THE POWER OF RETREAT: Cultivating Practice That is Both Gentle and Fierce at the Same Time

July 20, 2012


Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not a passive practice. The notion that compassion is soft and that meditation is inactive is a myth. Mindfulness requires a skillful balance between two vital energies: conscious engagement and relaxation (or letting go). It requires paying subtle attention to the moment in order to sense which energy is required at that time. In other words, meditation involves paying attention to our moment by moment experience in a relaxed, receptive, open, and attentive way. When we focus our attention on present moment experience, we are able to become aware of what pulls our attention away. We set aside our habitual doing and striving for a period of time in order to simply be in awareness… And as we notice the thoughts that pull us out of the moment, we actively choose to let go of the thoughts that habitually fill our minds and instead return our full and focused attention to the present moment.

Gently but fiercely, we let go of the conditioned reality the mind paints with its repetitive brush strokes, again and again, and return to our actual immediate experience. We acknowledge the power of our choice in every moment to either engage in the mind’s perceptions and stories about life OR to instead experience life in its actuality, free of the filter of the conditioned mind. We build our “letting go” muscles over time and thus develop resilience and equanimity.

How do we develop this balance of gentle and fierce in the context of our busy lives? How do we deepen in practice in a sustained way over time with appreciation for the process and time it takes to become seasoned practitioners? Anyone who has practiced meditation knows that it is hardly a yin activity. It requires great willingness, heroic dedication, tenacity, love, and fierceness. Sometimes, even making it to the meditation cushion requires all the intention and courage we’ve got, in order to get past the loud voices of “not enough time,” “what’s the point?” “I want to sleep in!”

As my teacher used to say, we must practice “like our hair is on fire” with care and immediacy. We can practice formally (sitting or walking meditation) and informally (integrating mindful awareness into our daily lives) day by day… And we can support greater transformation in our lives with periods of concentrated support by going “on retreat.”

The retreat experience requires us to press the pause button on the daily stream of activity and distraction in our lives in order to access that which is beyond the thinking mind…. Something happens on retreat that is not as easily accessible in daily life. A retreat provides the opportunity for concentrated practice and discovery. We put email on hold, turn off the cell phone, and enter silence for period of time. As we settle in, we often experience pure relief and joy that we have managed to land at such a peaceful destination, one in which we are being taken care of with such impeccability… peace and quiet, delicious food, mindful movement and yoga, the sounds of nature, aaahhh… And then… sometimes nervousness, fear, or excitement trickle in… a sense of how unfamiliar this degree of silence is… the realization that we truly have left the familiar shore and are on a path of discovery. A myriad of thoughts we have been distracting ourselves from without even knowing it begins to break through. And as we practice meeting all that arises with conscious compassionate awareness, as we practice the balance of gentle and fierce presence, a shift begins to occur where we finally begin to let go, as if our soul realizes that we are in a safe space where we can simply come home.

In finally arriving in this safe haven, we take off our protective cloak… the heavy one that has been weighing us down and limiting us without our even knowing that it is a cloak we can take off, the one that makes up our identity – the image we present to the world, the “I” we work hard at maintaining, the image that is often limiting in its beliefs – all that holds us back from our true selves.

In life, no matter how well-intentioned we are, we sometimes slide into the conditioned mind’s habit of focusing on the content of our lives…On retreat, we reconnect fully to life as process. We have the powerful opportunity to pause from the continual habitual day-to-day stream of our lives and to meet each moment with gentle and fierce practice. We are provided the opportunity to remember from deep inside ourselves the degree to which we belong… to the earth, to ourselves, and to each other.

I recently co-facilitated a day-long retreat here in Portland, Oregon, and was reminded of the infinite power of even a 1-day retreat. The next retreat on my calendar is August 16-19, 2012, in the beautiful mountains of Santa Cruz… 4 days of meditation and mindfulness, group workshop time, yoga and mindful movement, free time in nature, and delicious vegetarian meals. We have 2 spaces left. If you are feeling the call to deepen in practice, or to experience your first retreat, please join us.

And if you have been thinking about signing up but find yourself on the fence or talking yourself out of it, remember that meditation is not a passive practice. It requires great courage and fierceness even to sign up for a retreat and support yourself in “coming home.”

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