I just emerged from a long period of retreat where I spent much of my time in solitude — reading, reflecting, experimenting with various forms of prayer, and just sitting. The last three months of this period I spent in a simple guest house on a relatively quiet lane in Ubud, Bali, where I was given a bed, a chair on a terrace and a simple breakfast. I took my second meal of the day at an off hour in a cafe down the street, and generally skipped the third. There were few distractions and few interactions.
In a world of 24-hour connectedness and frenzied activity, this sort of retreat is profoundly counter-cultural, particularly since I didn’t use the time to master fancy yoga techniques or other spiritual technologies such that I would emerge with a new skill and credential — another line item for my cosmic resume. Rather, I spent this time attempting to shake all of that off and find the naked truth of what was underneath the cultural and social conditioning I have been subject to that insists on constant new experience, constant striving for improvement of myself and the world, and constant productivity.
In the slowed down world of my retreat room, my deepest teachings came not from the books I was reading, but from the tiny world I inhabited, where each breeze and rainstorm, each cluck of a chicken, each visit of an insect, was amplified and nuanced into an event that bordered on magic. I spent much time gazing out at the same group of trees, a little slice of jungle still preserved from encroaching development.
Since I was on the second floor, I sat eye level with the squirrel who dined regularly on a coconut that hung in a cluster resting on the branch of a palm. He gnawed a circular hole through the smooth golden shell, making it larger day by day as needed to reach in and retrieve the meat, until all that stayed outside of the coconut were his hind legs and tail. An hour of that gnawing each morning, and the rest of his day was spent in communion with the trees, flying in dramatic splashes from one branch to another and chasing his companion up and down the trunks in sporting play.
Watching that squirrel, I couldn’t help wondering at the obsession with work that pervades my home culture of America and much of Western Europe. What is it that makes us focus so incessantly on what we do that puts food on our table to the point of ecological disaster? What makes us elevate the mastery of a skill and constant productivity with such religious zeal? Even if the squirrel is good at and enjoys gnawing a hole in the coconut, he knows not to spend 12 hours a day at it. And if he did? There’d be a pile of rotten coconuts, uneaten, littering the ground beneath the trees. An obsession with productivity not only puts an individual life out of balance, it has repercussions for the whole.
In the quiet of this retreat, the echo of my thoughts were magnified, and I noticed a constant thrumming of rebellion against this overly productive, overly consuming world. My reaction was a bit extreme: it made me want to stop altogether my productivity to test this assumption pervading the American way, and I did. I stopped writing for publication. I slowed work to the absolute minimum. I watched my bank account dwindle and my survival instinct ignite. I wanted to find out just where the line is for me between making a healthy contribution of work and obsessively stockpiling a bunch of wasteful, open coconuts.
Some deep place in me sensed that knowing this line is essential at this time, as the forests and rivers are threatened by our appetites for comfort and convenience born of our disappearing skills at finding satisfaction in the myriad gifts showered on us daily by existence — cloud formations, dappled sunlight, the smell of wet soil and flowers, the crooked smile of a stranger, a plain but healthy breakfast, the sound of children laughing. The quieter I got, the more clear it became that the mundane and the overlooked is where the real magic lives — far more of it than in the virtual human inventions, indulgences and projects that have come to usurp these simple pleasures.
If the recovery of a sensitivity that allows great satisfaction from things so small makes you want to try such a retreat, think again. This is not for the faint of heart. It takes an upside-down kind of mind to enter the inner landscape and investigate the fundamental basis for how we live. You have to be curious enough to invite in a great deal of discomfort, confusion and disorientation.
At least I did, because the lack of distraction brought not only a taste of the magic of how little it really takes to give life a sense of wonder, but with it, a deeper understanding of what keeps us from living there. Rabid dogs guard the gates to this temple. I met them in this extended empty space: all those things in shadow that busyness and distraction had cushioned me against — the painful thoughts, instinctual fears, unacknowledged traumas, and especially the clear seeing of all the ways I had betrayed my soul and my values throughout my life. Not fun.
It seems to me that the main function of meditation is to witness and thereby release the thick layers of half-truths most humans hold in the mind, such that the brilliance at our center can be revealed and lived. The closer I got to that center, the more encrusted and unpleasant the thoughts and feelings, and the harder my mind grasped to distract me with anything at all. At times it felt as though I were circling around the reality of my soul like a feral cat in the cold, afraid to enter the open door where a welcoming hearth burns. I found it both unnerving and bizarre, to see the genuine fright I had at meeting my own light. My mind gripped onto old, painful thoughts as though they were precious jewels.
Going into this reckoning retreat, free of crutches, goals and props, I sensed this would be where it would take me. And living through this experience left me with a profound compassion for all of us — for the way we distract and run from what we hold most precious. Facing the shadow was hard, but facing how I betrayed my own light and that of others has meant experiencing a sorrow that at times felt unbearable, and so I don’t blame myself for avoiding this for so long, and I certainly don’t blame anyone else, either. There’s a reason we normally need to be forced into this kind of reckoning by a shock from the outside — a diagnosis, a disaster or a financial loss. Going there willingly feels like a kind of madness.
But I am a little mad, and just as some people have a daredevil attitude toward climbing rocks and jumping from airplanes, I have something similar operating in terms of inner landscapes. I go to extremes in the search for wisdom — a contemplative form of thrill seeking getting mixed up with my own neurotic patterns. But inside of that mix is also something pure, and in this retreat, I got a clear enough glimpse of that purity to justify the whole tangle: I saw the depth of my commitment to helping birth a human freedom that I can only begin to imagine but that seems to be at the center of why we are here at all. I saw that this freedom is born from the purity and intensity of the love at my center, as well as the profound yearning I have for manifesting that love — and I saw the truth that this intensity and yearning exists in all of us, however obscured.
And so I leave this retreat shaken, disoriented, in a sort of culture shock for all of human life. I feel more sure than ever of my humble, human limits — and of the glory of the light at my center and at the center of life itself. Still, my conditioned mind sees this as a failure: I didn’t come out looking good with a halo of enlightenment around me, with all of my confusion resolved and perfect clarity on what I can best do to serve the whole. Instead, I came out seeing the extent of my brokenness, understanding now that the only clarity available is the one that allows me to accept mystery and ambiguity, stop calling it confusion, and instead of trying so hard to heal it, treasure the crack in my heart that will never go away and use it as a source of pure empathy. All of this, I see, is what connects me in darkness with every other being, just as my joy in creation connects me with every other being in the light.
And somehow, for this unlikely inner daredevil, this seems enough of a treasure to make the whole messy undertaking worthwhile.