Stepping Back

I’ve been to a handful of silent retreats before, so when my teachers on this most recent one said, “don’t try to get anything out of this,” I knew what they meant. Even just a day or two of zazen and silence will start to yield what feels like results: some emotional problem will crack open right in front of you, or you’ll experience a sense of peace, or union, or deep understanding, that might seem like “the point” of the whole endeavor.

But the teaching is: don’t hold on to it. Don’t think you can pack it up with your luggage and bring it back with you. Don’t try to get anything out of this.

I knew what they meant, but of course I’ve tried to anyway, in the three weeks since I’ve returned to normal life. But holding on to experiences has a particular feeling, a muted panic of, “I need to get myself RIGHT with this,” that I can eventually recognize and step back from. There’s no getting one’s self right with the teachings.

Now, I don’t take this stepping back to an extreme — for instance, on this most recent retreat, I sort of “re-upped” my practice of counting breaths with a little more focus and intent, and brought that into my koan study (a practice in which I focus on a line, poem, or saying from a collection of koans, which are not unsimilar to parables in the Gospels) in a rewarding way. That development of my zazen practice comes with me. Likewise, direction offered by the teachers, either in one-on-one interview or in Dharma talks, comes with me, as does the feeling-sense of the wider community supporting and maintaining me.

Those somehow don’t go away. In fact, they are special in that I don’t have to hold onto them at all, because they live in me now — they’re not separate from me. To call on them is not to reach for something beyond me. They’re not separate from my own sufficiency.

How do I explain this, then — that in trying not to get anything out of it, these teachings instead grew in me? It’s not for lack of effort, because retreat are hard work in their way. The effort is in stepping back from “trying”.

I had a dream before the retreat: I was facing some enemy and battling him with magic. When I tried too hard, put too much energy into focusing my power — my power failed. I was getting hurt and couldn’t protect myself as a result. But when I eased back into the fight, let go of the trying so hard — boom! Magic, power, protection.

This reminds me of something Simone Weil once said about concentration. She said: ask a group of students to concentrate on some point you’re making, and you will see them lean forward and furrow their brows and stop breathing — and a few minutes later, if you ask them what they’ve focused on, they will be unable to say anything. The only thing they’ll have accomplished is contracting their muscles and tiring themselves out, which has nothing to do with attention, or work, as she describes it.

Trying to get something out of a silent retreat is like this. Zazen and silence and the community are all good teachers in just stepping back and letting the experience take up residence in your person. Then, going out into the world, you don’t have to reach for them because they’re there already, and they’re what the world is offering to you, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *