Retreat – to or from something? 

I often attend intensive meditation retreats. The word “retreat” however is quite misleading. Not wrong, but does not tell the whole story. The word “retreat” makes me think about retreating from something, as I would be hiding or protecting myself from enemy forces. But when retreating, where have you wound up? 

A meditation retreat in my zen tradition is called Sesshin. If you search for translations for the word Sesshin things like “touching the heart-mind”, “gathering the mind” or Se = to touch, to get in close contact; Shin = our heart-spirit (our original, true being), pop up. It is true that during a Sesshin you break the habit patterns of ordinary life to plunge yourself into concentrated meditation practice, usually many hours a day, and therefore you could use the word retreat, as you are retreating from everyday life. However, you are surely not hiding. With a strict schedule, limited distractions, and many hours to explore the riches of the mind (and Mind), it is hard to hide from what you usually keep yourself busy with. 

One thing we humans usually keep ourselves busy with is self-centered delusions. Stories we make up of the world as we see it from our point of view, colored by our feelings, thoughts, and conditioning. There is nothing wrong with this per see, we all live in separate bodies and will therefore always perceive the world slightly differently than anyone else. The delusion would be to see our truth as the only truth, to think I am in the right, and you in the wrong. Maybe it sometimes feels very clear what is right and wrong, but in the end, it is the cause of one thing that leads to the effect of another, and so the world as we have come to know it took form. 

During a Sesshin, I sit on a cushion and let life as it is present itself to me. Then the majority of “the work” is to notice what I’m up to, to shroud this. I might have grandiose fantasies of becoming an important person through my writing, diving deep into painful memories, fantasizing about the person meditating next to me, and so on… However, a common misconception here is that being busy with all these sorts of things would be bad and I would therefore be a bad meditator. If you think about it, how do we learn to separate one thing from the other? Through contrasts. I know hot from cold and coarse from fine because they are different, not because one is right and the other is wrong. In this example of meditating that doesn’t even make sense, so could be possible to apply the same kind of thinking to what we are up to? That noticing my daydreams is a gate to knowing “aha, I’m in a daydream, which is different from non-thinking”. With this understanding comes the ability to choose more freely and my container of holding different states, feelings, thoughts, choices, etc grows larger. So yes, I am retreating to something during a Sesshin (or any retreat for that matter): I am taking up the way of seeing through my self-centered delusions. 

A retreat also offers a break from our often hectic everyday life, where we need to work, meet deadlines, respond to people, and/or somehow often keep ourselves busy with maintaining this facade of “I got it together” (or “I will let the world know I don’t have it together!”), “This is who I am” (even if that might be “I have no idea who I am!”), and “I distinguish myself from this, you, them in this and that way”. Our ego often leads the way. A retreat can then show you – if you’re for instance very happy to pause your responsibilities for a while – where your delusions might be hurting you. Keeping up a certain facade can be a lot of work. Maybe there is something inside of you that wishes to be expressed more freely?

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