On Entering a Month-Long Advance
By Catherine Pawasarat Sensei (2014)
In a few days I’ll begin my first solitary retreat in over twenty years of spiritual practice, for a month. I’ve done month-long retreats before, and usually I was either helping organize or teach. So it’s been a while, or maybe it’s never been.
We purchased our retreat center, Clear Sky, ten years ago this month (Nov 2014), intending to do more meditating. Ha! We’ve meditated often and facilitated much meditating here, and we’ve done a whole lot of other things we never anticipated–business plans, financial analyses, action plans, board development, communication skills development, and so on. The worldly cushion!
In order to enter this retreat with comfort and clear conscience, I’ve been looking and working ahead for November, December and beyond. Double timing to keep on top of current work as well as an additional month’s-worth has had the unanticipated benefit of helping me to work up an appetite for retreating from the transient material concerns of the temporal world – !
So here I am with this unique feeling, a combination of something like anticipating the delicious feeling of relaxing into a hot, candle-lit bath–this part of me can’t wait for all the calm and bliss and new discoveries. There’s another part of me, too, that feels the anxiety of seeing ahead a dimly-lit footpath that plunges into a chasm. What if I don’t like what I find in my own mind and heart?
That’s the thing about meditating: there’s no one else to distract us, to entertain us, to blame for feeling poorly.
No doubt the month will be full of wonders and joys and anguish, and everything in between. As for being able to simply “be” with anguish, it wouldn’t be the first time, and hey, I survived. Not only did I survive; I’d say I prevailed, I was transformed, and feel so much better for it. That’s why my teacher Achariya Doug Duncan renamed it an “advance” rather than a “retreat.”
As all the world’s wisdom traditions tell us, it’s the yucky stuff that makes for our most profound and valuable transformations. As my teacher likes to say, “No breakdown, no breakthrough.” All the yummy goodies like bliss and calm and what we call happiness are the conditioners or immune-system-boosters to help us steel our courage and resolve, and triumph when we inevitably meet the metaphorical demons (a.k.a conflicting emotions or other neuroses) that have taken up residence in our hearts and minds.
When we recognize and thus integrate the darker corners of ourselves, a natural byproduct is confidence. And humility. It’s not all the badness in the world that I need to be concerned about. The proverbial buck stops here, in every sense.
And compassion. It becomes so apparent that what we fear as “evil” is but an extreme manifestation of ignorance. And ignorance is part of all of our makeup, our human condition.
It feels like such a privilege, then, to dedicate oneself to enlightening the darkness of ignorance. It’s the foundation of alleviating of suffering.
As I pack my bag–incense, wool, candles, fleece, rosary, long underwear, cushions, thick socks, matcha, haramaki, etc.–it feels like I’m going on a long journey. There’s that curious sense of knowing I’ll be changed upon return. How will I be changed? What new insights will I be able to offer, how will I be able to serve and love more deeply and fully?
It’s a wonderment to fathom.