Doing human being
I’ve just returned from a solitary retreat in the Colorado Mountains where I stayed in a tiny remote cabin in the woods without electricity, telephone, running water, bathroom, Internet connection or refrigerator. I prepared meals on a one-burner propane stove and read by lantern light. Nights were cold, though there was a wood stove; when the wind kicked up it would slice its way through the space between the front door and its frame. Sometimes I slept with my clothes on.
My life on retreat was simple, although often my mind was not. I spent many hours each day meditating, and the rest of my time was occupied with cooking, eating, washing dishes, reading, hiking, sleeping and periodically sitting on a bucket with an attached toilet seat. It reminded me of a version of the Zen commentary, “Chop wood, haul water.” Like I said, life was simple.
Going cold-turkey from my usual habits and routines was challenging at first. My normal daily life includes sitting at my computer for many hours at a time, and I actually found myself suffering from media withdrawal. I’d feel the urge to check my email and finding that impossible, I’d have a stab of anxiety. This passed within a day or two, and I never got the shakes or sweats, but it was a true addiction being broken in that little cabin in the woods.
A mind alone finds its own rhythm and space, and so it was with mine. Because meditation includes watching the mind, for a while boredom itself became the object of my meditation. Lacking all forms of familiar distraction and entertainment, the boredom that developed eventually transformed into serenity all by itself. It was transformational experience from human doing to the more fundamental nature of human being.
Modern life is filled with doing, and my life is no exception. The doing is so continuous and all-consuming that the being underlying it can all but disappear. Even regular meditation practice can become another act of doing, despite intentions otherwise.
Isolated, left alone to establish itself in space, my mind of being expanded. I went for long silent walks, traversing the ridgeline perimeter of the 9,000 foot-high valley in which my cabin was located. Protected from the cold winds by a down jacket, I’d sit for hours gazing at panoramic views of the lower Rockies and stands of Ponderosa Pine. I’d go to sleep when the sun set, and awaken before dawn. In silence, with no appointments or obligations, I lost track of time and would simply sleep when tired, day or night. The same went for eating; I lost interest in breakfast, lunch or dinner “time.” Did I miss my wife, kids, grand-kids and friends? I did, but I couldn’t call them. Like people in all but the past hundred or so years, I accepted uncertainty, leaned on faith that all were well and wished them health and well-being from a distance. Like boredom, home-sickness also became the object of my meditation, and it changed too, to gratitude.
Solitude and silence are rare these days; to find it required making advance arrangements, flying to Denver, traveling for a few hours into the mountains, and more. It’s ironic that being demanded so much doing; ultimately, though, it was well worth it.
A mind alone is a terrible thing to waste.