Retreat is a Benevolent Rest
I recently finished my own 12-day retreat. Sitting in the springtime is delicious. I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from the mystic Thomas Merton:
“The spring rain I am in is not the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound… I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of an engineer….The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the think mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where construction has stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligent perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows. Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”
Here, in the drought of California, we are waiting for more rain. Fortunately in meditation we can also find a gentle inner rain. Sitting day by day, gradually my mind became quiet, and my heart softened. My body felt lighter as tension dropped away, and with deepening samadhi the world became luminous, inner and outer. Walking outside, the spring trees exploded their blossoms and unfurled their tiny buds and chartreuse leaves with each warmer day.
It wasn’t all easy. I was carrying the shared images and concerns of our global suffering, the wars and climate change and injustice……all needed to be respected. I knew I wanted to respond….but first I had to become centered and quiet and deeply loving. There were also periods of restless thought and grief for personal losses, and spontaneous meditations on death. And in the midst of it, growing stronger, the vast, still refuge of loving awareness itself, the spacious witnessing of the dance of life, ineluctable, ever-changing, precious, empty and full, bringing compassion and courage and tenderness.
The retreat ended and as always I felt deeply inspired, refreshed, renewed, full of appreciation for the natural opening and flowering that grow out of mindfulness and silence. Yes, I want to get up and help tend and heal the world, and now can do so with a more peaceful and strong heart.
Even a short period of retreat is a benevolent rest, a stepping outside of busy daily rounds, and our ordinary identity. Released from the tyranny of time, we are invited into the reality of the present, to see the mystery of life anew. This is a blessing we need as humans, much like food and water. My teacher Ajahn Chah called it food for the heart. It is available to you too.
Find ways to take regular retreats. Long ones, short ones, daily mini ones. Take five minutes to do nothing, walking under the spring trees outside work. Sit silently on the grass or the balcony or the porch, or on your zafu. First breathe with compassion for your busy self and then put down all your plans. Open yourself to wonder. Let your heart be fed and your spirit renewed.
May it be so.