I remember my brother asking me some years ago, “How was your retreat?” When I told him it was a therapy group, he said, “Ah, so it was an advance and not a retreat.” I’m thinking of that now as I prepare for my retreat next week. I’ve been on a good many in the intervening time and nearly all of them have been advances – in acceptance, in understanding, in ability to encompass the pain and beauty of being in the world. Some of them have definitely been watershed times, like the month-long retreat I did at the end 2009, after which I decided to do the MA in Creative Writing. Some have changed things in more subtle ways, but nevertheless there is always a sense of departure and of clearing a space, perhaps even of a small death: dying to what has gone before and stepping into the unknown.
During the fortnight I’m on retreat the space will be clear, with little in it but meditation practice and simply being there, and as my mind settles I probably will experience an opening to the beauty and joy of seemingly mundane things. I can remember times of being almost ecstatic as I ate a rice cake with peanut butter, or watched the steam rising from my cup of tea, or saw the blue front door of the retreat centre as more intensely blue than anything I had ever seen. I can also remember times of meeting emotional pain at such depth and with such openness that that too contained a kind of joy. And I remember times when everything felt flat and boring, and when it was such a struggle to be with pain or discomfort or agitation that all I wanted was to run away. None of these states, joyful or painful, lasts indefinitely, of course, and there is a stability and reassurance that comes from realising that. Even if the pain seems continual, if you examine it closely it never remains quite the same.
I’ve no idea what proportion of joy or pain or ordinariness or anything else I’ll experience this time. Over the years I’ve learnt to have fewer expectations and to notice those I do have: that I’ll be able to ‘clear out’ some deeply held emotional trauma, that I’ll become as radiant and peaceful as I did some other time, that something in me will shift into a new gear, that I’ll connect more deeply with nature and the world around me. All these things have happened, but not when I expected them. In the last few retreats I’ve been on I’ve been able to touch into a more embodied sense of myself, a feeling that at last I can be who I really am without having to put myself into a straitjacket – a loosening of the personality that I create in my head and more trust in the organic self that emerges. Perhaps that’s just what happens as people get older, but having worked with older people for a long time I know it doesn’t happen to the same extent for everyone.
This time feels different, though. Over the last year I’ve experienced an opening of the heart, more of a sense of coming home to parts of myself that seemed to have been lost a long time ago. I’ve written less this year than last and felt a lack of success and direction: Am I or am I not able to write novels? Is my poetry good enough for a collection? And what kind of novels and poetry do I really want to write? Not just what comes easily or what I’ve written before, but something that brings in more of myself and the world around me. I’ve been asking questions too about what I really want in my life. Above all what I seem to be looking for is relationship: less distance from myself and other people, a closer involvement with the more-than-human world, more ability to meet everything and everyone in my life directly from the heart. For me deep meditation practice always means coming back the heart, whatever kind of practice I may be doing. Some people see Buddhist meditation as cold and detached, but as the boundaries of the self begin to soften and I stop clinging so tightly to ‘me’ and ‘mine’, then inevitably I will open to what I can only call love. The love may – and at the moment does – feel strongest for a particular person and particular places, but its fundamental nature is less bounded than that and ultimately can embrace everything.
For some years when I was young I tried to be a Christian, despite my Jewish background. What always moved me most deeply was the communion service, the forgiveness that was offered and the acknowledgement that ‘we are members one of another’. I remember a vicar saying how after communion, when people had shared something of the love and peace, they would often find themselves feeling miserable or bad-tempered. That makes perfect sense to me. I’ve so often seen how, as I get closer to these beautiful, expansive places in myself, what’s ‘negative’ and difficult rises to the surface. It’s certainly familiar on retreat: the feeling of calm and connection can be closely followed by fear or depression or even a repudiation of the goodness. In some ways it’s more comfortable to stay in the straitjacket, confining though it is. I’m sure I’ll do some of that on the retreat too – retreating as well as advancing.
When I started this blog I didn’t think I would (or should) write about Buddhist thought or meditation or spirituality of any kind. But I can’t pretend it isn’t there in my life – including my life as a writer – so as a writer I’m writing about it. What will come out of the retreat remains to be seen.