Point #2: Meditation retreats are not about escaping from an increasingly busy, fast, and full on life that’s defined by a person’s calendar, to do list and smartphone. Anybody who knows me knows that I love my to do list, delight in scheduling things, and generally prefer to have a chocked full life lived with smartphone in hand, thank you very much. Retreats are not an escape from a crazy world of financial meltdowns, global conflicts, and environmental woes – you still have your mind when you go and sit, and believe me, it’s a crazy world in there too (and if you don’t think that’s true for you, go ahead and sit down for 45 minutes, close your eyes, and watch your mind. You might be shocked by what you see). In short, going and sitting is not an escape or retreat from life or the world, though the term “meditation retreat” does this misconception no favors.
Caveat time: this idea of retreat as escape might have such incredible sticking power because many of the external conditions the notion is based upon are, in fact, accurate. On retreat, a person cuts themself off from the world at large, they don’t have responsibilities in the conventional sense save an hour a day doing a “yogi job” (washing dishes, chopping veggies, sweeping leaves, etc.), they aren’t on email or using the phone, they’re not even engaging in conversation. So yes, it is a retreat in those senses. And people that often go on retreat even talk about how much they enjoy these aspects of them. Heck, I love turning off my iPhone, not having to worry about meeting a deadline or being enslaved to a news cycle that both endlessly fascinates and depresses me.
The key factor though in why escape isn’t what a retreat is about is intention. The silence, the lack of work, the not reading the news or constantly having meetings, none of those are an end in themselves. Rather, they’re conditions set up to allow the mind to settle, to come to a level of stillness so that it’s actually able to see clearly what’s happening during the process of experience, so often taken for granted. It’s an act of renunciation from the sensory overload that often defines our world, and the renunciation is in service of a desire to actually arrive in the present, so rare in daily life.
In fact, it’s when we are out in the world, rather than when we go on retreat, that we are more often playing a game of escape. Whether it’s through consuming media, keeping busy, or even just shooting the shit, we find a million and a half ways of not actually encountering and paying attention to our lived experience. After all, why would anyone want to just sit around and watch what’s going on inside their heads? That must be so boring! Well, generally no, though boredom is sometimes there. Ever tried to stay with boredom though? It can paradoxically be quite interesting to watch if you’re not wrapped up in it. Anyhow… On retreat, you’re not escaping from the world, you’re opening up to it, paying attention to it in a way that is unique and wonderful and I think quite rare. So, to retreat is not to escape.
Tomorrow – Not a High.