Retreating again

IMG_1417Tomorrow I embark on another retreat, this time with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center. It’s a three-day silent retreat on the general theme of “Be Still and Heal”. The retreat description says “Through mindful sitting, walking, eating, and living, we will develop our capacity to more fully and compassionately embrace each moment. Sharing silence, we assist each other in letting go of worries and preoccupations, and opening to the sources of joy that are available to us in each moment.”

Just today, I finished a lovely little book by Pico Iyer called The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Iyer explores the beauty of traveling within through contemplation and meditation rather than without to exotic destinations. He spent a bit too much time for my taste on singer Leonard Cohen, but there was much (even of that) to like about the book, particularly Iyer’s (non-Buddhist) examination of the value of settling the mind in stillness. I really liked some of the quotes on the topic he included from historical figures, such as:

All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

and:

As America’s wisest psychologist, William James, reminded us, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” It’s the perspective we choose – not the places we visit – that ultimately tells us where we stand.

It occurred to me on my last retreat, with Anyen Rinpoche in Denver, that although in the past I’ve complained about not having enough time to practice, I’ve been missing the truth of the situation entirely. In fact, I have an almost overwhelming amount of time to practice: every moment is another chance. As Anyen Rinpoche taught during the retreat, an authentic Dharma practitioner brings everything that he or she experiences to the path. Every single moment is an opportunity for mind training.

I’ve been working on the post-retreat “homework” of trying to constantly bring to mind the fundamental truths of impermanence and the preciousness of this human life. As explained by the Tibetan master Longchenpa, literally everything serves for this practice. Talking with another person, I can remember that this may be the last time I ever speak with them and choose my words and reactions accordingly. Waking up in the morning or deciding what to do when I have free time, I can reflect that I have no way of knowing when or how I will die, and thus I should make the most out of every moment. This is a powerful practice that I can do at any time, regardless of where I am or what activity I’m otherwise engaged in.

Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that every moment is an opportunity for practice. Thay says that we do not need to go to India or to a monastery to find happiness, understanding, and peace. These positive qualities are available to us in every mindful breath. True awareness of a single in-breath and out-breath waters the seeds of joy in us. One mindful step on the earth can allow us to feel nourished and healed.

Of course this begs the question then of why go away on retreat when the opportunity for practice exists in every moment? For me, the answer is that a beginning practitioner like myself finds it difficult to maintain awareness and mindfulness in daily life, with all of the busyness and pressures that reinforce my negative habitual tendencies and emotional reactions. “Retreating” from my daily routine to a place of external peace, surrounded by others who are also endeavoring to practice silence and mindfulness, helps to reinforce the positive qualities I am trying to grow in myself. Then when I return to my regular life, I bring with me the experience of that beautiful stillness Iyer wrote so eloquently about. Cherishing that stillness with me, I have greater resolve to integrate practice into every aspect of my life.

When harmful places are abandoned, disturbing emotions gradually diminish. Being without distraction, virtuous endeavors naturally increase. Being clear-minded, certainty in the Dharma arises. Resorting to secluded places is the bodhisattvas’ practice.

– #3 of the Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas by Ngülchu Thogme Zangpo

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