I recently returned from spending a month on a silent retreat practicing a style of Buddhist meditation that originated in India about 2,500 years ago. It’s a practice that I’ve been doing for almost ten years and that has become an important part of my life, and while I don’t always go on retreat for such an extended length of time, I usually set aside anywhere from a week to a month each year to enter a space that’s in many ways counter-cultural and often, I think, misunderstood.
It occurred to me this year as I was sitting, as doing such retreats or just meditating is colloquially called, that many people might not have an accurate sense of what it’s like to go on retreat or an understanding of why anyone would choose to do something like it when time, and especially time spent with those we care about, is often such a scarcity. So this six part series, which I’ll post over the course of this week, is basically a primer for those that have ever wondered what the heck I’m doing when I disappear for a couple of weeks a year and don’t answer my emails.
As a warning, while this series of posts is not solely dedicated to issues of philosophy, existentialism, religion and the like, some of my personal views on such topics are discussed. If this kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, well, that’s healthy. They make most people uncomfortable. They hit pretty close to home in terms of our experience of life, something that basically everyone is attempting to understand one way or another. If these things in no way make you think twice, please email me and let me know what you’ve figured out that I haven’t. Final caveat: the views shared here are mine and constrained entirely by my own experience, others that go on these sorts of retreats very well may think about them differently or sit at retreats of different styles or traditions that my descriptions don’t represent.
For this project I also decided to take a somewhat nontraditional discursive style. I figured rather than directly tackling the large and complicated question of what these retreats are about, I’d take a classic Buddhist approach of describing an experience in terms of what it’s not. So, the following posts, save the last one, will describe the retreat experience for the most part in the negative. I thought this might be useful, as articulating some common misconceptions about something that is fraught with them is often a good way of getting people’s heads around what the experience actually is. However, there is often a grain of truth upon which misconceptions are based, and I’ll do my best to give each half truth its due as I write. In the final post, I’m going foolishly attempt to explain what this whole enterprise of going on retreats and not talking and not emailing and going through both horrible and wonderful mindstates is all about (at least for me). I hope you follow, comment and enjoy!
Tomorrow – Not a Spa.