Looking Forward to a Meditation Retreat

Doreen Schweizer

“… Now it is your turn to stop.”

These words about stopping have been important to me since I first heard them; they sound in my ears sometimes on their own, almost sung to me like an important message. They come from a teaching story about a man called Angulimala, a known murderer who, in the story, is running after the Buddha but cannot catch him. The Buddha is walking slowly, mindfully, and he can’t be caught. Angulimala, in frenzy, yells out, “Stop!” The Buddha says softly, “I have already stopped. Now it is your turn to stop.”

What does this advice mean to me as I walk forward towards a month-long retreat––a stopping? I am not a murderer, not literally, but like Angulimala, I am mostly always following a strong momentum of habits, which, though often intentional, skillful, and kind, are just as often influenced by the unseen likes and dislikes of the slightly agitated or cloudy mind, and they can be painful to myself and to others. I am grateful to have a strong meditation practice, which insists on a daily stopping of some duration, and I do have skills in “finding peace in the middle of things.” I am practiced in “the pause,” which one of the men in our prison sangha claims is the most important teaching in the Buddhadharma. This particular man actually did murder someone, and he knows through direct experience that to pause––even just for an instant––really can prevent us from doing grave harm.

I am about to leave life here in the Upper Valley to go on a silent meditation retreat in the very quiet Forest Refuge Retreat Center in Barre, Massachusetts. What will stop for me? I will be offline––without access to national, global, or even personal news––and away from the day-to-day responsibilities and joys of a homeowner, landlord, therapist, Dharma teacher, family member, friend, sangha participant, Lebanon resident, US citizen. My breath will slow down; my thoughts will slow down, after a while, as will my body’s level of activity. I think of this time as a kind of reset moment for my life, a shutting down of the computer. I know I will change, and I know this about a retreat––Rebecca Solnitt says it about a garden––here I substitute retreat for garden in this quote:

A garden [retreat] can be, after all, either the ground you stand on
to take on the world, or how you withdraw from it,
and the difference is not always obvious.

Along with the stopping, those of us on the retreat will be engaging in a meditative, contemplative study, which will guide our hearts and minds in our meditation practice. The teacher, Bhikkhu Analayo, has asked that we read ahead of time his book on Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation and the chapter on Anapanasati in Mindfully Facing Disease and Death. So I have a sense of our direction and the ground we will stand on.
“What will the stopping, the settling, and the contemplative study bring?” asked a friend. I don’t know. Perhaps I will tell you when I return––through thought, words, deeds, or maybe through silence. Please know I will be thinking of you often and of VIMS and of all the beings in our turbulent world while I am away in Barre. I will rest sometimes in my love and my gratitude for you, and always I will be wishing you well. I know this retreat is not an escape, nor is it meant to be. We are all in this world of the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows together.

Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack and in so doing illuminates—or maybe we should say engages—
the political questions of our time.

–– Rebecca Solnitt

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