Why meditation, why intensive retreat practice

I left Burma an astonishing two months ago. I’ve had the intention to write for much of that time, but the appropriate theme didn’t emerge until now.

So, as I come back to this world – which I did because it was the right time, but not without a lot of questioning and reluctancy – I am struggling somewhat with reintegration after a long period of intensive practice. One foot is still in Asia as I currently have the intention to go back in several months for a slightly shorter stay; but rather than encourage a false dichotomy of here vs. there, I am also eager to learn from the practice we are all given in daily life. I’ve also come up against some confusion when I explain that I don’t intend to seek employment or my own place to live just yet and so thought perhaps it’s worth explaining why it is that I meditate.

For those who don’t practice Buddhist meditation, it seems to come as a shock or to be perceived as a downright abomination to suggest life is dominated by the experience of suffering or better yet dukkha, which it’s worth noting in the time of the Buddha literally referred to a misaligned wheel. But just think of what grief feels like, or remorse, or intense desire for something (or someone) we can’t have. Is that not suffering? We don’t always open to these intense emotions so as to really feel the suffering, but they are as real as physical pain and yet, what are they truly? A meditation practice helps us to cultivate mindfulness and wisdom, to slow down from our normal hectic pace, and to give bare attention to the mental and physical processes occurring in this body mind so that we can begin to explore such questions (e.g., what are emotions, truly?) in a direct experiential way. By quieting down, simplifying things, and by becoming aware of the internal chatter that remains, we can begin to see the mental suffering happening in subtle ways all the time as the mind relates to virtually everything. Want, don’t want, want, etc. With further practice, one understands that it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, love exists, grief exists (and they are both welcome!), but clinging and attachment don’t have to. And as faith grows, because the benefits of ones practice become apparent, then it becomes obvious to continue treading the path. These are the Four Noble Truths and this is the Noble Eightfold Path. Meditation (mindfulness and concentration combined) is a most critical aspect of that path.

The motivation then is quite plainly: to understand and thereby be liberated from suffering. It’s not actually a selfish desire, though it might seem it. The path to awakening is entirely predicated on the fact that we are relational beings. And if we recognize that unskillful or unwholesome thoughts and actions cause us suffering, then we are likely to cultivate the skillful and wholesome tendencies to be kind, generous, truthful and so on instead. Our whole life becomes the practice when this is the motivation, but since we are unlearning so many ways of doing things, it helps greatly to have a formal practice to aid this clear seeing. One can sit every day amidst the family/work world, but that’s just maintaining. From my own experience, things don’t really get going until intensive retreat practice provides the conditions supportive to this whole process of dismantling the ego…

The first day I arrived in Myanmar, I was introduced to my teacher who was in the middle of a group interview with Korean laypeople and monastics. Sayadaw asked me, “why did you come?” and I said, “to understand my mind”. Since then I would modify the statement to read “to understand the mind” but the meaning is ultimately the same. I remember listening to a talk of Joseph Goldstein, one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society and one of the first of the Westerners to bring the Theravadan mindfulness and insight meditation practices here, who said he was asked by his teacher what he was doing there in India and that he had replied, “to become enlightened”. Whether you say to become enlightened (the connotation is too results oriented for me because there’s nothing to become), to wake up, to be liberated from suffering, to understand, to live meaningfully – it’s all the same, and while it’s easy to think it’s a solo exercise there’s no doubt that relationship plays a critical role in this process. And that having meaningful relationships, understanding and growing together with others, is no different from this idea of nibbana either.

So the challenge is this: how to balance, inside and outside – to walk the middle path. We are conditioned by a culture that is much more externally focused and to retreat can be necessary to compensate for that. It is only when the mind is sufficiently calm, without the normal distractions of our busy lives, that we can really begin to investigate the nature of ultimate reality and grow in wisdom. But then we can tip the scales the other way, and find it difficult to be immersed in the world. And many choose the renunciant life, some out of aversion, others with more wholesome intentions, to provide the conditions most supportive to dhamma vicaya, wise investigation.  Each of us has to discover for ourself the most skillful means to the end (also a false distinction!). As the words of the Heart Sutra say so succintly: form is emptiness and emptiness is form – the practice itself is nibanna. That is if we can see clearly with a pure mind and heart. And that takes some effort…

I leave you with a quote that resonated quite a bit for me, from the Spring 2010 edition of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

“People often think that retreat practice is a withdrawal from the worldly life, and I suppose it can be. But as I watched myself running around, distracted, thinking only of myself, I wondered if going into retreat wouldn’t just be the bravest and most meaningful thing I could do. I can’t express the joy I felt in retreat. I knew I was making the best use of my life when I was there. At times I felt isolated, but this loneliness stirred my heart and in the end I never felt so engaged and connected to the world.”

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Leave a comment


  1. geapi

     /  May 19, 2010

    Very nice read, thanks for sharing!
    A quote from the Buddha comes to mind that sums it up nicely:
    “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” I guess it’s still an interesting journey to let go of the “optional”.

    • sharanam

       /  May 24, 2010

      Thanks for the feedback, and re learning to let go of the optional suffering, indeed!


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