Though I don’t consider myself religious and my childhood family did not practice religion in any deep way, I was lucky to grow up enmeshed in some pretty incredible spiritual traditions in my teen and young adult years, ranging from Judaism to Buddhism to Taize (meditative Singing, of Christian origin, focused on basic universal themes). As distinct as these traditions were, they all flowed together perfectly in my mind, making a huge impact on me in their common wisdom.
One of the commonalities in all the traditions I love is the emphasis on the importance of retreat– daily, through quiet reflection; weekly, by abstaining from work and heavy eating at least one day; and then taking a larger intentional chunk of time at least once a year to go inward, reconnect with what’s most important and reset intentions and priorities.
In my last post I mentioned the Buddhist monk, Yongey Rinpoche, who I just discovered,
and who will to begin a 3-year personal retreat this coming spring. I was fascinated by the idea of that length of retreat, which seems like eons to me, but in his words, is very short. His father and his teachers spent 1/3 to 1/2 of their lives in retreat, which in their tradition/lineage is considered not only the way to “practice what you preach,” but to cultivate the wisdom and fortitude of character to be able to help as many people as possible. He started that tradition early as a young boy, but grew so quickly into a leader with a world following and its related demands that he could not get “back to the cave”, as his tradition requires, for all these years.
The concept of retreat is pretty foreign to our culture in the U.S. We’re terrified to miss a meal, we rebel at the idea of stores, entertainment, and action shutting down for one day per week, and we wouldn’t know what the heck to do with ourselves in a cave for 3 hours, not to mention 3 years. (What does Rinpoche do for those three years, anyway? Does he really meditate in a cave all that time like he did in his youth? I’m dying to ask him!) He’s only 35 years old, a world leader at the height of his work. People are banging down his door, from all corners of the globe, begging for help with all their needs, emergencies, and demands , and he’s choosing to go inward in isolation for three years. In his words and his long-term view of his work, building a strong foundation through that personal time is the best possible way he can serve them in the future.
That really struck me–a great example for us in our lives, with so many roles that feel inescapable or overwhelming. And it reminds me how every time I’ve yanked myself out of my routine, away from responsibilities, and set out on a retreat, it’s always been life-altering, refreshing, and reframing in a way that I hadn’t realized was so incredibly needed to stay aligned with who I really want to be in the world.
Since most of us can’t or won’t do a long-term retreat, there are plenty of other options, and one reason why I’m so drawn to the teachings of this particular monk right now is because he sees and describes everything on a relative scale of sanity and inclusiveness. He explains that a 3-minute retreat for a busy mom [or crazed caregiver] a few times per day is just as monumental and important as a formal week-long, month-long, or year-long retreat for someone who may be in a different place in life, and he sees no difference between them as far as their end result– the good they create in the world.
My mother just initiated a new mini-retreat in my life. Every day about 3PM the dopamine in her brain drops to its lowest level and she calls me out of desperation. Despite the doctors’ attempts to equalize her meds, she rages, blames all her disappointments of the decade on me, and cries and screams because she thinks she’s dying and that I don’t care. About three hours later when her next pill kicks in she calls me up, embarrassed, and apologizes profusely and very remorsefully, unaware that the same thing will happen at 3PM the next day. Fearing that she would end up back in the psychiatric hospital for a third visit, I’ve been answering the phone and trying to console her, which is of course impossible.
During her apology call yesterday, she advised me to stop answering the phone at that time, something my wiser self had definitely been fantasizing about anyway. I agreed, even though I hated to leave her “alone” at a time that’s so traumatic for her.
While I was writing this post, the phone rang. It was her at 3:05, right on schedule. I refrained. She hung up instead of leaving a message. We’ll talk this evening and see how she dealt with it.
Another mini-retreat tradition I created involves refraining from doing Mom’s errands, appointments and discussions about her health and recovery (her default topic) on at least one of the days I’m with her each week, and do something that’s fun and absorbing for both of us instead. It works even better if we bring her friend from their residence along- she’s a good reminder to step away from our normal routine. Recently on an unbelievably warm fall day, we set out for a drive they spontaneously decided that they’d like to stalk the kite-surfer guys at the beach at the lake, so that’s what we did.
(Well, I stalked the stalkers with my camera, while they interrogated guys in spandex emerging from the waves.)