Written on Friday June 16th, 2017
The idea of doing a solo retreat has been a brewing interest of mine for a little while now. Then, after going to Deer Park Monastery for three-weeks this past January, my percolating idea bubbled up with a newfound vigor. So I emailed a few well-chosen friends who I thought might have some ideas of a place to go where I could be relatively secluded, surrounded by nature, and left to my own devices.
I’ve long been wanting to stay in one of the handful of local fire towers that’ve been converted to a reservable getaway destination spot, but I soon found out that those are in high demand and already fully booked up for the season, which makes sense. (Note to self: book early for next year!)
A sangha friend generously offered me the use of her and her husband’s cabin about an hour from town, which is where I’ve landed and am currently typing from. I arrived here, amid spectacular rolling sage-covered foothills, around 4:30 this afternoon. After finding my way around the house and unpacking the car, I set to making dinner, which I intentionally kept simple: a pre-made salad and a bowl of vegetarian chili, made and sold by our local organic market The Good Food Store, which I picked up this morning.
I attempted an outdoor walk after dinner but soon dashed back inside due to a sudden and drenching downpour of rain. So I instead settled inside with some audio files I had brought along to listen to on my laptop. The first one was of Dharma teacher Michael Ciborski leading the practice of Touching the Earth with his lovely singing voice. It was a 10-minute practice of deep bowing after invoking the names of various bodhisattvas, and others who help to guide us along the path of practice. I then listened and practiced chanting along with the new translation of the Heart Sutra that Thay did a few years ago. The last track of Michael’s audio CD, entitled Reverence, is a song he arranged with one of my favorite passages, from the sutra: Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone. It was such serendipitous timing, as just this morning I was thinking of it and thought it would serve as a good foundation for this my first solo retreat.
The Buddha taught:
“Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person
who dwells in mindfulness
night and day
‘the one who knows
the better way to live alone.'”
Upon finishing up with a few tracks of Michael’s, I listened to Thay giving an introduction talk about the chanting of Namo Avalokiteshvara, followed by a 15-minute track of monastics offering the chant, from a CD put together by Plum Village. I used the chant as a guided deep relaxation and listened as I laid down on the living room couch and practiced slowly unwinding my body and mind.
As for my solo retreat logistics, in case you’re interested, I’ve put together a schedule for myself to follow and plan on maintaining silence as much as possible, which for me means not listening to music and not talking out-loud to myself, both of which I do A LOT of in my everyday life. I want to use this precious time to commune deeply with myself and with nature – the nature of life itself and the nature outside in the form of bluebirds, sage, pine trees, clouds, rocks, fresh air, and earth.
I’ve been looking forward to this solo sojourn and I realize now, sitting here alone and listening to the rain fall upon the cabin, that I idealized it, too, romanticized it even. It’s not that I’m not enjoying myself. I’m simply noticing a certain hesitation arise, an undercurrent of nervous energy. To be silent and secluded by oneself is a great gift of concentrated practice time, which is not without its challenges.
Making it a priority to do this solo retreat is a gift I give to myself, the benefits of which I am already savoring.
giver of life,
flood waters of deep sustenance –
our fluid breath
swaying the boughs.
giver of life,
radiant warmth and light –
our vibrant heartbeat
pulsing on every tendril of being.
P.S I’m anticipating the hardest matter of self-discipline to involve keeping myself off of the Internet, especially since I’m using my laptop to journal and listen to audio files and watch Dharma talks – what a great opportunity to practice! :)
P.P.S It’s now 8:36pm and I’m off to bed.