One of the delights of teaching insight meditation retreats is experiencing first-hand how even though the form and content of each retreat is similar, the mix of people attending each event is unique, and out of this uniqueness, different practice themes naturally emerge.
Recently I taught a couple of day-long silent retreats in Auckland, New Zealand. At the start of these retreats I ask participants to fill out a practice questionnaire, and under the question about “Occupation,” one of the participants wrote “Be-er.” When I was growing up in New Zealand, drinking beer was practiced almost as a religion, so my first thought was that this participant was making some kind of statement about his love of beer. But this didn’t fit with what I knew of him, so I asked him what he meant. He explained that he was tired of being a “Do-er,” and was experimenting with being a “Be-er” instead. I vaguely remember a bumper sticker a few years ago that had a similar message: something about being a Human Being instead of a Human Doing.
During the rest of that day-long retreat, many people spoke about their struggles with busyness, about being caught up in doing and longing to just be. But paradoxically, there’s also often a fear of just being, because we’re so unused to it. Sometimes in the context of a day-long retreat, when the body and mind settle into a place of just being present, anxiety and agitation come up as a kind of backlash to the peace.
I wonder if this is because most of us live such binary, all-or-nothing lives. We’re either frantically busy – “flat-out-like-a-lizard-drinking,” as they say in Australia – or almost comatose in various ways. So when we come on retreat, the experience of silence and simplicity is a form of detox from this hyper-busyness, and it takes some getting used to.
As a way of lessening the shock to our systems, it can be helpful to try to “seed” our daily lives with moments of non-doing. This is the practice of mindfulness in daily life: trying to remember to fully BE with an experience as it’s happening, instead of thinking about the next one before it’s even arrived. So for example, when the phone rings, taking a second or two to just breathe before answering it. Or when about to hit “send” on an email message, waiting for just one moment before clicking that button. Or when sitting in the car at a red light, taking those few minutes to breathe, to check in: what’s happening in the body and mind right now? And how am I relating to this experience?
All of these are opportunities to shift mode for a second or two, from Doing to Being. By integrating mindfulness into daily life like this, being on retreat becomes less of a culture shock. Then we can slide into the stillness, the silence, the simplicity with ease, or perhaps even delight.