so powerfully in such a supportive container. In the yoga community, retreat is both less common and tends to be less silent. Far fewer yoga-based retreats happen than Buddhist ones, and many of the ones that do happen are closer to spa vacations than silent practice intensives, with much of the day left open for hiking, surfing, shopping, social interaction, and other lovely things, depending on where they’re held. Don’t get me wrong, I think these kinds of gatherings can be wonderfully nourishing, bringing dedicated practitioners together to deepen in practice and have a wholesome experience that prioritizes yoga, self-care, and community above all else. But for yogis who want to deepen in meditation or who want to use their practice to untangle the threads of fear and grasping that keep peace of mind and liberation unavailable, I strongly recommend focused, silent retreat.
One of my friends, having seen me go away on retreat for weeks at a time, year after year, got inspired in her own practice and went for a silent retreat. When she came back, she said that she was almost mad at me. “Why didn’t you tell me!?” Retreat was so incredible for her that she felt like I had been sitting on a big secret all those years, not just urging all my friends to do retreat. She was joking, a little, but I do sometimes feel reticent to just come out and say it. Retreat isn’t for everyone. It’s fantastically difficult at times, for sure the hardest thing I do in my life, as well as one of the most amazing. It’s strong medicine, and so can be more intensity than is appropriate for some practitioners with a history of trauma and psychological distress. Nevertheless, with good guidance, retreat can be one of the most profound supports for yoga sadhana a practitioner can undertake.
For yoga asana practitioners, if you’re invested in cultivating the steadiness of mind and heart emphasized by the 8 limbs of yoga, and cultivating limbs 5-8 (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi), retreat – for most of us – is necessary. Once the body and breath are healthy and supple (limbs 3 and 4: asana, pranayama), the rest of Patañjali’s path is developed through extended stillness. In the calm of retreat, the habits of the mind can be seen painfully clearly, and the peacefulness and clear seeing that a quieter mind is capable of can begin to blossom. The experience of the mind free from the quintessential bondage of wishing things were other than they are – through hope, fear, regret, judgment, and complaint – is available in the deep stillness of retreat to a degree unavailable in my daily life. And that taste of a relaxed, open clarity then filters into everything I do. I can feel it now as I type, through some neck pain and wandering thoughts, like standing with my back to the ocean, looking inland at the city. I’m engaged with the busy world, but right there is the vastness.
When I lived in San Francisco, I would sometimes sense how even though I was mostly completely absorbed in the busyness of life in the city, the ocean was Right There. And a few times I even walked from my house in the Mission up and over the hill and out through the Sunset to Ocean Beach. Just so that I could feel how close I really was to the edge. Once the heart feels how close it actually is to peace and ease, it wants to rest there more often. And does, even in the fullness of our city lives. Yogis, if you want to taste the freedom of heart and profound inner transformation promised by the yoga tradition, retreat is a crucible that you could do well to cook yourself in.
Blessings, and namaste.
(This wasn’t meant to be a promo – I really was excited just to rave about retreat practice, but there are still spaces in the September 9-13 retreat with Donald Rothberg and me at Vajrapani. Details here.)