January is traditionally Buddhist retreat season – it’s cold and dark outside, so we huddle up and get down to some serious meditation. During retreats, we retreat from the busyness of our normal lives, give ourselves a mental break by taking time out from our usual activities.
So, this January, we’re moving house. So much for being less busy! I found myself thinking, ‘It doesn’t look I’ll get to do much retreat this year’… but why not? I just need to find a way to do retreat that doesn’t involve retreating from my other activities. How can I cultivate a retreat state of mind even in the midst of all the busyness?
In the book Heart Jewel, Geshe-la says:
We engage in mental retreat by preventing distractions and strong delusions such as attachment, anger, jealousy, and strong self-grasping from arising, and by maintaining mindfulness and conscientiousness.
If we remain in physical and verbal retreat but fail to observe mental retreat, our retreat will have little power. Such a retreat may be relaxing, but, if we do not prevent strong delusions from arising, our mind will not be at peace, even on retreat.
Mental retreat is principally about retreating from delusions. Physical and verbal retreat can help create some padding around our mind to buffer us from our delusions, but we can create that buffer-zone in our daily lives too if we have a strong enough intention. What prevents us getting angry, for example – is it separating ourselves from the object of our anger? Sure, sometimes that works – out of sight, out of mind – but not always. Sometimes, our anger follows us because we can’t stop thinking about the person or thing that wound us up. So, the real way to prevent anger, or any other delusion, is to guard against our tendency to follow unhelpful trains of thought. We call it ‘guarding the doors of the senses.’
On a formal retreat, we guard the doors of the senses by preventing excess information coming in: i.e. we turn off our mobile, don’t watch the news, maybe even avoid talking to anyone at all for a while. In our daily life, we can’t practice like this, but we can still guard the sense doors by carefully controlling the effect these things have on our mind. when our mobile rings, check if we are immediately developing anger/attachment to whoever is on the other end… and as soon as we see the delusion arise, make a strong decision to protect ourselves from its influence. Stop thinking in an unhelpful way about that person; then you can answer the phone.
So, I won’t worry about trying to cram some retreat in this January – maybe this year, I’ll stay on retreat all year long! I apologize in advance for the slight delay this will cause before I answer the phone.