Let’s just say it’s not at the top of my agenda most days, which is why at Christmas I usually choose to make a retreat.
Chances are, if I had a regular sitting meditation practice, I wouldn’t need to take such drastic measures: booking the retreat, explaining to friends and business associates why I won’t be at their Christmas parties again this year, taking a bus to the ferry, the ferry to Vancouver Island, and a taxi to the retreat centre.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is living in my own skin for four days without the distractions I keep saying I want to escape.
Once they are nowhere to be found, distractions seem like a mighty good idea.
Who wants to face one’s failures and shortcomings? Who wants to face one’s loneliness and cravings?
And who the hell wants to listen to what goes on inside my head?
I sure don’t. And yet that’s exactly what I am faced with in the early stages of any retreat I make. To a certain extent, that’s the whole purpose. The aim is to get beyond the “monkey mind.” My fear is always that it’s nothing but monkeys as far as the mind can see. Experience has taught me that I can get beyond them, but not without going through a considerable amount of chatter.
So far, I haven’t found any short cuts.
I was trained in the retreat process by Sufis. Once—sometimes two or three times—a year, I would drive to a small centre in southern New Hampshire and sit in a tiny hut from three to fourteen days of silence. My guide would give me various spiritual practices when she came to sit with me each morning. And in the evening, she would leave a hot meal outside my door.
The retreat process is analogous to alchemy, the practice of turning lead into gold. Unhappily, it involves a lot of burning, melting and putrefaction along the way.
Not everyone’s idea of a good time. In fact I was sure I had gone stark raving mad my first time out. And I had. That was what I needed to get through before I could find anything akin to peace of mind.
This is the point at which many say the real retreat begins.
Not for me. My retreat starts shortly after I make the intention and finalize the travel plans. I’m eager, and then resistance sets in. I’m suddenly convinced that this is not the right time. My business needs attention. What about Christmas cards? You might meet someone important at one of those parties, you know. They’re going to stop inviting you if you keep refusing.
Then I encounter everything in my life that is out of whack—a sneak preview of what I will be alone with at the outset. The theme. Then I stay up late the night before I leave, trying to get everything done. (O! Human Folly!) Then I’m up in the morning, drinking coffee, then running for the bus, having forgotten to bring along the phone number of the cab company in Nanaimo. But I get there—somehow I always get there—and I begin to settle in.
It’s lovely at first. I usually start out with a nap. And then a long walk or some basic practices before the first meal break. It’s as if my mind wants to let me believe it’s going to behave itself this time and not interrupt the proceedings. Ha! Just another ploy, so it can jump out and get me when I’m not looking. I’m much easier with it than I was when I started. The mind does what it does—distracts, bedevils, tells itself bad stories, worries, and comes up with great ideas like smoking a cigar or sneaking out for ice cream. It’s a wild ride until the mind is also brought in line with the breath and the heart. And it always takes time.
Whether I intend it or not, an examination of conscience begins. Years ago, one of my Sufi guides gave me a short form—three questions. Where am I not right with imyself? Where am I not right with others? And where am I not right with God??
“Right” here is used in the sense of right relationship, not right vs wrong. No matter how much experience I have with this, it’s always agonizing—and humbling. An act of radical acceptance. And essential if I am to gain any peace at all.
Peace begins with glimmers—something I read, perhaps, or after I weep. On a walk. Sitting on a stone above the lake. The silence itself is what brings it about. That’s what I’ve come here to find.
Peace is like a pulse that gets stronger as fear and resentment and worry loosen their grip.
And I remember the verse from the 46th Psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”
On Christmas Eve, I step outside and watch the moon growing fuller. I’m aware of waiting in a vast silence, the way that I imagine Mary waited to give birth to something beyond all comprehension.
And as I stand there, looking up, there is nothing more to think or plan. In that moment, all the words fall away, and I am surrounded by blessing.