By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable. Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana.” – Siddhārtha Gautama
This essay is the 7th of a continuing series of essays about the experience of silent meditation retreats. Click on the numbers to follow the links to the prior essays, titled “The Power of Retreat 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6”. This essay is written as I return from a 5-day silent personal retreat at a beautiful retreat site located in Big Sur, California. In a sense, I was on vacation as everything was taken care of for me; beds made, towels and linens provided, and all meals prepared for me. All I had to do was show up, meditate, relax, do yoga, soak in a hot spring, and contemplate. I was terribly spoiled!
But retreat can also be very difficult. I have a life-long habit of trying too hard. In American culture, that is not considered a fault, but in the contemplative life it often is. The Buddha taught the middle way as the proper approach. He tried the extremes from the excess in the life of a prince to the opposite excess in the life of an ascetic. He found after years of futile effort that neither worked in ending suffering. But, when he rejected both and compromised, exerting effort but not too much, he found success and attained enlightenment. So, he taught his followers the middle way.
The Buddha likened the spiritual path to a stringed musical instrument. If no effort is exerted the string is slack and does not produce music. If too much effort is exerted, the string is tightened too much and breaks. Only when the string is tightened moderately does it produce beautiful music. He taught this middle way of moderation in all things to achieve success in all phases of life but particularly in spiritual endeavors.
I discovered that this wisdom also pertains to engagement in retreat. Some retreats are extremely rigorous, with meditation for hours a day for weeks, months, or even years. A teacher of mine refers to them as “Buddha Boot Camp.” For some, this may be an effective method. Indeed, the 12th century sage Milarepa attained enlightenment after meditating day and night for twelve years. For most people this is, for practical reasons, impossible. But, even rigorous limited modern day retreats I have found that I am simply unable to do this. The physical rigors create great pain and suffering and I do not find this to be conducive to deep meditation. Many teachers believe that this is necessary to attain a breakthrough, but others disagree and there are some reasons to believe that it might be dangerous for some. So, what is the correct path?
The modern sage Thich Nhat Hahn visited the San Francisco Zen Center; a center noted for its rigor. After his visit, he was asked by the leader how the Center could improve. He stated that first he would sleep later, and that they shouldn’t be so grim and dour, and should smile much more. What he was pointing to is the middle way; being less strict and rigorous and practicing with greater joy; keeping the body and spirit at a moderate level that allows for the practice to be relaxed and joyful.
I learned this lesson during this most recent retreat. It was a personal retreat with no one but myself setting the schedule of activities. The first couple of days it was raining hard, so I took the opportunity to meditate frequently and for extended periods; as it turns out too frequently and too long. After two days, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Meditation became painful and unproductive. I decided to take the afternoon and evening of the third day off. I simply rested, maintaining silence, but read a novel. Many teachers would reprimand me from breaking from the focus on silent meditation. But, as it turned out, it worked wonderfully. The next day I was refreshed, the pain was gone and my level of concentration was wonderful.
I scaled back on the frequency and duration of the meditation and rested more often and for longer times. There was no more novel reading or time off. I had learned the middle way as the way to practice in retreat. Previously on a formal retreat with scheduled meditations, I would scoff at participants who would skip a scheduled meditation or a dharma talk and believed that they were wasting a valuable opportunity. Now I see that I was being unfairly judgmental. I now realize that they were being wise, tailoring the retreat to their own level of energy and physical endurance. They were keeping the practice within the middle way.
Psychological research has demonstrated that there is an optimum level of motivation for any task and it is not at the extremes, but in the middle. The research has also demonstrated that what the optimum level is varies from person to person. For some, a low level works best, while for others only very high levels produce optimum results. For most, somewhere in the middle is best. It is up to each of us to find our own optimum level and practice accordingly. I found mine on this personal retreat and once I practiced at this level, the results were good. The Buddha taught to judge an activity, not by its nature, but by the results it produces. Clearly, following my own middle way had positive results for me.
So, in your practice and on retreat practice the middle way, finding the level of effort what works for you. Don’t string yourself too loosely or too tightly and play beautiful spiritual music on retreat.
“We are looking for happiness and running after it in such a way that creates anger, fear and discrimination. So, when you attend a retreat, you have a chance to look at the deep roots of this pollution of the collective energy that is unwholesome.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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